When I was 12, I participated in a one-day intensive theater camp where we sang abridged versions of the songs from the musical “Rent.” I’ve grown to more or less hate musicals and have thus blocked out most memories of my middle school show-tunes-and-face-paint days. Still, I’ll always remember something the director said as he tried to teach us the words to “Seasons of Love.” In an overdramatic yet poignant manner that only middle school drama teachers can perfect, he philosophized that everything in life is rented, even our bodies, because we only inhabit them for a short time and we never really own them.
In my first year of college, I gained 30 pounds, and all of my clothes stopped fitting. High school “bae” dumped me, fitness brother judged me and a million other things seemed to be going wrong. Of course, all of this was not solely on account of my physical body, but at times, it was impossible to see that. My body was my house, my permanent residence. Insecurity became both a crutch and a scapegoat. Any problem, issue, rejection, altercation I faced, I could simply classify as “that person must think I’m ugly” or sum up with “this wouldn’t happen if I were hot.” By blaming everything on my body, I never had to address the root of the issue and could wallow in a mental, self-loathing obstacle course forever.
What I was missing then, and what keeps me centered and present today, is the lesson from the ascot-wearing, middle school drama teacher. My body is not something that I own. My body is just something I rent. I didn’t suddenly win the self-care lottery and buy it one day in one lump sum. My body is something I make regular payments on. Taking care of myself, eating well, moving my limbs around, having uplifting friends, finding creative stimulation and demanding that my sexual/romantic partners gratify me are all impermanent activities. Self-care comes in waves and needs to be done over and over and over.
More than just maintaining my physical being, the love and security I have generated for myself is also something that, like paying rent, demands frequent attention. If my body is a homey apartment and self-care in terms of physical maintenance is like paying rent, self-love is like power and utilities. Sure, I don’t need electricity and gas to live. I won’t perish without Wi-Fi or heated showers, but turning a light on at nighttime or hitting the air-conditioning when my face is melting off just makes life easier. Striving to be less hard on myself, learning to accept compliments, seeing my own value, making time and space for myself to feel my feelings; giving myself the luxury of this love is what makes me happy. I live where I do: in my own skin.
It took me a myriad of nights of hiding in my bed and standing naked in front of my floor-length mirror to comprehend that loving and caring for myself is not a permanent state that I’ll eventually reach. It is not a retirement home where I can sip fig juice and say insensitive things too loudly all day. Self-love and care take saving up, budgeting, maturity and prioritizing, and sometimes come at the cost of being completely broke. Tending to ourselves means giving less to others — it means cutting off unhealthy relationships and fighting bad habits and making big changes that the people around us may not understand. In the effort to love who we are, we may lose friends, lovers and family. But if these people aren’t constantly lifting you up, you won’t really miss them at all.
After a monsoon season of trial and error, I learned how to take care of myself. I wear clothes that make me feel good (high-waisted bell-bottom jeans of a ’70s elementary school art teacher that makes the girls move the tables because second- wave feminism is very en vogue). I balance the foods I want to eat (hot wings) with the food that gives me power (spinach). I have an exercise routine that’s both realistic and beneficial (watching “The Office” on the elliptical). I know what magazines to ignore (most of them) and what Instagram “thinspiration” accounts to unfollow (all of them). I’ve found music and movies and books that make me feel empowered, and I cherish the kinds of friends and sexual partners that do the same. When I started paying my rent punctually, I started feeling like I could really call my body home.
Like getting into a gym routine, tying a cherry stem into a knot with my mouth or paying my rent on time, radical self-care and love get easier with time. The more I maintain myself, the easier it is to do. When I collect my accomplishments and assets up like spare change, I start a savings account of positivity that’s always there when it’s time to pay up. So when I mess everything up, or my body goes through changes, or I get dumped, or my sibling tells me I’m going to die of heart disease, my first instinct isn’t tears or shame or hibernation. It isn’t even immediate dieting or jumping on a treadmill. It’s remembering the times I made my friends laugh, or how good I am at making friendship bracelets, the first time I heard Riot Grrrl music or when I got hired at KOXY and cried out of excitement for a week straight.
Self-love is understanding that though our body is valuable, it is not the measure of our value as a human. Positivity works like gas and electricity, ameliorating our lives and making our homes livable.
Because there’s no shortage of days where everything is wrong — when we feel useless and worthless and like we could wade into the ocean Virginia Woolf-style and no one would even notice, let alone care. Self-love is fickle and flaky and demands constant attention. But if we can love ourselves and take care of ourselves, like we pay our rents, frequently and regularly, we can start to feel at home in our own bodies. Self-maintenance is a ritual that exists unfinished. And in the end, our bodies are only ours for a short time anyway. We may as well love the time we spend in them.
Griffin Wynne is a junior cognitive science and religious studies major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction March 30, 2016: The Occidental Weekly incorrectly identified Wynne as being hired at KOXY as the station manager. She was hired as event staff, and now serves as the programming director.