Written by Suzanne St John Smith.
As a psychotherapist, I’m in the business of hearing how people, especially women, talk about their bodies using hateful and disparaging terms. They aren’t alone. I’ve done the same myself, and so I know how hard it can be to make peace with our imperfect bodies (are they ever anything else?) let alone feel loving toward it.
Some people spend a lifetime hating the way they’re “represented” by their bodies.
They’ve analyzed and criticized every inch of themselves while comparing their bodies to other members of their family, to their friends, and to almost anyone they come across in life, on social media sites, in movies and on television. And as a result, these same people have more often than not felt “less than” as a result.
Many such individuals will use almost any means to change what they believe is wrong with themselves, including crazy diets, starvation, purging, laxatives, over-exercising, and surgical and non-surgical interventions.
The rise of cosmetic surgery prior to age 30 has risen exponentially over the past ten years, and the rise in the use of surgical interventions in women over the age of 40 has also increased hugely during this same period of time. These interventions include minor procedures (chemical peels, botox, fillers) and major ones (full face lifts, liposuctions, and other such interventions that can increase the risk of death).
Unfortunately, some of these individuals do die in their pursuit of gaining acceptance of their bodies for themselves, and from others.
So what needs to happen to lower the number of individuals who seem so committed to altering their bodies? This is, of course, an age-old question, but the answer isn’t quite as simple as self-acceptance.
Or is it?
For many people who undergo surgical interventions, it changes their lives. It changes the way they feel about themselves, regardless of how it may or may not change how others view them, and maybe this is where we should draw the line. Right?
In other words, if the person is simply improving the way they view themselves and they aren’t influenced by anyone outside of them, then isn’t that a sign of health? The answer is “yes” in some cases.
For example, take the person who decided to undergo a surgical intervention because of the emotional pain they experienced for much of their life due to a part of their body they later chose to alter, and who never lived to regret it because they found a deep peace within themselves as a result. In this case, and many like it, I say “YES,” that was clearly a good choice for the individual, because the change was for them and not to become “more acceptable” to others.
However, consider the person suffering from any form of eating disorder. They aren’t usually driven by what others think of their bodies. Rather, they’re typically tortured by how they view themselves, And, despite how others might beg them to eat because they’re dangerously thin, they would argue that they need to lose just a few more pounds to be acceptable to THEMSELVES.
So this, too, is a personal choice based on how the person views their body, as opposed to being “driven” by outside forces. Right? Nope.
We are all members of this society, and we’ve been taught from early childhood from numerous sources what is, and what is not, considered “beautiful.”
Decisions to alter our bodies in any form are to some degree always going to be “infected” by societal values, the healthy ones and the not-so-healthy ones. So what we need to do is to be hugely clear about the reasons we’re doing what we’re doing to our bodies.
For example, what do we expect from the change? Are we going about the change in a physically and emotionally healthy way? Do we feel any shame about what we’re doing to change our bodies?
If so, that might be a flag that you should investigate. Another flag that reflects shame is secretiveness. Do we hope that nobody will discover what we’re doing to change our bodies?
Consequently, prior to making changes to our bodies, we need to really think about why we want to make them in the first place, and self-honesty is key. Denial, or in other words, lying to ourselves (and others) or drawing on any number of reasons to justify our actions will merely block our ability to connect to the truth that lies within us.
But what about the concept of NOT changing our bodies and instead change the way we view them?
I believe many of us simply need to change our relationship to our bodies, and to begin seeing them as the loyal companions they’ve been to us for our entire lives. I know that sounds weird, because it’s not like we had a choice, right? It’s kind of like an “arranged marriage.”
I was stuck with this body from the beginning, and I wasn’t able to trade it in for another model (literally and figuratively) once I became of the age where comparison with others became an everyday experience and, thus, discovered its many flaws.
I, too, dieted, over-dieted, starved, over-exercised, binged and purged, spent hours, days, years hating and despising the body I’d been given without my permission.
And now I look back at photos that were taken just a year prior to the “battle of my body,” and I think how lovely I looked.
OMG. How did my vision change?
Why didn’t I think that before all those years of pain and torture? Yes, torture. Try starving in this society. It might be what our society requires in order to be as thin as it promotes, but it’s bloody hard to do with all the food we come face to face with each and every single day.
Unless you’ve done it, you have no idea what it’s like to turn away from food that you so desperately want to eat because the pain of starvation is literally killing you. But you don’t take it, or if you do, you punish yourself by purging it the first chance you get because you live in fear of something far worse than dying: you might get fat.
And what if you do? Well, for sure you’ll hate yourself, but you’re equally convinced that others will, too. So this is what some of us do when we don’t build a loving relationship with our bodies.
Today, I look at those old photos and I ask my body for forgiveness for what I did to it for so many years.
It sounds silly, doesn’t it? But to me, it’s not. It’s about becoming grateful to the one entity that never let me down no matter how hard I hurt, rejected, despised, and almost killed it. It remains with me today, obviously, and still in one piece.
I’m a lot older now, so you might think I’d hate it even more. After all, I’m still a member of this rigid and critical society. Yet, I look at the face that is no longer as fresh and young as those of my beautiful nieces, and as much as I might still yearn for that youthful glow from time to time, I know that when I look back, if I’m fortunate enough, 20 years from now, I’ll once again see the beauty in my face that exists today, a kind of life force that exudes from both the inside and outside of me.
But, the best news of all is that I no longer need to wait that long to see it. I can see it now. I’m so grateful that this amazing body is still willing to work with me, take me where I need and want to go, and it does so without complaint.
I feel so fortunate about this fact, and I never take it for granted the way I once did. In the end, I don’t believe it forgave me for the abuse I dealt it because it didn’t need to.
That’s the kind of unconditional love this body offered me. It loved me all along despite how I kept turning my back on it.
So, I urge you to take another look.
Look deep into the commitment your body has offered you throughout your entire life. It deserves your love and acceptance, and, in offering it, that action will heal you in ways you can’t imagine.