I'll be honest with you: I still don't like my stomach. I'm over a year into effortful recovery from disordered eating, and I still don't like my stomach.
Part of me thinks I should keep that to myself. Part of me thinks the internet doesn't need another smallish woman belaboring her smallish body. Another part of me knows that I don't know what people need. And every time I try to guess, I end up in therapy.
So I will lead instead with what I need, and hope that others do the same. For me, I need to tell you that I still don't like my stomach. I still don't like how I look without a shirt on. And here's the miraculous part, as anyone with a history of disordered eating will attest: most of the time, I think about something else.
In middle school, I was not one to self-consciously shield my body while changing into PE clothes. Before track, cross-country, and swim practice, I did not turn to face the wall or hide in a bathroom stall. I purposefully and unflinchingly stripped around my peers, mentally daring them to make it weird.
Later in life, two of my longest-held grudges came from just that: people making it weird. In my junior year of college, I remarked to my roommate that I would feel self-conscious in a bikini. She agreed; if she were me, she said, she would too. She agreed that my frame was small and fit, my arms remarkably toned, but my stomach was undeniably curvy in a swimsuit.
The next year, my friends and I assembled ourselves for winter formal, already tipsy. I fretted aloud about how my stomach looked in a bodycon red dress. My closest friend at the time nodded sympathetically. "I see what you mean," she said. "I'd be uncomfortable, too. I get it."
Normally, I live for that phrase: I get it. In that moment, however, it was affronting. How dare you speak to me the way I speak to myself?
I remember too when I first removed my shirt for a partner. I expected a look of horror, followed by a moment for him to politely rearrange his face. I remember wondering what other women look like under their shirts, and if I was even in the same ballpark. And I remember the combination of pride and disbelief when I realized he wanted me. I remember when I first conceived of myself as wantable.
That feeling was electric. There was something heady and reckless and gloriously out-of-body about being a girl who could just unflinchingly remove her shirt. These were times when I could escape myself.
I've never much related to the notion of sex or love addiction. I didn't find myself craving sex the way I craved attention, the way I breathlessly anticipated alcohol, the way I imagined eating with abandon. But here's what I did crave: abandon itself. And I craved the implicit forgiveness in taking my shirt off in front of another person.
These days, I do go to the gym without a shirt. Only a sports bra. Contrary to the assumptions I make about other woman who do this, I'm not just that confident. My sports bra isn't just that cute. Going shirtless to the gym is my simple and deliberate exercise in being aggressively, pointedly imperfect, and daring others to make it weird.
I have seen the look in women's eyes as they assess whether I am thin enough to be doing that. I have also felt the warmth in walking by a woman, a normal woman, and realizing that by being myself I was creating space for both of us. Finally, it seems, this twenty pound weight gain has a purpose.
Some part of me told myself "no" for a long time. Part of me could only say "yes" if someone else said "yes" first. These days, I try not to wait for permission. And I do not wait to like how I look. Instead, I throw on a sports bra, set my face, and soberly say yes to myself.