How BDSM Made Me Love My Body
“I’m Jade, and I have body image issues.”
I know, I know, nothing new there for the majority of women, large, small, or in-between, in this country. Perhaps the world over—I don’t know, because I’ve only ever lived in this country. It seems like there is a whole generation of us that grew up with body-hatred, feeling imperfect and not-beautiful, no matter what we looked like. Too thin, too fat, to busty, too flat, too tall, too short, wide hips, no hips, too much ass, not enough. A never-ending litany of what is wrong with us physically, reinforced by images on television, in movies and in print that we could never hope to live up to; growing up understanding that how we look is the most important thing about us. And that it was never good enough.
I was a gregarious child that grew into a painfully shy teenager. I woke up one morning at 14 to find that I had lost all my baby fat, but not grown any breasts, and that was to be my body for the rest of my life: small, varying from painfully thin to a little chubby, flat-chested. In high school parlance, this translated to “invisible,” which both caused me pain and suited me just fine, in the quixotic “if I can’t have it then I don’t want it” mentality I used to armor myself with. Being “shy” was my protection.
I remember one particularly amusing exchange I had with my mother, whose Marilyn Monroe-esque breasts I used to view with awe. “Why don’t I have breasts like you, mom?” I asked her once, before I had decided not to care anymore. She’d laughed a secret laugh. “You will,” she said. “When you turn 30.” I never forgot that conversation, and anxiously awaited my 30th birthday. Which came and went. Finally, when I turned 31, I asked her about it. “It didn’t happen!” I said. “They didn’t grow.” She was first shocked that I had taken what she’d said to heart, that I’d believed her, then that I’d remembered it all this time, and finally, she couldn’t stop laughing. “Jade,” she’d said, wiping her eyes, “I bought my breasts when I turned 30. I got a boob job. None of us Frame women grow our own.”
Looking at pictures of that time, I can see I wasn’t unattractive. In fact, I may even have been pretty, though I couldn’t see it in myself. All I saw was an invisible girl, and when the first boy seemed to “see” me I was so flattered and grateful I slept with him. That would be the pattern of my young adulthood: all you had to do was make me visible to have sex with me. It wasn’t as sad as it sounds, I liked sex, and I think even then I was acting on my submissive tendencies and getting pleasure from pleasing the few boys and men I was with (I was still invisible to the majority.)
When my first husband—then boyfriend—called me “beautiful,” as in “Hey, Beautiful,” I married him. I didn’t believe him, but I believed, in that moment, he thought I was. Even if it was just to get in my pants. Later, when I strove so hard to fit into the life I had chosen with my second husband, I settled into ordinariness and invisibility with a kind of relief: I was just a wife and mother, it didn’t matter what I looked like. But I would secretly look at “pretty” women, at women with curves and “sex appeal” and wish, however fleetingly, that just once, I could be that girl, the one everyone noticed, maybe even the “hot” one. Secretly, I hated my ordinariness, my non-descript body, my baby belly and tiny breasts.
Then I discovered BDSM. And I discovered that my body, with its ability to do all these things we do, to transform pleasure into pain, to wear 5 inch heels gracefully, to bend and twist and tolerate being bound, to find pleasure in all this, was an asset. I was looked at appreciatively, and, suddenly, I wasn’t invisible. I was fulfilling the thing that I had been socialized to believe was the most important in being female—being attractive to men—and I reveled in it.
As a student of gender studies, I am well aware of how fucked-up this is. I bought into the brainwashing, and I liked it. I wasn’t any different than I had been, I was still the same woman I had been, a woman with many positive traits that had nothing at all to do with my looks. And yet it was only when I finally had approval of my looks that I felt validated. I knew these other positive things about myself, and never had self-esteem issues in that way. But I had never before felt…beautiful. Attractive. I never loved my body before then. Suddenly I saw myself in a whole new light. I started dressing for the parties and for my ex, and liking the way I looked for the first time. I was…sexy. Hot, even. The first time I saw a picture of myself in a corset and stockings my jaw dropped open in shock. That was me? The mousy invisible girl?
Another thing was that I saw women of all shapes, sizes and ages doing these things we do, feeling sexy and hot and desired, being admired and desired. It didn’t matter that we didn’t all look like Playboy models, that we weren’t perfect. There, in that space, we were beautiful. It was empowering in an entirely different way, a way that thumbed its nose at the things we’d been brainwashed to believe about beauty and attractiveness, and I loved it. Here, even an ordinary girl like me, a girl with the “wrong” shape, could be beautiful.
There was something else that happened, though, something more important than just figuring out that I was an attractive woman. Suddenly I liked and appreciated my body for what it could do, as much as for how it looked, and started paying attention to it. Not to mold it and shape it to be more beautiful, but to do things with it, to use my body and muscles as they were intended to be used. That was the year I started hiking and backpacking, and reveled in the feel of my muscles moving beneath my skin, moving me around so efficiently and effectively. I could do things with my body—it was good for something other than just being looked at.
It seems ironic to me that it was being “seen,” being made visible in the eyes of men, that gave me a love for my body, for reasons other than being attractive to men, but that is the truth of it, however twisted. And now, I accept both sides. I still struggle with my looks, with my imperfections and with (~gasp~) the ever-present specter of age, but when I am feeling low, I dress up in something sexy and look at the way my men’s eyes light up, or I look at pictures that one of my lovers has taken of me that I like, or I take my body out for a run and feel it move, and appreciate the gifts that I have.
(Originally posted in Eden Cafe: How BDSM Made Me Love My Body.)