It’s really hard to be an American with good body image.
America, along with the rest of the world, is in a weird place right now when it comes to thinking about people’s bodies. On the one hand, you’ve got the huge group of advertisers selling “ideal” bodies to “average” people: superthin women with impossibly large breasts and hypermuscular men selling cars, fragrances, clothes and countless other products to the jealous and insecure masses. On the other hand, you’ve got the “I just want you to be healthy” movement, which looks on the surface to be a harmless battle against obesity, but often defines “healthy” as three shrimp and some apple slices for dinner followed by 200 reps on the rowing machine for dessert. This movement is the reason you see so many “motivational” workout posts on the Internet that just shame and embarrass people: “What you eat in private you wear in public”, “Would you rather have fries or a thigh gap?”, “Won’t quit till I’m fit” superimposed over the body of a girl with protruding hip bones or a guy with biceps the size of basketballs.*
Then, balancing on our culture’s collective knee, there’s the “love your body” movement. This growing cultural phenomenon has a good message—embrace what you were born with, treat your body with respect, screw other people’s opinions of how you look—but it can be an intimidating change for people who have been inundated with messages of body conformity since birth. I love Disney movies as much as the next person, but Lilo and Stitch was the first one to present characters with any degree of anatomical truth, and that didn’t show up until I was eight.
Perfect body comfort—just like a perfect body—is something you may never achieve. That’s okay. For now, let’s just focus on getting to feeling decent about your body, mmkay?
What is not sucking? Not sucking is defined in the world of positive body image as acknowledging that, while your body may not fit somebody else’s or even your own picture of the ideal, it’s, in the words of Stitch, “still good. Yeah, still good.”
- Stop saying mean things to yourself. Would you ever tell a friend that the fact that her thighs touch makes her a worthless human being or that his lack of six pack abs makes him a loser? Then stop saying it (or even thinking it) about your own body. You deserve just as much love and respect as the people around you, and you should treat yourself just as well as you expect others to treat you. I know this is easier said than done, but just start by being conscious of the way you think about your body. Becoming aware of negativity in your thinking is the first step to eradicating it.
- Say some nice things. Take a look in the mirror. Then, out loud, on paper, or just in your head, name some things that you actually like about your looks. Don’t ask other people for input; the only way to do this right is to do it yourself. These things you like can be anywhere on your body, they can be quirky things or “average” things, and they can even be things that society or the inside of your brain tells you that you’re “supposed” to hate. They just need to be parts of you that elicit a positive reaction when you look at them. Try to get to five things. Then ten.
- Stop attaching moral value to things you eat. Unless your broccoli gets hit with gamma rays and starts fighting crime, it is not an inherently “good” food. Unless your pizza puts a tack on your chair before you sit down to eat it, it is not an inherently “bad” food. What you digest does not determine whether you are a good or bad person, a success or a failure. Remember this as we go into the holiday season: eating that second helping of mashed potatoes or that third sugar cookie is not going to put you on the path to dropping out of school, quitting your job and living in a van by the river.
- That said, respect the temple. Eat fruit. Eat vegetables. Drink water. I don’t know about you, but when I satisfy actual hunger or thirst with stuff like that, I feel good. When I’m craving chocolate, though, eating an apple just makes me want more chocolate. Eat what will make you feel happy—not entertained, but happy.
- Move around. You don’t have to go to the gym for this. Of course, you can if you really want to—I’m aware that some people enjoy going to the gym like I’m aware that some people believe Elvis is still living. However, if the gym sounds more like a medieval torture chamber than a place to have fun and get fit, you still have lots of opportunities to stay active. Walk places. Dance. Go swimming (for fun, not laps). Play a sport, if that’s your thing. Do some yoga. When you see what your body can do, you’ll be better friends with it.
- Look nice. Wash yourself. Brush your teeth. Wear clothes that fit. Smell good (or at least don’t smell bad). This isn’t for other people—it’s for you. Self-care is important because it makes you feel like you’re worth being taken care of.
- Focus on your inner parts. Not your spleen—your mind. Your spirit. Your soul. The part of you that scientists think might exist in your brain but that they’re still looking for. When we’re forty, with spouses and/or children and/or cats and careers that we’re perfectly happy focusing on, we’re not going to have the time or biology to keep up with “perfect” bodies. We’re definitely going to have whatever inner qualities we chose to invest in when we were twenty. Are you kind? Smart? Passionate about something? A good friend/artist/cook/mathematician/shopper/whatever the heck it is you are? Make that what you focus on. Remember the reasons why you, the person, are awesome, and your body will start to look better every day.
To you, of course. It already looks fabulous to me.
Hey, gorgeous. You know what really wouldn’t suck? If you liked How Not to Suck on Facebook and followed us on Twitter (@hownottosuckblg–no, really. No o). Stay beautiful.
*Hi, there! Thanks for reading my footnote. Readers, if any of you feel at all like your body image is extremely distorted or that your eating/exercise habits are profoundly affecting your physical and/or emotional health in a negative way, please go see a doctor. You are special, you deserve to be happy and healthy, and you are loved (and not just by people who want you to continue reading their blogs).