Under the Skin: On Taking back your Body & Taking up Space
Anonymously penned. Send this link to those you love, those you know + those you'll know someday. You deserve that.
When I was first approached to write about my journey to body positivity, I was overwhelmed – how could I encapsulate such an intimate, grueling and long-term process of coming to terms with living in my own skin in 500 words? The notion of body confidence has become synonymous with loving the skin you’re in, and with the exception of some serious mishaps (we’re looking at you, Dove), the message tends to be a good one: to love yourself, own the body you were born with, be healthy, treat it well, be happy – a simple and seemingly foolproof formula, albeit much easier said than done.
Over the last 72 hours, my definition of body confidence has shifted, largely due to the “me too” campaign that has taken over social media. Started by Tarana Burke but brought to my attention via the sheer volume of my friends who opted into the movement, I was disturbed and yet unsurprised as the floodgates opened to stories that I knew and stories that I didn’t, hoping this would somehow draw attention to how widespread and problematic instances of sexual assault and harassment truly are. However, I found myself thinking even more about the voices that remained silent. While I understand that some people made the conscious decision to not share their stories for one reason or another, there certainly must have been some that didn’t share their experiences simply because they felt they weren’t worth sharing.
Reflecting on my own choice to not include myself in the narrative, I realized that this had to do with a notion of realness; wrapped up in a preconceived notion of victimhood, and a narrow understanding of what sexual harassment and assault should and does look like. This notion of “realness” of lived experience is entirely co-related to body ownership and, as I’ve come to realize, body confidence. How can you walk around confidently in your own body when you feel it isn’t really your own?
As women, our bodies are on display and judged from childhood: at six years old, I remember my PE teacher making comments about how my best friend’s gym shorts were too short and inappropriate; as a twelve year old at summer camp, I remember swarms of boys giggling at my shock after one of their friends ran over and groped my breasts when I was not expecting it; I remember being pushed against a wall in my first year of university and having my shirt pulled down by an upper year boy, only for my knee jerk reaction to be to apologize for getting in his way. In hindsight, what felt like par for the course experiences at the time (“boys will be boys”) were not the case at all. Rather, we pass over these instances with a lens of normalcy, allowing us to actively discredit our own experiences largely as a coping mechanism. We do this because if we stopped to process every little instance of sexual harassment, of sexual assault, of someone taking ownership over our bodies and ourselves, we’d never be able to move forward.
The truth is that at a young age, we are taught that our bodies are meant to be judged and shamed; as we get older, we are made increasingly aware that our bodies determine the way we will be treated, be it whether we will be considered suitable partners, suitable for employment, or suitable to be violated. Regardless of circumstance, what we are taught is that while we can try to control how we are seen, it is ultimately up to those who are looking to determine our worth.
With this, what I’ve come to realize is that for all of the twists and turns my journey with body confidence has taken, the biggest problem I’ve faced is a lack of body ownership. So, what has my journey of body confidence been like? Largely, it’s been about trying to claim some kind of ownership over my body and over my personhood. I’m not sure I’ll ever master it, but most effective so far has been surrounding myself with people who make me feel valued and unafraid to take up space. In doing so, I slowly inch towards greater confidence in my ownership of my body. And that’s the key here – the first step, I believe, is accepting that your body is yours. And that may take different forms for different people. For me, it means working towards living in it unapologetically – for its size, for its shape and, most importantly, for the space it occupies and how it does so.