Today my dear friend Marissa shares her powerful and moving journey toward loving her body. Marissa was a participant in the very first Love Your Body workshop back in 2009, and in addition to pursuing her degree in counseling at CIIS, is training with me to assist in upcoming LYB workshops. Read on to hear about her love of dance that finally burst free of blame and shame, and more…
Kimber: What brought you to the realization that you needed/wanted to change your relationship with your body?
Marissa: I’ve blamed my body for as long as I can remember. In my mind, the fact that my body wasn’t thin and beautiful was the reason why good things didn’t happen to me. Those cool girls don’t want to be my friend because I’m not pretty enough. That boy would like me if I looked like her. That part would have gone to me if I were thinner/shorter/prettier. It’s easy to fall into that trap.
On top of the blame, I felt intense shame that I disliked my body. I shouldn’t have negative feelings towards my body. I should love myself as I am. Only silly, insecure girls have body image issues. I couldn’t open up to the possibility of change until I acknowledged I had a problem.
When I was seven years old my mom signed me up for ballet. I was so excited; I couldn’t wait to try it. From the first moment of class, I fell in love with dance. But I couldn’t enjoy it. I was the tallest, chubbiest kid in the class. Everyone is looking at me and thinking I’m fat and stupid and that I don’t belong there. And part of me thought they were right. After class I told my mom I hated it. She asked me if anything was wrong, and I lied, incapable of forming the words to admit I was already one of those insecure girls with body image issues. I told my mom I didn’t want to go back to ballet and spent the next 11-12 years of my life wishing I hadn’t.
I didn’t take another formal dance class until I was in college. I realized my hangup over my body was keeping me from doing something I really wanted to do. So I signed up and did it. And it was hard. I felt intensely judgmental toward myself while dancing. I felt clumsy. But I had so much fun. I think that was the first clear moment when I realized I had a lot of work to do: there were so many wonderful things I was missing out on because of shame around my body.
Now, I dance every chance I get. I have a whole group of friends who support me in dancing. They tell me how much fun it is to dance with me and that I’m beautiful when I dance. I’m in a place now where that feels really good to hear. And my head doesn’t argue with them. I can still recognize the old judgments though. Sometimes strangers ask if I used to be a dancer, or tell me I move like a dancer. I notice that my inner critic wants to jump in and say, “Oh no…I don’t have the body of a dancer.” But I don’t say that out loud. I usually just say, “I took dance classes in college and I love to dance.” The last time this happened, as I walked away I heard the girl who had asked me say to her friend “See, I knew it. Once you’ve been a dancer, your body never forgets.” I had a clear thought then that she was right. My body never forgot. It just took me a really long time before I could listen and let myself have a dancing body…no matter what it looks like on the outside.
Kimber: What practice or concept from the Love Your Body Workshop has most helped you change your relationship with your body?
Marissa: Sitting down and examining my judgments about my body: the “shoulds” and the rules [the unconscious rules we carry around about how we’re supposed to feel about our bodies]. I spent a long time with a big “should” about the fact that I really didn’t love my body. I felt like I should and so I wore a mask to hide the truth that I really wasn’t comfortable in my skin. You know in programs for addicts, they say the first step in conquering addiction is admitting you have a problem. By taking a good hard look at all the judgments I held around my body, I could finally say, “Whoa, this is a problem. I don’t want to feel or think these things about myself. And I DO.”
I had to admit that I feel all these negative things. It’s so easy to be blind and sweep everything under the big carpet of denial, “Oh, yeah I’m fine with my body.” Or to clump everything together into one non-specific lump, “I hate my body.” Taking a look at the rules I believed about my body helped me sift through what hating my body really meant. And after the rules we looked at wishes, hopes for the way we want to feel about our bodies. Articulating a specific wish for my relationship with my body helped me focus on where I was and where I wanted to be and how I might get there.
Kimber: Aside from what you learned in the Love Your Body Workshop, what helps you love your body?
Marissa: One thing that I really became aware of as I started to examine my relationship with my body was that I never listened to it, to its likes and longings. I deprived my body of things that made it happy, like dance, for a really long time. I think anything that puts you in touch with the way your body likes to move is helpful: yoga, dance, massage. When I lived in Japan I used to roll around on the cool tatami straw mats just like a kid, rolling around on the ground, feeling the way my body wanted to move. Playing in water…the cool water of a river is another thing my body loves. It was a really long time before I ever went skinny dipping, but the feeling of cool water all over your body is the most incredible feeling…it connects you to you. Those are the experiences that have helped me most.
I remember the first time I heard the opening lines from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.” It seemed to articulate my experience… that maybe we can stop trying to be what we think we need to be and start tuning in to what we are already.
You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Kimber: Mmm. I love those lines, too. So, to finish up, imagine women who are just starting out on the path of learning to love their bodies. Do you have any words of wisdom for them?
Marissa: Try new things. I used to say no a lot when people asked me if I wanted to go to a salsa class or kayaking or rock climbing. My first response was always, “Oh, I can’t do that. I’m not strong enough/fit enough to do that. Or I’m too tall/heavy, blah blah blah. There won’t be a harness to fit me, there won’t be a person who can lift me.” Six million reasons why not. I’m proud to say that now I’m pretty much an “I’ll try anything twice” kind of girl. Give it at least two tries before you decide you don’t like it. I learned to snowboard in Japan. I even tried wakeboarding… not terribly successfully, but it was fun. I’ve been rafting and flying on the trapeze. And all of those experiences were amazing and taught me something new I could do with my body. I’m not always good at it…which is challenging; it’s hard to do things I can’t do well already. But I’ve gained confidence along the way because I’ve discovered amazing things my body can do that I never imagined possible. It’s like being a kid again. Just do it and see what happens. Either way, it will be fun.
Kimber: Thank you for sharing your story and wisdom, Marissa! The September Love Your Body workshop is full, but two are open in October... a four Tuesday series at 7th Heaven starting Oct 18 (go to 7th Heaven's website/events to sign up), and a six-hour Love Your Body workshop on Sunday Oct 23 at Cosmic Dog yoga in Livermore (call 925-456-YOGA). Don't wait to sign up... they sell out quick.