When Your Body Betrays You

Responding to body shame with clumsiness and care. Collage by: Holly Cook

My body is wholly unique to me. I have stretch marks, “problem areas”, assets, and “wtf?” situations too. Like the mole I discovered on my derrière the other day. How did you get there?

I have long legs, broad shoulders, big boobs, a flat butt and a short torso. If you saw a picture of me you wouldn’t describe me that way. You might use descriptors that others have: svelte, thicc, athletic, skinny, curvaceous. Who in the hell were these people talking about? These words could easily describe five different women. The labels ascribed to my body are often contradictory, and therefore meaningless in my eyes. The labels I give to myself however, are powerful: they can destroy my self-esteem or sustain my self-love.

In my early 20s, I embarked on a journey to heal my body through intuitive eating and learning how to cook satisfying, life giving meals for myself and my people. My body naturally slimmed down over the course of a few years as a result. It was a delightful surprise to see my college weight come off. Ironically, when I stopped trying to lose weight, I lost weight. Most importantly, I learned how to wholly respect my body and heal my destructive relationship with food.

Everyone’s version of healing their bodies looks different. I see bold body-love trends in my Instagram feed that challenge conventional beauty standards or how women should display themselves. There’s a video of comedian Nicole Byer doing an expert dance routine on a stripper pole. There’s musician Margo Price staring into the camera, while nakedly breastfeeding her baby.  It’s 9 am and there’s Lizzo’s ass cheeks twerking just a few inches from my face.

It’s one thing to admire Lizzo’s gloryhole,  but it’s a whole other story to flaunt your own. On a hot Friday afternoon in late April, desperate to get out of the house, my roommates and I decided to do a photoshoot in the blossoming poppy fields. As we drove on the twisting and turning roads of Antelope Valley, one of my roommates joked that this seemingly innocent afternoon could turn into a nude photo shoot. She was also serious in a sense – what was to stop us? 

I initially balked. When I was a toddler, I’d cover my bare chest with my arms. In middle school when it was cool to wear a camisole under a low cut top, I was always yanking my “cami” up. To this day, cleavage gives me anxiety. I’ve never much abided by the “if you got it, flaunt it” philosophy. 

But there was another sensation inside me; a squiggly, chaotic sort of energy that started in my stomach and traveled upwards, expanding into my chest. It’s the feeling of staring down into the aquamarine pool depths before jumping off the diving board. I might belly flop or I might dive gracefully into the water. After being cooped up in my house and watching the world fall apart to a global pandemic, I was ready to find out.

“Why not?” I asked, smiling. A few hours later my heart beat quickly as I shed a 1960s vintage button up I’d been wearing. I wouldn’t go full nude, but a topless photo shoot suited my aspirations. 

There was no one around, at least that we could see. A farmhouse off in the distance, some power lines, and a satellite tower. And fields of perfect orange and purple poppies. We started with me laying down. My roommates were sensitive and encouraging. They oohed and ahhed while I imagined this must be how Heidi Klum or Cindy Crawford felt. 

When I sat up, I looked down at my boobs. I wondered if these models had to deal with their breasts dropping down to their abdomen like a couple of old tube socks? Hmm… It turns out when you gain 60 pounds and then lose it, sometimes your breasts don’t return to their once perky selves. Mine seemed to have the same attitude as that emo kid in all early 2000s teen movies: they seemed to whine, “What’s the point?” I tried not to let gravity deter my confidence. I was an earth goddess as far as I was concerned.   

I brushed aside more of these potentially ego-shattering moments. I was too busy “werking” it, getting my groove on, flying my freak flag high, etc. I tipped my head back to the sky for more than a few shots to show how much I was in nirvana. I sported many close-lipped smiles. I seemed to be saying, “This is what it looks like to love yourself, y’all. Drink.It.In.” 

Once we got home, settled on the couch after a long day of posing, we looked at our pictures. I envisioned my topless photos would be Kinfolk Magazine meets a 1970s Playboy centerfold; exquisitely artful with a touch of trash.

As I scrolled through my first ever daring topless photo shoot, my heart sank. ‘Jesus. I totally have granny tits,’ I thought. It was startling to see them in broad daylight, droopy and laying against my stomach. There were my faded stretch marks and my giant Canadian Bacon nipples, which no amount of poppies could seem to cover up.  

It turns out, side shots of me hunched at a 45 degree angle is the least flattering pose I could’ve done. And yet, a third of my photos were these. I doubt even Kate Moss hunched like this in her day.

As I scrolled through the pictures, I looked for evidence of the happiness I’d felt that Friday afternoon and the elegance, beauty, and allure I was sure I had exuded. Where was it? All I saw were pale, awkward, unsexy mounds of flesh being foisted about in odd poses. 

The ones where my arm is draped across my chest were just embarrassing. My breasts weren’t small or perky enough for me to cover everything. It looked like I was over-relying on my forearm to keep the girls up. My hand was also slightly curled, creating a claw-like effect. 

The shots of me lying down, cupping my breasts with my hands fared a little better. In the ones where my eyes are closed, it looks like I was just… Napping. 

“Ah don’t mind her,”  a local would say as hordes of visitors pass the fields. “She always cups her breasts when she takes her mid-afternoon snooze.”

The worst was my attempt to hold up two poppies over my nipples. The poppies covered up maybe an 1/8th of a nipple so it really left something to be desired. I looked more like a confused gardener in a bad British porno than a self-empowered babe. 

“Is this how we pluck the poppies? With our breastsssss?” I might as well have said in a Mary Berry-inspired accent. 

I felt sweaty and ashamed of myself as I looked through one droopy picture after another. ‘I should’ve wiped that smug look off my face’, I thought. Who did I think I was? I revisited the pictures multiple times a day for about a week, wondering the same questions over and over again. How did my self-love not shine through? Where did I go wrong? Whose idea was it for me to hunch like that?

Mirrors became my enemy. My body was supposed to look like what I thought it looked like in my head – fueled by a slimming full length mirror and apparently a dash of self delusion. My body had let me down. In the moment I was supposed to shine, I disappointed instead. This feeling wasn’t new.

When I was 9 years old, I started to get a belly. My face went round. I went from being a little girl to a little chunk. I was disgusted by these developments. Everyday I asked my mom if I was fat and she’d reply that I would eventually grow and look like myself again. In middle school, I did eventually lengthen as promised, but in the meantime I had decided my body was ugly and unacceptable. I envied the skinny girls who didn’t pack on any weight as we got older. I wanted to be teensy and adorable. I felt like a fat dork instead.

There was the time I was oblivious to the fact that I was gaining weight at such a fast rate in college, that I went to a dermatologist to ask why I was getting so many stretch marks. Eventually I figured it out. Oh.

There were the moments in college and my early 20s when men checked out my friends or asked for their numbers at bars, while I stood off to the side… just… existing. I’d grown so much since those insecure, dumb nights that seemed to swallow my ego whole. I didn’t feel like the dumpy sidekick friend anymore. I was more whole, healthy, and grounded than ever. 

In my eyes, I had permanently won the fight against body shame. But… Then why was I having this reaction?

I knew that internalizing this shame and damning messages about myself wouldn’t help. The more I clung to these damaging critiques, the longer it’d take for me to get over it. A few days after the photo shoot, I admitted to one of my roommates that I was struggling to see value in my photos. My face was hot and part of me wished I’d said nothing. I didn’t want to seem vain or like I was fishing for compliments. But my roommate surprised me. She nodded her head in agreement.

“Oh, me too. It’s hard to look at sometimes,” she said. 

I relaxed. ‘Oh, that’s right. We all feel this way about ourselves sometimes,’  I thought. I had to remember that we all have these “shame valleys” to pass through, and not even just about our bodies. It’d been a minute since I’d been through a valley that revolved around my body. I was out of practice.

The conversation gave me the courage to look at the pictures again, but through more loving eyes. Like a patron observing a piece of art at a museum, I looked further into the pictures I originally detested. I noticed how the close-lipped smile I had once called smug was actually a beautiful sign of confidence and power. I gravitated towards the picture where I was lying down, covering my breasts, laughing. It seemed to show a person I knew intimately: goofy, modest, and yet open. I appreciated the blue sky contrasting against my pale skin and how the wind had kicked up and blown my hair about in some of the shots. The droopy breast turned out to be full, elongated, and elegant in its own way. I began to see the masterpiece coming into her form.

The shame eventually retreated to its dark corners. Combatting this body-hate spiral was different this time around, in my late 20s, compared to when I was younger. It didn’t feel like I was lying to myself about how much I loved my body just the way it was. It was more so that I had learned to look for the truth in my body’s beauty and capability.

Now months later, when I look back on these photos, I smile wider. I feel pride as I know what I had to overcome in accepting my body and continue accepting it through that shocking mess of unmet expectations. With some distance between myself and that experience, the critiques I once had seem overblown. What tube sock boobs? I don’t see any.

The topless pictures show me different things each time I peek at them. Today, I notice the quiet, dreamy expressions on my face and they elicit memories of that day: I feel the warm sunlight shining on my bare upper half, the scratchiness of poppies under my back (I know, sorry poppies) and the thrilling rush of freedom that comes from letting one’s self be seen, flaws and all.

Long live my granny tits, your granny tits, and everyone else’s breasts that’ll eventually become granny tits too.

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