I’ve been talking about language a lot lately, mostly in regards to pain and wellness and such, but it’s important in all aspects of our lives. One such area that I’ve been thinking about and talking about a lot lately is body image. So I figured what the hell, why not write about it, too. ;)
Body image is another area where the language we use can be extremely helpful or harmful. How many times have you heard someone say they hate their thighs or their pooch or their spider veins or their back fat or their whatever. Hate is a pretty strong and pretty negative word, it affects us, even when we are referring to ourselves or a part of ourselves, and it harms us.
When we’re not nice to ourselves, we do things that aren’t good for us (if we hate our thighs already, why not each the whole box of doughnuts or whole bag of chips or whole plate of brownies or skip our workout or not go for a walk? – you get the picture). We sabotage all of our good efforts in our hate for our cellulite or our muffin top.
So many of us are so damn negative when it comes to our own bodies! We get caught up in aesthetics as opposed to health; image as opposed to substance. And we’re mean. To ourselves, mostly, but we direct it outward, too. When we are uncomfortable in our own skin, we constantly compare ourselves to others. Which can lead to some pretty nasty judgments, thoughts, and even comments (to our friends or ourselves) as well.
We use language to paint images of ourselves, of others, of ideals. And these images can be harmful or helpful.
Where does all this negativity come from?
This is where a lot of my recent discussions has gone. Why are we so down on ourselves and never happy with where we’re at (I need to lose 5 pounds, tone up my arms, slim down my legs…..you see what I’m saying?)?
Unfortunately, I think a lot of it comes from the industry that I am a part of; health and fitness. And it’s frustrating. Uber frustrating. Especially as I reflect back to a younger version of myself that propagated the very things I now see as potentially harmful and damaging to people. But that’s why I want to talk about it now. I think we have to talk about it so that we can start changing it.
In the health and fitness world, there are often images portrayed of an ‘ideal’; today it’s the lean, muscular, tan, men and women on all of the motivational posters plastering your Facebook and Pinterest walls. The images of yesteryear used to be waifish/runway model/heroin chic look, so this shift to the ‘healthy’ uber-fit, strong, six-packed, glistening, thighs popping out of their shorts look is a shift in the right direction, right?
Not so fast
Portraying any image as an ideal messes with people’s minds, their self-esteem, their very identity. It leads to a constant striving to be something external to the self rather than being the self, the inner person. This constant striving to look like or be like someone else means never being happy because it’s an impossible task; we’re only ever going to look like or be our self.
I used to be caught up in this quite a bit. Before my injury, I was the leanest, strongest, and fittest I’ve ever been in my life. I was proud. I felt like a bad ass. I could lift heavy, run half-marathons, and do a very physically demanding job. I thought I kicked ass.
But it was also kicking my ass. By all outward appearances, I looked healthy and fit. But physiologically, something was off. My periods stopped. There should have been a huge alarm going off in my head that something needed to change, but I just sort of ignored it.
And I still got hurt. So I wasn’t some indestructible machine, either.
Ch ch ch ch ch ch changes…..
My body changed significantly after my injury. I lost 25 pounds of muscle (that I worked very freaking hard for!). I couldn’t be as active as I was before (no more lifting weights, no more training at work, no more running,; hell, I could barely walk my dog). I was TERRIFIED of getting fat. So I ate as healthy as possible; a bit obsessively.
I used to measure my food and record every calorie on a food app. I used to stress about how “clean” the food source was (is this grass-fed? organic? sustainably raised? hand-harvested by Tibetan monks in the Himilayas?). I was afraid that if I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t be lean or look fit anymore. (I wasn’t “eating healthy” to be healthy, I was “eating healthy” to look a certain way – there’s a HUGE difference).
I never deprived myself, but I also didn’t allow myself to just let go and enjoy myself either. I would have treats, but I would stress out and feel guilty and ruminate over having had the treat and how it was going to destroy this image I was trying to protect of being fit and lean. At the same time, I was also under a great deal of stress about my pain, my surgery, the uncertainty surrounding my return to work and my future.
It all added up to not good.
My own shift
Then I took a breath. In the crisp winter air of Colorado, I took a breath. After years of worrying about not being as active as I was before, of not being a bad ass anymore, of not ever being able to go back to that old self; I stopped.
I don’t even know why or how, but I let go. I let go of being constantly worried about what I was eating and how it would translate to my thighs. I let go of needing to look a certain way or be seen a certain way. And by letting go of feeling like I had to look lean and fit, I healed in other ways, too.
Letting go of the stress surrounding what I looked like was huge. Even though my diet didn’t actually change much, my body changed a great deal. I ate the same foods but I didn’t feel guilty and beat myself up when I made more indulgent choices. I cultivated a healthier relationship with food. I focused on health, not appearance. How I felt, not what people thought of me (or what I thought they may think of me).
I put on weight. I’m back to the weight was before my injury, though I’m softer and curvier now. I’m active and happy and healthy, but I’m not as lean as I was. This wasn’t (still isn’t, not always) an easy transition for me. But my periods came back; after 6 years! (Though, I have to admit, I did enjoy not having them. But I am happy their back. Mostly).
My body has healed; my body image still needs work
The ‘fit chick’ and ‘bad ass’, the self that I sometimes long to return to, the self who was closer to the image of “health” and “fitness” that tries to motivate us to be our best selves, wasn’t healthy. This softer, gentler, more mindful self is.
But here’s the kicker. I still sometimes worry about what I look like or, more to the point, what other people think I look like. I sometimes worry about how I measure up. I still have image issues, even though I know that I’m healthier now. Even though I feel better now. Even though I am happier now.
I’ve said mean things to myself, I’ve compared myself unfavorably to others (her legs are so smooth!), or others unfavorably to me (she’s no athlete), depending on the day. I’ve said “I hate my cellulite” and “I wish my belly was flatter” and “what’s with all these damn spider veins – gross!”. I’ve longed for that earlier self.
That’s why I get frustrated with the health and fitness industry and their portrayal of “ideal”; it’s still messing with my head. It’s still making me respond with comparisons and competitions.
And if it’s messing with my head, I’m sure it’s messing with others.
This is bull shit: Let’s flip the script!
Eventually, I know I will appreciate this new self all the time, not just some of the time. I’m taking steps to get there. And I’m not alone on this journey.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ve been talking about this a lot with some friends and colleagues. That’s a start. We’re calling bull shit and trying to flip the script. We proclaim love for our cellulite (or whatever our particular issues are) and shout it the world (quite literally! Thanks Shelby!).
We thank our bodies for all of the amazing things they allow us to do. We feel happy and challenged by being a beginner again. We don’t have to be the strongest, or the fastest, or the fittest to be happy.
We are nice to ourselves.
We are trying to accept and love ourselves where were at. Loving and accepting our selves now is what allows us to do the things we need to do to keep ourselves happy and healthy. It’s not throwing in the towel and saying “fuck it”; it’s quite the opposite. It’s cherishing and nurturing and appreciating our bodies and minds. When you love something, you want to take care of it.
Focus on what matters
So rather than pushing “health” and “fitness” images of models who make a living being fit and being photoed, I think we should be encouraging each other to explore our selves and find peace with what we find. To encourage each other to be more mindful, more present, and more engaged with our own selves and our own lives. To take the time to discover what we truly like to do; what brings us joy, what makes us laugh and smile and feel good.
And then encourage each other to do more of those things. Do things for the love of doing it, the joy of it, the fun of it. The health of it.
Be active because we want to be active and we are having fun, not because we want to fit a certain image. Eat healthy because we want to feel good, not to look a certain way or meet someone else’s expectations.
We can take care of ourselves because we love ourselves.
And we would do well to stop the negative self-talk, the self-criticism, the self-blame, too.
Let’s lift ourselves up by lifting each other up; no judgment, no harshness. Let’s be positive and supportive and kind.
You with me?
As always – thanks for reading my post! There is no one right answer or path, these are just my thoughts and experiences.
Thank you for allowing me to share them with you; I’d love to hear your story, too.
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