I hope you don’t have the slightest clue what I’m talking about here. In fact, I’d rather you think I’m a bit wonky. But, sadly, many will understand all too well the story below.
“No, seriously. What would you change?”
She didn’t believe me when I said I wouldn’t change or “fix” any part of my body. “Years ago, I could have rattled off a list of things I hated about my body and would change in an instant if given the opportunity, without hesitating. But not now. I refuse to take part in something that would serve no purpose other than making me feel terrible about myself.”
We live in a culture that encourages women to always be on some “self-improvement” journey with our bodies. We should never be satisfied. If we lost a lot of weight and improved our health, we couldn’t stop there. No, we’d have to find the next thing to “fix.” Maybe you can style your hair different, or perhaps you can work on decreasing the appearance of your cellulite or, hey, you know your butt could be perkier. And as we get older, we need to fight the aging process relentlessly.
We must refuse to succumb to the fate and misfortune of wrinkles, crow’s-feet, gray hair, and gravity, that cruel bitch.
From a young girl well into adulthood, many women are never satisfied with their bodies. They fight their genetics; they fight the scale; they fight changes that occur with pregnancy and age; they fight the image in the mirror. There’s always something to improve and a better standard to achieve, and many know what it’s like to seek a diet, supplement, creams, wraps, the latest you’ll-feel-like-you’re-going-to-die workout program and other products hoping “this one” will finally be the salvation they crave (and are promised).
I worked with a woman in her late 60s and during the initial consultation she revealed her decades of experience with disordered eating habits and negative self-image. Since she was a young girl, she said, she experimented with diets and did everything possible to “look like women are supposed to look.” (Keep in mind the way women “should look” has morphed over the decades; the standards can change on a whim. And that’s how things like back dimples become a must-have feature.)
“So, did it ever work?” I asked curiously. She couldn’t recall a time she didn’t hate her body. Even the brief periods she attained her “goal weight” she wasn’t happy because that milestone wasn’t enough; she just found something else that needed to be fixed or improved. In fact, when I asked her, she struggled to identify one thing she did like about her body, in the past or at that moment.
This wonderful woman had spent over 50 years of her life hating her body; constantly chasing an image dangled in front of her – in magazines, on TV, and now littering social media – as the standard she should try to achieve. She was, understandably, frustrated and exhausted.
And, in her words, this was “just part of being a woman.”
But … should it be? Is this entire “dislike your body and try to fix its flaws at all costs” really a mandatory experience for young girls and women? Because you’re a woman are you predestined to a life of endless dieting, exercising as atonement for your overindulging sins, and trying to chase an image/weight/shape expecting it to lead to happiness?
Let’s return for a moment to the conversation. The woman I was speaking with was befuddled as to how I couldn’t (wouldn’t) list physical traits I’d prefer to be different, i.e., better. “Every woman hates something about herself,” she retorted.
I know what she means, because I have been there. There was a time I loathed my body and zoned in on the many flaws I disdained when glaring at my reflection in the mirror. Words like “hideous,” “failure,” “gross,” and “flawed” poured from my lips when describing what I saw. I tried diets, drank diet teas (huge mistake if you had to leave the house shortly after — that’s a mistake you only make once), took fat burning supplements, and punished myself with workouts all in the name of fixing my body.
Throughout that process I developed disordered eating habits, and later started binge eating. The weight I gained from the binge episodes made me hate my body even more.
It was a grim paradox: the more I hated my body and wanted to change it, the further from an “ideal image” I got.
Vigorously I tried to “hate my way” back to skinny. All damn day thoughts about food would consume me; I’d obsess over what I could and couldn’t eat (depending on what diet I was following at the time). Fatigue from brutal workouts, driven by punishment because I binged or in preparation of an upcoming binge, was a badge of honor. If I could successfully go a day strictly limiting my caloric intake, I was proud.
The harder I worked out and the more I restricted my food consumption was something I valued. (“I’m utterly exhausted, and I managed to eat fewer than 1100 calories today. I did great!”)
Deprivation; restriction; exhaustion — these were my markers of success.
Trying to find ways to eat less and burn more calories, all propelled by the desire to morph my body into a form I would, hopefully, no longer abhor. Sadly, the reality of this story can be echoed by many women. (This is the part where I hope you don’t know what I’m talking about and you can’t relate.)
You Don’t Have to Dislike Your Body
We must stop the “I dislike this part of my body” conversations. We must look deeper into this issue of why we feel obligated to label parts of our bodies in negative ways and consequently feel disgust, or determine our value and mood for the day by the number on the bathroom scale.
Why do we feel like we must struggle and strain to reach certain “standards”?
One answer is quite simple: usually the sources telling us about the latest flaw we need to fix or the new “it” body part to flaunt is trying to sell us something. Insecurities are poked and picked at until they can no longer be ignored (or new ones are created) and they will gladly sell us the solution.
“Oh, you need to lose weight and of course you want to do it as quickly as possible. You’re in luck because I have all these shakes and supplements you can buy that will help!”
“You’ve got cellulite and wrinkles and age spots and your boobs aren’t quite perky enough. Buy these things and you’ll be beautiful and more valuable.”
“It’s simple and easy and won’t take any effort at all! Just wrap this around your waist and watch yourself magically shrink.”
Furthermore, through magazine covers, fitness videos, celebrities, and social media we are shown what a woman “should look like” or what fitness “looks like.” (A lot of “fitness” nowadays resembles porn more than health, but, that’s a different conversation.) These sources are used as a measuring stick to determine how we view and value our bodies.
If you too look more like these women you’ll be happier, is what’s promised or, simply, if you don’t look like this, something is wrong with you. (I.e., “this body shape/size” is superior; all others by default are inferior.)
This is why I despise phrases that start out, “Real women …*” because if a real woman displays traits A and B, that means any woman who doesn’t is, by default, inferior. Same thing with “X is the new Y” mantras. If “X” is now desirable but you happen to be “Y” well, that apparently sucks for you because “X” is what’s in high demand.
This is one of the many ugly sides of health and fitness.
(*Admittedly I’ve spouted some of these statements in the past, until I realized my grave mistake. Regardless, there are exceptions to rules. Mine, in this case: Real women do what makes them the best versions of themselves, and encourage other women to do the same.)
What’s the solution to not disliking your body and rejecting it as a mandatory experience because you’re a woman?
I have a few ideas. Let’s begin by choosing for ourselves what matters.
Begin by asking: what matters to me?
Is it really getting as close to a size zero or minimal body fat as possible? Is it really the mandatory process and lifestyle required to reach ultra-low levels of body fat?
Maybe what you really want is to feel confident. Maybe you want more energy. Maybe you want to do things that make you feel good instead of running you into the ground. Maybe you want to be able to go through a day of work and spend time playing with your kids without becoming exhausted. Maybe there’s an activity you’ve always wanted to try but weren’t confident in your physical abilities to attempt it. Maybe you just want a health and fitness regimen that makes your life better and easier, instead of dominating it.
Hell, maybe you just want workouts you actually look forward to performing instead of the current ones that leave you utterly exhausted.
Answering the “what matters to me?” question should be simple; for many it’s not because they’ve never considered it a question worth asking.
But this question matters, and it deserves a thoughtful response.
This is why I love strength training: it allows you to discover the marvelous things your body can do; shatter self-imposed limitations; boost confidence; become the strongest version of yourself; it also improves body composition and provides additional myriad benefits.
It allows you to transition your focus from how your body looks to what it can do. (Strength training will change your body’s composition and appearance, but if you’ve spent extended periods of time hating your body, do yourself a favor and dedicate time to focusing exclusively on what it can do, and then do more.)
We passively surrender to the ideology of society and what other people (be it the media, magazines, fitness professionals, marketers) say is best. In this, we lose ourselves. We’re allowing someone else to decide what’s best for us. We don’t have, or aren’t aware of, something guiding us from within, so we line up in formation and follow the pack attempting to march closer to the “ideal” body.
But we need to stop. We need to assess what we want and what we value and what feels good to us — and the answers may not be the same for everyone. Disliking or downright hating your body doesn’t feel good, and it doesn’t help you become the best version of yourself. Hating your body doesn’t not have to be part of being a woman. If it currently is, it’s time to change.
Begin by taking time to discover what matters to you. Reject the mentality that a life of rigid dieting, trying to “fix flaws,” and exercising solely for a calorie burn is a mandatory part of being a woman. And if you need a good place to start this process: begin strength training. Follow a simple plan that focuses on a few movements you can master, and make getting stronger your only goal.
Disliking your body isn’t a mandatory experience of being a woman. You have the power to forge a different path. Now is a good time to start.
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