This V-Day, love your OWN DAMN SELF!

Lina AbiRafeh
11 min readFeb 14, 2023

I was a chubby kid. I never thought of myself as beautiful. I remember looking at myself in a full-length mirror, thinking I would never be able to love my body. I decided that my body was working against me, and I would have to do whatever I could to fight it. And so began a long — and futile — battle. I was probably 12 at the time.

Fast forward decades. My story is not at all interesting — or unique. In fact, it is painfully ordinary. As women, too many of us grow up hating our bodies, fighting against them. This starts as girls — younger and younger. I hear girls as young as nine use words like “diet,” and I’m absolutely horrified. I could say so much about where we get these ideas: society, media, and my favorite enemy — patriarchy. But today’s musing isn’t about where the negativity comes from. I’m dedicating it to channeling the positive. How do we learn to love our bodies?

Admittedly, I don’t know. On bad days, I still look in the mirror and see the chubby 12-year old. Loving ourselves — loving our bodies — is a daily practice. To me, it is well beyond bite-size affirmations and celebrity body-positivity. It is beyond mental-health days filled with bubble baths and pedicures. All those things are delightful, sure. But there are tons of resources for that.

And at the same time, there are tons of stats to remind us how pervasive negative body image is. For instance, 50% of teens are “self-conscious” about their bodies, and 70% of college women say they feel worse about how they look after reading women’s magazines. We’re also inundated with information about loving ourselves and treating ourselves well.

It doesn’t seem like we’re listening. In some cases, we’re getting worse. In 2021, 1 in 3 individuals who attend a health club reported symptoms of body dysmorphia. And 1 in 2 women say they are more concerned with the way they look as a result of the pandemic.

Beauty is a currency. It is political. It is cultural. And, it is fueled by patriarchy. The classic book from 1990, The Beauty Myth, exposes this, showing us that beauty standards assign “value” to women according to a culturally-imposed physical standard. All of this is fueled by a (male) perception of what women should be, and how they should appear. Yes, women help fuel this as well, but beauty standards — and the insecurities we experience for failing to meet those standards — are all products of the patriarchy.

In her book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, feminist author Roxane Gay punches us in the gut with this: “What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?”

So, it’s about all the deep, ugly shit. And how, on bad days, we can still come face to face with that deep, ugly shit — even decades later. Or so it is for me, anyway.

To better understand this, I consulted an expert. I met Jaimie Uva at a dance studio in New York City called Forward Space. Jaimie is a registered certified dietitian-nutritionist. Clients come to her for medical nutrition therapy. That means exploring the power of food intake to treat and prevent illnesses of all types with evidence-based solutions.

Her main area of practice is HIV-AIDS and LGBTQ+ health. Within that, it’s everything from mainstream wellness and diet fads to the most complex medical cases. And even within complex cases, Jaimie explains that we’re all still victims of mainstream media and its fads and trends — sometimes dangerous.

“So you can imagine the layers here,” she tells me.

Jaimie is, understandably, my one-stop shop for just about everything mind-body.

She customizes solutions for individuals with a range of conditions — or a combination of many. And, in recent years, she has supported people through health transitions and longer-term issues as a result of the pandemic. On top of everything else.

“Again — layers!”

And it couldn’t be better that we met at Forward Space, a sanctuary dedicated to joy, movement, freedom in our own bodies. In this space, we move, sweat, and (re)connect — with the dancefloor, with each other, and with ourselves. It’s magical.

And since today is Valentine’s Day — groan — I turned to Jaimie to talk about the one love that really counts.

“My role is to listen,” she tells me. “The power of presence.”

“To understand who you are, what you’re going through, what your goals are, what your challenges are… and then help you identify and navigate behavior modification around intake and self-care to support change. Or even simple acceptance of how you feel living in your body.”

Already this feels pretty revolutionary to me. And, despite care being highly individualized, there are many common themes. We’re more alike than we think.

So, happy V-Day. Let’s talk about embodiment, body acceptance, body evolution, self-love, self-compassion. Lots of big stuff. Jaimie calls it “radical self love.”

It’s radical, she explains, because it is not the norm.

“In my many years of experience, I find it is actually the rare individual who speaks kindly to themselves about their body. Most of the time there seem to be many areas of judgment and resistance.”

Jaimie explains that this manifests in a range of damaging ways. For instance, comparative thinking about bodies can cause social isolation, and can cause some women to avoid dating, and can create deep barriers in sexual intimacy. The list goes on.

Too many of us set unrealistic — extreme! — weight loss goals for what we perceive to be social acceptance. “To post photos,” Jaimie says.

There’s evidence of this. Social media isn’t helping us. In fact, visual platforms do us a disservice by promoting an artificial selfie culture built on vanity and fueled by unrealistic expectations of appearance. I could go on about this for days.

Back to the story. Jaimie was a science kid, fascinated by the human body “down to the cellular level,” she tells me. Curiosity and excitement were part of her childhood.

“And food,” she adds. “Food is such a part of Italian culture. I grew up in the kitchen, with so many great cooks. And our beliefs and practices around food, like chamomile tea for digestion, and being told not to eat too many figs in the summer because it causes a tummy ache, and so on. Growing up, there was always this aspect of food-as-medicine. To me it seemed like cultural folklore, old-wives-tales stuff. But in hindsight, so much of what the elders practiced in terms of food for healing, there’s truth in that. There’s science in that.”

So Jaimie’s fascination with healing and the human body led her to explore the intersection of food and science — the power of food. “Medicine and healing,” as she says, “but without medication.”

So she studies food. (And she’s a foodie.)

“I help people to see the power they have to heal themselves,” she summarizes. “There’s so much joy in what I do.”

Jaimie also supports women through feelings of hopelessness due to fertility issues, women feeling betrayed by their bodies in perimenopause and menopause. The list goes on. In fact, when I started experiencing symptoms of perimenopause, Jaimie was my first point of contact.

Unfortunately, getting older doesn’t make you immune to body issues. Studies have shown that older women might have less anxiety about their appearance, and are less obsessed with restricting their eating in order to be thin. But still, body dissatisfaction is a lifelong thing, even if the negative impact of it lessens with age.

The thing is, we’re so focused on the outside — on what may, or may not, be happening. We’re focused on perceived imperfections. And we forget what we love about our bodies and what is working well. Did we ever acknowledge it in the first place?

Do we ever consider how our bodies are truly serving us — from a health perspective? Nope. I most certainly did not.

Jaimie puts it this way: “The passion for me, as a practitioner, is how we can work through some of those feelings with nourishment, gratitude, self-compassion. It’s OK not to get it right all of the time. That’s not possible. But I try to customize strategies to empower individuals to feel better, be more energized, think more clearly, explore having more confidence, experience less symptoms of anxiety and depression, and sleep better.”

This, already, is amazing.

“Remember,” she tells me, “our body is our home. Each human being lives in their own body. No one else can experience what living in your body is like. This is why we work to cultivate a healthy relationship with our inner dialogue, how we feel about living in our physical body, and how appreciating our physical body can really change our lives.”

Jaimie then explains functionality to me. “We are so demanding of our bodies now,” she says. “We want to squeeze in as little sleep, have as much energy, work, work out, make meals, socialize… In all this, we forget how much our body does for us.”

Guilty.

She explains that the solution is a shift in mindset around embracing our bodies for their capacity — what they can do and what they are doing for us. This, she says, is so empowering for women, instead of just focusing on the outside and what we look like — or what we wish we looked like, based on some arbitrary standard.

“Look at our basic functionality!” Jaimie explains. “We are breathing, thinking, moving!” I can’t help but marvel at it all when she animates it with such contagious energy.

“The role of glucose fueling our body and our brain even when we are asleep! And consider our powerful heart — this pump that is a constant source of blood throughout our bodies 24/7, 365 days a year, every year, our entire life!”

Jaimie’s words help me look at my own body differently — and how I might (one day!) learn to embrace it, what it does for me, how it takes care of me. And maybe with a little less focus on the outside… eventually!

“This leads me to the impact of what we are consuming, how we are nourishing ourselves, and also how we are speaking to ourselves. The literal effect it has on our brain function, on our memory, and on our mental health. It is endless. But it is exciting! Embracing what your body can do — not just what it looks like. It’s so important.”

Here’s what I see: the brutal picking apart of our bodies, the dissection of bodies and the adjustment of our outfits and behaviors to accommodate what we see as flaws. The conversations we have with ourselves. The conversation I have with myself. Fuck, it’s awful.

I can’t wear leggings because I don’t want to show that part below my butt. I’ll wear a longer shirt to cover this stomach. I wish my waist was leaner, my torso was longer, my shoulders were broader, my boobs were smaller… should I go on?!

Damn. Shouldn’t I know better?!

Jaimie echoed this.

“It’s the whole thing about the side mirror… we’re all guilty of it. When we look in the side mirror, we want to see flat abs, a firm bum, unrealistic perfections.”

So how can we challenge ourselves to stop picking apart our own bodies, stop zoning in on what we perceive as problem areas?

Everyone seems to grapple with these issues. Jaimie too. “This concept of a cellulite-free, stretch-mark free, skin… that took me years to get over. Even me. This is the first year that I feel I have finally let that go. I used to be so self-conscious at the beach. It bothered me that I had stretch marks. I really have set myself free of that. It takes work. Setting myself free of that freed up space for other things. More important things.”

We can let go of the language of “I messed it all up.” We do this all the time, set unrealistic goals for ourselves and then fail to meet them, blaming ourselves for “messing it up.”

I tried to exercise. I tried to eat healthy. Then I ate a cookie. I skipped the gym. Now I feel disgusting. I’ll give up, fuck it.

This sounds like me. And most women I know. This concept of all or nothing. Can we be more gentle with our bodies? Can we respect our body more for all it does for us?

And it’s not just women. Jaimie reminds me that it’s everybody in a body!

“What we can do is get curious about the science of the human body and the billions of processes occurring at any given moment,” Jaimie advises. “I want everyone to also embrace how they look — loving how they present themselves to the world.”

This is radical.

Jaimie continues: “We need to love who we are, our minds, our purpose. Of course this also means embracing our bodies, and showing up with our own visions and versions of beauty and self-expression — whatever that means. Definitely not based on some arbitrary standard of weight.”

Yes, the outside matters. Jaimie and I agree that self-expression is beautiful — style, dress, adornments. This is so much a part of who we are, and how we present ourselves to the world.

“Most important,” Jaimie explains, is this: “What do you find beautiful about yourself?”

How might we be more mindful about this — and grateful for this? It’s life-changing stuff.

She goes on: “Focus on what our bodies can do, plus gratitude on all of the things we love about ourselves. Let’s say… your eyes. Let’s say… your elbows. Let’s say… the way your favorite jeans fit. And so much more! Your personality… Are you the good listener? The one who makes us all laugh? The planner? The snack-keeper? All of this is beautiful. And that is what makes us beautiful.”

If we focus on functionality, and get curious about all the beautiful things our body does for us, and we embrace our favorite parts of our personality and our physical appearance, all of this together can transform how we view ourselves. There’s plenty to prove this. Anytime we shift our thinking toward gratitude, we ease symptoms of anxiety, depression, hopelessness. We lower stress levels. We boost our immune system.

At the same time, Jaimie reminds me that we need to be conscious of the changes we want — and why we want them. Healthy habits in terms of exercise, better nutrition, and all of that stuff is critical.

“Food is fuel — and enjoyment.” Jaimie is also one of my favorite eating partners. “It’s not just the means to some dieting end. Nourishment is self-love, too.”

Ultimately, it’s in the small stuff — small habits, small changes in self-talk, and gently navigating the setbacks.

“Small, consistent changes work really well,” Jaimie reminds me. “And, that’s another part of radical self-love, fundamentally respecting our bodies, appreciating our bodies, being gentle with our bodies when we’re trying to make changes.”

It’s about acknowledging how our inner world affects our outer world. Thinking from the inside-out.

Living with our bodies is not a static experience. We can do better to retain love for ourselves while we move through the many phases and transitions of our lives. It’s a lifelong journey.

So, to sprinkle some radical self-love on this cliché holiday, Jaimie concludes, “it’s about embracing the things we love about ourselves. This, for me, is the most important part of Valentine’s Day.”

Yup. Me too.

The author and the nutritionist — so much love!

--

--

Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!