Having written, spoken, and taught about loving my disabled body for most of my life, a common first question is always “How did you do it? How did you learn to love your body?”
I’ll tell you a secret: I’m still working on it. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have most of them, and you shouldn’t trust anyone who says they do. However, here are ten things I’ve learned both as a teacher and as a student that might work for you too.
1. Equate value with joy.
So often we equate our bodies’ value with ability or inability to meet expectations. On days when it is hard to see your body as beautiful, remember bodies are made to be lived in. What can you do with your body that brings you joy? This may change day to day and that’s okay. On the really bad days, when I’ve walked too far and my legs hurt I might say, “my hands are for writing.” When I’m beating myself up for my inability to do much of anything, I might say: “Today my body is for drinking tea and staying in bed to love my fiancé.” When we make joy the value in which we measure ourselves, it is easier to find something to like.
2. Think of it as a nonlinear process.
I’ve been writing and speaking about the disabled experience most of my life. This, however, doesn’t make me immune to the bad days. People tend to think of self-love as something you figure out and at some point you are done. I like to think of it as taking singing lessons. You can say you know the basics, but if you don’t practice and keep doing it you’ll lose what you learned. Some days will be better than others. After all, singers get sore throats, colds, and even get too busy to practice. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t great singers. I teach workshops on what it means to love oneself and how it plays out in our relationships, and yet I still read every book about the subject that I can get my hands on. Good teachers will always be students. You can start from wherever you are today.
3. Find loving spaces.
How we feel is hugely influenced by who and what we are around. Finding a space full of people we enjoy being with makes us happier to be ourselves and to be in our bodies. This can be a community that directly focuses on these issues (Like The Body Is Not an Apology, Welcome!) or something less direct. Do you love your body because it lets you read? Join a book club. If you feel best when you’re moving, you can take a class in dance, yoga, swimming, or whatever you and your body enjoy.
4. Make something.
I know the times I am most in love with my body are when I’m being creative. You don’t have to be super artistic to do this. It could be something as simple as recording yourself reading a story for a child in your life, or cooking something you love to eat. It can be as simple as a small craft to as complex as poetry or painting. Your creation doesn’t have to be difficult or even very good. There is just some power in looking at something and saying, “Without me and my body this wouldn’t exist.”
5. Be your own best friend.
I have this problem. I’m great at mothering and loving up on other folks, but terrible when it comes to myself. When I’m fighting with my body I think, “What would I tell a friend who felt this way? How about a child or a student?” Somewhere among these possibilities, I usually find a place to start.
6. Learn a history lesson.
Look back at the recent past and ask yourself, “When was I getting along with my body best? What is different between now and then? Was I eating differently? Was I being more social? Was I getting more sleep? Was I in therapy, either physical or physiological?” Don’t use this as an excuse to judge your current body. This isn’t about if you could look different. It is about when you felt better in your body. How can you apply that to the body you have today?
7. Learn your triggers.
We talk about triggers a lot when we talk about trauma. People think this has to be something big and dramatic. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be something small, like a pattern that doesn’t leave you feeling at your best. For me, lack of sleep is huge. My specific disability means small things tire me out. This means I need a lot of sleep. It is hard to reconcile this with my want to be productive. I feel like I can’t do enough with my day because I need so much time to recharge.
The artist in me feels like true genius is writing till four in the morning, sleeping for a couple of hours, and then doing it all again. That will just never be me. If I don’t get enough rest, I lose the whole next day’s productivity. My body doesn’t work the way I want it to. Past a certain time of night, I get sad and hard on myself. So, I try to be aware of this trigger and work around it. It can be hard to balance, but it makes my body easier for me to love. Ask yourself similar questions and be aware of patterns.
More Radical Reads: Dear Younger Self: Reflections on Being 25, and Learning to Love Yourself
8. Make the most of your space.
Context is always important. The space we spend time in can hugely effect how we see ourselves and our bodies. For those of us with mobility issues especially, it can be easy to be angry at a body that won’t let you get to where you want to go. I don’t drive. This means some days I’m home even when I don’t want to be. It can be hard not to resent my body on those days. So I have to think, “What can I do to make this a place I want to be today?” Sometimes this means asking someone to bring home flowers when they stop at the grocery store. Some days it means I blast music that nobody else in my house likes, or I bake brownies at two in the afternoon just so the house smells good. Do what you can with your space.
9. Find teachers.
Like anything else you might want to learn, seek people who have the skills you admire when it comes to self-love. Professional workshops like the ones that I and other members of this community can offer can be great for this. But it can be even simpler than that. Look to friends. Who lives in their bodies in a way you’d like to emulate? Ask them questions. Talk about what they’ve learned. You often find these people in the spaces mentioned earlier. If you can’t think of anyone like that or you’re still looking, become your own. Read books, articles (like this one!), and consume any media that you can find that focuses on self-love and build a philosophy from the material they offer.
10. Share what you learn.
As I mentioned earlier, we are all students at different stages and with different goals. No matter how little you think you know about loving yourself and your body, you know something someone needs. If there is one thing I’ve learned from writing and teaching, it is that making people feel loved in their bodies is the best thing I’ve ever done. How can I not love a body that serves that purpose?