I don’t sit around thinking about how much I hate my body. I really don’t.
When I was younger it occupied so much more of my mental space. I worried about my weight and my height and picked at every single perceived failure and flaw. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown into myself at least a little bit. I’ve stopped trying to beat my body into some kind of strange submission.
But there are these moments. Moments like this week when I went to a new yoga class for the first time and had to stand in a room full of mirrors, watching my reflection next to a dozen others bodies. Moments like when I catch myself turning sideways in a bathroom mirror, placing a flat hand on my low stomach and sucking in. These are habits I picked up at a young age and, well, I guess I still find myself sinking into them.
In these moments, I am transported back to a time when “body image issues” were a much greater part of my life and psyche; and I am also reminded how this part of myself will never really go completely away—or at least not on its own.
The only way our body image issues fade into the distance is if we are constantly addressing the broken ideals, thought patterns, and heartbreaking experiences that created them.
I’ve always felt self-conscious about my body.
I felt like I was too tall and, when I was really young, too thin, and then, when I hit about seventeen, I worried I was too round and for years counted calories or skipped meals—or binged or numbed myself with alcohol—and glared at myself hatefully in the mirror, no matter what size I was.
I thought often about how one day I would get a nose job, or liposuction on my thighs. I hated my face, which was covered with acne and could never find clothes I liked enough to cover up how uncomfortable I felt in my own skin.
And now as I get older, the body image issues are changing. My hair is turning grey and I have stretch marks and my veins are starting to peek through my skin, and although I have so many more emotional resources now than I did when I was sixteen, it’s still a fight to love my body when it doesn’t look exactly like I wish it would.
I know I’m not the only one.
Statistics read as high as 91% when it comes to women who are unhappy with their bodies. Strangely enough, that statistic seems low to me. I’ve had enough conversations with enough women to know that, when you really get them talking, most will admit this is something they wrestled with. It bothers them. They don’t want to be “the kind of woman” who worries about it.
But they, too, find themselves standing in front of the mirror, picking and pulling and poking and wishing things would be different.
And I confess I used to think of body image issues as just a female problem. Maybe you’ve thought about it that way, too. But men aren’t off the hook here. While their body image issues tend to look different from women, they’re just as problematic.
While the media pressure on women hasn’t abated, the playing field has nevertheless leveled in the last 15 years, as movies and magazines increasingly display bare-chested men with impossibly chiseled physiques and six-pack abs. “The media has become more of an equal opportunity discriminator,” says Lemberg. “Men’s bodies are not good enough anymore either. (Atlantic Magazine)
It turns out as many as 68% of normal-weight men perceive themselves to be too thin. And in some cases, the pressure might be even worse for men, who are less likely to feel comfortable enough talking about it with women or other men.
The problem with the way we think about our bodies.
The problems with hating our bodies are virtually endless. Starting with the most obvious, there is a clear physical danger to be reckoned with—not just for us, but for our kids. Young girls and boys are starving themselves, overeating, overexercising, binging, purging, cutting, or practicing other dangerous behaviors, and justifying all of it.
And to say this is a problem with young people would be underestimating it.
Although these behaviors do tend to start when we’re young, the habits are addictive and don’t die easily, and even when they do die, they tend to rear their ugly heads in times of intense stress in adulthood. We get better at hiding it. We’re better at explaining it away. But body image issues can look like any of the following:
- Obsessive calorie counting or unnecessary restriction of certain foods
- Feelings of disgust when looking in the mirror (or avoiding mirrors altogether)
- Weighing yourself daily (or multiple times a day)
- Over-exercising to the point of injury
- Inability to find clothes that make you feel good about yourself
- Overeating or binging
- Carelessly eating calorie-rich, nutrient-poor foods
For a period of time in my twenties, I would go running every day—somewhere between 3-10 miles. At one point, I injured my hip so badly I could hardly run without bringing myself to tears, but I kept running anyway. The thought of taking time off caused too much anxiety for me.
It’s easy to hide your body image issues when you can mask them as being “healthy”.
I’ve also had strange ticks with clothes. For most of my twenties, I didn’t like the way my hips looked in pants (they were too “wide” I thought) so I would tear through my wardrobe in the morning, looking for an acceptable option. I would either have to wear a top that came down far over my hips, or I would have to wear a loose-fitting dress.
Sometimes our body image issue are easy to overlook because of how common they are. Think of how “normal” it is for a women with a stuffed-full closet to say, “But I have nothing to wear…”
On top all of this off, our kids are watching us and taking cues and mimicking our behavior and the cycle continues on.
How the problem keeps getting bigger.
So part of the problem is that young boys and girls today are putting themselves in danger—that we are putting ourselves in danger—and that body image issues are hard to spot because we’ve gotten really good at hiding them as adults.
But that’s not all when it comes to problems.
On top of all of this, our hatred for our bodies doesn’t have a boundary. We cannot hate our bodies and love ourselves. It doesn’t work that way. Our bodies and minds and spirits and selves are too connected and the hatred leaks through, and our hatred for ourselves will sabotage our relationships, our careers and ultimately our happiness.
Our body-image problems are not body-image problems. They are self-image problems.
While we’re busy trying to get our bodies to look like the airbrushed model on a magazine cover, we miss the miracle of our bodies right now. Stop and think about this with me for a second. Your body takes in the food you give it, processes it for fuel, discards the waste, and filters out dangerous toxins to keep you healthy. Every day. Three times each day.
Your legs hold you up. Consistently. Daily. Wherever you go, there they are, are a constant support system for you. They take you on walks and runs. Your back holds you up as you sit at your computer; and your lungs, without any effort on your part at all, are right in this moment pulling in oxygen from the atmosphere, distributing it to your vital organs and into your blood stream, and then discarding carbon dioxide out of your mouth.
And while you might be rolling your eyes and little bit and thinking, “How is this supposed to help me with my body image issues?” I would challenge you (and me) to think about what might happen if we started practicing gratitude for what our bodies can do for us, and already are doing for us, rather than punishing it for what it can’t—and maybe was never made—to do.
If you’re struggling with chronic pain, infertility, digestive issues, an injury, or some other kind of physical ailment, ask yourself what gratitude for your body, even at a point when it seems like it might have failed you, might to do heal wounds and restore broken places and bring you back into alignment with yourself again.
I’m not saying it’s a magic healing ticket.
What I am saying is that body image issues, like so many things in life, are a vicious cycle. Because when you hate your body, you punish it. You feed it crap food and lay around watching Netflix, instead of going for a walk. Or, maybe you wake in the morning and force yourself to go for a run, even though you know you need that extra hour of sleep.
And when we make an enemy of our bodies, I’m convinced our bodies, in turn, make an enemy out of us.
The unlikely culprit of body image issues.
The most often cited culprit for why we hate our bodies so much is the media, and yes, I see the connection there.
Take a look at billboards targeting the insecurities of women so they can cater to the desires of men. Take a look at how women’s magazines focus on looks, snagging dates and keeping mates, while men’s magazines have cars, gadgets, and a centerfold of a barely clothed woman with a free sachet of Vaseline. This tells women: using your looks, lure a man to keep you; and to men: here’s a naked woman whose image you can use to pleasure yourself. —Shakira Sison (Rappler Magazine)
It’s obvious that media—magazines, movies, music, billboards, websites, commercials, etc—play a huge role in how we feel about our bodies. We are drawn to images of perfection for reasons we can’t totally explain and yet they paint impossible ideals for us.
But there is a culprit we talk about so much less often: us.
We forget how much our negative thought patterns, negative ideas, and even our choices and purchases impact how we see our bodies and the bodies of others. We love to cite media as the one to blame, as the terrible monster who keeps whispering to us that our bodies aren’t good enough, when the truth is our thoughts and choices and decisions are playing just as big a role. Media is driven by the power of popular opinion—our opinion. My opinion. Your opinion.
What is your opinion of yourself?
What do you say or think about yourself when you look in the mirror, or down at your belly and thighs and see the images staring back? And how might changing your opinion of yourself shift the way our culture revolves around the worship and reverence of perfect body parts?
Could a tiny change inside of you be the perfect place to start?
A few friends and I were recently having a conversation about plastic surgery and despite how much progress I’ve made with my own body image issues, I found myself drawn in by the allure of an easy “fix” for parts of my body that aren’t even broken.
To be clear, I have no judgement of plastic surgery.
I have friends who have made this decision for themselves and I reserve the right to make a similar choice at some point in my life. But what I noticed that disturbed wasn’t that I wanted to have a boob job, it was how desperately I wanted to be the kind of woman who could say, “I don’t need plastic surgery to feel good about myself.” and how instead, my thoughts and feelings toward myself fell short.
I felt the same way recently while at yoga class where I stared at my own body in the mirror, next to all the bodies standing next to me and thought—without even meaning to, without even wanting to—about who’s body was the strongest or the thinnest or the most remarkable when the truth is all of our bodies are remarkable.
It wasn’t being unhappy with my body in that moment that made me miserable nearly as much as it was my own internal conflict with myself.
How will I teach my future daughters to love their bodies if I cannot? How will I teach my sons that beauty is more than skin deep if I can’t see that in myself?
Ultimately I don’t think the goal is to stop thinking about what we eat or stop exercising or even stop eating pizza and ice cream once and awhile (I’m certainly not planning to give any of those things up). But I would say the goal is to make tiny steps to bring ourselves back into congruence with ourselves.
How can the way we want to feel about our bodies match the way we do feel about our bodies? How can the way we feel about our bodies match the way we hope our kids feel about their bodies?
I do think the changes can be very small and still make a big difference. We can begin to notice the way we think about our bodies, the way we talk about our bodies and we can begin to replace negative message with positive ones. I’m working on this.
A few weeks ago I was with a friend who has a teenage daughter.
Her daughter is built very thin, like her mom, and we were talking and laughing about food and what we like to eat. Her daughter, who is 14, started to tell me how much she loves meat. Without even thinking about it I said, “Good! You need some meat on your bones!” And for an hour after I said those words, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Where had that come from? Why would I say something like that?
Eventually, I realized that the only reason I had said that was because it was something said to me very often when I was young. I just got caught up in the moments and those words, which I was apparently holding onto in my own body, in my bones, just sort of popped out.
Eventually, I apologized.
I told my friend how sorry I was and how inappropriate it was of me to make a remark about her daughter’s body, even if it wasn’t meant to be negative. I told her her daughter was beautiful, just as she was.
And I probably should have gone to her daughter directly, so she could have heard it from me. I should have said:
Your body doesn’t need to be airbrushed or filled out or thinned down or plumped up or perfectly smooth or anything different than it already is for you to be beautiful. You don’t have to look like the movie stars or the magazines or the girls on the TV. Those things are an illusion, a mirage, like chasing the gold at the end of the rainbow and missing the treasure which has been inside of you all along.
I could have done more. But it’s a start. It’s a small step. I’m doing what I can, for now.