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Michelle Konstantinovsky Headshot

Remembering You Have a Body -- or, How ELSE to Talk to Little Girls

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Creepy confession of the day: With Robyn's "Call Your Girlfriend" blasting in my earbuds, I just strutted down a crowded city street and looked as many innocent bystanders in the eye as possible. "Strutted" being the operative word -- I think there was even hip movement involved and everything.

While this self-constructed social experiment may seem like a result of excessive post-grad/pre-job free time, I can explain. There was actually a point to the ridiculous exercise in G-rated urban exhibitionism. And the fact that I'm only moderately humiliated to admit in a public forum that I performed a street strut is heartening -- it may mean there's hope for anyone who's forgotten they have a body.

To be fair, it's not that I ever forgot. On the contrary, for many (way too many) years, I was all too aware of this problematic burden hovering somewhere below my brain and above the ground. I obsessed, I ridiculed, I nitpicked, I dieted, I starved, I ran, I sweat. I actually cried on more than one treadmill (apologies to the poor gym-goer ellipticizing next to me). All of it in an effort to control this "body" that I intellectually understood belonged to me, but that I emotionally, spiritually, and even physically felt completely detached from. It was always there. I didn't like it. I wanted to change it into something it refused to be. We were both stubborn. We became enemies.

Nothing changed overnight. There were, and continue to be, a million bumps in the road to repairing our relationship. Yoga entered the picture years ago, and while it was always psychologically helpful, I'm only now, after about seven years, starting to reap the body image benefits. Journaling, talking with friends, writing about the downward spiral of eating disorders -- it all helped mitigate the suffering. But one recent discovery has seemingly tipped the scales toward a shot at lasting body positivity.

Zumba.

I know. You're laughing. It's ridiculous. People have some preconceived notions about this fitness craze, and I was guilty of having them too. I'd seen snippets of the infomercial. I'd witnessed devoted friends demonstrate embarrassingly erotic hip thrusts. I brushed it off as a silly fad, and climbed miserably back up on my stupid tear-inducing treadmill.

The impending end of my affordable student gym membership changed everything. I got a little curious. People seemed to really like this class. They emerged from the studio glowing and radiant, while I limped off the cardio machines hostile and... no, just hostile.

I forced my very forgiving friend who I'd previously Zumba-shamed to let me tag along to a class. It's not that that one hour spent desperately flailing around to Pitbull and Macklemore songs reversed years of self-induced body hatred. But aside from the occasional breakthrough moment in yoga, I couldn't remember the last time I'd had so much fun and felt almost comfortable and confident in my own skin (side note: this is not a paid endorsement of any incorporated brand of fitness -- Zumba just happens to be the class I attended. But if the good people at Zumba Inc. would like to pay for an endorsement, I might consider it -- apparently journalism is not the most lucrative career choice I could have made? Who knew?).

I remembered soon after that first class that I actually did use to dance. I was never great, but I loved it. I'd even started attending semi-regular hip-hop classes in high school just before the internal body snarking grew so loud, it overwhelmed every facet of my life and wiped out any opportunities to feel good in or about my body. But my dance career had actually started long before that, like it does for many little kids -- in a ballet class.

There are so many positive things to be said about ballet, and I've even dabbled in adult classes. And while it's a strict discipline, I in no way mean to imply that ballet itself is to blame for anyone's long-standing body issues (I'm not implying it, but I'm sure there are plenty of people who will and do). All I know is that looking back, it may not have helped my nascent body image to be told I should sweat through beginner's ballet under layers of Saran Wrap in order to shed the extra weight around my stomach.

I don't hold anyone accountable for planting that seed of self-doubt so early, but I bet many little girls (and boys) have been on the receiving end of similar "wisdom." Maybe it was on a sports team, or in a gymnastics class. Maybe it was an innocent suggestion to skip dessert or work a little harder to match up to the other kids. And it's not to say that one comment, no matter how misguided, can be the cause of a lifelong eating disorder or a bad case of body dysmorphia. But those comments build up over time and widen an ever-expanding gap that begins to form between ourselves and our bodies at an early age.

There's a hugely popular article by Lisa Bloom that went viral a few years ago called "How to Talk to Little Girls." It's pretty good. Many a Facebook friend has shared the link on my wall, convinced that Bloom's words will be my gospel. And I do like the overall message of the piece, which is that we should be engaging girls in thought-provoking conversations outside the realm of physical beauty.

However, I've always had a bit of a problem with the piece's black-and-white, all-or-nothing tone. Based on where I've been with my body, and what I've seen other women (and men) go through, I don't think it's necessarily a great thing to actively ignore physicality or aesthetic beauty entirely.

We're humans. We have bodies. They're actually pretty great and help us do all sorts of cool things if we treat them right. They come in every shape, size, and color imaginable, and they can all be beautiful. Talking about them and appreciating them does not negate or dismiss the importance of critical thinking or emotional intelligence. Our bodies are just another part of who we are, and I feel like pretending they don't exist only contributes to the detachment many of us develop to them over time.

It's absolutely easier said than done, but shouldn't there be a way to talk to a little girl or boy about "pollution, wars, school budgets slashed," as Bloom suggests, but also to praise and admire his or her beauty when appropriate? As a completely unqualified non-parent, I really have no idea. But it seems to me that a happy balance and a realistic acknowledgement of the various ways in which we're human would be the ideal way to talk to kids.

I hate to ruin the ending of all this, but spoiler alert: My body and I have not yet become besties. We don't look at each other googly-eyed and trade positive affirmations daily. But we've come a long way, and it saddens me to admit this burgeoning respect between parties has taken 29 years to develop. Had I never grown so detached from my body in the first place, we may have bonded sooner, and our current relationship might be a lot stronger. But I'm grateful we've come this far, and as we reacquaint ourselves with one another, we'll keep hitting up dance classes and strutting to Robyn songs and trying to remember what we liked about each other so many years ago, before we were torn apart.