I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think about my body. Bodies are weird. They are absolutely grotesque as much as they are beautiful: they constantly excrete waste, shed everywhere all the time, give birth to new life, make love, wrinkle, adapt to change, die. Let’s not forget: bodies are programmed to deteriorate. Bodies are exactly like glass-blown jars: they are numerous in shape, impossible to replicate, contain endless possibilities.
For most of my early childhood, I wasn’t critical of my body; I was born naturally thin. However, coming from a Mediterranean family full of curvy women who love fashion and food, I was always aware of female bodies as being objects of much scrutiny.
My father’s mother continuously berated my mother for being “fat” and often publically shamed her. My grandmother would even bully my sister, as she was transitioning into early womanhood. As a child, I took note.
There were the years during elementary school where I was teased for my Greek nose, the way I dressed (didn’t we all go through an ‘80s goth phase?), the paleness of my skin, what music I listened to, the fact that I wrote poetry, that I was shy. Self-confidence did not come easily to me—I often held these cruel comments in the back of my mind, even though they either weren’t true or weren’t actually bad.
By the time college rolled around, my body was on my mind all the time. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I desperately wanted to exist outside of my body, to truly believe it didn’t matter, that I was beautiful no matter what shape my body took. I wanted to love it. While I rationally understood I was not heavy, being 5’1” and never tipping the scale over 112 pounds, I could never shake my imperfections.
I learned to stand in front of mirrors, obsessing over my thighs becoming smaller, hating the roundness of my belly. It was hard to break away from these overly critical, obsessive thoughts—men & women often felt justified in making comments about my body. My body is mine, yet it often felt like it was others’ to comment on & critique freely.
For example, compliments about being so thin sometimes had the opposite effect, since they would only fuel my desire to be smaller, to feel a certain emptiness. On the other hand, I had the misfortune of dating a few judgmental men; one told me I should go to the gym to “tone” my stomach, another who said my hips were too wide. After being sexually assaulted, I detested my body.
My body did not feel like my own—it felt used, discarded, filthy, unlovable, cursed. I desperately wanted a new one. At night, I would lie awake & wonder if I could ever feel truly loved, if I could ever love—if I could find my body & start existing again. I often cried in fear of hating my body forever, of suffering instead of loving, of being alone.
Sometime this year, I finally reached a breaking point. I realized I was making myself suffer. I was causing myself to feel miserable. Why was I doing this, to myself, if I wouldn’t treat anyone else that way? Even if my thighs do evolve into cottage cheese, I finally started to believe it doesn’t matter. I learned that if something doesn’t matter to me, then it can’t actually upset me.
No one is sitting with a microscope examining the inches of fat around my waist, but me. If someone is, fuck them. I have finally allowed myself to feel confident, to stop suffering for my body, to love.
Joanna C. Valente currently lives in Brooklyn, where she is a part-time mermaid. She received her MFA in poetry writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Some of her words can be found in decomP, Thrush Poetry Journal, La Fovea, The 22 Magazine, and other places. In 2010, she founded Yes, Poetry. Her ghost resides here. @joannasaid