It was my first time and I loved it!
It was truly liberating. Never have I felt so at one with my body, so accepted, so perfectly imperfect, just like everyone else.
What did I do? After 18 months living in The Netherlands I decided to embrace the culture and spent the whole day with a load of sweaty, naked strangers. No, it wasn’t at a Swingers Club (that, I can assure you, is NOT on my bucket list); it was my first visit to a Dutch spa. A typical Dutch spa. As in, a mixed (women AND men) naked (not a bikini in sight) spa. Yes, I wore my birthday suit. And initially I was terrified. But soon I wasn’t even thinking about it. I loved it!
That’s a big thing from someone who has suffered, for much of her life, with an obsession over her weight and body shape.
Body dysmorphic disorder [noun] (also known as BDD, body dysmorphia, dysmorphic syndrome, or dysmorphophobia), is a pathological preoccupation with an imagined or slight physical defect of one’s body to the point of causing significant stress or behavioral impairment in several areas (as work and personal relationships)
– definition taken from Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Wikipedia
These days it seems that most women, and increasingly men, struggle to accept the beauty of their own body – I was no different. I’ve never been diagnosed with body dysmorphia, but ever since I can remember, I’ve been extremely critical of my physical appearance and envied, with gusto, all the women I perceived as having the perfect figure.
“I hate her – she can eat anything and still looks amazing! It’s not fair!”
Does it sound familiar? I hated my own body. I hated my bulging muffin tops – remnants of my overweight teenagehood – I hated my wobbly arms that would spread like pancake batter whenever I held them into my sides, same goes for my thighs which had the added grossness of silvery stretch marks, I hated my flaccid and dimpled bum, my jelly-belly that I could never make flat despite all of the sit-ups and pilates, oh yeah, and my teabag tits.…! Get the picture? It was pretty grim. Oh, and by the way, I saw myself like this even after achieving my skinniest, when the smallest size in the shop would look baggy on me and my friends told me that I was all skin and bones…
A shameful truth
This is really hard for me to admit, let alone declare publicly. I consider myself a particularly compassionate and accepting person – I’ve been through a lot and I know how tough life can be -, but because I was in denial about the state of my body image, I did not realise that I was also being horribly judgemental towards everyone else’s physical shape. It had absolutely nothing to do with who they were as people, but I was obsessed with assessing everyone else’s hip to waist ratio and categorising them as Slim and Attractive (will I ever look that good?) or Fat and Not Attractive (do I look like that?). Even writing this provokes uncomfortable feelings of shame within me.
The irony of it is my work; helping women to lose weight and get healthy. I could deeply identify with the struggles of weight loss and that perpetual fight to get the perfect body, but for a long time I was completely missing the point; it’s not at all about looking good, but about feeling good in your own skin.
It’s not at all about looking good, but about feeling good in your own skin. It’s not about the will power to not eat the whole packet of cookies, but about loving yourself enough to treat your body with respect and to nurture it with just the right amount of vitalising foods.
The first time I realised that I had this huge internal hypocrisy was a few years ago when I was discussing a potential urban retreat with a very sweet yoga teacher. We were talking through the various logistics when I made a “fat people” comment – I hadn’t even realised! That came a few days later when the lovely yoga lady emailed me to call off the gig, explaining that she felt uncomfortable with my comment. I glowed red with shame. I felt I was a fraud.
Back to the naked people
Since the incident with the yoga lady I’ve been closely monitoring my thoughts and words to check for these hideous judgments, both towards others and myself. It’s been work in progress. Particularly being compassionate with myself when looking in the mirror. So, the spa was a good challenge.
I came in from the changing room, just like everyone else, dressed in only a bathrobe and flip-flops, a transparent bag with my reading book in my hand. However, the enthusiasts were already out in their dozens, padding through the sunlit corridors from the sauna to the swimming pool, floating in the salt baths, casually chatting in the jacuzzi and so on, all of them as naked as the day they were born! At first I averted my eyes – it’s rude to look! I gathered up all of my courage and, with lightning speed, discarded my bathrobe and ran directly into the nearest sauna (there’s no room for indecisiveness when you’re stark naked and feeling nervous). I buried myself in my book, turning sweaty pages that were starting to come away from the melting glue in the binding. I guessed this might be why no one else was reading books in here! A quick cold shower and I was in my bathrobe again. I was booked in for a massage and it was only when I arrived that I realised that I was going to be massaged naked by a man (fully clothed). Needless to say, the massage was fantastic, and by the end I was so relaxed that the was no more space for worrying about how I looked. I started to enjoy myself.
Next I went to the Far Infra-Red sauna and this time I gave myself permission to properly look around. What did I see? Every kind of shape and size! From wobbly to rock hard firm, from tiny to large, from curvy to straight.
The experience of seeing real people with no clothes, make-up or even fancy hairstyles to hide behind was totally freeing. No one looked ugly or even intimidatingly perfect; they just looked normal. NORMAL! It was in this moment that I had the profound understanding that, in fact, there is no such thing as a perfect body and that there is beauty in imperfection. Real people are not glossy, glowing-skinned, smooth, firm all over and proportioned like gods and goddesses. Of course, I know that the media artificially enhances images, but this is this first time that I finally got it what it meant to be simply and purely normal.
Weight loss is not about weight loss
It’s been several years since it clicked in my mind that weight loss isn’t about calorie restriction and intense exercise, and that it’s not just about healthy eating, but that it’s about loving yourself and every microscopic part of your perfectly imperfect you. But old habits die hard and the spa served as an important reminder to me that there is no such thing as a perfect body and that it’s our individual and unique characteristics that make us interesting and attractive, making us who we are – who we are must always be honoured and celebrated.
I am proud to say that I don’t hate my body anymore. In fact, I like it.
In that single day of pure relaxation with a whole load of naked strangers I remembered to accept myself. Something precious consolidated in me. It felt great to release that latent weight of not being perfect and allowing myself to enjoy all of my physical uniqueness. And that of others.
Obviously to make this a permanent state I will need regular boosters of the medicine; who’s up for a day at a Dutch spa? 😉