I like my body.
I feel confident and happy in my body 90% of the time. I feel good being naked and I like putting together outfits and going out. I like trying on new clothes, and I feel good laying on the couch in sweats. I like moving my body. I feel good at Zumba class, and doing yoga at home. I like ending the day with gentle stretching, and I like pushing myself to see what my body is capable of. I am comfortable in my body.
My body is my vehicle, nothing more and nothing less. It’s my home, not an ornament or display of my worth.
But recently I noticed that I was having more difficult body image days then good body image days, and I started to get curious about why. To me, not thinking about my body is the goal. I don’t want to be obsessed with how it looks, or spend my time in conversations around exercise, weight loss, or body insecurities. I want to be in my body, not consumed by my body. So even though I was happy with my intuitive eating journey, and I had developed a consistent movement habit, I was feeling more insecure than ever and thoughts of dieting and restriction were getting harder and harder to fight off.
I couldn’t put my finger on why I was feeling so down in my body until one night while looking at a new work out app with my husband I saw a photo that caused a visceral reaction. It was a classic before and after photo, but the before photo was a very average looking woman who was being portrayed as dumpy and sad. If you swiped on her photo you would see a photo of her but ultra lean, very thin, happy, and shiny. It made me so angry.
I believe my exact words were “Fuck this app.” I was ANGRY.
I stormed off to my bedroom and hid under the covers and sobbed. I felt deep shame and embarrassment; here I was, having fun looking at a workout app with my husband and exploring types of movement that are fun for us both, and I was being shamed for my body. The woman in the before photo – she was smaller then me. I WAS THE BEFORE, BEFORE PHOTO. My soft, squishy, dimply body was being used to sell a workout program, promising men and women with 100% guarantee that they could change their bodies to look like these peoples bodies. Literally. You could select body parts on the models to curate a work out that would give you their same results. And they promised 100% guarantee.
(Side not: this is a lie. And does terrible damage. Your body is not like anyone else’s. A “fitness” company cannot guarantee that you will lose any weight or inches on their program or end up with a body like anyone else’s.)
When my husband finally came into our bedroom and I asked why I was so upset about the fitness app, I burst into tears again and explained what it meant to me to see a body like mine being held up as a shame tactic. Instead of “motivating me” like the app intended, it made me feel like “why do I even do my small amount of movement anyway? If I’m never going to be the “after”, then what’s the point?”
I went from enjoying exercise for the sake of how it made me feel, to wanting to stop my daily movement because of what someone else’s opinion was of my body. That photo was meant to communicate “this body is a problem – here’s what it will look like if you let us fix it.” But the thing is, I don’t think my body is a problem. My weight isn’t a problem. My fuller figure since having 2 kids isn’t a problem. And my shame in that moment wasn’t my own; it was the cultures.
I finally understood where these bad body image days were coming from. The last puzzle piece in my body acceptance journey was letting go of the meaning that other people place on my body, instead of accepting it as my own.
When I was pursuing weight loss via restriction and receiving all the praise about how thin I was, I was entirely focused on what others thought about my body and the meaning they gave to it. The more weight I lost the more people praised me for being dedicated, disciplined, and self controlled. But I looked in the mirror and still saw the “before” picture. I was always so focused on how other people were experiencing my body while I was pursuing weight loss and dealing with disordered eating, that I couldn’t truly see my own body. My body dysmorphia was rooted in how others saw me.
And 4 years later, even though I had done so much work to heal my relationship with food and my body, the shame I was feeling was once again about what someone else thought about my body. I know I can lose weight; I’ve been there, I know how to restrict and over exercise, I have the “will power” to shrink my body. I also know I’m incredibly motivated, disciplined, and I do have amazing self control. Hello, I’m a mom! If I can out-will a toddler and survive on zero sleep I can do anything. But you can’t see any of those things from my body. Even when I was training for a half marathon and underrating to lose 2 pounds a week, you still couldn’t see any of those things by looking at my body. My health, my worth, and my “dedication” weren’t apparent in my body size, even if people were quick to praise my weight loss and attach meaning to my body size.
This is where so much of our body shame lies; what does my body size say about me? What meaning has society given my body?
When we see a woman in a larger body and label her as the “before”, as lazy, as unhealthy, we are making many snap judgments about the meaning of her body that have nothing to do with her actual body – or with who she is as a person. They have everything to do with us though, and our own shame, fatphobia, and the ways we have bought into diet culture. You don’t somehow know how creative, strong, or capable she is. You only know how judgmental you are.
The woman in that before photo is not less lovable or capable or worthy then the woman in the after photo. We also don’t know which woman is healthier, or happier. We simply can see that one woman is smaller then the other. This is another reason that universally and unequivocally celebrating weight loss is dangerous. We see someone who has gone down a few sizes and our first response is, “Good for you! You look great!” But is it good for them? Just because they’re smaller down not mean they’re happier, healthier, or that they shrunk their body in a way that was healthier or even intentional. We put so much meaning into someones body size or body changes, assuming everything from their character and eating habits just from their waist band.
What can you tell about someone by LOOKING at them? Your bias. Your judgement. Your prejudice. Your beliefs. THAT IS ALL.
When I was losing weight rapidly and over exercising, I would post a lot of photos of me doing difficult yoga poses or photos of my muscular legs that had become really defined by running. Those photos are still on my social media, because document a part of my story. I loved yoga, and running, and being strong and active. But my relationship with food and exercise at the time was very disordered. On the outside I looked strong and happy, but the outside doesn’t tell our stories.
Years later, while beginning my journey of intuitive eating, I posted a photo of me eating a bunch of mini chocolate bars around Halloween. Candy was one of my last foods on the “bad” list that I was working on neutralizing, and after I posted that photo someone sent me this message:
“You’ll regret eating this chocolate when you’re older and it’s harder to lose weight. You were so consistent before when you posted all your exercise videos and it paid off. You can go back to that again, don’t give in.”
As harsh as that message is, it wasn’t sent to hurt me, but to encourage me. And truly, it didn’t hurt me (or encourage me). It made me sad for the sender, and revealed something very valuable: the heart of the message was not about me – it was about the meaning that person had put on my body, and it was about how they felt about their own body.
It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about my worth. It wasn’t even really about the weight I had gained. And mostly importantly, NONE of those things have anything to do with me eating candy bars.
This person had interpreted me eating candy and my body changes as me giving up on my body, on being strong, and assumed that I would “regret” letting my body change. The reason this message didn’t send me into shame spiral though, was because I could recognize that they had put meaning on my body that I had not. I hadn’t interpreted my body changes (which had come from pregnancy weight gain) as giving up on my body, nor would pursuing weight loss mean I was more “consistent” or dedicated to my health. (What this person also didn’t consider was that the photos I had been posting were during a disordered time of body dysmorphia and me eating the candy was actually a healthful step in my recovery.)
What does that story, and the story about the body shaming fitness app have in common? This: we do not have to internalize the meaning someone else puts on our body.
When I sat in my bed crying and sharing my deepest fears about my body with my husband, I realized that my relationship with body is truly the healthiest it has ever been. This bad body image slump I was in had little to do with how I felt about my body, and so much to do with how I feared others were interpreting my body. “What if people think I’ve let myself go? What if my husband feels embarrassed by me because I’m not as thin as I once was? Do people think I’m lazy or that I don’t take care of myself?” The ugliest parts of my own fatphobia finally revealed themselves and I was able to recognize that just as I had once put so much value on how someone’s body looks, I was now feeling attacked by those some labels. So I faced them. And released them. How someone else interprets my body has nothing to do with me, because I am at home within my own body.
Maybe I have let myself go.
I’ve let go of disordered eating.
I’ve let go of weighing myself every day.
I’ve let go of obsessing over my body.
I’ve let go of the fear of what motherhood will do to this body.
I’ve let go of the need to preserve this body in its smallest, leanest, youngest form.
I truly feel great in my body most days. I will always have bad body image days, but the more I let go of the focus our culture puts on body size, the fewer and farther between they’ll be. And when those feelings do come up, when I fear that others think I’ve “let myself go”, I remember that how I feel about my body matters more than the meaning someone else gives to my body.
What are you letting go of today friend? Your body does not define you, and the judgments our culture makes about you, from your body, also does not define you.