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Robert Hunter / Columbia Daily Spectator

One night, a guy I was sleeping with asked, “You know you’re really hot, right?” I hesitated as different narratives piped through my head and felt the slow rise of self-imposed shame within me.

“Objectively, I know that. I just … I have a lot of Christian guilt,” I murmured, resting my cheek on his chest to avoid eye contact.

Admitting self-love issues to a friend is hard enough, let alone to the person you’re hooking up with. You want them to think you’re hot, and you want them to think that you know you’re hot, too.

And, objectively, I know I’m beautiful. I know I’m beautiful because I love parts of myself. I love the ever-so-slight ridges of tattoo ink beneath my skin and the tickling, whispering presence of body hair. I love the way light hits my collarbones in the afternoon and the shadows that pool in the dips of my architecture. I love the burn of my abdominals, hidden beneath an inch or so of gentle, protective fat during a workout. I love the curve of my spine in a morning stretch and the opening of my chest when I pull my shoulders back. All these pieces of me are beautiful and breathtaking. All these pieces of me incite a resounding, “What if I’m actually gorgeous?”

It wasn’t until I moved to New York and took up pole dancing that I learned to love—or even, quite frankly, notice—my body. From kindergarten through senior year, I attended a Southern Baptist Christian school, where I was taught that the body is an earthly possession that will return to dust upon death, that my body and my soul alike belong to God, and all I must do to escape the inferno of hell is accept and declare my inherent sinfulness and beg for Him to purify me.

I internalized the belief that my body was dirty, imbued with sin, and ultimately disposable. It was simply a container to tether my soul to this planet until I ascended to heaven, thoroughly bodiless. This disposable container that is my body, I was reminded, was created by God specially and perfectly. This body is a temple that must be kept pure, and therefore the act of not loving it is an act of disrespect toward Him.

At the same time, however, I was also subject to the impossible whine of societal beauty standards. Soon followed the reigning era of 2014 Tumblr feminism, which told me that to reach sexual liberation and prove my feminism, I needed to have as much sex as humanly possible.

It’s no wonder that I was confused by these seemingly opposing narratives, each of which, when boiled down, told me the same thing: I am not the one to decide if I am beautiful. To be beautiful, or to be godly, or to be feminist, I had to adhere to rules and standards that someone else established for me—always someone else.

And so, when I wasn’t actively condemning my body for having too small an ass, too-broad shoulders, too fat a stomach, too-tiny hips, or sharing slightly too-raunchy body shots online in the name of feminism and art—because fake it till you make it, right?—I ignored my body the best I could.

When I matriculated into Barnard, I was so proud, so ecstatic to be at the school of my dreams—a women’s college, a school where the quest towards gender equity remains central, where I could finally step into my feminist potential. No one could’ve prepared me for the impostor syndrome that would come and go in waves at this institution, that still hits on bad days, that I chase off on medium days, and that is absent on good days. This impostor syndrome questions the validity of my feminism if I don’t always and don’t wholly—and by wholly, I mean right down to my core, to the very marrow of my bones and the unexplored corners of my unconscious—believe that I am actually gorgeous, an “I’m actually gorgeous” with no more “what if,” just an “I am.”

The confusion hasn’t quite ended, and I haven’t, by any means, figured it all out. It’s taken me years to understand that I can choose how feminism manifests in my existence. I heard once, years ago, though now I can’t possibly remember from where, that our first reaction is what we were conditioned to think and our second reaction is the corrective response. Sometimes I see this when I glance in the mirror and a reflexive desire for double eyelids instead of my own Asian monolids flashes through my mind, my sight practically blurring around the edges with the intensity of it; then I pause and remember that they, like my collar bones or my tattoos, are a part of me, of my identity, and of the experiences that have shaped me.

Kalena is a Barnard senior studying English and creative writing who stared at the Ace of Cups a whole lot while writing this … like, so much so that she would’ve burned holes right through the card if that were possible. Reach her at Please Remove Your Shoes runs alternate Wednesdays.

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self-love feminism body image religion identity
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