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STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
helps individuals strip away self-hatred
to reveal the beauty underneath

By Lila Moses, A.C.S.W.

From Radiance Summer 1990

"I had so much dislike for myself because of my size. I didn't think I could be feminine or sexually active or agile. I kept thinking large women can't! And I got plainer and duller and more withdrawn. I just had to do something, or die."

Listening to Susan speak, I am reminded of the first meeting of our Body Appreciation class. I recall sensing the urgency of the women assembled before me as my determination rose up to greet them. At that moment, I was grateful for being a large-size woman and a psychotherapist, for that prepared me to understand how women of all sizes suffered profoundly from the belief that their bodies are unacceptable in some way. I developed the Body Appreciation class to help women see the needless waste of energy involved in their hatred of their bodies. Looking at Susan now, her hair long and newly permed, her nails meticulously manicured, and her makeup soft and subtle, it's hard to remember the desperation I heard in her voice eight months earlier as she reflects upon the pain which drove her and the other women to take the class.

Ten women joined me on a journey to discover and adopt an appreciation of their bodies. It might well have been a mythical journey, for finding beauty in their bodies seemed to these women a fairy-tale quest. They were all different. They had different body types, shapes, and sizes and different personal backgrounds and life-styles. To the surprise of some, two women had bodies resembling the current societal Ideal. The women's reasons for taking the class were as varied the women themselves.

"I didn't have a clue as to what body appreciation was. In fact, I realized I indulged in a lot of self-punishment, which took the form of hating my body." "I didn't feel as though I was alive below my neck. I wanted to become aware of and connected to my body, so that I could develop a loving and caring attitude about it."

"I had given up self-destructive ways of treating my body and had nothing to fill the gap."

"I had totally ignored my body. Being big, I had put up a protective barrier around myself, so nobody could hurt me."

At the first class one woman articulated what they all had in common: "I'm on this journey to find me, to care about me, to love me and to bring myself into the world."

What every woman wanted, but did not dare hope for, was to discover in her own way the belief that her body was valuable and beautiful. None of us knew what would lie ahead. Nobody, including me, could have guessed that the path would be turbulent, often resembling a roller coaster ride of intense emotions.

Our first meeting was difficult. Everyone reported feeling some form of terror, sprinkled with a little excitement, anger and anticipation. Many had come together with other women who were dissatisfied with their bodies only in weight-loss groups, where their experience was one of humiliation and failure.

"I came to the class ashamed of and embarrassed about my body. I couldn't imagine talking to other women about those painful feelings, since I thought I was the only one who felt this badly about my body. And I was uncertain about being in a group of predominantly large women. What was going to happen if we weren't busy bashing ourselves over the head about being fat?"

As the leader, I set out to help the women find what they had in common, the reasons that had brought them together. We began by talking about what each member wanted to receive from this undertaking. The personal significance of their goals quickly became apparent as they shared in depth what they felt about their bodies. It was excruciatingly painful to hear each one describe not only the hatred she felt toward her body, but also the pain and humiliation she felt at being inside it. Each one in the group recognized chords of mutual understanding and the importance of each other's goals. I was impressed by the courage, openness and honesty the women displayed that evening because I knew those qualities would be the very tools necessary for each to reach her aims. That first night it was only necessary for the women to stay, to listen to each other and to listen to themselves. Not only did everyone stay that night, and meet each week for the next six months, but they plunged right into a series of activities that were appealing-and also totally foreign.

Body awareness was the first order of business. Most of the class had no Idea what that meant, but after the introductory exercises they were hooked! After first learning how to truly relax their bodies, they learned to feel their energies flowing through them. From that foundation, the women experimented with moving different parts of their bodies in the usual ways and in new ways. To that they added self-massage, using different forms of touch and pressure. Slowly, they began to perceive what their bodies really felt like and to know them in concrete ways.

"When we were doing the face, I pretended I was a blind person who was feeling my face for the first time. I felt a lot of compassion for my face that night." Next, the women studied themselves in front of a wall-size mirror, part by part, until they really saw themselves in total. The body awareness work had a profound effect: "Massaging and mirror work were very important to me as I discovered how my different body parts felt. I actually began to see my shoulders differently. I saw their real size and I saw that they were graceful. My anguish about my body seemed to be calming down and changing."
The women were often taken aback by the unexpected and often deeply healing nature of the body work.

"Of course, I never had a full-size mirror in my house. Posing in front of the mirror in class, I saw myself for the first time. I realized how big I was and I realized how angry I felt for denying myself." Such discoveries and the jubilation that accompanied them demanded a celebration! And celebrate we did! The next class we spent an entire evening in dance, dance that glorified the female body! The women opened themselves to the joy of ethnic dancing and expressed themselves in ways not open to them before. They experienced moving in feminine ways, in sensual ways and in strong, direct ways.

"The ethnic dance we did was sensual and very female. Moving my pelvis and shaking my breasts were applauded and encouraged. I felt it was okay to experience my body, to move and to be part of a group of women." The women danced in unison, as a group. Then, each danced individually, interpreting the music in her own way. And finally, they danced in dialogue with one another, communicating with their bodies alone.

"I remember saying to myself, Now I know what it's like to be in my body. I loved it. Doing the dance turned our class into a sisterhood. The experience was so moving, and so much fun." Exhilaration filled the room. Everyone felt powerful, and their bodies were the vehicles of their joy. They had become firmly connected to each other and to their goals. They found reason for hope. For an evening, the women had experienced something very new in relation to their bodies-joy, capability, pleasure and sisterhood.

What came next none of us expected and no one wanted, but we all recognized the necessity of facing its challenge: Each woman, in her own way, came face to face with the old hatred of her body. In pairs, the women had been researching the larger picture of how and why our culture views women's bodies as it does. One team each week presented their materials. By the fifth and last presentation, they were examining what current Western society told them about how a woman should look and what made a woman acceptable.

Without warning and well before the presentation was over, the room was filled with anger, audible, visible anger. Everyone's anger seemed to be everywhere, yet diffuse and undirected. Whom or what they were mad at was unclear-at themselves, at one another or at that vague and general "society." Although the women saw the impossibility of the Ideals set before them, each realized that she still subscribed to the very standards of beauty by which she, herself, had been tyrannized! "I think my presentation was the turning point in the class. I got a sense of how much I hated myself and how angry I was at myself. I had worked on the paper for seven weeks before actually presenting it. I had done all the work in my head, but I didn't feel anything until the actual class. It was like a bomb had dropped." As the women reexperienced the pain and humiliation of not being the "right" size and shape, they faced the core of their self-hatred. In response, they felt defeated. Worst of all, they were in jeopardy of giving up their hope, a hope they had just recently begun to feel.

"Our anger was intense! I was scared by the rage I felt, and by what others felt. We had run into a brick wall. I realized then that I had been royally ripped off. I was aware of the challenge: Accept society's view and hate myself, or reject it and stand alone." With a week to digest what had happened, to explore their personal reactions and to sort out their feelings, the women came to the next class greatly needing to talk. They told each other about what had made them angry. They spoke of the hurt they had felt. They wanted to voice feelings they'd always harbored and never uttered. They confronted their hateful thoughts and painful experiences in relation to their bodies. Their conversation was in depth and full of emotion, and no one turned away.

"Accepting my pain and anger seemed to be the key. Once I understood that my anger was not unique, that it was acceptable, I felt free to move on." Drawing strength from one another, they began to talk about how they were going to deal with all their old attitudes and feelings. Determined to go forward, they would opt not for pain and anger, but for pride, power and joy in their bodies. Each woman had regained her hope.

"We bonded together in not wanting to stay angry, in wanting to change the stereotype, the prejudice."

Having made that very important choice, the next stage of our work began. Everyone had been anticipating the opportunity to transform her appearance to better reflect her new feelings about her body. Each woman wanted to discover how it would feel to present herself in ways she had privately dreamed of but never believed possible. The class set out to experiment, ready to challenge all their "I can'ts."

"It was always a secret wish of mine that someday I could look pretty, even if it was for just a minute. With all the work everyone did on me, I saw that Iwas pretty."

Eagerly, the women tried on images that ran the gamut of personal styles. They explored elegant and sophisticated, artsy and playful, sensual and sexy, as well as classic and professional expressions of themselves.

"From the makeover, I gained an understanding of all the women I am and can be."

An important component of the women's physical image changes was the experience of moving and dancing in their new "looks." This led to more discovery.

"During the makeover, I allowed myself to be what I was inside that I had been hiding for years. Sometimes, when I am down in the dumps, I look at the picture of myself in the red and black outfit, to keep myself going. I'm going to blow it up as big as possible, because that photo is a reminder of who I am."

In the process of helping each other with their transformations, the women made a universal discovery: "The makeover showed me that everybody can be beautiful. I found myself looking at women and thinking just that. I began to imagine the other sides of other women and realized it was my way of seeing others' sides of myself."

Bringing the group's journey to an end could not be accomplished without some reluctance on everybody's part, mine included. No one wanted to say good-bye. What these women had shared with one another had been of the utmost importance. The bonds they had built felt like family ties.

"I just cared so much for everybody because we had worked so hard. The closeness and caring I felt for everyone came as we struggled week after week, sharing our pain and our triumphs."

Looking back at this experience many months later, I am filled with even more admiration, respect and love for all the women. Their courage, their openness and their support of one another have been the essential ingredients in healing deep personal wounds. Being entrusted with the process of their transformation has not only been an honor for me, but has also given rise to my own increased self-respect and self-love as a large woman. During our farewell meeting, one woman, with tears in her eyes, expressed the gratitude we all felt. "I couldn't have done this without all of you."

This article was written with the help of the women in Lila's 1989 Body Appreciation class: Susan McCarthy, Karen Rowlett, Debra Whalen, Mary Stevens, Nancy Warburton, Robin Rand, Marcia Whited and Susan Hynson.

LILA MOSES, ACSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Maine. Body appreciation classes for large women are a major part of her work.


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