Self-Love Isn’t Kale

This one is for all of you – my married girls, my fabulously single girls, my mothers, my daughters, my sisters, my grannies, my girls who don’t know who they are yet, my girls who have helped me figure out who I am. I have not attained mastery in this topic. I am still on a journey of self-love, self-acceptance, and self-appreciation. I think they are concepts we get more and more comfortable with the more we work on ourselves and the more we understand ourselves. They are concepts that can feel foreign to some. They are concepts that can feel destinational (just created a word, let’s go with it) to others. To me, they are neither foreign nor destinational. They are what I think of myself, and how I think of myself through each season. They are ever changing and evolving. They grow as I grow. But it is a journey that can be tough and is anything but simple.

My conscious relationship with my body began around the age of 10. I was a dancer from age 7, and for three nights a week from around age 9 by the time I made it into competition groups and solo performances I was staring at myself in floor to ceiling mirrors 4pm to 9pm straight. In a leotard. That’s it. I got to know my body inside out. I noticed how I looked front on, side on, laying down, jumping, spinning. I didn’t think much of it when I was child. But at 10, when children’s bodies start to differentiate a bit more between girl to girl, boy to boy, the relationship started, consciously. I was not blonde and small. I had a bit of belly. I had developed some abdominal muscles above my belly button but below was soft.

Then we started to go through the crop top stage. Add a few more years to now being 13/14 years of age and the self-critiquing dialed up. My hips began to grow wider and padded out. My boobs began to grow (and never stopped #sendhelp). My bum grew bigger. My thighs thickened; I got a waist. But everyone got all different stuff. One girl never grew boobs and could wear her crop top with nothing under it. One girl became more ripped. One girl got epically taller. One girl just got generally larger. One girl just got generally smaller and lost her baby fat. We all grew at different rates in different directions, but for us, it wasn’t private. The mirrors were still there, and we were all looking at each other and ourselves in barely anything multiple times a week. Comparing each other consciously and subconsciously. We envied aspects of each other’s bodies.

This was hard at times, for sure. Sometimes I would wish I could jump without a bra, sports bra and crop top. Sometimes I wished I looked like that girl who seemed to grow a six pack overnight. Sometimes I just stared at that other girl’s legs for days, because next to her, my legs were short as. Sometimes I wished that puberty took my baby fat away instead of transporting me into a woman’s body too quickly. Sometimes I felt too curvy to be a dancer. Too thick. Too busty. Too much of everything that the small blonde girl had nothing of.

When I was 14, I went to see the Australian Ballet do a practise session at the Sydney Opera House. It was informal, like we were sitting in and watching a lesson. We saw barre work, centre work and corner progressions which were very standard in a ballet technique class. Ballet was my favourite dancing style, yet I felt at this stage of puberty I could not do it anymore. I wasn’t confident even though I was good at it. I remember clearly, as I was scanning the barre and marvelling at these talented men and women, my eyes zoomed in on a particular woman. She was wearing a lilac coloured leotard, and she had large breasts. Like me. She was curvier than the other girls, but she was still talented. She was still gaining mastery in her passion. Sure, she may have had her own mental battles whilst being surrounded by all the tiny women, but she was owning her craft like it was no one’s business. She danced, spun, leapt and moved so beautifully, sensually and graciously. Who cared if she had boobs or not?

That ballerina resonated with me and still does today. She challenged me to not use my body as a cop out to why I couldn’t do something. If I didn’t continue with ballet it would have been because I let me compare myself to others, thereby allowing that to dictate my future. It would have been because I let my insecurity win over my passion. It would have been because I sold myself short. It would have been because I used others to be my measuring stick instead of believing in my own talent. That was a true turning point for me. If that girl could trust her body and brain to achieve what she is achieving, then I had absolutely no excuse for not owning and loving my body.

At 17 years of age, I completed my final ballet exam. It was strenuous. It took 2 years to train for. It was around 2.5 hours in length, with the only break being asked theory questions in French and changing into pointe shoes. I passed with a great grade and I enjoyed it so much. I was in my zone, even if I did have to wear 3 bras, but it was such a monumental achievement. It was monumental because my body did something epic. My body was trained, curves and all, to create movement, to express meaning and to showcase balletic technique in its finest form. Dancing made me understand that I will be a ballerina forever, no matter if I am pregnant, broken, 80 years old, or an amputee. Dancing made me realise body appreciation went far beyond my clothing size. Dancing made me absolutely adore my body.

I don’t just love my body as an action word. I love my body in a relational sense. How could I not have a relationship with it after doing that ballet exam I had been working my way up to for 10 years? How could I ever turn around to my body and say that I didn’t like it? How could I ever not be proud of it? When you form a relationship with your body, there is trust, there is faith and there is intimacy, just like our relationships with others. Why would our relationships with our bodies be different? Loving our bodies goes beyond just loving what it looks like. It is hard inner work challenging our beliefs and breaking apart stigmas around beauty because of what magazines tell us. It is striving for a deep love and appreciation of what it can do, what it is becoming, what it has overcome, what it is capable of no matter what bra size or jeans size we are.

To fall in love with ourselves we need to accept ourselves. I have had years of being confronted by my body and seeing it in minimal clothing, which I think really helped me get up close and personal with myself. I had to analyse it, study it and move it ways that looked good enough to be on stage, stretch and strengthen myself to perform movements properly, and if I didn’t at minimum accept my body, these things would have been a whole lot harder. I wouldn’t have been motivated. I would often look at myself in a certain position and see skin rolls. In another position, gravity would force my boobs to hang out with my ears. I needed to overcome the thought of ‘it’s unfair that I look like this’ and embrace it and work towards creating the best version of it I could. Once we accept our bodies, our options open. Once we accept what we look like today, we can choose tomorrow how we are going to love it. Some days, I love it by going for a big walk because that makes me feel awesome. Some days I love it by allowing it a mint slice or 4. Some days I love it by wearing something that makes me feel confident, rather than something that highlights everything I don’t love as much. Some days I love it by dancing in my kitchen by myself. Some days I love it by giving it a bath. Some days I love it by remembering how much deeper I love it now that it has grown a baby. Some days I love it by simply breathing with intention.

Loving yourself is not eating kale even though you hate it. Loving yourself is not a mere satisfaction with your physique. Loving yourself is not starving yourself to lose weight. Loving yourself is not training your body into the ground with no purpose other than to fit into a size 6 dress. Loving yourself is not asking someone to love you more than you love yourself. Loving yourself is not ordering 67 kgs of protein powder in hopes that by your 100th smoothie you suddenly love yourself sick (I obviously have never bought protein powder). Loving yourself is inner work. Loving yourself is purposeful. Loving yourself is deeper than a mirror. Loving yourself is a result of treating your body as sacred for a reason. It is a result of experiencing a profound knowing of how far we have come and where we want to be next. Loving yourself is setting goals to feel good, not to merely look good.

It’s okay to be in love with ourselves even if we want to improve our physical beings. Accepting and adoring ourselves doesn’t mean we just settle. It is okay and important to strive to make it better. Just like our relationship with our partner, we don’t just stop working on our bond after we reach a certain number of dates or marriage. Body image is a lifelong journey with many stumbling blocks and many learning opportunities. I could not have completed that exam if I sat back and made no effort to improve my body’s capabilities. I am not saying that looking after ourselves is redundant, because every single relationship in our lives require reflection and work, including the one we have with our bodies. But we also need to treat the relationship we have with our bodies with respect and tenderness. Some days will call for gentleness. Some days will call for physical work. Some days will call for celebration.

Be gentle with yourself. If you wouldn’t say it to someone else, why on earth would you say it to yourself? Call out others when they aren’t treating themselves with gentleness and respect. It’s okay to want to improve, but it not okay to bully ourselves. Physically get to know yourself. Do you love running? Dancing? Walking? Yoga? Rock climbing? Get to know how your body likes to move and embrace that. Just because the girl next door runs each morning (eww) doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong for enjoying Pilates. Find your thing that makes you feel awesome. Celebrate your body in all seasons. It’s going to be fitter at times than other times. Love it and celebrate it unconditionally. Don’t set parameters around you loving it or not. Love it for what is was. Love it for what it is. Love it for what it will do and become. Love it because you live in it. Loving and adoring yourself is not boastful. It is beautiful.

Self-love takes practice and years of living it out. You can’t just begin a deep relationship with anyone or yourself, it takes work. It also takes vulnerability. You might not have a context like a dance class where you practiced self-appreciation, but you don’t need to dance for 10 years to experience it. Your context is likely going to differ. It may be practising being comfortable in your body once you have engaged with someone physically. Maybe you thought you appreciated your body, but now you have had a baby and need to relearn and practice to love it in this season. Maybe you’ve suffered an injury internally or externally and you are practising self-love in a different way before. The foundational back story for you will be different, but the desired outcome for us all is the same: to love our bodies unconditionally, to treat our bodies with love and respect and realise how much of an absolute artwork we each are.

Caitlin x