I, too, feel bad about my neck. Years of stubbornly refusing to sleep on my back combined with what a tailor once called “an almost impossibly high bust” (not a humble brag, a full, regular brag) means the force with which I mash my boobs and chin into the pillow has created a series of horizontal lines bisecting my neck at regular intervals, like the kind that tell you the age of a majestic tree. I once went to a fancy creams store to try to find something that would help, and, as Nora Ephron found out before me, there’s basically nothing you can do. “You could try sleeping on your back,” suggested the fancy creams saleswoman wearing a lab coat for no reason. “Or there’s this really expensive treatment you can get that’s, like, hundreds of injections in your neck.” See? Nothing.
I think negative things about my neck an average of three or four times a day. After my neck, I am most self-conscious about the following body parts, in this order: big arms, small teeth, cellulite-dappled thighs, poor posture and a mole under my nose, developed around 13 — the perfect age to get an embarrassing new facial feature. There are more, depending on how my clothes are fitting, whether I have recently been flirted with by the right kind of sweater nerd and where I’m at in my menstrual cycle. But, in general, like many if not most women, I have a running catalogue of physical concerns that I cycle through in a day, complaining to myself, my partner or, most often, my female friends.
The neck thing is completely indisputable. The lines are right there, all the time, plain as day. Because of this, my friends can’t perform the classic ritual dance of self-hatred and group deflection all women seem to be taught sometime around grade 5 or 6: “I hate my_________,” one will say. This sentence is a pitch pipe, calling on the rest of the group to harmonize in a desperate chorus of noes. Typically, the more obvious the flaw, the higher pitched and more stretched out the denial becomes: “Your jeans look perfect on you and no one could say otherwise!” “No one can tell you have a sunburn!” “Honestly? From where I’m standing, I can barely even see that you have a mole!!!”
This is all stuff you know. Nora Ephron detailed this feeling in I Feel Bad about My Neck, a book that chronicles extensively her problems with her body, face and hair and the general upkeep required by each. (Although she was 65 when she wrote it, so my neck thing feels both more doomed and more urgent — sorry, Nora.) The book is a classic, and I brought it on a recent holiday in Greece for my friend Gabi’s 30th birthday because I thought it would make a good beach read, and because the only way I know how to deal with turbulence over water is to drink three glasses of plane wine while reading light personal essays by women who make me laugh.
Now, this trip: Gabi is a fashion blogger, plus-sized model and swimwear designer, and, as a result, a great number of her friends are plus-sized models as well. The group she’d assembled was composed of 14 women of varying shapes, sizes and colours, united by two things: a love of Gabi and an almost frantic level of positivity, directed violently outward at all times. I wondered if I, a pessimistic neck hater, could fit in with this crowd of beautiful, well-adjusted, happy people. I thought I’d have to sit this one out, plagued as I was with bouts of negative self-image this entire group seemed never to experience. Yet, three or four days in, I was so relaxed it was making me anxious. I felt at ease and comfortable in my skin. I forgot to moisturize my neck. How was this happening?
Vacations are typically a hotbed of negative self-speak: “No one wants to see me in a bathing suit.” “Don’t take my picture, I’m disgusting.” “These beautiful topless Greek women make me want to kill myself,” etc. This time, I realized that none of my travelling companions had uttered a word against themselves since we’d set foot in our rental villa. And, actually, neither had I. Further, I’d put Ephron aside; her self-critical tone was jarring in light of what was going on aboard the catamaran.
Rather than a lament for the severity of our various perceived and real imperfections, the dominant mode of the vacation was an unyielding barrage of thoughtful and specific compliments about our non-bodily features. The vibe was “bachelorette party at the end of a winery tour,” but it started at breakfast, well before the two-litre bottles of delivered pinot grigio were opened for the day. I pointed this out to one of the other women and was told that, for her at least, it was a conscious choice: “I don’t always feel great about myself, but I think everyone else looks amazing, so I just focus on that and try to ignore the negative shit I feel about my own body. It’s good practice and, frankly, a good distraction.” She also pointed out that this was not the norm for her. “I started doing it on this trip,” she said.
An informal, pinot-grigio-fuelled poll revealed that the group’s overall attitude was nobody’s norm at home. Whether by dumb luck or because we were too busy freaking out about the view from the roof, no one had dropped that first hit of negative talk required to start a vacation-long round robin of self-directed insults and reassurances. The entire week was an experiment in something like bodily denial.
We discussed around it, often: outfits, hairstyles, makeup, dance abilities (in my case, a comic lack thereof). Anything that was a conscious choice—something we’d done to or developed in ourselves — was fine conversational fodder. We hung around in our bathing suits all day, talking about our friends or our jobs or an article we’d read somewhere, instead of whether we liked or did not like how we looked in our two-pieces. As this went on, as meals passed without anyone speculating what the high-fat Mediterranean diet would do to her thighs, I felt lighter and lighter. It is the longest I have ever gone without thinking about my body in a positive or negative way — without thinking about it at all.
Something I’m dancing around here: body positivity, too, is exhausting. If you exist at all outside of the white, blond, able-bodied, thin yet ample-busted idealized body, you’re barraged with negative messages from media, strangers and well-meaning (or otherwise) friends and family. It can feel futile to try to resist this onslaught of negativity, and in the past few years, my resistance has morphed into something of an obligation: Good feminists accept their bodies, love themselves unconditionally and “embrace their curves.” Smarmy ad campaigns scream at us to feel beautiful no matter what, to love how we look, girl, and also to buy this soap! We’re demanded to adore ourselves in the face of constant hints that, really, we shouldn’t, and pressured to live our politics by loving how we fill out a crop top. Our focus is guided, always, toward how we look. I realized on this trip that freedom, to me, is the ability to look in the mirror, think “fine,” or “great,” or “not my dream come true, but here we are,” and then think about something else instead.
This time of year is rife with talk about our bodies: how to whittle them down, scour them of toxins, punish them for having had too much holiday fun. No one is so simultaneously full of self-loathing and hope as a group of women explaining the gruelling and restrictive plans that will make 2017 their “best” (read “most conventionally attractive”) year yet. I returned from my vacation resolved to fight my worst impulses, and so far I have. I still don’t feel good about my neck. Maybe I never will. But I’d rather talk about something else.