Faced with society's impossible expectations of beauty and perfection, a lot of women struggle when their body acts in a way it's not supposed to.
Here are stories from women who have felt they lost trust in their own body, and how, sometimes, they got it back.
I used to think that mind and body were one and the same. Used to.
When you're a child, how you see your body is empirical. My body helps me walk, jump, run. I knew people could be tall or short, but not that they could be judged for that. I was 12 when my parents and their friends came to cheer me on at my gymnastics regional championships. I was 12, I practiced nine hours a week, and I used to run around in a leotard. I used to giggle in the locker room; it was funny at the time.
After the competition, I ran into my mother's arms, trying to get compliments about my performance. She didn't immediately see me. She was chatting with her friends. "Your daughter's pretty, but she's a little fatter than the other kids, no? You should probably do something." I wasn't supposed to hear this. I didn't have a weight problem, I was just a few years older than the other kids, and my body was changing: My hips were materializing, my breasts were developing. After that day, my leotard felt too small, too tight. I was afraid to be seen, to be judged, that my mom would hear her friends again saying that I was fat.
I quit gymnastics immediately, even though I was the regional champion. I felt betrayed by my own body, like it was disconnected from my mind. So to fill the gap, I ate. I gained 44 pounds in four years. And just like that, I had finally become fatter than the others. Today, I play roller derby, and I'm learning that all bodies and all shapes are essential to the team.
Once you reach a certain age, you're expected to have control over your own body. You also strongly believe it yourself. You are certain that you can convince your body to act a certain way because it's more convenient to you. It worked that way for me until I was 15. This is when my body decided to fuck with me.
That's when the painful stomach cramps and the regular urge to run to the nearest bathroom started. It went on for a while, and after many medical exams, I was diagnosed with IBS. IBS is kind of a joke disease, something used as a punch line in a comedy show, because it's gross, ridiculous, and not life-endangering.
I'm always the first person to joke about it now — it's a great way to put things into perspective, stop whining about the way my body feels, and make new friends. But when you're a teenage girl, I can guarantee you that it doesn't feel funny at all. It feels humiliating and disgusting. It quickly took a toll on my social life and I became scared of going out and putting myself in a position where I would have to run to a bathroom in front of my friends, or even worse. I wanted to regain control over my body. So I started taking pills to prevent it from happening during exams, and soon, I was taking pills preventively on a daily basis. This lasted until my second year of college, when I finally got over my anxiety (at least for a while), learned to let go and accept that I had no control over my body, and I started living my life like a normal person. It also really helped to find out that I wasn't alone and that many other women have the same condition.
I'm still sick today, and I still distrust my body — sometimes even hate it when it's fucking up with my social life. But I've learned to live with it and laugh about it. I won't go on a first date to a place with no bathroom around, but I travel, I enjoy my life, and I can tell great poop stories.
In high school and college, I fell asleep during most of my classes. I also slept while doing homework, while watching TV, and while hanging out with friends. Basically, I just slept, even when I got more than enough rest each night. It took me a surprisingly long time to realize there might be something medically wrong. I participated in a sleep study only when I started waking up to totally harmless, but bizarre hallucinations, like seeing a friend standing behind me or a dog in my classroom.
I can't control exactly when or how often I nod off, but the bigger issue is that I can't control how it looks when I nod off. I swear I'm not always bored or lazy or the world's worst scheduler, but that doesn't mean people will take my word for it. It's definitely hard to trust my own body sometimes when I don't know when I'll fall asleep.
Still, I'm fortunate. I don't ever get seizures, a common symptom of narcolepsy. And my naps are linked to my stress level, a recent realization that gives me back some agency. But when all else fails, there's a lot to be said for good friends who feel almost too comfortable punching me awake.
I started feeling self-conscious about my body hair at the age of 8. I was in a school where uniforms were mandatory, and you could choose between pants or a skirt. I wanted to wear pants, because I thought my legs were too hairy and I was too ashamed to show them in front of my girlfriends.
My mother decided to get to the root of the problem — quite literally — and took me to the beautician that year. I left with half a leg waxed because I couldn't take the pain. But after that, hair removal became a habit, and I had an appointment every month. The more I went, the more I found new parts of my body that were too hairy. I got to the point where I removed hair from every square inch of my body: legs (full legs, to be clear), armpits, bikini, toes, arms, fingers, mustache, eyebrows — and let's not forget my dear buttcrack. And if I'd had hair on my belly or back, I would have done that too. I even had dreams where I hadn't had time to wax and I found myself surrounded by people pointing at my hairy legs with a look of disgust.
Little by little, I learned how to let go of this hang-up about certain parts of my body. Today, I like my bushy eyebrows, I accept my hairy arms, and I've given up on the baby bikini trend. I find pubic hair very sexy. But it doesn't stop me from feeling extremely ugly when I have a little bit of a mustache, or from criticizing women with upper-lip hair. So I do realize that I am adding fuel to this beauty dictatorship that we force on women, and it infuriates me. I'm angry every time I have to wax because I realize it is unfair to put up with this body hair complex (how did we manage to establish such a dictatorship for women?!). But at the same time, I will never be attracted to hairless men.
In Pitch Perfect, a movie I cherish, Brittany Snow's character reveals she has a medical condition affecting her voice, to which Fat Amy retorts, "At least it's not herpes." Like everyone else, I laugh at the joke, but every time I hear an umpteenth variation of this punch line, I feel a slight pang in my stomach. What if it were herpes? Is this what I am, the worst thing comedians can think of?
I don't have genital herpes, but I have oral herpes, which also feels like a shameful, forbidden word. I've had cold sores for as long as I can remember: I got the virus from my parents — but hey, they also gave me pretty good hair, so. Every time I'm stressed out, upset, tired, I get this little ungraceful outgrowth on my lip. And since having one makes me even more upset and tired, sometimes I get a second one and the two of them have their own little herpes party. Worst of all, for a whole week, I feel like I'm repulsive to others. I don't want to go out, which is easier now that I'm an adult who can work from home, but was excruciating when I was a teenager who had to go to school feeling ugly and exposed.
To me, cold sores are worse than having a body flaw like chubby arms or flabby thighs. It's wearing my state of mind on my face. Not being able to hide that I'm upset. It's having to deal with a shitty week and looking even shittier as a result. It's feeling defeated because my body made a decision without my consent — and worrying because on top of looking slightly disfigured, people might think that I'm some kind of sexual deviant, since herpes is also an STD, and carries a pretty harsh stigma. Whenever I start a new job, I get anxious wondering when my new co-workers will find out about it, and of course, I'm always afraid people won't want to date me.
There's one upside, though: Whenever someone wants to borrow my lipstick or try my drink, or when some drunk bro keeps hitting on me, I tell them cheerfully, "Sorry, I've got herpes!" They instantly go away.
I lost a lot of weight when I was 17, studying for my bac [the French equivalent of the SATs]. It lasted for a couple of months, during which I felt intoxicated by the feeling of taking control of my own body — as if it were something separate from my mind. But I became scared of how good it felt to melt away. It reminded me of some stories told by anorexic girls. When I stopped studying, my appetite came back.
Recently, I've been gaining weight, and strangely, I feel more liberated as a woman, because I'm physically taking up more space in the world! I always think that this race to thinness for women is like trying to become invisible.
—Laurène, 25, reporter
I struggle with acid reflux and have to be very aware of when I eat (so, not too late because you don't want to be lying down), how much I eat (overeating can really screw you over), and what exactly I eat (which sucks because I'm a tea addict, can't live without spicy food, and love acidic foods in general). What's worse is that sometimes stress triggers a bad reaction and I end up feeling really off and having uncontrollably bad breath, which, as you can imagine, makes me feel quite unattractive.
Sitting cross-legged on my bed, I noticed my calf and felt a shock from head to toe: Bright red stretch marks formed a river mouth behind my knee and flowed downward. At first I blamed the hotel lighting, dehydration, or anything but the current topographical map of the River Styx on my leg.
I called my mother in a panic, asking what side of the family to blame.That didn't mollify the other horrors I've felt every time I exit the shower, which I didn't tell her. Stretch marks had been popping up all over my legs, which are already in a state of deterioration from cellulite. Is it the ghosts of medications past? Aging? Weight fluctuation from being unable to eat my whole life because of anxiety, then feeling calm and an appetite at last? We decided to blame the drug, which I promptly changed.
But I've been regularly crawling into my bed in tears, lamenting how I'll never be able to wear shorts or pretty dresses again. My boyfriend, the sweetest, warmest soul I know, is startled when he hears my distressed sighs from the bathroom. He says I look the same. He loves the person inside. But being raised with a performing mother, I was always taught to take care of myself and look my best. Be a lady, so to speak.
Pool parties are still a pastime. Shorts and beaches offer no respite. Feeling betrayed by my once-lithe self always follows the occasional "fuck it!" attitude, a sine wave of self-esteem indecision. I know how I should feel, but I don't know how. I'm 29 and smell of cocoa butter.
For the past 18 months, I've gone from doctor to doctor and from prescription to prescription to try to cure chronic yeast infections. Every four weeks like clockwork, my body tells me it's time for the monthly yeast infection, about one week before my period. I've tried natural remedies: eating yogurt, making my diet less acidic, wearing cotton underwear, and sleeping without underwear. I've tried medicinal remedies too. Namely, the seven-, three-, and one-day rounds of diflucan doctors prescribe for yeast infections. The only method that's worked has been boric acid pills, which treat the infection happening naturally, though they haven't cured the problem altogether.
Every month, I become angry with my body, frustrated that we can never live in harmony for more than three weeks at a time. The discomfort becomes all-consuming, in part because of the physical discomfort, and in part because of the mental and emotional resentment of this condition. I relish the days when I'm not dealing with an infection, when my body isn't screaming at me out of anger or sadness or pain. And the part that's most frustrating is that most cases of chronic yeast infections aren't solvable.