I've always thought that body image issues don't really apply to me. Personally, I don't consider myself attractive, but I don't really want to be, either. I don't have any real interest in what I look like. As an autistic aromantic asexual, I have basically no reason to want others to find me attractive. Apart from annoyance when others are attracted to me and the occasional “wait, is that how I look?” when I see my reflection, my appearance occupies very little headspace.
But in counseling, I came to a realization. When I was filling out a worksheet and it asked me to describe my body, my descriptions were all negative. In the next chapter, which went more in depth about my body, I ended up crying as I relived the experiences of getting in trouble and being teased, and how they affected my view of my body.
My body issues have nothing to do with how my body looks, mind you. I hate my body for what it does, and what it can't do.
My body causes me pain. Standing hurts, various joints randomly ache, my back and neck always hurt when I first wake up, and physical activity causes pain for me more easily and in strange ways. I get tired easily and then everything hurts. I hate being in pain. Pain hurts. I spend a lot of time trying to avoid noticing the various ways that I'm in pain, and when I'm doing mindfulness activities, I take special effort to pop my joints so they don't hurt and distract me.
But it's not just the sensation of pain itself, but the way my pain has always brought judgment on me. In school, I got in trouble for refusing to stand still when we were supposed to be lined up during assembly and similar activities. I get criticized for cracking my joints, my only real way to stop them from hurting temporarily. I get told off for my bad posture and for taking my shoes off and pulling my feet up on my chair, both things I do because they hurt less than the alternative.
In a vicious twist, I get blamed for my own pain. I don't exercise enough. Cracking my knuckles will make it worse. My back hurts because I'm slouching (actually, I'm slouching because my back hurts).
I've also been taught to fear my body's aging. My father goes on and on about how much his body has declined, how things heal slower and he's in more pain. Random strangers warn me that I'll lose my flexibility, or that my bad body habits will wreck my body over time. People tell me that I'm lucky I'm so young because my body is at its peak - even though my ‘peak’ doesn't seem so great to me.
I used to take pride in my flexibility - at least my body was good at one thing, and people praised me for it. But then I discovered hypermobility, and realized my flexibility is directly linked to my pain. Or maybe it isn't - one of the higher belts in karate was at least as flexible as me but was strong and had no pain. I can't decide if I want my flexibility to be the explanation for my pain or not. If it is, then I can think something good comes from my pain. But worrying that stretching will make my pain worse has pretty much sapped my enjoyment of my flexibility.
And even if I weren't in pain, I'd still feel bad about my motor planning and balance issues. The only time I haven't been the least coordinated person in an exercise setting was when I was volunteering with visibily disabled kids. Even then, I've met kids with cerebral palsy who had better balance than me.
In school, I was expected to do physical tasks without any instruction. Somehow everyone else seemed to figure it out. Kids would make fun of me for doing poorly, or else get mad at me for making them fail and letting down my team. I learnt not to try anything I wasn't certain I could do - don't try to tag people with balls or catch balls or pass unless it was super easy. I once tried being a ‘traitor’ (‘traitre’, as I proudly announced to everyone in my French immersion school) because deliberately doing badly felt better than trying and failing, but I got in trouble for that so I never did it again.
As an adult, I discovered karate, and at first I felt great. I saw others who'd started later than me pulling ahead of me, but I could probably have handled it. But I didn't make fast enough progress for my sensei’s liking. While he made allowances for my overweight middle-aged father, he accused me of being lazy. He refused to give me the extra explanation I needed, and got exasperated when I couldn't string together moves I could do individually. Another sensei got visibly frustrated when we were paired off for practice and I was moving too slow for her liking - and then was offended when I asked for a different partner for both of our sakes. Once again, my body put me in a no-win situation.
The one sensei told me not to bother coming at all if I had any strains or injuries that affected my physical performance, even if only in very specific ways. Following that advice meant only rarely attending, and then an outright shouting match between us led me to quit. I tried going to other dojos, and found a really great one, but then we moved. The dojo in my new town would have worked if it was my first dojo, but it wasn't welcoming enough to overcome my fears.
Both my pain and my clumsiness have repeatedly been targeted by people commenting on my body. I've long known that physical education made me hate exercise. I've slowly gotten more tolerant of exercise, but I'm now realizing I have a deeper problem. How do I love my body when I hate what it does and doesn't do?