The Weight of Words: Self-Acceptance Doesn’t Have to Be a Solo Journey
I don’t want my self-worth to hinge on a relationship. But vulnerability is a practice, and for me, it has been a valuable one.
The clothes that had once dangled off my skinny frame were now too snug, the fabric stretched too tight across my body. She told me to wait while she came back with some larger sizes, shirts from the teens section.
Fat bitchpigfatasswhale. Your crush will never like you,
How could this be?
13 Going on 30
I thought of an essay I’d read just a few weeks earlier by Ashley C. Ford, exploring her body image within the context of her relationship. She’d written about how much it meant to be honest with herself and her partner: “For the first time ever, I told someone—whom I wanted to be attracted to my body—just how unattractive I actually felt.”
I took a deep breath and decided to do the same.
“I’m afraid that you won’t find me attractive or desirable anymore,” I said. “That you won’t want to touch me, that you’ll realize you’re better off with someone else.”
I told him how difficult it was to have an eating disorder that I was still so ashamed to name. I told him there were days when I didn’t even feel comfortable eating in front of him, nights when I preferred to keep a shirt on during sex. I told him I wished that eating—such a basic human function!—wasn’t so immensely difficult for me, and how the fact that it was made me feel weak. I told him I worried that no matter what I did, no matter what I accomplished, it wouldn’t matter because of how I thought I looked.
“You never have to worry about me not finding you attractive,” he said while I dabbed my eyes. His tone was measured, as if he were carefully considering his words, looking for just the right ones. “But also, attraction is about so much more than just what your body looks like naked.” His eyes were glassy with tears, too. I’d never seen him cry. He slid his fingers through mine. “It’s about going through this world, and the fact that I need you in it.”
In that moment, he saw and heard me, including all the horrible things I’d internalized about myself over the years. He even observed things I hadn’t picked up on, such as my propensity to fall into shame spirals. He told me it meant a lot that I could talk about all those things with him, and that he supported my going back to therapy if I felt I needed to.
Sometimes I still worry that I’ll become dependent on external validation from him, from others. I don’t want my self-worth to hinge on this relationship, or any relationship. But vulnerability is a practice, and for me, it has been a valuable one. Just as my experiences in group therapy were validating, words from a supportive partner can be healing, especially when you have never had that kind of support from loved ones before.
I spent years bombarded with messages—from family members, friends, complete strangers, the media—that I was not worthy of being loved. For a long time, I believed them all. While I’m still far from my goal of being body-positive (at the moment, I’m just aiming for body-neutral), I now have support to help me get there. When you’re your own worst critic, sometimes you need someone you love and trust to help you acknowledge and counteract those hurtful thoughts; to bring you out of your own head. Loving and accepting yourself does not always have to be a solo journey.
Nicole Zhu is a writer and developer based in New York. She works on Chorus, Vox Media's publishing platform, and co-hosts Sweet and Sour, a podcast about the intersections of Asian American identity with culture, work, and lifestyle. Find her on Twitter @nicolelzhu.