I Never Hated My Body — Until The Internet Told Me To Love It

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
For the past two years, my morning routine was like something out of a bad teen movie. I’d wake up, change into my gym clothes, have some hot water with lemon, and stand in front of the full-length mirror in my hallway to scrutinise myself. I’d turn to the side and consider how much my lower belly poked out, and whether or not it was bigger or smaller than it was the day before. I’d roll my shoulders back, take a deep breath, and try to stand a little taller to see if a posture tweak might smooth me out a little more. Then I’d sigh, resigned, and drag myself to the gym. On bad days, I’d just say “screw it,” and get back into bed, dreading the moment when I’d have to wake up and put on clothes.
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This feels like the way an insecure teenager might self-evaluate in the midst of a middle school growth spurt, but it didn’t start for me until I was about 23 — around the time the internet started telling me I was supposed to love my body.
I wasn’t always like this. From the ages of 13 to 18, I took multiple ballet classes a day, six days a week. And while I knew that slender figures were preferred in the world of ballet, I never really considered whether or not I fit into that ideal. I was more concerned with eating enough to get through my classes. In college, once my dance career ended, I’d take up exercise here and there, but never really committed to anything long-term. I found my way to hot yoga, and loved it, but because of a challenging work/school/internship schedule and limited finances, I only made it to the mat once a week — if that. I was more concerned with getting to the bar for Thirsty Thursdays and spending Saturdays gallivanting in the West Village than a strict workout routine.
But once I entered the workforce and started spending a lot of time online, it was like a lightbulb clicked on. I realised that while I was eating pizza and plugging away at my internship, people had been going to the gym without me. Like, really going. And the differences in those people’s bodies and mine started to become apparent.
This was 2012 — Pinterest was huge, and workout routines and “fitspiration” were filling my feed alongside the recipes I tended to pin. These were pictures of buff, lean-muscled ladies, touting the benefits of “strong” over “skinny.” They loved their bodies, loved working out, and loved feeding themselves healthy foods in precise portions to help their lovely bods perform to their highest function.
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And then, it wasn’t just traditionally “fit” girls who were declaring their love for their bodies. Women of all shapes and sizes were taking to social media to profess their adoration for their figures. It was around this time that Nike released its “I Love My Butt” advertisement which praised the so-called “big” backsides of “curvy” women. In 2013, model Tess Holiday popularised the body positivity movement with the hashtag #effyourbeautystandards on Instagram, and it caught like wildfire. I was suddenly flooded with empowering images of people poo-pooing the idea of the “perfect” body, and outwardly loving theirs as-is.

By trying to fall in line with the body-positive movement, I’d only gotten as far as the body-noticing part. I could only see myself in bad light — the self I could unabashedly love was harder to find.

That confidence was contagious, and by 23, I was ready to dive head-first into any lifestyle that focused on self-love. But there was one big issue: When I took a look at my body in the mirror, and really considered it, I couldn’t bring myself to love it. In the back of my mind, I knew that my body had changed a lot since my ballerina days. But when I looked in the mirror, prompted by the body positive ladies of Instagram, I was expecting to see a body I loved. Instead, I saw one with “issues:” I wasn’t as toned; my middle carried a little more padding, and the faint dimples of cellulite had started showing up on my butt and thighs.
By trying to fall in line with the body-positive movement, I’d only gotten as far as the body-noticing part. I could only see myself in bad light — the self I could unabashedly love was harder to find.
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Instead of trying to change my thinking, I started to try to change my body into something lovable. I threw away all of my pasta and joined a gym. Instead of going back to yoga, which I’d adored in college, I started taking bootcamp classes and lifting heavy weights, because I was convinced vinyasa wouldn’t get me “skinny.” I started hanging out with friends who were equally obsessed with their figures, thinking that this was a positive. We motivate each other! I thought.
What I should’ve thought was: This is a problem. I wouldn’t skip hanging out with friends to squeeze in a workout, and I wouldn’t say no to nachos — I’d just make myself feel guilty after eating them. Obsessing about my body wasn’t preventing me from living my life, it was just making it a lot less fun. And I didn’t feel that good at it, either. I’d go through long stretches of working out and eating “healthy,” only to lose my momentum after a few months.
Even though I was supposedly doing the “right” things for my body, I was never satisfied. I can’t remember a moment where I’d look in the mirror and think, I look good. I’d lose it when a photo of me at a bad angle surfaced, or when vanity sizing in stores put me at a size higher than I was somewhere else. Every day, I’d scroll through Instagram with envy, looking at the women who claimed to adore their shape, and the women with flat abs who worked their asses off for them. I was nowhere on that spectrum. I neither had the six-pack abs nor the unbridled love for the body I had in their place.
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The negativity hit a fever pitch in March when I was trying on my bridesmaid dress for my cousin’s wedding. It was tight around my middle, and I broke down crying. “I hate my body,” I blubbered to my mother, who’d come to the fitting with me. “I’m fucking disgusting. This is why I’m still single,” I wailed, somewhat melodramatically. I started connecting every horrible thing in my life to my body and blaming it for the things I deemed “wrong” with myself. My body had kept me single, because no man would ever want to date someone who looked like me. It made me broke, because I was constantly spending money on food and gym memberships trying to get it to look the “right” way. I had never been meaner to myself; and I believed it all to be true.

All of the pressure I’d put upon myself to love my body had finally had an impact: It made me loathe it

All of the pressure I’d put upon myself to love my body had finally had an impact: It made me loathe it. I’d hit rock bottom, and in that dressing room, in that aubergine dress, I realised I couldn’t go on like this anymore. I didn’t have to love my body, but I had to stop hating it. I wanted to get as close to teenage Maria as possible: someone who felt neutral about her physical self, if occasionally impressed by its capabilities. So after a daylong pity party, I pulled myself together and started to work on deprogramming.
First I threw away all of the clothes that no longer fit, only keeping the pieces that made me feel decent about myself. I got back into the habit of cooking for myself. I quit my gym — I was barely going anyway — and joined a yoga studio that I look forward to going to. I struggle to get through classes some days, but that’s taught me to forgive my body for being what it is, which is a lesson I desperately needed to learn. I started running again, and set a goal to complete a relay at the end of August as something to work toward. I’m excited to feel in awe of my body again, like I did when I first discovered yoga in college.
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But most importantly, I went through my Instagram and unfollowed everyone who was a trigger for me — be it body-positive individuals, fitspiration accounts, or girls who gush over their smoothie bowls. I stopped listening to the people who told me to love my body and my shape. I realised that my inability to do so would lead to guilt which would, inadvertently, lead to more damaging negativity. For me, body positivity was still reducing me to just my body, and I needed to remember that I am so much more.
It’s been a struggle every day not to be negative. The mirror eggs me on to scrutinise what I see in it. Every time I see another woman with toned arms, I want to compare my own set. If I eat something I used to think was a “bad” food, I want to berate myself. But I’m learning to forgive myself for slipping back into those habits, just like I’m forgiving myself for thinking so poorly of my body for all those years. I don’t love my shape — but I don’t hate it anymore, either — and that middle place feels a whole lot healthier for me.
Lately, here’s how my morning routines have been going: I wake up, change into my yoga gear, have some hot water with lemon, and challenge myself to walk by the full-length mirror in my hallway without taking a peek. Most days I succeed, some days I scrutinise, but regardless of what happens, I get on my yoga mat and remember two things: Yeah, my body can be great — but beyond that, I’m okay.
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