We live in a society that teaches us toxic attitudes about our bodies. For several years now I’ve been collecting strategies to try and rise above this, in an attempt to maintain peace and acceptance of my body. Below is a list of four major realizations I’ve incorporated into my outlook on body image, and they have helped enormously. I recommend trying to make these changes—or coming up with your own list of body-image truths, to protect yourself from a culture filled with so many destructive myths.
REALIZATION #1: Our bodies are moving, ever-changing things. Our bodies are, by definition, living, breathing organisms. They inevitably change as we grow, move, and age. We tend to speak about our bodies as static objects, identifying certain weights or clothing sizes that we feel obligated to maintain. Not only is this impossible, it’s completely counterintuitive for a biological creature. We are animals, not mannequins or robots, and we exist via an exchange of energy input and output. Our bodies are going to change every single day, as we ask them to do different things for us; engaging in different types of activities, building certain muscles, letting others go. We take in food and use up energy at different rates every day; these are our bodies’ organic processes that let us live and breathe. It’s easy to forget this when we over-quantify, or become attached to numerical values. We simply can’t control our bodies that way, despite every magazine that claims the opposite.
Magazine covers epitomize the static concept of body image. When we see a woman with a blinding smile and washboard abs on a newsstand, we are seeing a plastic, artificially captured image of a person. We are viewing a non-living thing, and trying to mold ourselves to be the same. We need to leave room in our minds for the ever-changing nature of our bodies. I’ve created a sentence that helps me enormously when I start to forget this (and that inspired the name of this blog!). In moments of insecurity, I tell myself: “This is the shape that my body makes today.” This gives me room to accept whatever form it takes on any given day, because it’s never going to be quite the same. And that’s a beautiful thing. Magazine covers may be pretty, but I’m glad I’m allowed to move around in the world, breathing and changing, instead of having perfect abs and being glued to a piece of paper.
REALIZATION #2: Our bodies allow us to do amazing things. During a long car ride with a very inspirational musician and friend, she told me that the main thing that helped her with body insecurities was realizing the incredible things her body allowed her to do. For instance, she said, her body allows her to be intimate with other humans. I was astounded by the simple truth of this. Our bodies give us a physical way to show the love we feel for those around us (a long hug, a held hand, a comforting stroke of a friend’s hair)…
There are myriad other things our bodies allow us to do—whatever your passion is, be it painting, dancing, writing, or even sitting at a computer, you can do it because your body allows it. Realizing this makes me immeasurably grateful to my body and how it functions. To emphasize not how it looks but rather what your body does turns it from object into subject, from noun into verb. I find this to be an incredibly empowering shift in thinking. It can be helpful to make a list of the actions your body allows you to do, to remember that we are active participants in the world, and that our body is the tool, the conduit through which we give the world our energy and love.
REALIZATION #3: We are much stricter with ourselves than we are with others. We tend to hold ourselves to impossible standards, to which we would never dream of holding our loved ones. Would you ever love your friend less because she gained ten pounds? Would you stop valuing her as a human, stop wanting to interact with her, or stop enjoying discussions with her? Of course not! And we need to trust that our friends feel the same way about us. We need to have the same amount of compassion for our own bodies as we do for those of others. When someone truly loves you, they don’t judge you for your body. And that goes for loving ourselves as well.
REALIZATION #4: All the time we spend obsessing could be used in better ways. I used to be so strict about going to the gym every day that it had become my daily battle, imbued with what felt like incredible importance. I saw it as my moral obligation. If I worked out on any given day, I’d feel great about myself, like I’d accomplished my big task for the day. If I didn’t, I’d feel terrible. Then I realized that going to the gym benefits nobody except for myself. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to work out; exercise keeps us healthy, can make us happy, and can help contribute to positive body image. But when working out gains such importance that it begins to be seen as a moral obligation, it takes the place of other, more important work (or fun) we could be doing.
This is true of obsessing over body image in general. Let’s say we all spend half an hour a day worrying about our bodies—that’s a LOT of wasted hours and energy. We could be using that energy instead to put goodness out into the world, to love those around us, and to do the work that drives us. By consciously re-directing our energy in a positive direction, we are taking control of our experience rather than letting ourselves be controlled by the forces that tell us we’re not good enough. Realizing the futility of my obsessions made me determined to use that time and mental energy on doing things I truly care about. When body image—or working out—takes on such an importance, obsessing over it can take the place of the rich array of passions and joys in life. And I’d rather spend my energy on those.