Why I quit trying to feel beautiful and got on with my life
When I was younger, I spent a lot of time thinking about my body. I wanted to be shorter and thinner, with shinier hair and whiter teeth. As early as elementary school, my friends and I would stress over how wrong our bodies looked.
"UGH! I can't believe I ate that entire sandwich. I feel huge and disgusting." "You aren't fat! You're so pretty. I am waaay fatter than you."
The fear of fat was so all-encompassing that on days when my pants felt tight, all of the qualities I liked about myself disappeared.
At a certain point, talking about my body wasn't cutting it. So I kicked it up a notch and actively tried to lose weight with calorie counting, high-intensity exercise, fad diet books, and appetite-suppressing gum. By the time I was in college, managing my body felt like a full-time job. I'd map out what I was going to eat that day, and calculate what I'd need to do at the gym, for how long, to justify eating at all.
The closer I got to a body size small enough to consider myself attractive, the more obsessive I would get. If I wasn't thin, I needed to get there! If I was thin, I needed to maintain it! If I wasn't yearning for a different body, I was desperately clinging to the one I'd achieved.
Trying to be thin was hard work, and tedious work at that. There was very little time or energy left at the end of the day to enjoy life, which made it hard to remember what my non-weight-related hobbies were. To be honest, it was pretty damn boring. But at the time, loosening my grip on my weight was unthinkable.
Sounds familiar, right? Obsessing over appearance is a kind of oppression that most women and plenty of men in our culture are bombarded with at every corner. We’re fed a rigid image of beauty (for women: young, thin, white, visibly abled, cisgender, blemish-free, etc.; for men: tall, muscular, full head of hair, etc.) and few of us stack up to the so-called ideal. The rest of us are urged to strive.
We're sold pills, books, creams, and gear, all designed to keep us focused on having a perfect body. We've been conditioned to believe that if we can live in an ideal body, then we can live an ideal life: success, love, self worth, and ultimately, happiness. It's complete and utter garbage.
At the same time, the internet is filling up with platitudes about feeling pretty just as we are. Like cupcake recipes and funny animal videos, “Love your body” and “You are beautiful”-themed inspirational photos are the lifeblood of Facebook and Pinterest. While they’re feel-good, many of us still hold onto this or a similar thought: "I will totally love my body! After I (lose weight, get botox, etc.), that is."
After all, how can we possibly feel beautiful if our bodies are still so very imperfect?
When I started to explore what it meant to be body positive, beauty remained front and center. On the surface, body positivity seemed to center on feeling attractive in the body I was already living in, even if it wasn't perfect by conventional standards. That sounded great, and accepting and finding love for how you look is certainly part of being body positive.
But my struggle was bigger than what I saw in the mirror. The dilemma was with what my reflection meant. After all, I’d used my appearance as a barometer for my self worth since 2nd grade, and old habits die hard.
I still thought that if I could see myself as physically beautiful, I could feel worthier of other people's love, admiration, and respect. It would give me self esteem and confidence, and then I could finally love myself.
So even if I could get away from comparing my body to the "ideal" body, there was still a lot hinging on seeing myself as pretty.
It can be empowering to feel physically beautiful, especially if our perception of beauty stays stable as our bodies change.
The trouble is when attractiveness becomes our identity. When it's our most important quality it trivializes our brains, gifts, and all of the other intricacies that make us who we are.
Looking back, I’m furious that so much of my energy (and my friends') was spent on hating our bodies, when we could have been offering so much to the world!
I fell in love with my yoga practice away from mirrors, by exploring poses based on how they felt and not on how they looked. I learned to love my body in much the same way—by ditching the notion that my reflection was massively important. I gave myself permission to just live in my body for a while.
That’s how I finally got a clear picture of what I'd silenced about myself by dumping so much energy and value into my appearance. As it turns out, I am actually a lot more interesting than my weight. I’m a great listener and an empathetic friend. I speak up when it matters most. My karaoke dance moves are unrivaled. I’m also pretty great at helping people take care of themselves after the bottom drops out.
Not a single one of these things would be possible without my body, which has made me deeply grateful for the honor of living in this powerful instrument. All this time I’d had it reversed; valuing my body made me feel beautiful, not the other way around!
That's what I feel the body positive movement is about. It's not just about feeling beautiful - it's about liberation from letting appearance define us. Body positivity invites us to treat our bodies as homes that we care for out of love, not out of striving for perfection.
There's nothing wrong with valuing physical appearance, as long as we hold near and dear to our hearts that we have worth far beyond it. Liking how we look is just a happy side effect to living fully.