This year, as part of our Take Back The Beach program, we are asking YOU to tell us about your experiences with body talk and self-perception. Below, one reader's story.
"Bear Attack Butt!"
A few years ago, I dated someone I met at work — let's call him V. He was charming at first, brought me iced coffees and CDs of artists I hadn't heard of, was always eager to head to a concert or a museum in LA, and was a little bit awkward, just like me. It all felt refreshing, because I was coming off of a very long break I had taken from dating. I felt that I was repeatedly getting the same message from men — that I simply wasn't enough. I had a growing sense that my problems with dating were much larger than me, that it wasn't just about what I was putting out into the world or the toxicity I was choosing to pull in, the central beliefs that self-help branders want to convince women of. I mean, sure, I have issues I work out in relationships, just like anyone else, but I started to see how often I had to put up with male privilege and shaming, and I just didn't want to have to wrestle with any of it.
I tapped out.
Those years were an absolute gift for me. I tended myself with great care and affection, I finished graduate school and switched into a career I loved, I took time to focus on fiction writing, I learned sitar intensely for several years, I taught myself how to appreciate solitude, and although at times I felt lonely, I had freedom and control over my body and my time. Even as I coped with everything that comes along with being on one's own, I felt healthy, and that my life was robust. I'm convinced this was because I allowed myself to shed many of those subcutaneous ideas around shame, simply because I wasn't getting messages about shame from men in my romantic life.
Flash forward to when I started dating V. One afternoon, V and I decided to go to a sports bar to watch a football game, and as we were polishing off a plate of wings, he says, “Hey, I thought of something really funny, but I probably shouldn't tell you.” We had fought the night before, so I was happy that he seemed jovial, in contrast to his many depressed and edgy moods I had gotten to know. I didn't want to kill the vibes, and teasingly told him to tell me what it was. He peered at me and said, “You know, when I look at your butt, it looks like it got sliced up. Bear Attack Butt!” He burst out laughing, and made growling sounds, slashing his clawed-up fingers, shiny with buffalo sauce, through the air.
I laughed along with him, but inside my tiny laugh was that familiar feeling of shame that opened up like quicksand, the kind of thing it would be easy to sink into if I wasn't careful. For most of my life, that territory of quicksand reached out to all the borders of my body, as I constantly battled feelings of self-hate. This isn't news to anyone, but growing up as a brown girl in this country, I always understood that my body wasn't considered normal, especially when I hit adolescence and my bottom suddenly exploded into the hundreds of stretch marks that still populate it today.
"Bear Attack Butt" wasn't the last word someone like V had about my body. He had recoiled from touching my arms, telling me that the slightly bumpy skin on them was “gross,” while also informing me that they were "fat." He said that my calves were “monster-sized.” That my stomach looked like a “third breast.” That Indian girls are hairy. That I should use the “thing between my legs” to wipe up a spill in my car's cupholder. The verbal abuse had piled up, but why didn't it register? Even with that break from men, it was still difficult for me to immediately locate my anger toward him or my sense of violation, perhaps because the hatred of women's bodies is part of the arterial blood flow of our society, and it's easy to normalize shame as the state of what women are expected to accept from men. But in the end, the nettle of his comment about my backside shot through all of the other romantic noise to help me understand how I was really being seen. I ended things shortly after.
As a woman, I know that I'm forever carrying two disparate aspects of who I am in my awareness. There's the part that knows that I'm being evaluated, sometimes reviled, because of how my body looks to a man's world. I don't have control over that narrative, and it gets confusing, because that story isn't about me at all. And the belief that I used to hold, that once I understood myself to the right degree, someone who got me would pop out of the woodwork, now feels like a filmic fantasy.
But there is also that part of me that knows I can always find the surest path back to who I am, because I will continue to protect the deep, self-affirming relationship I have with myself. I don't wait for anyone else to allow me to feel whole and empowered, because it is something I make sure to claim every single day.
#TakeBackTheBeach essays are meant to reflect individual women's experiences. They have only been lightly edited (if at all) by Refinery29 and do not necessarily reflect the company's point of view. Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity or harmful behavior.
Have a story of body image and self-perception that you want to share? Submit your essay to our Take Back The Beach contest here.