I cautiously dip my toe into the bath in order to check the comfort and safeness level of the water. Then, as the faucet is still spewing warm water out its mouth, I gradually lower myself into the tub. As a kid, bathtubs felt like huge water-worlds unto themselves, but now I feel like an adult trying to fit in a child’s world. The water sways like it’s listening to its favorite song as I try to figure out where to put my feet.
As a kid bath time meant bath toys. My bath toys lived in a white mesh bag that hung over the showerhead, out of reach. I’d play in the bath until the water was cold and my fingers looked like I’d just aged about a hundred years. But I didn’t care that the water was cold. I didn’t care about my fingers. I didn’t even care about my exposed little body. All I cared about was that the bath toys were finally within reach.
Maybe I should buy a rubber ducky, I used to think when I first started taking baths as an adult. Maybe it would give me something to do, something to distract myself from … well … me. My body. My skin. My thighs. My stomach. Everything. That’s what’s so troublesome and wonderful about baths now, you see; all those parts of me that I try to hide are visible.
I look down at my stomach, at the soft roll of skin and fat that’s sticking out even more than normal thanks to the smallness of the bathtub. It reminds me of the first time I ever noticed it, the first time I thought it was wrong and ugly. “Your thighs are getting flabby,” the tactless observer had said. “And your stomach is starting to stick out.” And then she poked a criticizing finger at my stomach. “You need to go on a diet or you’re going to get fat.” I was only 11-years-old and had barely even noticed the early signs of puberty setting in but with her words still hanging in the air I tried to suck my stomach in a little more, crossing my arms over it to provide extra coverage.
I went on a diet after that, the first of many. In middle school I regularly skipped breakfast and sometimes lunch time, too. I was hungry a lot. In high school I gave up desserts and French-fries and chided myself on my inability to give up pepperoni pizza with gooey, stringy cheese.
The apostle Paul, who I don’t think was exactly a self-care enthusiast, said that he “beat his body into submission.” And this, sadly, became my diet mantra. My body was defective. My body was weak. My body was broken, flawed. So I would force it to submit to my will and ideal pants size.
This self-abusive weight management continued until I was in my mid-twenties when I caught a horrible stomach virus. I was sick, really sick. And I started dropping weight like crazy. By the time I was over the Stomach Flu From Hell, I was one whole size smaller than my Dream Size; the size I’d never been able to get my body to stay at for longer than about half a breath; the size that I thought would make me valuable and whole and pretty and happy. And I was smaller.
When I went to the store, trying on pants in order to find a new pair that fit, and I realized that my horrible-awful-no-good stomach demon had left me so malnourished I’d lost more weight than I ever had before, I wasn’t happy. In fact, my very first thought was, “Maybe, if I work hard enough, I could go even smaller!” I wasn’t happy. But maybe then I would be. Maybe then I’d be pretty. Maybe then I’d have worth. Maybe …
Somehow reaching that point made me realize that there wasn’t a magical number on the inside of my dress or on the scale that was going to make me happy. There wasn’t a number that could tell me my worth, value, and beauty. Even if I managed through obsessive self-abusive dieting or catching extreme stomach viruses to achieve my Dream Size, it wouldn’t matter. I wouldn’t be happy. And then Dream Size would just be replaced by a different, smaller number.
Dream Size was nothing more than a mirage promising me palm trees, acceptance, worth, and a body that would make Victoria Secret models dead jealous. I was running through the hot sand, dehydrated and malnourished, as I chased after happiness and self-worth in the form of a number that told me absolutely nothing about myself.
Remembering the years of dieting, the countless times I’ve yanked at my stomach in disgust and all the lies about my body I ingested when what I needed to be ingesting was food makes me sad. “I’m sorry,” I gently whisper, running my hand over my stomach.
When I first started making baths a more regular part of my self-care regimen this past year I’d put a hand towel over my stomach so that I wouldn’t have to look at it. But now I pat it encouragingly. “You’re beautiful,” I say. I’ve been telling my body that a lot lately, especially my stomach and thighs because they’re still bruised from having heavy, jagged words like ugly, worthless, embarrassing and disgusting hurled at them. “You’re beautiful,” I say again, this time meaning it a little more. “You’re beautiful.”
I relax into the water, breathing in the hint of lavender from the bath salts. And I relax into my body, at least a little more. My body and I have a long, complex history together, but one bath at a time, one You’re beautiful at a time we’re slowly mending the rift in our relationship.
It can be hard sometimes to not fall back into old patterns, especially when it’s Diet Season, but generally I don’t self-objectify as much these days. I don’t think of my body as a thing that’s not cooperating or working correctly. I see my body for what it really is—alive. And living things need to be gently cared for and loved.
This year you won’t find me standing on a scale or trying to shrink myself into an old pair of jeans; this year you’ll find me in the bathtub, getting comfortable with my own skin and what an actual body—not some airbrushed, photoshopped Dream Size model—looks like. You’ll find me learning to tell myself that I’m beautiful rather than waiting to hear it from someone else. Instead of dieting this January 1st, I’m celebrating six years diet-free and that, unlike so many other numbers that I’ve worried over, is actually a number worth celebrating.
My New Year’s wish for all of you is that you’ll relax into your body. May you tell yourself you’re beautiful, and begin to mean it a little more each time you say those precious words. May you be reminded that you have worth and dignity. May you begin to believe that your body is magic. May you tell dieting to fuck off.
Special Update: January, with all its messages yelling that it’s time you get your butt and linen closet in gear, can be an especially hard time to practice self-care. Everything from our home organization to the shape of our bodies is called into question and scrutinized; everything seems to be old, outdated and in need of repair and a fresh coat of paint.
So I have a special treat for you. Every Friday, starting next week and going through February, I’ll be featuring a guest-post series by writers I respect on how they practice the art of self-care. Small, intimate slices of life that were dedicated to self-care and can help remind all of us to take care of ourselves.
Happy New Year. It might be a different year but you’re still the same fabulous, beautiful you.