body image

Making Peace with My Body

Last week someone posted a comment after my review of Taking Up Space that said that as much as she loves Go Kaleo, Amber Rogers seems “superhuman” to her. What the commenter was referring to was Amber’s first rule, namely, to declare a truce with your body.

The commenter asked whether there are any suggestions for just how to do this. She sounded frustrated and noted that despite wanting to declare a truce with her body, she struggles with it to the point of tears at times.

I can relate. I too still struggle enormously with poor body image. Most days, self-loathing focused on my body is one of the first thoughts I have upon waking up in the morning. I challenge the thoughts when I become aware of them, but they run as a background tape and inflect many areas of my life as a result. I need to pay attention or they can take me down. Still to this day, I have trouble looking in the mirror. If anyone tries to tell me I have a nice body, I don’t believe them. Though I force myself to use the open showers at the Y and walk naked in the locker room, I still feel self-conscious on occasion, not because of the nakedness but because I don’t like my body.

Yes, I have had some successes. I had a real epiphany during a week at a nude resort. I felt free and beautiful that week. I blogged about it here.

But I don’t spend my life in the nude and for some reason the world of clothed people relentlessly messes with my body image.

Amber’s section in the book focuses on the facts about fat and flaws. The main message is that we all have fat and flaws. It’s normal. So let’s move on and use our mental energy in other, more constructive ways. “Be more, not less.” She makes it sound so simple.

Like the commenter, I love the theory of being more, not less. I love the idea of focusing on performance. So much do I love it that I blog about it all the time. But I could use more help on how to achieve that level of self-acceptance.

This is not a new issue for me. I bought a copy of Transforming Body Image by Marcia Germaine Hutchinson back in the early nineties. I can’t even remember what it said, only that it seemed too complicated at the time. And that the authors recommended some strange form of movement that I’d never heard of and didn’t feel drawn to.

I’ve even tried affirmations, buying Louise Hay’s book Love Your Body. It’s full of affirmations like the following, called, “I Love My Body.” It says: “My body is a glorious place to live. I rejoice that I have chosen this particular body because it is perfect for me in this lifetime. It is the perfect size and shape and color. It serves me so well. I marvel at the miracle that is my body. I choose the healing thoughts that create and maintain my healthy body and make me feel good. I love and appreciate my beautiful body!”

Maybe this type of thing works for some people, but it just makes me roll my eyes and feel like a big liar. So I didn’t get very far with affirmations.

I’ve come a long way from where I used to be, so I need to recognize my successes. The week of comfort at the nude resort is not the only one.

My primary motivation for doing the activities I do is no longer that they will change my body. I surprised myself so much when the leader of the running group asked why people were there. In all honesty, my goals were all about running performance. It wasn’t until several other people mentioned weight loss that I realized that weight loss hadn’t even figured into the equation for me at all. Not even a little.

I don’t engage in restrictive dieting anymore. Though I am probably still falling short of what Taking Up Space recommends I eat in a day, I feel pretty comfortable with the Intuitive Eating approach [link] that I’ve adopted since January. I’m enjoying my food and not obsessing all day about what I will eat. That seems self-nurturing to me.

Intuitive eating has also helped me stay in tune with my body and pay more attention to it. That’s something of a truce. At least I’m not ignoring its signals anymore, even if I’m not loving the way I look.

I also have determined that monitoring my weight or even my body composition (as the Bod Pod does) is harmful for me and my body image. So I don’t do it anymore.

And I’m serious when I reject aesthetic ideals as motivators for engaging in the activities I choose or the foods that I eat. That strikes me as an impoverished and self-defeating way to live. I’m not interested.

I’ve read on many occasions that “fat thoughts” aren’t about being fat at all. They are more deeply rooted than that, stand-ins for other demons. From first hand experience, I know full well that losing the weight doesn’t make those thoughts go away. They only leave me when I feel at peace with myself more generally.

How to stop berating myself and instead living with self-acceptance is the real challenge here. For me, it requires vigilant attention to my motives for doing things. If I do things in the name of “self-improvement” then I am probably holding some aspect of myself in contempt.

That speaks to why affirmations could have some power to those who are open to their message. That affirmation about the body says that my body is fine right now, just the way it is. It doesn’t need to be whipped into shape. It doesn’t need to have a different composition. Even if Louise Hay’s specific affirmations didn’t resonate with me, I’m probably affirming something like “I’m okay just the way I am” when I challenge those thoughts of body-loathing that sneak up on me before I’m fully awake.

My 28 year-old step-daughter told me the other day that she really admires my body-acceptance and that it (and the blog) has helped her a lot. That tells me that my actions point to a more accepting stance towards my body even if my sneaky thoughts don’t always sing the same tune.

The real question is, which pattern of thinking will win the day? For me, no longer responding to those thoughts by engaging in body-punishing diets and workouts has gone a long way to improving my quality of life. Not just that, but I no longer spend a lot time talking uncritically about my body image “issues.”

In other words, I spend very little time talking about how much I loathe my body and what I need to do to fix it. It is the body image, not the body, that needs to change.

And slowly, slowly, things are shifting. But to suggest that I can call a truce and then be done with it?For me, it’s been a bit longer of a road than that, requiring several rounds of peace talks over many, many years.

27 thoughts on “Making Peace with My Body

  1. I know what the commentator means, it’s very difficult to read a book/post with someone preaching about self-acceptance and loving yourself when that person is rocking a killer bod. I tend to think “well yes of course you find it easy to love yourself you look amazing”

    But like most things if this self-acceptance ideal happened overnight then everyone would do it and no-one would have body issues. It takes time and work and there will be low points when you think you are a fat elephant. You need to find the way that works for you (and there will be a way, it just might take a few false starts).

    Nia Shanks wrote an article about faking it until you make it ( which I know helps some people.

    As always, great post.

    1. Thanks for the link to the Nia Shanks post. I think ‘fake it til you make it’ pretty much sums up where I’m at these days. I refuse to allow a poor self image to direct my actions today.

  2. These days I’m much more focused on what my body can and can’t do. When I’m disgruntled it’s much more likely to be with my sore knee or stiff hip than it is with my double chin. That’s a change that’s come with age and that shift in perspective is one of the things I like about getting older.

    My silly chin isn’t aesthetically the best but it doesn’t stop me from doing what I want to do. The bum knee looks fine but it’s lying.

    I confess I’m sometimes puzzled by how much weight our society places on appearance generally. It’s not just about our bodies. Why can’t we just think of beauty, as a friend once said, as something rare and unusual rather than pressuring everyone to experience themselves as beautiful? I think in a weird way I got off the beauty wagon was I was young. If it wasn’t going to work for me then I’d better find other things to focus on.

    What I love about my body isn’t what it looks like. It’s all the remarkable things it can do. Sounds like you’re coming to that perspective too. It’s a happy place to be.

    I think I’ll have a much harder time with changes in what I can do. That’s the bit of aging that makes me nervous.

    Excellent thought provoking post!

    1. I’m learning a lot from you but still struggle (obviously from this post!) with it. I can even get down about performance. In general I need to lighten up.

  3. Intuitive healthy eating is the way to go. Of course, some people might need to know of a few “set” or structure diets, diets that have a “name” to expose them to healthier eating. Then they can pick and choose right healthy food combinations for long term eating.

    When I returned to cycling the first few years in my early 30’s, I was interested in my speed, mileage. I tracked my cumulative mileage for a few years in a diary. Then gradually fell away from it because cycling sometimes became a chore to benchmark myself instead of just using it, cycling without thinking so consciously about getting fitter, better.

    I don’t compete but integrate cycling in my lifestyle since we haven’t had a car for last 2 decades. When I don’t bike for a few days, I feel vaguely unwell.

    I’m still fit (but not fast), I’m still at the weight I should be. What more am I asking for?

    We have to diminish the over-emphasis on diet and exercise as another check off task list every day. Just do it and don’t think much about it. Like breathing.

    1. I do like this approach. The more I choose to do things I truly enjoy the easier it is to integrate them into my life. When they become chores I don’t do them. Finding a balance between wanting to ‘do better’ and accepting where I’m at is a challenge that requires me to check my motives regularly. Thanks for your perspective. Always so sensible!

  4. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment! This topic is an important one to me (I touch on it a few times at my blog Birth of Athena) and it is very nice to see that others feel the same way. As I said in my previous comment, I love Go Kaleo, but I feel that people who write from the standpoint of making a complete truce with your body leave out a very important segment of people – people who are also not reached by mainstream media; This important segment is filled with people who, while they struggle with body image, have decided to make an honest effort to treat their body well; They have decided to stop the dieting and over-exercising. They have decided to actively not wage war on their bodies. Sometimes, it can feel a bit lonely in this middle ground and it is refreshing to hear other people voice the feelings that make them (a beautiful) human and not a superhero! Thanks, again!

    1. You’re welcome. I’m really glad you commented because you really got me thinking. I will definitely check out your blogging on this issue. Thanks again! As you say it’s nice not to be alone!

  5. I echo what Helen says: when dealing with negative thoughts about oneself, regardless of their content, it takes time, and there may never be a point at which one can say, “There–I’m done with that type of thinking.” Regardless of what type of negative thought it is, if it’s been around for a long time it’s carved neural pathways that may never disappear completely. I find that when I’m under stress I have a tendency to go back to negative ways of thinking, simply because that’s what’s most familiar to me–never mind that it doesn’t help and actually makes things worse! I tell myself I just have to keep plugging away at it, recognizing the successes I’ve had at eliminating such negative thoughts, and when I do fall back into them, trying to be kind to myself about it.

    1. So wise. I got a lot out of the Nia Shanks article Helen recommended. Did you read it? I love how she says to use words like ‘awesome, beautiful, intoxicating’! Thanks for your comment.

  6. This was an honest, beautifully written article, Tracy. Thank you for it. I agree with you that sometimes it seems that one’s demons can at best only be held at bay. It’s just feeld that insidious sometimes. I sometimes wonder if women would even be able to hear Amber Roger’s messages – her very good messages – if she didn’t look the way that she looks now. If she looked fat, would anyone listen? …sigh. That said, when your approach to life results in your strengths being passed on to others, like to your stepdaughter, without your weaknesses, then you know you are doing something right and something actually quite wonderful. Parents often become upset when their teenagers enter their “rebellious stage”, but sometimes the teenagers are using their parents’ strengths to rebel against their parents’ weaknesses; if that is what is occurring, the parents should be proud of their offspring, and their cup should runneth over with gratitude.

    1. My step daughter is so amazing. I agree with you that it is satisfying when we can do things that help the younger generation skip or move more quickly through things that we struggle(d) with. Thanks for pointing that out and I’m glad you liked the post.

  7. Tracy, I loved it when you said that body acceptance (however we envision that) requires many rounds of peace talks. There is progress, combined with setbacks, and incidents happen (medical, psychological, life and work-related) that require renegotiation. As someone who continues to struggle both with weight fluctuations and poor body image, my current focus (like Sam said in her post) is with what I can do with this body. This requires renegotiation, too, over time. Currently my goals are more stamina (so I can do a 50–70 mile ride and not feel wrecked the next day) and more strength (for power, to protect my wonky knee, to feel less creaky). Daily meditation helps me a lot, in part because it promotes a quiet awareness of my body that isn’t judgmental. This awareness persists during activity. I should try to see if I can access it when looking in a full-length mirror, too.

    1. Catherine I’m glad you mentioned meditation. I’ve had a regular meditation practice for years and can’t imagine where I would be without it. It’s nice to hear too that others who I know and respect struggle with similar. Not that I wish it on anyone of course but I like knowing I’m not alone and hearing the many strategies people have for re-negotiation with their bodies. Good luck with the cycling goals. I loved your post the other day about the group ride.

  8. Sorry me again! Just read this article and thought it was quite apt.

    I especially liked it because I was at a festival this weekend, camping for the first time with the kids. Of course I took loads of photos of the kids and my husband but when I got home I realised there were hardly any of me and the kids. I’ve spent years avoiding the camera (I’ve been told on more than one occasion by loved ones I don’t photograph well, they think they are being nice but…….) and it struck me (rather morbidly) that if I die then my kids would want photos of me and them together for the memories, and they wouldn’t care what I looked like.

    hmm I feel a blog post coming on….

  9. Looks like grappling with body-acceptance is in the air today! 🙂

    Anyway this is a great post. I think it’s very challenging to be able to come to a complete truce with our bodies in our culture. I mean, that tendency toward self-hate is inculcated in a lot of us from very early on, and it is reinforced from so many people and institutions all around us. It makes sense to me that it wouldn’t be easy for a lot of us, because after all it often feels like we are armies of one facing down huge insurmountable enemies with unlimited resources, which in a way, we are.

    Fortunately I think more and more of us are catching on to the fact that this game is rigged against us, and I think that if we continue to team up and support each other and develop alternate ways of looking at the world (for instance, focusing on performance vs. aesthetics – btw I agree that I find that a rather impoverished way to regard myself, and I like the way you put that), we can continue to make the world an easier place to live in, not just for ourselves but for others.

  10. I do love my body. But I would never use an “affirmation” as over-the-top as the one you quoted from Hay’s book. I know they’re popular, which suggests some people at least believe they work. But for me, an affirmation is a declaration of something I know to be true. Affirmations can be useful for reminding myself of truths I struggled to find, but they don’t work as a tool for brainwashing myself into believing a lie. Repeating something I believe to be false isn’t affirming, it’s just nonsense.

    Beyond my personal bent for requiring belief in an “affirmation” before I can use it, I think that one from Hay’s book is problematic for an additional, universal reason: it equates self-love with a belief that oneself is perfect. Since none of us is perfect, this guarantees the journey to self-love will end either in failure or delusion.

    I know I’m not perfect. And I love myself anyway.

    I know I would feel better living in my body and be able to perform better at activities which are important to me if my body fat percentage was lower than it is currently. My acknowledgement of this fact is not self-loathing. Nor is my desire to reduce my body fat percentage so I can achieve the benefits which will come from doing so an indication that I hold my current body in contempt. I don’t. I can and do love my current body and appreciate the wonderful, amazing things it can do, even though I know that a.) I can improve upon what I currently have, and b.) nothing I do will ever make me perfect.

    I do, however, share Samantha’s concern re: how to maintain my positive body-image through the aging process.

    I don’t care about my grey hair and wrinkles. (I’ve earned them!) I’ve never aspired to look like the airbrushed images in magazines. (I know how Photoshopping, makeup, lighting, and camera lenses are used to alter appearance and I conceptualize the effect as fake and aesthetically displeasing.) And I’m generally able to steer clear of comparing my athletic performance to that of others who are half my age or whose life resources enable them to maintain a more effective training schedule or whose genes predispose them to a greater aptitude for certain tasks.

    But comparing myself today to who I was yesterday? Yep. I do that. Taking pride and pleasure in being faster and stronger and leaner and more agile today than I was a year ago because I worked hard to realize these improvements? I’m all over that. I’ve even been pretty good at accepting plateaus when they’ve occurred near the peak of what I believe I can achieve. Being happy with a body which cannot do what it could do yesterday, however; even though I’m still training to the best of my ability? I haven’t figured that one out yet.

    1. You’ve expressed such a healthy sense of self and the body in this comment. Gives me something to aspire to. Thanks for this thoughtful wisdom.

  11. I don’t want to sound like I’m putting down how others go about loving and accepting themselves so I hope this won’t sound that way but I often wonder what will happen to someone’s self-esteem/body image if or when they reach a point in their lives when they can no longer maintain the killer body. I know that having a killer body is no guarantee of self-acceptance (plenty of people with great bodies still experience self-loathing) but for those who claim it while rocking the killer body I do wonder. I hope that their sense of self-acceptance isn’t inextricably linked to their mondo quads, their rock hard abs or how much they can bench press because if it is that may not always be the case. My body isn’t anywhere near close to being perfect but I love it nonetheless. It allows me to do all kinds of amazing things as a person that have nothing to do with how it looks or how strong it is and that makes me feel good.

  12. What an incredibly genuine and beautiful post. I’m so happy for you, you gave up on the idea of the perfect body. Don’t give up on affirmations entirely though. I’m so compelled by your post that I’m going to share with you an amazing tool I use. I say my affirmations while listening to Theta binaural beat music. Do this at least twice a day for thirty days and you’ll just be totally amazed. It’s the old self who’s stopping you from doing affirmations long enough. It doesn’t matter if they seem silly at first. It works. I think I might write a whole post just for you. Thank you. I’m really moved.

    1. Thanks for that recommendation. I’ve heard that suggested for meditation, but not for affirmations. If you do write a post for me (which would be so generous!) please let me know about it!

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