My aunt snapped this photo of me holding a lamb this weekend, and I made it my profile picture on Facebook. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. I hate pictures of myself and usually try to release only a very carefully controlled image on social media. This photo is the opposite of controlled: I’m not wearing makeup, I’m not posing, I’m not using any intentional angles. It’s pretty much my worst nightmare because the truth is that I’m really unhappy with my body right now. I’m unhappy with my face and my general appearance. I’m not saying this to garner compliments or pity, it’s just a fact: if I could snap my fingers and look different, I would.
The body positivity movement prevalent on the internet is, I think, a good thing. It’s a well-intentioned movement away from self-hatred and criticism, from holding all people to an unrealistic standard of beauty. Unfortunately, I also think that body positivity can be unrealistic in its own way.
Something that I’m coming to terms with is that I may never LOVE my body or my looks. I may never look in the mirror and be absolutely floored by self-admiration. However, something I feel I can aspire to is body neutrality.
My body is neither good nor bad–it just is. Furthermore, it’s not the most important thing about me, nor is it the thing that people will remember most about me, at least not people whose opinions mean anything to me. When I see a picture of myself and words like “Disgusting!” and “Worthless!” pop up like garish comic book speech bubbles in my head I’m working on being gentler to myself. There are a couple self-examination questions that help me get there.
What do the people who love me see when they look at me?
I went to the beach with my little cousins recently and I was feeling extremely self-conscious about how I looked in my bathing suit. I almost didn’t want to go because of it. Then I asked myself what my cousins would remember about that day. If they remember anything, they’ll remember me taking them out into the water and helping them float, digging for sand crabs with them, and wrapping their towels around them to keep them warm. They won’t remember me looking ugly in my bathing suit, which leads to the big point: most people, excepting those with severe insecurities of their own, don’t look at you and see your flaws. People remember your attitude, your smile, your words, and your general demeanor. They might remember your lipstick or your cute dress. 99% of people aren’t counting your pores or snickering at the way your upper arms look in that top. And if they are, if that’s the biggest thing they take away from your interaction, their opinion shouldn’t matter to you. The best relationships you’ll make are with the people who look at you and see YOU, not a collage of flawed parts.
Would I say these things to someone I love?
This is a classic cognitive-behavioral technique: examine your inner monologue and ask yourself if you would speak that way to a friend. If your best friend was wearing a new dress she liked, would you tell her that she really shouldn’t wear it because her belly looked big? Would you tell her not to go on vacation because she was too fat to be seen? Of course you wouldn’t!!!! We encourage the people we love to go after what makes them happy, whether its a cute vintage dress, an adventure, or a new crush. It hurts us to see people we love held back by insecurity because we know how worthy they are and how much they magnify their own flaws. Why shouldn’t we offer ourselves this same grace?
How can I turn this into something constructive?
As uncomfortable as negative emotions can be, they do sometimes exist to tell us something. When I feel uncomfortable with the extra squish on my belly it’s not for purely aesthetic reasons. It reminds me that I haven’t been as active as I’d like to be or that my eating choices haven’t been fueling my body correctly. It’s OK to notice and identify these things. I can turn my dissatisfaction into an action plan: I’ll go to the gym three times this week so that I feel less out of breath going up the stairs. I’ll be more mindful of my eating and see if it improves my energy levels. I’ll try a new mascara because my eyes are a pretty color and I want them to pop. The important thing is not to let it turn destructive: I’m not allowed to exist until I am thinner. I should not be in public without makeup on. I am a failure because I had toast for breakfast instead of eggs. Learning to accept your thoughts in moderation, to allow some and reject others, is a tricky task to learn, but it can make a world of difference.
What is my body doing for me?
We live in a world that constantly presents women’s bodies as a commodity. From a very young age we’re exposed to media that makes us think we exist to be consumed, admired, and judged. In a world that wants us to ask what our body is doing for others, we often forget to ask what our body is doing for us. My heart is pumping blood through my veins. My lungs are processing oxygen. My body helps me walk through nature to see flowers and animals. My body pushes me through the water so I be refreshed by the ocean. My brain takes in words from books and turns them into pictures. Psalm 139:14 says “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” I am a marvelous machine! I am made in God’s image! Even on my worst days, it’s a miracle that I exist at all when you consider the odds. Like one of my favorite songs, Dissect the Bird by John Craigie, says:
The universe is not against you
It went through a lot just to give you a chance
It must have wanted you pretty bad
No pressure though, no pressure though
The universe went through a lot, but no pressure, bro
You don’t gotta be perfect, you don’t gotta be a saint
Just don’t waste it, this was not a mistake.
You’re doing it wrong
Dissecting the bird
Trying to find the song
It’s a miracle that you’re here at all
In a few final words, I do not exist to be consumed by others. I exist to glorify my creator. I exist to better my little corner of the world to the best of my ability. I can do those things in any body: a fat one, a sick one, a disabled one. When I look at my new profile picture, I can choose to see my flaws, or I can choose to see the look of pure joy on my face and remember that beyond the body I inhabit, that’s who I am. Do I love my body? Nope. Do I love myself? Sure do. So, I’m laying down my arms in the war against myself and aiming for solid neutrality. Peace is a noble pursuit.