Earlier this fall, I wrote a post called “Body Love in the Face of an Illness or Feeling Unwell.” As usual, you all contributed some wonderful comments, and as usual, it has taken me a little time to digest them. One of the comments that most got me thinking was Amber’s. She said,
I almost feel like the latest “thing” is for people to insist that you HAVE to love and embrace your body, inside and out, at all times. That can make those of us who are uncomfortable feel even more frustrated and depressed, like there’s something wrong with us for not being able to look in the mirror and grin and claim to love everything we see. Thanks for handling this issue with sensitivity and grace.
I agreed with Amber, and rejoined that a more appropriate term for what I mean is “body appreciation,” “body respect,” or “body gratitude.” Though I do sincerely love my body—and you’ll see what I mean by that in a moment—I don’t relate to “body love” as it is portrayed in the media. The love I feel toward my body is a far more nuanced and complex emotion than the enthusiastic, grinning, jump-for-joy sentiment that one might see portrayed in a women’s magazine (probably with a picture of some lithe woman in a bikini nearby).
It’s almost always the case that one insightful comment on my blog will make me think of another insightful comment, and to the themes that we so often return to in this space. Amber’s remark about the problematic simplicity of “body love” memes got me thinking about a comment that my friend Kathleen once left on CR (on my “Fitspiration” post). She asked me,
Your description of the value you see in your body is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read. A bit off topic, but I’m curious: While you were in recovery, did you ever think you’d get to a place where you would actually celebrate your body or was that something that came long after? Was it something you “worked on” or was it inherent to fully recovering? (Apologies if that is too personal.)
Not too personal at all. But as I was thinking about how to respond, it occurred to me that my own way of celebrating my body doesn’t quite match up with the pop culture standard, which seems to suggest that body appreciation resides in loving what you see in the mirror every morning, always feeling thrilled to slip into a bathing suit or a little black dress, and feeling downright proud of every curve. To be frank, my body love, such as it is, is just a lot more complicated than that. I’ve been in recovery for many years now, and am immensely proud of my redefined relationship with food, my enthusiasm for eating, and my respect for my own physical needs. I am also proud of the way I’ve come to accept and appreciate my own shape, but the process is not always simple, and it certainly doesn’t mean waking up every morning, staring in the mirror, and loving what I see.
The love I feel toward my body is real love, which is to say that it’s complex, sometimes uneven, and sometimes stormy. As with any loving relationship—with lovers, family members, or friends—there are ups and downs, good days and bad, sentiments that I regret or feel guilty for feeling. There are also days of gratitude, joy, excitement, and admiration. There are disappointments and frustrations and breakthroughs in communication. But the most important thing to say is that the love I feel for my body makes me generous. They say true love is about being able to put someone else’s needs above one’s own. For me, body love means that I prioritize my body’s best interests when my mind would have me do otherwise—when it would have me deprive my body for the sake of appeasing its own obsessive tendencies. When I’m tempted to be selfish and hold back, I give—usually in the form of nourishing food, mindful movement, and the experience of pleasure—instead.
I realize that I’m creating a schism here between my body and my mind, and perhaps that’s not a very healthy way to look at things. But the truth is that eating disorders are just that—a war between the body’s needs and the mind’s desire to quash them. And I’ve had much more personal success imagining my relationship with my body as a relationship between two loving entities—mind and body—than I have with any other kind of metaphorical construct. Many days go by without me feeling as though there’s any interference between body and mind, but sometimes there is, and when there is, I like to frame that interference as the tension that resides in any loving relationship.
I think it’s hugely important that we all learn to imagine our bodies not as commodities, but as entities with needs of their own, who deserve respect, compassion, and love. I don’t love my body the way I love a new shirt or the way I “like” something on Facebook. It’s not something that pleases or displeases me in a pat, yes or no, pretty or not pretty, sort of way. My body is a living, breathing being, and it is far too complex to be merely “likeable.” It is loveable, and it is beautiful. I don’t always find it superficially pleasing, and given my history, I don’t always expect to. But that’s not really the point.
When I was at the height of my disorder, my biggest fear was that my body would “change” on me. I’d eat a few extra calories or skip a workout, and suddenly my body would morph into a giant, unruly monster. Even more distressing was the idea that, by no act of my own doing, my body would change anyway. Name one thing that might cause the body to evolve or fluctuate, and I dreaded it: menstruation, pregnancy, aging. I wanted my body to behave, to remain trim and eternally pleasing. It did not occur to me that I was treating my body, which is by definition an ever-changing, living entity, like a static object: a statue, a cutout from a magazine, a paper doll.
Today, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my body is alive, and life means movement . My body’s shape will change with time, and so will its needs, tastes, preferences. I can’t strap it into a pants size and tell it to stay there forever, and I can’t force it to abide by some restrictive and crazy-making dietary protocol indefinitely. I’ve been forced to accept the fact that my body, like any other living entity, has evolving needs. Don’t they always say that if you love someone, you must give them space in which to grow?
The relationship I’m describing—good days, bad days, but fundamental appreciation and respect—is probably pretty close to “normal.” When I was recovering, I had the very false idea in my head that there are two kinds of people: people who have eating disorders, and people who LOVE their bodies. You’re either doomed to hate your shape and do all you can to destroy it, or you’re the sort of person who eats whatever she wants, slips into revealing clothes confidently, and never harbors a self-loathing thought. I was flabbergasted one day when my mother—who has a fantastic relationship with her body—told me, “well, everyone has days where they don’t like their body. That’s normal.” It really hadn’t occurred to me that it is. My mom’s remark put recovery in a whole new context for me. Being recovered doesn’t mean loving your body every minute of every day. It means struggling to love it sometimes, but not allowing that struggle to turn into a war.
These days, I know how to end the struggle in peaceful reconciliation. This doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and feel the old, familiar sense of disapproval and panic, or that I don’t irrationally fear weight gain, or that I never put on my jeans with a sense of unease. I feel all of those things, sometimes. But I don’t turn those feelings into “self-mutilation,” to use a phrase that one of my yoga teachers employs to describe our battles against the self. Instead, I take a few moments to feel sympathy and compassion for my body—the body that has withstood my many attempts to injure it, and bounced back with so much resilience; the body that seems to have forgiven me. Being forgiving and generous with it in return is the least I can do. This ongoing process may not match up perfectly with editorialized slogans about “body love,” but it’s enormous progress for me. And from where I stand, it feels very loving indeed.
As always, I’m curious to hear how you all see things. What does body love suggest to you? How do you encourage a loving relationship with your body in your own lives?