Body Image Beacons

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I have worked with a handful of women who truly, honestly do not feel angst or worry about their bodies. And these women are a wonderfully diverse, if tiny, group: A former stripper, a petite plus mom of four, an octogenarian artist, a high school gym teacher, to name a few. I know that they truly, honestly do not feel angst or worry about their bodies because I asked them. When I begin a consult, I start by asking what my client loves about her body and would like to highlight, but I also ask if there are any features she’d like to downplay. And these amazing women responded to the latter by saying, “Nothing, really. I like it all.”

And every time, I’ve told them how miraculous they are and how happy I am to hear of their genuine body contentment. And every time, I’ve wanted to ask how they did it. How they learned to weather the hurricane of forces – both internal and external – that batters at most women’s confidence and self-esteem. And every time, I’ve wanted to somehow distill their essence and distribute it to all of the women who still struggle.

Because I still struggle. I write and think about body image on a near-daily basis, and I still struggle. I’ve come a long way since the dismal, crash-dieting, mirror-avoiding, post-college years, but I still struggle. I cannot remember a single day from the past 20 years that was entirely free of negative self-talk, during which I felt completely and uninterruptedly good about my body. And I can’t quite imagine how that would feel. Not just because I’ve never been there myself, but also because 99% of the women I’ve met struggle to feel good about their bodies.

And that doesn’t make the rest of us failures, we who still struggle. One of my favorite lines from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please is this: “It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for.” If you’ve spent most of your life hating your body, it’s completely unreasonable to expect to transform hate into neutrality or love in a few months. Or years. And some of us will never totally mute the hurtful chatter or reach an emotional resting place of total body solace. We’ll learn and grow and feel worlds better than we once did, and that can certainly be enough.

But this handful of women? They give me hope that genuine body confidence and a life without worry is possible, and that people who don’t fit neatly into our current beauty paradigm can live that life. I still wish they could offer some hints or outline a five-step plan for the rest of us, but I know it’s not that simple. In fact, many of these women have been body-based worry-free essentially forever, so it’s not what they’ve learned, it’s just how they’re wired. And even though I may never be like them, I can truly, honestly say that I’m glad they’re here and I’m grateful to have met them. They are bright beacons, lighting the way.

Image courtesy Llima Orosa

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17 Responses to “Body Image Beacons”

  1. prettygirlrevolution

    Thank you for this post, for your courage, for your vulnerability, and for writing about this topic that affects so many with such wisdom and grace. I’m not there yet, but I am closer than ever, and your posts about body image have been part of my journey. I am endlessly grateful!

  2. RubyJoy

    I would say at this point I feel just about 100% about my body, or certainly non-angsty. I am trying to think why, as I certainly used to be pretty darn unhappy. I grew up as a tomboy type and definitely felt un-pretty and like the world of prettiness was just not something I would ever be included in. So I never really paid attention to the details of it. It wasn’t like I broke down into too much detail of which parts of me were pretty or not-pretty. So once I decided, oh, I am pretty, I just switched over from disliking all of me to liking all of me. Though I think the fact that I am a relatively slender person means I am sort of cheating at the body acceptance thing: I get a lot of external validation about the shape of my body being “acceptable” on a regular basis.

  3. what not

    I’m not body-image-worry-free, but I’m close, and it comes from a few places:

    –I have a chronic illness, and so more immediate body issues to think about. I’ll admit that at times when my illness has affected my appearance (major eczema, weight gain, pimples) I’ve been extra peeved, but I’ve worked hard at my internal monologue so I’m more irritated at the illness than at my body.

    –I didn’t have a lot of formative experiences with intimate partners who denigrated my body, and at this point (mid-30s) I’ll only keep those who love it and say good things about it–including not putting it down for its illness. (No “your belly sucks” talk, from me or from them.)

    –MOST IMPORTANT, I think, is that my mother has a very neutral, functional body image without a lot of focus on appearance (and her body is very similar to mine). When teenage me bemoaned my small breasts and belly fat, she told me why small breasts were useful and that my belly “fat” was mostly skin and the fat part was normal and fine. She has health problems too, that she also addresses practically and without self-consciousness. I care a lot more about appearance than she does, but it’s mostly about personal style and projecting my self-identity rather than trying to hide or present any artificial facade. I’m so grateful to my mom for these lessons.

    Biggest takeaway? Moms really are their daughters’ biggest model of how to treat their bodies. Love and care for yours, and your kids are likely to respect theirs, too.

    • Redneck PhD

      Dear what not, I absolutely second you on the influence of mothers. My mom really, truly, does not seem to care what others think about how she looks, and that attitude was a prime influence on me growing up.

      At this point in my life – I’m in my mid-30’s – some of my family are gone. I’ve never had poor body image, though like so many women I’ve thought wistfully about being taller or less busty/hippy. But in these years I see in the mirror:

      – My late grandmother’s eyes,
      – My estranged brother’s mouth,
      – My late uncle’s complexion,
      – My (other) late grandmother’s cheekbones

      And of course my body strongly resembles my living, present, relatives as well. I never really noticed these resemblances before, but now they seem rare and precious. Invisible eyebrows, funny wrinkly hands, insta-freckling skin: bring it on, all of it.

      So I also endorse the ameliorating experience of illness and health, though from a different angle.

      • what not

        I love this! I don’t see my family’s features so much in my face, but in my body my mom’s are clear. While that same body doesn’t work so well at times, I’m fond of how it holds my family history, and I know I’ll carry that with me when she’s gone.

    • Jennifer

      I love this idea. A couple of my friends notice how I’ve mostly accepted my plus-size body. My mother was always a plus-size woman who had the love and adoration of my father. I think that made a big impact on me seeing that one could be fat and loved. She also never suggested I diet or lose weight, but encouraged me to play outside and do activities I wanted, like dance. I recently started exercising again at a gym. While it’s weird to be one of the only non-fit ones, I’m able to shrug it off. I’ve even started jogging a bit on the treadmill, which took a lot of courage (worried about jiggling).

      I love that I have my deceased Dad’s eyes and eyebrows. And from the back, my mom and my body are very similar, as well as similar facial structure.

  4. Molly Eichar

    Not to be unkind or negative, but you do realize that simply by telling them how “miraculous” they are, you’re reinforcing the message that they *should* hate their bodies. Rock, meet Hard Place.

    • Redneck PhD

      With respect, I disagree.

      I would not perceive “Your genuine body contentment is miraculous to me!” as a suggestion that I’m wrong in said body contentment. Now, if someone said that with passive-aggressive overtones, I’d think she was expressing judgement of me on the basis of my not seeing (or seeing, but violating) socially agreed-upon expectations of body image. But I cannot imagine Sally ever intending such a meaning.

    • Sally McGraw

      Never even occurred to me to think of it that way, and I respect your interpretation. But I see this as making an observation about people who have deviated from a pervasive social norm, and praising them for doing so.

    • Molly Eichar

      I know it’s not a good thought, and I am totally behind all efforts to eradicate negative body image issues. Just thought I’d throw it out there as a comment on the paradox and complexity of body image issues.

      It’s the “law of unintended consequences” at work – we do one thing with a particular purpose or intent and it may have ramifications we don’t intend.

  5. Jean Thilmany

    I’m the same as what not: not body-image-worry free but close, and have VERY luckily always been. BUT I had terrible self-confidence as a child around many other issues, namely being incredibly shy. I also had a body-image-neutral mother. I was raised with three sisters. The key here is my family has always been “blessed” if you will with high metabolism, so we all do/did little to stay thin. And thin is a cultural value in this country. Had it been zaftig I would be giving a different answer right now. Also my family more or less fell into value-neutral eating, for the most part, as a child, which is hard to consciously pass on now, as I have my own children. No boobs, but never seemed to care. The better for not wearing a bra and for jogging, which I loved to do as a kid with my dad.

  6. Cynthia

    I have gotten to a pretty good place mentally about body image, but it was and still is a bit of a challenge. See, I don’t want to be like my mom, who is 75 and still putting herself down and making herself suffer by constantly comparing herself to others. And she installed my buttons due to an even worse set of buttons installed by her own mom, so it is work I have to do to deactivate them. What is the source of this thought pattern in your own life?

  7. Jenn

    I’m there. Hated my body for over 20 years, then I started reading body-positive blogs and sharing those messages with others, and in the last few years I’ve crossed to the body-love side. If ever I feel the old doubt creeping in, I think back to how I felt when I was 8 or 9 years old and my body was this amazing, capable, physical thing that was perfect because it always did what I asked of it, when I had no concept of how it looked vs. how it was supposed to look and I felt absolutely free. It’s the best feeling in the world.

  8. Edith

    My mother has a very negative bodyimage herself, and it certainly influenced me. I wasted so, so much time hating my body, constantly worrying if I looked somewhat acceptable, never feeling comfortable in my own skin, never going somewhere that required a bathing suit, crying for hours about my disgusting body.. the list goes on. It is quiet sad indeed. But somehow, somewhat it changed in the last years. I wish I could telll you how, but I really don’t know. I think it was a long process, lots of baby-steps in the right direction, and not wanting to be this person anymore. I got mad at myself for giving this so much power, for letting life passing me by. Being kind to yourself, taking good care of you is important, and so is reminding yourself that your not on this world to be a decorative object to be looked at. I have more important stuff to do 🙂
    So yes, on most days I do not have a single negative thought about my appearance or my weight. It’s neutral, maybe slightly positive, I guess. There are a lot of incidences when I think I look smashing 🙂 and then there are a few rare days when I do feel inadequat, but I don’t let it suck me in a dark hole anymore. Sally, I really hope you have such good days ahead of you that you are so busy being happy and alive that you don’t even notice that days have gone by without a single negative thought about your body 🙂

  9. Erica Rodriguez

    I loved this post! I know we all struggle, at least little, with our body and I’ve hindered my social life because of this, but I know that being happy with your body and yourself is a process, and it won’t happen over night. I know that you’re coming from the right place, so I applaud your sincerity, and perseverance to grow and help others. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

  10. Limescented.wordpress.com

    I hope this doesn’t sound unkind because tone is so difficult to convey over the internet, but have you considered that your assumption that only a “handful of women” do not feel angst about their bodies, may be wrong; and that it may be a case of like attracting like? You’ve written about your unusually high level of body hatred in your early years, and how you overcame it, and now you’re a style consultant to women who are still stuck in that place, which is great and a really helpful thing you’re doing. However, that will naturally draw to you women who do not have a healthy body image, because they see you overcame your loathing and want your help in doing the same.

    However, most people are not like that. I am not, most of my friends, relatives, co-workers are not. Sure, sometimes we look in the mirror and think “need to alter those pants”, but that’s just a practical decision to be made to accommodate a different body, not an automatic trigger for loathing that body.

    I acknowledge that my different viewpoint is anecdotal… but then so is yours! We’ve attracted people into our lives who echo our own beliefs. And as far as I can see, most women do not actually go through life thinking intense self loathing is normal, natural, usual or expected. The very few people I know like that, have broken through those feelings by realizing that self hatred is not default behaviour for all women, and that they’re basically wasting their time indulging in it… because it’s based on utterly illogical and untrue ideas.