Political Bodies: Notes on Self Love

by Kestrel Ambrose. photography by Taylor Hunter.

When I was approached by BGIO about writing a piece on self-love as political, I wasn’t even sure where to begin. I’m sure many of you have heard the term “radical self-love.” But political? What does loving myself have to do with politics? As I grappled with this question, I started to think about my day-to-day and the interactions I have with clients, friends and even family.

As a fitness pro, I get tons of DMs, texts and emails about the way people want to look. I get questions about my training regimen, my thoughts on XYZ diet fad, or people send me pictures of some fitness influencer or model that popped up on their Instagram feed and call it #bodygoals.

In the age of social media and in a world where we are constantly bombarded with mixed messages about what the ideal body should look like — long and lean or tiny waist, thick thighs, full hips — it became evident why loving ourselves is a political act, and why it is especially true for Black women.

As Black women, our bodies are often dehumanized, objectified and over-sexualized. Our relationship with our bodies and the bodies that society would perpetuate as ideal are at odds. We deal with white doctors and outdated measurements like the BMI that would tell a 5’4, 140 lb, muscular athlete that she should “lose a little weight.” We are excluded from or underrepresented in spaces and conversations across the health, fitness and wellness industries that are branded “for all.” And don’t get me wrong, we are beginning to see change here and there as we shift the culture, with big companies and brands reacting to our cries for representation. But we are still a long way off. For these reasons and many more, we are constantly at war with ourselves. It’s battle after battle with our minds and with the bodies we see when we look in the mirror.

So yes, self-love is indeed a radical, political, transformative act. But how do we win the war?

I won’t tell you to accept yourself just the way you are, or give you advice on how to build self-confidence or self-esteem. Those things are fleeting. Instead, I’m going to be real with you about self-love as a practice and a process — a journey, not a destination you arrive at; and I’ll tell you what you can expect as you grow deeper in it.

Reframe your views of your body. 

Typically, when I get training inquiries, they start off with all the things people dislike or hate about their bodies. The most difficult part of responding or taking on a new client, is getting them to reframe the way they look at their bodies and their goals.

My charge is to shift your attention to the things your body is capable of doing, and away from the things you see as physical flaws. Your body can get you up all 6 flights of that NYC walk-up, it gets you to work every day, and it allows you to travel and experience new things.

A dear friend of mine said it best: My body is not a challenge. It is a thing to be loved, honored and valued. When we view our bodies from this perspective, it becomes a thing we want to maintain or improve. It’s saying: I am not a thing that needs to be fixed.

Learning to love yourself is messy and painful.

Self-love shifts your awareness. It’s bigger than what’s on the outside. Your attention must go inward, and you’ll have to ask yourself tough questions. Along the way, as you uncover self-truths, you’ll run into parts of yourself that you’ve tried to escape, parts of you that you’ve long warred with. Some days will be harder than others, and it will get ugly before you find beauty in the process. It will be uncomfortable, but you will grow.

Throughout my own journey, I’ll admit that my “why” has sometimes been blurred. When I discovered the gym, it felt good and I thought I could deadlift my pain and insecurities away. The natural butt lift was just a plus. First it was stress relief in year one of teaching kindergarten, then it was the post-breakup revenge body, and then I wanted to a be a fitness model. A series of injuries forced me to sit with myself, face my shit, and prove to myself that I was strong without weights to throw around. It put a lot into perspective for me. 

Self-love won’t always feel attainable.

Self-criticism often feels easier. That’s because we’ve been conditioned from early on to pick ourselves apart. Your relationship with your body might always be complicated, and loving yourself is something you will constantly have to work at. It’s small commitments and habits to honor yourself and body every single day that will make all the difference.

For each of us, the way we choose to honor our bodies is different. For some like myself, it’s through fitness and movement, for you it may regular bubble baths or getting a weekly massage. For another woman, it’s dressing well or a new hairstyle, looking good to feel good. 

The more we practice self-love, and begin to affirm our value, the target shifts. Instead of warring with ourselves, we are fueled to war with systems, mindsets, industries, and institutions that seek to oppress us.

I challenge you to assess the way you view yourself and your body. Think about the language you use to describe yourself. How will you show up for yourself, honor yourself and your body daily? Share your thoughts below.

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Kestrel is a NYC based NASM-certified personal trainer and boxing coach. She holds additional certifications in corrective Exercise (NASM-CES) and group fitness (AFAA GFI), and is a PROnatal certified Pre/Post-Natal Exercise Specialist. Kestrel uses functional strength as the basis for personal training, and takes a holistic approach to overall wellness with the goal of teaching clients to build sustainable routines as part of a balanced, healthy and active lifestyle. You can find her on Instagram @kestrelambrose, or check out kestrelambrose.com for more information.