This is How I Begin


The night before last, I dreamed I was rushing through a hospital to see a friend of mine, who recently died of breast cancer. I was in a hurry to get to her so I could say goodbye. When I arrived, she rose to greet me and she didn’t have any hair, but otherwise she looked like her old self, her body healthy and strong. She looked happy. She hugged me. And then we began to dance.

I woke with my face wet with tears, but grateful to have seen her again, even if only in dreams. I felt that she had brought me a message about my body and time and the preciousness of it all.

That morning some girlfriends and I took our kids to the pool and I brought the message with me in my bones. I spent the day happy to have my legs stretched out in the sun, charmed by my wonderful friends, awed by the adorableness of our kids (even as they basically assaulted each other in the shallow end). When it came time for lunch, I sat there in my suit on a lounger and ate a Cobb salad and not once did I think, I should really put that sarong back on. Because I have been on this planet long enough to confidently know that no one is thinking about the size of my ass except me.

Phew, good thing my self-absorbed, self-conscious, self-loathing, weight-obsessed days are over and done with…

Yeah, right. Well, at least I had a morning of reprieve.

Every time I talk about body image issues, I can preemptively hear the charges of “first world problems” being leveled at me. It’s a popular argument these days and I’m not convinced it’s a useful one. Its intention is, of course, to shift our perspective for a moment, to make us less whiny and more grateful. Instead, it often shames us for having a feeling about anything other than the genocide in Darfur, which is simply unrealistic and not at all helpful to people who are genuinely in pain, whatever the cause.

Last week I sat down in a Macy’s dressing room and cried because I was so desperately sick of hating myself. I can’t remember a time I didn’t feel like someone made a mistake when they made me- the wrong shape, the wrong size, clumsy, thick. This bizarrely distorted lens is reserved for use only on myself. When it comes to other people, I have an expansive view of beauty, both physical and not.

The self-hatred isn’t constant, but it is always lying in wait for a window of opportunity. I can be going along my merry self-accepting way, when a moment of social anxiety, a rejection or even just a hard morning, will trigger a full-force flood of poison and the conclusion is always this: I am so ugly that I don’t deserve to be alive.

Of course I don’t consciously believe this. What I consciously believe doesn’t matter. What I actually look like doesn’t matter. My politics don’t matter. It is illogical. It is, in fact, ridiculous. I believe it has its origins in having too high a premium placed on physical beauty when I was a child, in having been inappropriately sexualized at an early age, in feeling out of control. Somewhere, I blame my own body for the injury it has sustained.

But frankly, at this point in my life- a grown woman, a writer, a mother- I don’t give a shit about the origins of it anymore. I simply want it to change. With the rest of my time on this earth, I want a different experience of my body. I want a life in which I don’t cry in dressing rooms anymore.

I don’t know how to make that happen. If it was a matter of just deciding to change my perspective (please don’t tell me to read The Secret), it would have happened long ago. If it were a matter of meds or therapy or yoga, believe me, I’d be golden by now. To whom do I go for help with this one? God? My therapist? My dead friend? Walt Whitman?

This is not a rhetorical question. I am asking you, the women in my life, how did you learn to love yourself?

It’s hard to conceive of tackling a problem that lies deeper than conscious thought, deeper than words. But all the change I’ve managed to effect in this life thus far has started with noticing. This, giving voice to the beast, is how I notice. This is how I begin.

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25 thoughts on “This is How I Begin

  1. I have found complete love for my body and flaws after age 50 and not I almost 65 I don’t give a true shit what I look like. I just love me for me. I hope you find this power with age if not before.

  2. I was JUST having this conversation this am with a relative of mine, who is gorgeous and feels terror about his looks. I told him that no one totally escapes this insanity… at least not anyone I know. The funny thing is (and not that this helps!), but of all the people I know, Jillian, you are one of the MOST gorgeous and leave me in awe every time I see you of how stunning you are. Hair, lilps, skin… the list is long and ridiculous. With insane talent to boot–who gets that lucky? 🙂 My dear friend found GREAT relief with brain balancing. I heard Wynona Judd talk about it the other day, about how it calms her hyper-active brain right down. Sounds incredible. Maybe check it out and see what you think. I love trying new healthy things and may just join you! Love you, gorgeous. xxxoo

  3. This is a daily struggle–it’s buried so deep in our culture that it’s hard to escape, but having a girl made me want to work on re-setting this wiring. I simply didn’t want this for her. So in watching my own language at home, I realized how often I’d been self-critical in that humorous self-deprecating way that everyone takes as normal. How I’d moan about the calories after a big meal or my waistline after an awesome vacation or the terror of bathing suit season. Or how I ducked out of nearly every photo in the girl’s early life. This adjustment took time but I was on a mission and I didn’t realize how important it was until the language started coming home from school in second grade! Girls were calling each other “fat” and moaning about the last meal they ate, or how they shouldn’t have and how big their “guts” were. They were clearly mimicking mom.

    The mental monologue is still there, it’s just a little quieter now as I try to focus on guiding my girl through this minefield of expectations which has nothing to do with her brilliant brain and her amazing sense of humor or the fact that she draws amazingly and writes better than I ever did at her age. it’s all about how she looks. How is that fair?

    How to get over it? I don’t know. We’ve been programmed. But I can tell you that even with a good reason, I have to deal with it every time it rears its ugly head. Find your angle and chip away at it–that’s all I can recommend. Do it for T, who knows how beautiful and amazing you are. Good luck!

  4. Your writing and insights continue to move me.

    This just goes to show that body image often has very little to do with the actual state of our bodies. If I woke up with your body type and size tomorrow, I would be elated. I say this not to just blow smoke up your ass but because I look at you and see someone stunningly gorgeous and with a very conventional body type. It really is crazy, the things our brains and experiences will do to us.

    I wish I could share what I have done to win this battle. I am 7 months post-partum and am breastfeeding and haven’t really lost an ounce. I’m back to the weight I was when I was at my heaviest eight years ago, just climbing my way out of an abusive relationship and feeling miserable. I was actually fat, not just feeling fat and losing weight was an important part in my healing. I never got skinny but I felt good in my skin and moved my body to feel good, not just to burn calories. Those were huge victories.

    Now, here I am, fat again and sleep-deprived and going through the emotional upheaval of early parenting. I don’t feel good in my skin. I just feel like I did all those years ago, ashamed and sluggish.

    I am heartened by people who say the passing of time brings peace. I think there is some truth in that. I’ve even seen it in my own life. But total triumph? I haven’t seen that in my life yet and maybe that’s okay. This blog post at All and Sundry really hit home with me:
    t’s work and it hits us over and over again, it hits us when we think we’ve got it beat.

    I think finding peace with your lack of peace and being gentle with yourself is a great way to tackle our most ingrained thought patterns. Telling the truth helps, too. I’ve got to do all of that. I’ve got a little girl in my care. I don’t want her to hate herself, can’t conceive of why she would but here I am, bashing the body that gave birth and feeds her everyday.

    Thank you for this post.

  5. Jillian,

    I have watched you grow and change from a distance over the last 12 years. You are right, we can spend years in self appraisal and retrospect and still suffer. You are accomplishing self-love, even if it isn’t on your timetable. Survivors may never completely heal. I realize you don’t want to hear that, but it might be true. That doesn’t mean the reprieves don’t get longer.

    I firmly believe the self hatred is also the best friend of the addiction malady. In the last two years I have lost 8 people, the most recent was a sponcee I had worked with for a year and a half. My innate response was to go purchase skin lightening products. After a week of using them and hating my color I realized that her suicide had hit my self esteem in a way that it hadn’t been hit in a while and stopped using them. The growth is it didn’t take a year and irreparable damage to my skin for me to stop. I have been in recovery for 27 years and that is where I am at today. Continued patience with oneself and the process of recovery is important!

    So, when you ask how does one learn to love ones self, I believe slowly, patiently, and by remembering that self hatred is part of the “self” associated with “dis-ease”. I believe that is why Jesus, the Buddha, and many other ancient spiritual leaders believed in self sacrifice. So we can learn to be rid of ourselves in the destructive sense and fulfilled in a lighter sense. By self forgetting one finds, but with balance. What a challenge!

    Thank you for sharing your internal beauty and struggles.


  6. This is definitely something women of all ages struggle with despite the millions of dollars spent on PSA’s telling us to love ourselves. It’s not that the message is being reduced to lip service, but I think the reason why this issue is still unfortunately an issue is because women cant be told to feel beautiful, they need to feel it to believe it. It’s true. It creeps up on us when we least expect it. We talk about the things we wish we could change over drinks with our girlfriends and spend hundreds of dollars on our hair and makeup and wardrobes. It’s ever present in our society and sometimes we grow accustomed to it. I think it helps surrounding ourselves with people who love us regardless — and tell us we’re beautiful at the times when we feel far from it.

  7. I have similar issues and write about them often. Just the other day while sitting in traffic I was watching a woman walk her bike across the street. She was maybe 5’6″ tops and had this curvy-cute figure which was likely a size 10. She was wearing a t-shirt and short shorts and I was thinking how darling she looked. I watched her looking happy and healthy and womanly. I was slightly envious of her looking all comfortable in her curvy body. Then, just as she slipped from view, I thought to myself, “I would look fat in that”. I am so crazy that I was thinking about how fat I would look in a body I had just deemed perfectly wonderful. It’s a hard road, sister. Luck to all of us.

  8. To answer your question – how do I learn to love myself?

    Taking the steps to re-wire my childhood thoughts and beliefs (with the help of a cognative therapist).

    Walking away from a red flag (the only men I’ve ever been attracted to), turning down an offer to “party” with a dear, drug addicted friend. Giving purpose to my pain – from the abuse, drugs and addiction to living with my choices born from a false sense of validation.

    Living in my truth.

    Seeing myself through a forgiving lens.

    I’m still in the process of learning to love myself.

    Your post reminds me that we’re not alone. This, in itself, makes the ride a little less rocky.

    Much gratitude and love,


  9. For what it’s worth, you’re beautiful. Your face is lovely, your eyes are amazing, and your body is healthy and strong. You have passions and love that make you glow with energy. If your thighs look thick in skinny jeans, pfft oh well.

    I used to spend way too much time wishing my body was different. I wanted nice boobs and those long slim graceful legs that didnt jiggle. Amazingly, the thing that cured me of longing to be perfect was getting fat. I don’t recommend it, but being morbidly obese put it all in perspective.

    I don’t spend hours trying on jeans to find the pair that make my butt look good. Nobody stopped loving me when I got fat. I didn’t become stupid and lazy. I know that people are talking to me for the person I am and not because they are trying to seduce me.

    What I really miss about being thinner is being healthy and strong. If your body can walk, run, dance, and climb then that is what you celebrate. Screw fashion. Screw coveting your plastic neighbor.

    Beauty truly does come from within, and you got it going on either way.

  10. For me, what has helped of late, is to see my body as another child I need to care for. My self-loathing behaviors (overeating or drinking) are not just punishing ME, they are punishing my sweet body who has stood by me all these years, even as I have put her through the ringer. My face is not me–it is just my pretty mask. And, yes, I so wish I hadn’t inherited my grandmother’s double chin, but there it is as it always was and always will be–a tie to my ancestors. Love the vessel, and enjoy its pleasures. Keep it safe from harm. Live together in harmony. This is your earthly vehicle, and she’s a beauty.

  11. I feel Ya!!!…. Love yourself! Blah, Blah, Blah!!! Being raised in this society us as women will always hate our bodies and men our age will not appreciate anything other that the social norm or ( hot)…. I turned 30, had a hysterectomy, and gained 25 lbs!!!!! WOW,. Who am I?? Long married mother of 2, Great body, Great Relationship, confidence, great sex life…. Now all gone!!! I became someone else…..
    No matter how much I tried to accept my new body (my husband did too), it changed my perception of my self worth… I have struggled with my body image my whole life. I believe that I will never be happy with it. BUT>>>>>> I also have a 7 year old daughter This changes EVERYTHING! I try my very hardest to accept myself as beautiful because I know this is what I am teaching her. I wish I had an answer for youlet me know If you find one… I’m still searching!
    My husband relocated for work and we moved to a starter city in AZ with a very small library… I took my young daughter to story time and searched their barren shelves for something I might find interesting. That’s when I found Some girls…. And then I had to order Pretty… I have been following your blog for quite a few years now and I am constantly inspired….

  12. I am blown away by the contradiction between your gorgeous photos and your sense of self. Anyone who is as outwardly beautiful as these photos attest, should come from a place of self love. Having said that, because you are right, beauty does come from within, my suggestion to help you love you is this. Think about the view your child has of you. I have always been concerned about my weight and thought I’d be perfect with just ten (5, 15) fewer pounds. Blows me away now when I look at photos of myself in younger days and see how thin I was when I thought I was fat. But, when I became a mom and thought about how the body I inhabited, not only gave me children, but more importantly, enabled me to nurture them, love them, advise them, play with them and watch them grow. It enabled me to show love to my husband, my friends and my aging parents. It enabled me to run, to splash in the ocean, to walk through the woods. The body I learned to judge so harshly was the very same vehicle that enabled me to live the life I love so much. You seem like a person full of joy and passion and love. If you can wrap your head around the fact that all of what you love in life starts in your own body, maybe you can change your perspective and the next time you are in a dressing room (ugh, that lighting!) you will see the person who is responsible for every wonderful thing that ever happened to you.

  13. I don’t have a big answer and will have to think some more. But a couple thoughts: Having a little girl of my own REALLY helps me keep the negative thoughts in check. Also both my (very young) kids still love my soft boobs and belly and don’t have some idea (yet) that things are not supposed to be that way. And I read this yesterday and laughed out loud: “What other people think of you is none of your business.” (Deepak Chopra)

  14. Oh Jillian! You are so very beautiful. This post made me cry. I think by focusing (the way you did at the pool) on how miraculous and healthy your body is can help. I noticed I stopped being too concerned about my weight or body after having thyroid cancer. While recovering from that, I couldn’t move for days. My body just didn’t work. As soon as it did, as soon as I got better, I was just so fucking grateful that my body worked again. Relish in your healthy, working body. Ask Tariku how he thinks you look, and then have Scott confirm his finding- gorgeous, courageous, brave, strong. xoxo.

  15. Two things: having a daughter has made me at least ‘pretend’ that I’m crying about something else in the dressing room. Not that it’s better, but at least I’m forced to put a lid on it. I think it’s one of those things where if you pretend to be happy then you trick yourself and you really are. Like that.
    Second thing: I have this new (completely profound…for me…but you’ve heard it a million times…but for some reason it’s touched a deep chord lately, like never before) realization (again, related to raising a daughter) that so much of this self hatred was something forced upon me. Girls are always complimented on how they look. Boys on what they can do. Yadda yadda yadda…but really…that shit gets down deep. It undermines who we are. IT UNDERMINES WHO WE ARE (I had to use all caps right there because I need to scream this).

    All of this to say that I’m right there with you. I have no idea what the answer is. I’m hoping next life to be something in the plant or animal world (something not human.) to be free from all of this shit. 🙂

    p.s. my daughter was just exposed to Barbie last weekend for the first time.

  16. Your blog resonated with me and I’m sure countless – if not all- others who read it.   I have two teenage daughters, and was just talking with a friend about body image for our young girls.  One mom said her daughter so wanted to look like the girls with long legs, perfect skin and long hair,  and I said, where is that girl?  Where is that one girl with all the right features and perfect complexion?  She doesn’t exist, we all envy her and strive to be her, but even that girl we envied in junior high ( or today) hates her thighs or the freckles on her nose.   We are all chasing an illusion.  I guess the solution is to love ourselves as we are, and accept our individual beauty for what it is- flawed, unique and individual.  I hope I get there.  I hope you get there.  I know I can see your beauty in your photos, but more importantly, I see your beauty in your writing- in your descriptions of your child and life experiences.  Ugh, physical beauty is a tough one.  We all struggle with this.  I admire your honesty in putting it out there.

  17. A friend shared your blog with me. I just turned 40 last week and for the past 5-6 years, I was hating my body. But, I had to change the dialogue and how I talked about body image because I have 2 young girls. My mom has always talked about her body in a negative light with no compassion for herself.

    How I am changing this is that I started running. When I was young, I played many sports and was super fit (had to keep up with my brothers) without any effort. As I aged, the team sports didn’t happen, so I running has given me something back. And, it’s not about body type (yeah, right!) as much as it is being healthy to raise my girls to be healthy and see them have kids and raise those kids to be healthy. The switch was just getting off my butt and going for a run.

    As women, we give so much to our partners, our kids, our friends, etc., that we devalue ourselves. We matter just as much as anyone else in the house–and exercise does help to keep us healthy for all the demands put upon us and the challenges we take on.

    With running, I’ve decided not to use music as a way to tune out. I’ve been fighting my inner critic who says I can’t run 10 miles, or make it up that next hill. We have to remember what we accomplish every day and use that to build the confidence that even with new things, they will become routine and we’ll say, “I remember 4 months ago when I couldn’t run a mile. But look at me now.”

    Being a role model for your son, for young girls out there, too, will break the cycle. And, when we meet our friends, let’s enjoy each other and ask about what book/movie/tv show is exciting or what new challenge everyone is taking on (not dieting!). Ask young girls what book they are reading and what activities they love.

    By asking the question, you’re well on the way and you sound like you are already changing. Thank you for your post, your honesty and for taking the dialogue to a different level.

  18. Move to Europe. That’s what I did. Then I dated and married a European, an Italian who knows how to find beauty in the experience of life. Who introduced me to my own beauty and helped me transform all those ugly thoughts about myself. I observed European women on the beaches. Young women with firm bodies in bikinis or topless. Middle aged women with poochy bellies and hanging breasts in bikinis or topless, with kids in tow. Elderly women with folds and sagging skin, IN BIKINIS, just being NORMAL. Theyndon’t look at each other like we do, they don’t compare, they don’t compete. They gave me courage.

    Our self-perceived ugliness is American culture. It is shame and sexualization introduced at an early age. It’s teaching about sex and STDs in health class, but not teaching how a woman’s body nurtures a baby in her womb, then nurtures a child at her breasts. It is the shunning of what is natural about us, we are ashamed of our “ethnic” noses, “small” boobs, “thick” wastes, “curvy” hips, instead of being taught to be proud of these physical trAits that make us unique, that make us stand out. It’s encouraging independence in our young children when they should still be carried, cared for at home by a family member instead of in day care, cherished and paid attention to until their self confidence and self esteem and sense of security has been nurtured into existence and taken firm hold.

    Get out of the US. Experience another culture. You will learn to embrace yourself.

  19. I’ll be 38 soon (read: in 8 months) and I still struggle w/body image & self loathing a lot. It’s a perennial problem that creeps up in my moments of greatest vulnerability & doubt. I agree w/you that minimizing it as a “first-world problem” only adds shame to a problem that shame caused in the first place; great insight!

    As for how to move past it, all I can lay claim to is the power of the perspective that people who love me have on “me” that I don’t have. I loved the picture of you at the pool w/your girls & I imagine that any of them, if asked, would tell you how you look to them & it’ll be waaaay better than what your self was telling you.

    It’s what I do when I get an attack of the (inner or outer) uglies. It seems to work more times than it doesn’t. I’ve been following your blog for a year & I say you’re lovely. Thanks for writing!

  20. What NOT to pay attention to: the commenter above who says daycare is at fault. There’s that tired argument that those of us who need daycare are not raising our own kids. Talk about judging!

  21. My best friend does Guided Imagery through Music (GIM) sessions and I have done a few with her. It was really amazing how I was so focused on dealing with one issue (dealing with anger) that I came out with so much more information. I went to her when I, like you, was exhausted not not being able to change things I did not like about myself. This may not be for everyone, but it helped me. Her is some info on it:

  22. 1) Move out of LA
    2) Turn oh say about 60. Watch LOTS of friends die and see what happens to our mortal shell. Serious perspective.

    Good luck


  23. Ha, I like the move out of L.A. comment (I myself had to move out of New York). Also the blog AlreadyPretty and related body-image blogs help a lot. Women are discussing this. Their discussions are just not, sadly, at the forefront of political-correctness and political conversations.

  24. Hi Jillian

    Oh do I get that. So deeply. And as I was reading I wanted to say to you “but you are so beautiful/stunning/gorgeous…” and then I remembered that I would hear the same thing and I think that makes it even worse.
    And I bet that you do look back at old photos and think “I can’t believe how much I hated myself then, how ugly I thought I was”.

    Now it’s too late. Over. Of course in a year or so it’s the same looking back with such regret and sadness at the inability to see ourselves clearly, and how much that destroys day to day life.

    I could write about this all day and hide cos its an ugly day – especially now that you have me crying.

    But fkc it all I know (sort of) is that self loving actions generate self love.
    And seriously, focusing on some poor/starving/bulimic/handicapped person (even better if you can be with them) just for a few minutes gets you out of that liar of a brain.

    Track down someone in Darfur that you can write to.

    That’s what I did this morning. I get at least 50 emails from girls with eating disorders basically living in a self created Darfur.

    I realize I have offered no consolation or hope here. I just really, really understand.

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