Why are so many of us so ashamed of and negative about our bodies?
Earlier this month I was sick, unable to leave my bed, for about twelve days. I had to cancel a trip to Central Europe with friends because I wouldn’t have been able to rough it to the necessary extent. I was disappointed and frustrated, and for a while I was angry at my body for not allowing me to go.
Being sick does something to my mentality: I become totally apathetic about how I look, because all that really matters is how I feel. The sick days were a blur: hours and hours of Mad Men, sick episodes and intense pain, the dire need to take care of myself and get better, and treat my body well to do so.
The weirdest thing about inhabiting a body is that nobody really knows how it feels to be in that body. In that way, emotions are easier: we can imagine similar situations, we can conjure up and remember and articulate similar feelings to someone else’s. Don’t get me wrong, we can’t ever know how someone feels, either. But I think there’s a better chance of approximation.
Even more relevantly, emotions are totally internal. It’s a choice to externalize them, and we choose what to externalize. Bodies are external whether we like it or not. We can’t erase or change or manipulate or re-articulate them like we like to think we can do with feelings. We can’t filter them, and we can’t hide them. We try.
We look at skinny, beautiful supermodels and think they must feel skinny and slender. We look at fat and ugly people and think they must feel fat and ugly. But these are not feelings. These are labels. Labels are cultural constructs, imposed by a long tradition of thinking that fat = ugly and skinny = beautiful. Guess what! In the middle ages, fat = beautiful and skinny = ugly. Pale = beautiful and tan = ugly. Tan & skinny used to mean poor and working class, now it means beach babe. Labels are what “other people” (who have been influenced by these cultural constructs) think. We have also been influenced by these same cultural constructs, and we have been influenced by what people think and say about us. Double whammy.
But here’s what I think: What other people think means nothing about how someone actually feels in their own skin.
I have had beautiful friends tell me that they feel: bloated, pale, insecure about such and such body part, like every day is a bad hair day, that they wish they had this instead of that body type, etc. etc. etc. I have friends with chronic illnesses, with sensitive stomachs, with other health issues that affect everyday life in their body. I have had all of the above, and my concept of myself changes all the time.
My new personal rules for my treatment of my body are these:
1) Do what feels good. If it feels good to stretch, do it. If it feels good to go outside and run around, do it. If it feels like something hurts, don’t irritate it more. If it feels hungry, feed it. If it feels tired, rest it. And the most important first step to this is to pay attention to what it wants in the first place!
2) Respect and appreciate it for what is special about it, and what it can do. My personal challenge to myself is to notice one thing I love about my body every day. I write it down, as often as I can. Some days, I like my freckles. Some days, I love the way my freshly-polished fingernails look on my keyboard. Other days I appreciate my soft stomach, on still others it’s my red hair and the way it’s nearly orange in the sunlight. Every person’s body deserves a whole lot of respect for what it can do and is, not negativity for what it can’t do or isn’t.
3) Even if you push it, push it lovingly. Parents love you and want you to be your best self because they care so much, so they push you out of your comfort zone sometimes; be a loving parent to your body. When I push my body, it’s because I want it to feel like it is its best self. Exercise is a privilege, not a punishment. When it does something awesome that exceeds expectations, take a moment and appreciate that!
Paying attention to all of the negative thoughts and feelings is the first step. Learning to transform them is the second. Cultivating unconditional love for my body will be a process that will have its ups and downs for my entire life, because it will constantly be changing. But I think loving it unconditionally is the most important way to improve my quality of life; life is best when I feel super awesome in my own skin. And, since having a body is one of the most basic things we all have in common, everyone can help each other have less shame instead of more!