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Learning to Embrace Self-Love After Years of Internalized Ableism

Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

I’m extremely fortunate — I have a family who constantly shows me love, friends who never fail to remind me how much they love me, and a boyfriend who makes me feel like the most unconditionally loved woman in the world. But some days, I feel empty, like the love others express just can’t seem to fully sustain me. And as I look in the mirror and agonize over my appearance, berating myself for every last perceived flaw, I realize what’s missing — I’m wholly lacking in love for myself.

It isn’t difficult for me to piece together how and why I began burying myself in every cold criticism imaginable. I grew up navigating disability in a world that favors “able” bodies, and society’s subtle messages surrounding disability seeped into my life until they became all I heard.  

I learned extremely early that my body was “different” in a way that was perceived as “less valuable” to society. Several years ago, I reluctantly admitted to a therapist that I had not truly loved myself since I was just 4 years old — and that shocking admission was completely truthful. As early as kindergarten, I noticed my classmates were able-bodied, and I was most definitely not, which led to subtle ableism I spent years silently absorbing but was unable to fully articulate. Unraveling and combatting just over two full decades of self-hatred is a Herculean task, especially when it’s interwoven with internalized ableism.

I spent years crying myself to sleep, hating my body and myself, even though I had so many beautiful forms of love in my life. I robbed myself of the ability to fully trust others’ love, much less my own. I genuinely believed that no one — much less myself — could love me if I existed in a disabled body. I questioned every friendship and shut my friends out so they would never know that they had befriended “the disabled girl.” I feared that if they knew the truth about my body — my entire life — they would leave me.

Eventually, my self-hatred escalated to the point where I developed an eating disorder, which further complicated my ability to love myself. I believed my body had to be “flawless” in order for me to deserve others’ love and belonging — and my own love was completely out of the question. I had known myself intimately since birth, and I genuinely believed even with disordered habits and an outwardly “perfect” body, I would never be deserving of my own love. So I withheld any remnants of self-love I was tempted to feel — deriding myself until I believed I was no longer worthy of living.

In the past several years, I have tried my hardest to accept — if not love — my disability identity and the beautiful ways it has shaped me. Opening up about my health has provided me with glimmers of self-love and pure happiness, but those moments are fleeting, and before long, I find myself silently hurling disparaging words at every piece of me I have yet to fully accept. The societal pressures I learned over time seem to overpower me until any last flicker of self-love is snuffed out purely by my own will. I vacillate between yearning for my own love and believing I will never deserve it, still caught in the seemingly endless cycle that has shaped my self-perception since early childhood.

On the days when I feel emptiest, though, I know that self-love is the missing key to my lasting happiness. I can try to deny the truth in an attempt to deprive myself of the love I truly deserve, but I can’t escape my desire for self-love for long. As I work to dismantle my lifetime of self-hatred and replace it with radical self-love, I wonder if I will ever fully love myself, but I know how to quell the emptiness within me. In my fight to eradicate my powerful inner critic, I hope that the simple awareness that I deserve to love myself is enough.

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