Want to love your body? Respect it first

On Wednesday, the NOW Foundation celebrated its 14th annual Love Your Body Day, which organizers say is “a day when women of all sizes, colors, ages and abilities come together to celebrate self-acceptance and to promote positive body image.”

Obviously, I think this is a worthy pursuit.  Women – and increasingly, men – are bombarded with images and messages that tell us our bodies are all wrong, that we need to be fixed if we ever want to be worth anything, and while you’re at it, buy this anti-aging cream or this diet book.

But how do you get from “my body sucks” to a positive body image?  How do you move from “I hate my body” to self-acceptance?  The distance between the two can seem like a bottomless chasm with no way to bridge the gap.

I was reading Autumn’s response to NOW’s Love Your Body Day blog carnival over at The Beheld, in which she asks why “loving your body” is put out there as the standard we should aspire to reach.  It’s a very thoughtful post, as usual, and one I’d encourage everyone to read.  This particularly resonated with me:

Bumper-sticker wisdom aside, love is not only an action word: It is a feeling. I don’t want to have feelings about my body any more than I want to have feelings about my intellect or my voice; I want it to be one part of the entirety of who I am, not something I have to have all these emotions about.

I thought a lot about how emphasizing “love” puts the focus on the feelings and less on the action.  Maybe it’s because of my own history, but I’ve seen the way people can insist they love someone – and maybe they really do love that person – yet they treat that person with incredible disrespect.  I’d go so far as to say that love as an emotion is worthless unless it is backed up with the actions of respect and caring.  You can say you love someone all you want, but if you treat that person with cruelty, your words are empty.

Most of us are not cruel people. We would never dream of telling a friend or a family member that they are fat, disgusting pigs.  I doubt many of us even would think such things.  Yet somehow we are okay saying these things to ourselves?  Our compassion extends every direction but inward, and that is a problem.

Think about what it means to have respect.  It not only means that you have high regard for someone.  It also means that you treat that person accordingly.

When you let your inner frenemy start up with her hateful little monologue but you don’t shut her up, you are not treating yourself with respect.

When your body feels run down but you refuse to take a day off from the gym because you are worried about gaining weight, you are not treating yourself with respect.

When you are hungry but you get a glass of water instead of making yourself some actual food, you are not treating yourself with respect.

All of these little choices and decisions and actions add up, and they all have the same message: that you are not good enough, that your body is untrustworthy and flawed.  That you are not worth being cared for.

Forget loving your body.  How about just respecting your body?

It’s not easy, of course.  Our issues didn’t just develop in a vacuum.  The reason why so many of us have them is because we are immersed in a culture that is deeply invested in keeping us dissatisfied with ourselves.  The reasons and causes are manifold, and they manifest themselves in a hundred different ways.

But what I want to talk about is how to fight that.  What I’m interested in are useful ways to resist, actions that we can actually take to start us on a path away from self-hate and toward self-respect.

Quit talking shit about yourself.  There’s a difference between criticism and talking shit.  Criticism – particularly if it is constructive – is realistic and fair, and gives you a way to change.  Talking shit is none of those things.  Talking shit is negativity for the sake of negativity.  Sure, I like to talk shit as much as the next person, but there comes a point at which it’s no longer fun and it’s just a sad, mean pile-on.  So next time you catch yourself looking in the mirror and thinking about how ugly and fat and gross you are, stop and ask yourself exactly what you are getting out of that stream of criticism, and then make a conscious effort to redirect your thoughts.  It’s probably going to be hard, but then, breaking any habit is hard.

Banish “perfect” from your vocabulary.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “perfection” is a myth.  It doesn’t exist.  It’s meaningless.  There is no such thing.  If you compare yourself against a standard of “perfection,” you are bound to fall short.  You are destined to fail.  Why would you do that to yourself?  Give yourself a chance at success, and quit thinking about the world in terms of “perfect” and “imperfect.”

Trust your body.   If you are hungry, eat.  If you feel tired, rest.  If you feel sick, crash out for a day.  If you eat dairy and it makes you feel like ass, don’t eat it. I know this sounds simplistic and obvious, but I also know that a lot of people don’t do this.  It’s one of the unfortunate side effects of imbuing food and fitness and work with all of these moralistic connotations.  You end up with people who do things simply because they feel they ought to, regardless of what their bodies are telling them to do.

What you eat and drink is important.  I’ve found over the past few years that my mood, health and energy levels are deeply connected with the things I put into my body.  If I drink a lot of sugary soda and smoke cigarettes and eat highly-processed food that sits in my stomach like a rock, I get tired and sick very easily.  If I don’t eat, I get irritable and I can’t concentrate.  I get cranky and pessimistic and hate everything.  But when I eat whole, unprocessed foods and drink a lot of water, I feel fabulous and energetic.  Once I made the connection between “crappy nutrition” and “crappy feeling,” it became a lot easier to eat well.

But pleasure is also important!  Just because food is healthy doesn’t mean it has to taste bad.  Exercise doesn’t have to be punitive. And hey, sometimes you don’t want to exercise and eat healthy.  Sometimes you want to strap on the feedbag of Doritos while watching a “Project Runway” marathon.  Guess what?  TOTALLY OKAY.  NOT WORTH HATING YOURSELF OVER.  Even the most stringent nutrition plans for hardcore athletes include what they call “cheat meals,” where you are free to eat whatever you want for a meal or two without completely trashing the work you’ve done for the rest of the week.  I don’t really care for the terminology, but I like the concept, because it’s realistic, and most importantly, it’s humane.

Limit your media consumption.  I’ve found that I generally like myself and am happy with my life – until I open a women’s magazine.  Suddenly I am beset with anxiety about my skin, my clothes, my hair, my waistline.  How do I deal with this?  I don’t read women’s magazines.  Period.  (I’m still working on weaning myself off tabloids while at the gym.  Those may even be worse, because they are open about their body shaming and judgmental assholishness.)  It’s not enough for me to look at them with a critical eye.  I can look at a photo that has obviously been Photoshopped and say, “Hey, that picture has obviously been Photoshopped!” and it still makes me feel like crap about myself.  The intellect can only carry a person so far, you know?

What about you?  How do you treat yourself with care and respect?

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival.

12 responses to “Want to love your body? Respect it first

  1. I agree with every word you just wrote there. While I like the general sentiments of the ‘love your body’ brigade, it just seems so passive but, at the same time, impossible to just change your feelings about your body. The best way to change your mindset is to change your actions when those issues arise. If you feel like crap after eating fries and coke for dinner, just don’t eat it, or if a friend keeps making you feel like shit, either tell them off or don’t engage with them on those issues.

    See, the issue is that I don’t see the need to have any feelings, either positive or negative, about my body. I can recognise that I have nice legs or I can run 5km very quickly, but that shouldn’t be the defining part of my own feelings about myself or what society should see as being the most important thing about me.

    • Yes! The passivity of it, the emphasis on feeling over doing…I don’t know, that just doesn’t work for me. I have to do things and be engaged in the process for it to become real. There’s only so much transformation that can happen on the inside; you’ve got to make external changes as well.

      Thanks for the great comment!

    • “Taking responsibility for one’s own body” – that’s a really good way to put it. It makes me think of Joan Didion’s essay “On Self Respect,” which basically says self-respect entails taking responsibility for one’s own life. Certainly there are things beyond our control that impact our lives, but we owe it to ourselves to make the best of what we CAN control.

  2. I totally agree with everything here, but none more so than your last point. Those trashy seemingly-harmless guilty-pleasure gossip mags are poison. Imagine, just imagine, a responsibly self-regulating media which didn’t sell this BS to us!

    • God, the gossip magazines make me incandescent with rage. The only reason why I ever read them is when I want something mindless with lots of pictures while on the stationary bike at the gym, but even then I spend half the time just horrified by the things I am seeing and reading. I do appreciate that some women’s magazines try, but the visuals are too much for me and I am not capable of looking at them without feeling bad in some way.

  3. Pingback: A few thoughts on Love Your Body Day « Fit and Feminist·

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