"I Will Love, Honour and Cherish You": A Letter to My Body
How I Learned, After Years of Criticism, Loathing, and Dieting, to Love My Body as It Is and as It Will Evolve Through Life.
I must admit, it seems a bit strange to be writing you a letter, as you and I have been indissociable for a little over twenty-six years.
We have been, from the start, fused to one another, you, the physical matter, and I, the life that animates you, both unable to exist without the other.
And for most of those twenty-six years, we’ve had one of those love-hate relationships where we both kept coming up with very creative ways to drive each other crazy.
But now, my dear Body, the time has come for me to sit down with you and lay the cards on the table, and maybe, maybe, admit that I owe you a few apologies and such.
It started with my birth (I’d say “our” birth but that makes us sound like Gollum, and the fact that most newborns strangely look like Gollum doesn’t help), in Lebanon, a country where it is a matter of national pride that all women appear young, beautiful, sexy, and most importantly, thin.
You were bigger than most newborns’ bodies, and, even on those faded film photographs from my first hours, I looked maybe one or two months older.
From the moment I became old enough to understand what was going on around me, it was ingrained in me that fat was evil, but that you were, supposedly due to genetics, predisposed to become fat.
It was explained in clear terms to me that if I didn’t submit myself to obsessive scrutiny through weighing and measuring, if I didn’t stick to the meals of unsavoury, under seasoned foods that I was force-fed, if I strayed and accepted a piece of candy, cake or chocolate from an elderly relation, you would become fat.
And if you, dear Body, became fat, I would not be loved anymore. I would be an embarrassment, a shame to those around me.
You had to remain lithe, malleable, weak, as if that would keep the spirit within you obedient and submissive.
But you began to grow nonetheless. You grew so fast that you regularly needed bigger clothes, that by the time I started elementary school, I was the tallest one of my grade, taller even than all the boys, that it was expected I'd be a tomboy and good at basketball (I wasn't). I was always assigned male parts in plays, which the girly-girl in me hated.
You grew so fast that, soon enough, you became taller than the maximum height allowed in many playground areas. You grew so fast that I couldn’t swap clothes with girls my age, or wear their Disney Princess costumes. You grew so fast that people were surprised that I was so young, and sometimes a little thrown off when they expected more maturity from me because they thought I was older.
And then, dear Body, you got me in trouble for the first time when I was bullied in school because I was so tall.
I began to resent you, because going to school every day was hell, with teachers commenting disparagingly about you as well, making me sit at the back of the classroom because I was too tall, and doing little to nothing to prevent the bullying, but rather, covertly encouraging it.
When I would come home and complain about the bullying, wishing that you were smaller like the others, I was told that it was stupid of me to want to fit in. “When you grow up, you’ll become a model and you'll show them all! If you don’t let yourself become fat, of course.”
So I did what I had to do and isolated myself, choosing the company of books to that of children that were unaccepting of you, of me, of us. It was the first time I felt in control - I had found a ritual for myself, a source of joy that no one else could take away.
Reading ex panded my universe to things and people that existed far, far beyond the microcosm in which I was confined, and gave me my first taste of freedom. And reading also had the advantageous side-effect of progressively having me labelled, instead of the tall freak, as the studious, literate girl with increasingly good grades, that teachers praised and other parents encouraged their children to emulate.
Then came puberty.
Years before it began, I was informed, or rather warned, about it in less-than-flattering terms.
Puberty was a dirty word, it was that invading army of barbaric hormones that took sweet, obedient, doll-like little girls and transformed them into teenagers. Awkward-looking, moody, fast-growing, smelly, pimply, savage, sexually deviant and mean teenagers.
Puberty, I was told, would make you fat. Puberty would make you grow an ass, hips and breasts, and you would lose your lean, model-like silhouette and become fat and disgusting.
And if you became fat and disgusting, I wouldn’t be loved by anyone anymore.
So, firmly deciding to avoid that at all costs, I spent my allowance on various dieting books, protein bars and meal-replacement shakes. I obsessively counted calories and applied skills learned in maths class to frequently calculate my body mass index. I weighed you morning and night, and forced you through intense exercise when I was told that you were becoming fat nonetheless.
Puberty arrived, with its cortege of pimples and, what would soon become the bane of my existence, abundant periods accompanied by painful cramps, mood swings, hunger, and intense fatigue.
I still remember that one ride back home on the school bus, on a late spring day. I felt my head become heavy and my vision blurred, so I put away my book and lay down, pressing my cheek on the leather seat. I can still remember its musky smell, made stronger by the heat.
The bus monitor was one of Lebanon’s few overweight women; she had a chronically ill husband and three children she had to support by working different jobs, so she had very little time to take care of herself.
(A thin and youthful appearance is one of the ultimate status symbols in Lebanon, because it shows the woman doesn't need to work, can leave childcare and housekeeping to a foreign domestic worker while she spends her time (and her husband's money) at the gym, mall, spa, or in a plastic surgeon’s clinic to maintain her good looks.)
The bus monitor insisted I drank some water from the bottle I carried in my backpack, then walked to my front door to inform my mother of what had happened.
Once she left, my mother praised my efforts to maintain my thinness, telling me not to be discouraged by my earlier queasiness.
Food is the enemy, she said at dinnertime, as she handed me a plate of unsalted raw vegetables, along with oven-baked chicken nuggets and a wedge of processed cheese. So it couldn’t be appetising. It couldn’t taste good, because if it did, I would eat more of it and become fat.
(And if I were fat, I wouldn’t be loved anymore.)
Shortly after that first incident, I had a sleepover at a friend’s house. I went into the shower, and turned on the water. (“The hotter, the better, because it makes you sweat, and sweating makes you lose weight.”)
I remember the steam getting to my head, and my vision becoming blurry, and this time, there was no leather seat to support me, only the hard edge of the bathtub that my head hit with a thump, right before darkness took hold of me.
At the hospital, a blood test confirmed that I had anemia. My friend’s mother, whom my friend had alerted when she found me unconscious in her bathroom, asked my mother what I ate, and whether I consumed enough iron, because her daughter had had the same problem when she started her period.
My mother, who utterly hated that anyone made the slightest suggestion about raising me and took it all as criticism, said that I was being fed a everything I wanted, thank you very much.
She furthermore forbade me from associating with that friend anymore, claiming her social standing was lower than ours. (Her father had been, in his youth, the receptionist at the beach resort where my family owned an apartment. He later became a real-estate developer, but that was still not good enough for my mother, who despised his new-money status.)
And on top of that, my friend’s mother had an hourglass figure with wide hips, thick thighs, and D-cup breasts.
In other words, she was fat, and so she was a bad person.
One summer, I entered a beauty pageant that was part of a historical town’s yearly festival.
My mother said I was tall like a model, and so had very good odds of winning. She and I had a discussion about various techniques used by brides to lose weight for their wedding day, including eating only baby food, swallowing a natural sponge that would fill the abdomen, consuming a solitary worm, and the nightmarish stitching of the jaws together so that only liquid foods could be consumed. Or even, she said, bribing a doctor to get gastric bypass surgery.
But, she reassured me, all that could be avoided. If I listened to her and did everything she said and only ate what she gave me, I would not be fat, and I would not be ugly, and I would win the beauty pageant and she would still love me.
I watched my mother print out pictures of naked, morbidly obese women and stick them with tape to the fridge, so that we would both know that every time we consumed food, we were a few calories and a few grams of carbs and fat closer to becoming, in her words, “disgusting cows”.
On the night of the pageant, the winner was the mayor’s daughter. I, the only contestant that came from the capital, didn’t make it past the second round.
On the car ride back home, my mother told me that I lost because I was fatter than all the other girls, and I had probably cheated on my diet and eaten sweets behind her back. I felt guilty because the morning of the pageant, I'd had, upon my grandfather’s urging, some coffee and a breakfast pastry that gave me energy to last throughout the day without fainting.
And I resented you, dear Body, because gluttony had lost me a pageant title, and made my mother disappointed in me.
When I turned 14, America happened. My mother and I flew to Washington, D.C. for what I thought would be a summer vacation. But due to a quick-as-lightning succession of events that included political instability in Lebanon and the brutal but unsurprising collapse of my parents’ marriage, the decision was made to stay in America.
Green Card procedures were started, and I was put in a new school.
I went to shop for weather-appropriate clothes, as I had only brought with me bathing suits and sundresses. And for the first time, I found out that bigger sizes existed. In fact, in America, women of all shapes and sizes didn't hide in shame and only left their homes out of sheer necessity, but confidently wore beautiful clothes that flattered their bodies.
I once complimented, in my mother's presence, a very curvy woman who wore an embroidered gown and had an elaborate hairstyle that looked like a work of art. When she was gone, my mother said, "Are you really stupid? How could you think that this mountain of pure fat is beautiful?"
How could I, indeed, when I had been conditioned into believing that fat was ugly? Because I was beginning to develop a personality of my own, along with opinions that did not necessarily match those of the people around me.
This was not taken well. Now that my father was out of the picture (and I was forbidden to talk to him), I was the sole focus of my mother, and her new scapegoat.
And so began a game of tug-of-war over the control of my own life.
I was growing up, and wanted as much freedom as my new peers. I fought for these freedoms one by one and earned some: baby-sitting for pocket money, going to the mall with friends after school, and occasionally, after pleading for weeks, going to the odd house party.
I brought home excellent grades, did as I was told, was always honest about my whereabouts and who I frequented, didn't drink, smoke or touch any drugs, yet I was quickly labelled as the ungrateful, difficult, trouble-making teenager.
I became tangled in an exhausting battle, over my right to choose my own path of studies instead of the one that my mother had planned for me without even consulting me or asking herself if it was something I would like to do.
There were daily fights, and insults and put-downs, and threats of having the Green Card procedure stopped, and of having me driven to the airport and sent away from America, the country where I felt I had the ressources and opportunity to take my life in my own hands, to stray from the path that was imposed on me.
And, my dear Body, around that same time, you brought me a different kind of trouble.
You see, despite my best efforts, you were developing those dreaded curves, those dreaded wide hips and large, round bottom, and that brought to me unwanted attention from a man within the family circle, a man who I was regularly alone with.
That man took advantage of my youth and naiveté by making me believe that, because I passed for an older woman, and because of those curves, he had each and every right to help himself, touching me in ways that made me feel dirty and ashamed.
I couldn’t tell anyone outside the family, because I was a minor, and because back then, I was kept in the dark regarding my immigration status (in other words, falsely told I was illegal), and couldn’t risk bringing attention to myself that could jeopardise my long-awaited Green Card, my true ticket to freedom and safety.
When I mustered the courage to confide to the person who was supposed to protect me no matter what, she responded angrily that I was a liar, trying to cause trouble because I was attention-hungry. I should be ashamed, she added, to bring so much stress unto her when she was already dealing with so much.
But then, she witnessed it happening. One night during the holidays, under the effects of inebriation, a hand lingered a second too long on my thigh, and was withdrawn a second too late.
So she followed me into my room, ignoring my plea that I wanted to be alone, lay down on my bed, her face so close to mine that I could smell the cigarette smoke in her breath, and scolded me, telling me that I dressed and behaved like a slut, and should be ashamed of it, and that if something worse happened to me, I’d deserve it.
In fact, it would teach me a lesson, for if I wasn’t fat, if I didn’t have a big ass and wide hips, if I still looked like a prepubescent child rather than a whore, this married, respected man wouldn’t have felt those urges towards me.
So, clinging to the little control I still had, I gave my virginity away at sixteen, to a young man in his early twenties that I went on two dates with. I gave it away because I would not, whatsoever, have it taken from me against my will.
The young man, who had a small daughter from an ex-girlfriend, was kind, sweet, respectful, and extremely caring. I had, however, to end things with him after my mother found out that he was black and threatened to have him arrested for statutory rape.
She said that she would rather see me with, quoting, “a filthy unemployed drug-addict who beats you, as long as he’s white and Christian.”
Around that time, I also, stupidly, I admit, confided to her, in a naïve attempt to bond, that I felt attracted to women. After telling me that she had no time for my lesbianism, she exposed my secret, as if it were some sort of a joke, to the same man who had shown me unwanted sexual attention.
He became more persistent, claiming that the idea of me with another woman turned him on, asking me to describe to him what two women did together, and getting violent if I ever hinted that lesbians don’t need a penis to achieve sexual satisfaction.
My dear Body, I won’t lie, there were times during that period, where I questioned why I was remaining alive. There were moments where very dark thoughts, carried by hopelessness, roamed in my mind, and those dark thoughts came close to becoming actions.
But a part of me clung to the hope that it would all pass, that soon I would be legally able to free myself from the people who were harming me. And that a beautiful life awaited. So much beauty, joy and light that would not come to be if I gave up.
Meanwhile, I took it out on you, because you were the only thing I had control over. By making you fat and unappealing, I could use you as a shield from unwanted attention. And I could use you to hurt that one person who was hurting me instead of loving me unconditionally.
But you failed me again, my dear Body. Or… did you? You somehow refused to become like the morbidly obese women plastered on the fridge. You kept developing those curves, and I kept going from wanting to eliminate them and letting myself go.
And then I stopped focusing on you, and found my true identity through academics. I was surrounded by the most inspiring teachers I could have had, a small group of men and women that were the best of the best, and found that studying made me happiest, because I felt worthy and strong, and my brains were something no one but me could take credit for. I felt empowered and threw myself in books, determined to get the highest grades on all my exams and graduate with honours, which I did. I applied to just one college that was very competitive, because I was determined to get in, and I did.
I left high school and entered adulthood feeling victorious, ready to put my difficult past behind me, and focus on having a healthy relationship with myself and with you.
But while turning eighteen changes things legally, it isn’t that magic number that erases all the insecurities of our pasts, or that eliminates toxic people and the chaos-inducing consequences their behaviours have on us.
In those first years as a young adult, I went through a phase of questioning, of trying to fight my way out of the controlling family circle that still viewed me as a child, and I was under amounts of stress that took their toll on you.
Right before I turned nineteen, you erupted into severe cystic acne that nearly shattered my self-confidence, although I have to say, I did learn some pretty amazing make-up skills to make myself presentable.
For months, there were harsh rounds of Accutane, the side effects of which were very difficult to endure. But the medical staff at my dermatologist’s clinic were mostly concerned with making sure that I didn’t get pregnant, and I was subjected to monthly blood tests, even though I regularly signed online forms pledging to remain abstinent during the course of treatment (and exposing myself to God knows what legal trouble if I were to become pregnant).
Those medical professionals cared more about a nonexistent fetus than their real, flesh-and-bone living patient and the side effects she endured, which included weight gain, chronic fatigue and a depression that forced me to take time off college and be made to feel like a failure by the same persons I had fought hard to take my distances from.
The acne cleared, not thanks to Accutane, which, I found out later, I was prescribed a dose too low for my body weight to be really effective. It went away because I started looking into natural ways of healing my angry red, irritated skin, methods such as eating healthy fats and applying essential oils on my face, methods that my dermatologist scoffed at, but that ended up working better than the drugs.
My skin healed miraculously, and today, I don't wear make-up on a daily basis, but only if I want to play up my features for a special occasion, or just because.
This was my first hint, dear Body, that instead of treating you harshly, I should love you instead.
In the years that followed, I struggled with your weight, swinging between acceptance of my curves and annihilation, trying to diet and exercise intensely for short periods and then giving up and throwing myself on foods that I had previously decided were “forbidden”.
I fully accepted myself as a lesbian, and thankfully, reconnected with my sensuality, releasing myself from the blame and shame that didn't belong with me, but with the man who had violated me.
However, when my love interests were thinner than me, I felt that I had to lose weight myself before I could feel ready and fully confident to pursue them. Or I felt horribly self-conscious as the bigger girl, and had trouble believing my partners when they said they found my curves sexy.
After having a major crush for a girl with a sylph-like silhouette, I decided that I needed to transform you, dear Body, into a Goddess Body. You would keep your curves, but your waist would become narrower, and your arms and legs long and thin.
I invested in a luxury gym membership, thinking that it would motivate me more to exercise there than at the YMCA.
Instead, I only felt worse, because the women who went to that gym all looked like models, and looked down at me because I was bigger. In the dressing rooms, the showers, the pool, the eucalyptus-scented steam room, the message was clear: I should be ashamed of my body.
One day, I forgot the combination to my locker, and had to go to the front desk to ask for help. The receptionist was rude to me, mockingly giggling when I explained the situation, and even crudely interrupted me to greet and chat with a thinner, model-like woman. All in all, I felt even worse about you, because you were bringing me very expensive humiliation.
But then came August 2017, a month that would completely change my life.
I had a brief but intense love affair with a woman who was curvier than me. Because of how confident she was of her body, she made me feel confident, sexy, sensual and beautiful in turn. So I got rid of the clothes that were too small, but that I had kept in my wardrobe for years to encourage myself to lose weight (that doesn't work), and I went on the most enjoyable shopping trip of my life, where I actually purchased, without feeling guilt or disgust, clothes that were the right size, and that flattered and enhanced you.
The end of my relationship with that woman (coupled with a few other devastating events) led me to sell my furniture, pack my clothes and books, leave D.C. and move three hours down south with my cat, answering the irresistible call of the ocean after being landlocked for over a decade.
That decision, as impulsive at is was, turned out to be the best I had ever made. By the ocean, I found peace, hope, and self-love.
I forgave myself for all the mistakes I had made in my life, letting go of the past and turning the page, looking at my future with hope, anticipation, and excitement.
When things would get too overwhelming, instead of eating emotionally or sending angry text messages to the people I was upset at, I learned how to just be still, in the present moment, and return to my breath, feeling supported by the Earth, safe and sound.
I welcomed alternative ways, such as reiki and meditation, to heal you, and to heal my soul at the same time. I learned to check in with you, to listen to you, to nurture you, to be mindful of what you needed, be it activity, rest, or nutrients, and to give that to you with grace, joy and humility.
I no longer deprive you of anything, but instead I give you everything in moderation: fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, pastries, wine, the rare cigarette (fortunately you were never one to develop a smoking addiction!), and, yes, our lifelong favourite, dark chocolate. Food is no longer the enemy, but a pleasure for our senses and a form of art, which, just like fashion or make-up, adorns you and makes you glow.
It is late, and the time has come to end this letter. In a few hours, I will be on a mat, indulging in the best of guilty pleasures, yin yoga. I will be surrounded by beautiful people, male, female, old, young, athletic, skinny, curvy, from the teenager brought to class by his mother, to the lady who recently got hip replacement surgery; from the person who runs five miles every morning to the seventy-something who just discovered yoga and keeps swearing on how it helped her heal her chronic back pain.
But before I sign off and go to sleep, my dear Body, let me say how much I am grateful to you.
I am grateful to you because you afford me the privilege of full health, something that so many people around me unfortunately lack.
I am grateful because you are fertile, and in a few years, you will give me the chance to become a mother, the most beautiful experience of unconditional love. I now love your wide hips because they might make pregnancy and childbirth easier on me…
(Or not. Right now, I kind of want to have a pre-scheduled c-section, with the highest dose of anesthetics that is safe for the baby and I. But I may change my mind and turn into a full-fledged hippie and choose natural childbirth, with a pool, and a "doula", and essential oils, and drum circles and placenta encapsulation. We will see about that when the time comes.)
I am grateful to you for allowing me to stand upright, carrying myself from place to place and doing the things I love, be they swimming in the ocean, traveling, reading, writing, drawing, cooking, dancing or yoga.
I am grateful to you for allowing me to experience all sorts of different, wonderful sensations, be they looking at beautiful art, tasting delicious foods, smelling the water, feeling my cat’s soft fur against my skin, or listening to opera and classical pieces that always fills me with intense joy.
I am grateful to you because you make me feel beautiful, sexy, resembling one of my favourite paintings, the Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel.
I am grateful to you because you give me the chance to feel the pure, unadulterated pleasure of an intense orgasm, a spiritual experience given to me by myself or by a lover who makes me feel sensual, beautiful, divine.
And so, my dear Body, I pledge this to you: I will love, honour and cherish you every single moment, every single day. Through the next stages of my life, through pregnancy, motherhood, and old age, whether I am blessed with excellent health or not, even if you become injured or scarred, until the moment Death takes away my soul and leaves you behind.
With infinite love and gratitude for you,