Something remarkable happened last fall. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge on a lovely and warm September evening, I removed my sweaty long-sleeve shirt to cool off. I was wearing a tank top underneath — and yet I never wear just a tank top in public. I’m always conscious to keep my arms hidden, the sleeves a disguise for the extra skin and stretch marks; a protocol I’d created to protect my secretive self-loathing thoughts about my body.
That walk across the bridge opened my heart, though.
As I crossed the bridge, I saw so many people: families; young and old couples; musicians, artists, vendors; people on bikes and in wheelchairs. People of every shape, height, and race. And dogs. So many breeds of dogs.
No one was looking at my arms. No one was judging me, my body, or my tank top. Instead, everyone seemed to be marveling at the span of the city or the river below us. In a city as big and beautifully diverse as New York, I finally started to feel self-acceptance.
Earlier in the day, I had attended the LIFELOVE retreat, hosted by body-inclusive wellness advocate Sarah Sapora. On day one, we had already worked through some heavy emotions on self-love and body liberation. Walking was helping me process my mental state.
Sarah opened the weekend retreat with kindness, vulnerability, and encouragement to honor whatever feelings would indubitably surface throughout the event’s presentations and conversations. We practiced kundalini yoga with transformation coach and yoga instructor Kjord; we worked on journaling and identifying our story; and we spent the afternoon discussing the power of surrender with Sarah and New York–based therapist Vienna Pharaon. Day two included meditation; a panel discussion from self-love social-media content creators; a workshop with mental-health advocate and body-liberation coach Jes Baker; a sound bath with Kjord and Sarah; one-on-one mini-sessions with therapist Adalina East, MSc; and tools for healing and continuing the work we started.
On day two, I had a breakthrough.
Even though I spend my days deep in health and wellness research — and I started blogging with the premise to document my own body journey — the concepts of body positivity, body inclusivity, and body neutrality haven’t been in my vocabulary before attending LIFELOVE. As I journaled at the retreat, I realized my own motivations for fitness were still clouded by diet culture and the need to shrink and manipulate my body in service of all the wrong reasons.
In service of pleasing others, like my gym teacher who told me, at 11, my weight was too high in front of my classmates. In service of fitting in and finding my place as a biracial woman who feared the curves of my hips and the thickness of my thighs set me apart in my mostly white suburb. And more recently, in service of wanting to become a mother: When I was trying to get pregnant with my first child, I was told to focus on losing weight in order to improve fertility, and when I was pregnant with my second child, because of my starting weight, I was told to gain only 15 to 20 pounds the entire pregnancy (really). It was during those pregnancies and births, however, where I started to appreciate my postpartum body for its strengths, its ability to change and adapt, and its ability to heal, even if it’s been slower than I expected. But those were still quiet lessons for me that didn’t have much power against our thin-centric society and media influences — that is, until I attended LIFELOVE.
Sarah told her own story and led the group through compassion exercises; Vienna asked us to imagine what would happen if we let go of fear; and Jes talked us through several gratitude practices. We pondered and shared and cried, yes, but we also danced and strutted and reclaimed our amazing abilities as humans.
I changed my social-media feeds to show myself other people who are focused on self-love and body-positivity (check out @thebirdspapaya, @kenziebrenna, and @nataliemeansnice); I found larger-body athletes who were real about the joys and challenges of working out in traditional gyms (see @rozthediva, @meg.boggs, and @iamtulin). And I listened to a lot of Lizzo.
“I’ve been doing positive music for a long-a$* time,” Lizzo told writer Samantha Irby for TIME’s article that named Lizzo as its 2019 Entertainer of the Year. After a decade of performing, her songs “Truth Hurts” and “Good As Hell” have remained at the top of the billboard charts, the former song winning one of her three Grammys. “Then the culture changed. There were a lot of things that weren’t popular but existed, like body positivity, which at first was a form of protest for fat bodies and black women and has now become a trendy, commercialized thing. Now I’ve seen it reach the mainstream. Suddenly I’m mainstream!”
So, what changed to make body positivity mainstream? Is this just a trend to commercialize? Or is it that, after years of impassioned activists, influencers, and entertainers working tirelessly to convince us all that we are good enough, we are finally starting to believe it?
During her MTV Video Music Awards performance of “Good As Hell,” Lizzo asked the audience, “It’s so hard to love yourself in a world that doesn’t love you back. Am I right?” Yes, she’s right. It’s going to take a long time to undo all the damage that diet culture has caused on our psyches over the years, but with new messaging, imagery, and thought-leaders like the ones that I met at LIFELOVE, we can finally start to see ourselves represented in all our beautiful forms.
The conversation needs to continue shifting on how we talk about our bodies. We can move away from fear and punishment, and show ourselves love and kindness in our thoughts, movements, and actions. We can value each other, and encourage one another in different spaces and conversations — because every person and every body is welcome to join in. It’s time that we let go of judgement of others and address our own demons or traumas that hold us prisoner and turn on our coping mechanism of cruelty. It’s time we discover body peace, even if we are intentionally changing our exterior, and find grace in our biggest mental hurdles in actualizing self-love.
This is the year of self-love. This is the year I celebrate my body, my power, and my uniqueness.
If you see me outside walking in a tank top, feel free to give me a high-five. The light is shining bright, and I won’t be hiding anymore.