For most of the women in America, body peace belongs to the young. When I was in grade school, middle school, even high school, I rarely thought about my body in terms of the way it looked.
Frankly, it just flat-out didn’t matter. I was an athlete, and my body served a real purpose in my day-to-day life. I could swing a bat. I could shoot a basketball. I could run sprints. For those reasons, I almost always viewed my body in a positive light.
But that innocence didn’t last long. As you’re well aware, new media and pop culture turn women into objects. And the moment we reach the point of no return in terms of physical maturity, ready or not, we’re picked apart and put back together in a manner designed to compromise our self-worth.
I noticed a shift in how the world seemed to view me when I started interacting and functioning primarily in the adult world. I was growing up, and subsequently growing into myself. I just didn’t realize these subtle-yet-significant shifts as they were happening. Then, I blew out 21 candles and watched my world — and body image — change.
I’d get compliments on my lipstick color, or on my cute little shift dress. Some guy would whistle at me on the street, or eye my body conspicuously. Suddenly, showing skin in the summer made me want to hide under a rock. And added up, I didn’t like any of it.
This shift is inevitable and unavoidable for most women. Bodies change as they reach maturity, and our world is conditioned to notice that. Uncomfortable attention makes you think about your body and your worth all the time, where your meaning is derived and what’s most important in life.
Either consciously or subconsciously, it’s the recipe for a existential crisis. Science has proven the prettiest people climb life’s ladder quicker, are viewed as healthier, and earn more money. (And then we wonder why there are a million articles dedicated to improving our looks, getting a taut body like Gisele or perfect hair like Duchess Kate.) It’s impossible not to stack yourself up against a million others, wondering where you fall on the beauty’s fleeting and unforgiving totem poll.
So, the negative thoughts come creeping in. You’re not the cookie-cutter ideal. Sorry! Your thighs are too big, your shoulders are too broad. Your hair never falls just right, your complexion is never totally clear. Your arms have too much flab, your forehead’s a little too tall… something. We can preach body love and acceptance to everyone else, but too many women carry the weight of their own body’s flaws with them everyday.
I know that I did, for a long time. It wasn’t until I talked to body-image and self-empowerment guru Jess Weiner several years ago that I learned the real secret to body peace — whether you’re age 10 or 110, whether you’re a size 2 or 22.
This simple self-worth lesson has stuck with me; a tiny bit of advice among the thousands of pieces I’ve received from experts over the course of my career.
Healthy body image is about an attitude of gratitude.
That’s right. We have to stop worrying about how bodies look, instead appreciating how they work. Can your legs move, allowing you to climb stairs or kick a soccer ball? Can your arms help you lift up your son, or move those heavy boxes? Can you breathe in fresh air, filling your lungs with air and flooding your organs with oxygen? Are you alive? Then you have something for which to thank your body, not criticize it.
I think Jess’ secret is why I had such healthy self-esteem as a kid, and watched it dwindle as I got older: I stopped appreciating what my body did, instead focusing on how my body looked while doing it — especially to others. Women are conditioned to do this. But it is undeniably toxic, my dears. It will destroy your well-being.
So, next time you have a negative thought about your body, I challenge you to do this:
Stop yourself immediately. Replace the negative thought about your arms/skin/calves/ankles/fill-in-the-blank with a positive one. Make it about what your body does for you, instead of how it looks.
And then work on strengthening your body and your mind everyday, instead of changing it. You’re beautiful, as is. It’s not about looking perfect, or fitting into a certain number on the dress tag. It’s about being healthy, being alive and being present in every moment. The stronger you can make your body through diet and exercise, the more you can do and the better you will feel. That’s a fact.
I have a chronic pain condition, and my body and I are at odds quite a bit. But I’ve made peace with it. It’s not a perfect process, and, sure, I have days when my jeans are a little tight or I can’t leave the house because of a nasty headache. (Ugh.) But it’s in those moments that I now realize we need positivity most. I try to remember that with each passing year and each passing day, no matter my body’s size or shape.
So? Cut yourself some slack. Embrace your strong legs that run, bright eyes that see, and grumbling stomach that fuels you up. Laugh a lot. Love yourself. And don’t feed negativity, lest it suffocate your happiness and peace.
Instead, live like no one else is watching. Something Jess told me three years ago: “A body is to live in, not just a vessel to be admired and adorned.” Never forget that.