With This Body

This week's topic has been a struggle to write. I didn't choose it - it chose me. An event with my own daughter spun my awareness around like a game spinner, and it landed with a hard stop at what you will read. This will be an ongoing exploration, but please note: BeingBreath is a one-woman show. And with every topic, this woman is deeply invested and entangled with what I am writing. If something below seems incomplete or to not make sense....it is because I am right alongside you in the journey, trying to make sense of it all as well.

 Photo by  Nicole Mason  on  Unsplash

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

 

If you are reading this, you have a body. And if you have a body, you almost certainly have (or have had) some negative thoughts about it. 

Your height, your weight, your illness, the symmetry of your face, the color of your skin, your wrinkles or rolls, the size of your feet, the veins in your legs, your hair or your migraines or stomach issues or your voice your lips your breasts your knees your fingernails ...

You are aware of your own physical self and I'm willing to bet that you judge that self, all too often. If you do, you'll relate to everything I've written. (If you don't, it is valuable to hear the perspectives of those who do ... millions of us.)

Within this post, I'm sharing my own struggles, why these cycles are so hard to get out of (for ALL of us), and where we might begin to find peace ... or at least, where we might take some space to just breathe.

 

 

In case this idea is new to you (or you've felt that you were alone in the struggle), let's look at a few stats to (sadly) normalize all of this a bit. (If you're intimately familiar with your own and / or the cultural struggle over body issues, feel free to jump to the next part.)

As you read these, try to think about the people that you know. Even if they keep it hidden, ...Statistically, how many of those people are challenged by these issues?

  • Approximately 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting to achieve their ideal body shape. [1]
  • At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. [2, 3]
  • Every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder. [4]
  • 50% of teenage girls and 30% of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives to control their weight.[5]
  • In a survey, more than 40% of women and about 20% of men agreed they would consider cosmetic surgery in the future. The statistics remain relatively constant across gender, age, marital status, and race. [6]
  • Fifty-six percent of women in a survey say they are dissatisfied with their overall appearance. The overwhelming majority of women in the same survey — 89 percent—want to lose weight. [7]

        This is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.      

 

It's honestly hard to learn about and be reminded of all of these facts (and so many more) and to keep writing. How have we let things get so bad? 

 

My personal story

 

One would think that after 40 years of living, I would have come to accept and love the body I have, the one that has made it possible to get where I am. Not so much. This isn't to say that I don't love all of my body from time to time. But there are aspects of my physical self that I attach negative thoughts to DAILY.

I don't think I even realized how much time I spend thinking about my body until I sat down to think about the thinking.

Every time I enter the kitchen, I question what I am getting ready to eat. I phrase it in three questions that I ask and answer almost unconsciously within a matter of seconds: Am I really hungry, is this the healthier option, and how will this affect my weight. It's that last one that usually demands the most attention

Every time I choose my outfit for the day, I take a look at my middle section. I look to see if you can see the belly rolls. I shift around in pants or with my underwear line, ensuring that I can't feel the band tucking in between two rolls of fat. 

Each time I look in the mirror, I notice the texture of my skin, the way my hair is falling, or if my bra strap or line is showing through the fabric of my shirt.

Every single time I'm out with others, constant thoughts ping my attention about how I'm appearing physically - are those belly rolls visible? Is the cellulite on my legs showing because I've smooshed them while crossing my legs? (Ugh, uncross those legs...it is making the varicose veins worse.) Is anyone noticing the web of veins on the tops of my feet?

When I become aware of the thoughts, I realize that I probably think about my body and appearance at LEAST once every ten minutes or so. If I were just thinking about my physical being, I wouldn't be so concerned. But most of those thoughts are accompanied by the weight of judgment. That's an insane amount of weight to be adding to my existence each day.

 

Self Awareness Vs Self Judgment

 

Many years ago, I immersed myself in regular yoga classes and a yoga teacher training. At that time (and since then), I have been fascinated with the sensations of body awareness. 

I remember one yoga class where the teacher had instructed us, as we were laying on the floor, to push our lower backs into the floor. As I did so, I remember very suddenly thinking, "Whoa, I have a back!". Clearly I'd known that my body had existed as more than just a front half. But in that moment, I felt the back side of my physical being in a way I never had before. I became aware of the sensation of having a back. 

Over the years, I've continued a practice of such embodied physical self-awareness in structured ways and during mundane movements. From noting how my foot falls when I walk to sensing how my posture is shaped in this moment (fun aside: did you just adjust yours?), this body awareness has helped me feel and be more in control of my physical movements and ultimately, my well-being.

That's the healthy part of the journey.

But as I mentioned, along with self-awareness there often arises self-judgment. I'm not alone: all of us have a very hard time simply noting a part of ourselves and being curious - not judgmental. 

You (and I) tend to notice a wrinkle and think, "bad" or a twinkle in your eye and think, "good". We feel an ache and think, "bad" or the sensation of a tight / fit tummy and think, "good".

Often, we're not even able to realize that there is a distinction between awareness of the characteristic and the judgment of that characteristic. They become synonymous. So a wrinkle and aches ARE bad and bright eyes and tight tummies ARE good.

Once the characteristics are permanently associated with these judgments, then the characteristics themselves become things to be gotten rid of or obtained. 

If a wrinkle is bad, then why not get creams and pills to prevent that horrible sign of aging? 

 

You can see the slippery slope of awareness to judgment to the need to "fix" one's self.

 

But wait, there's more....

We have this annoying tie between awareness and judgment as we become more aware of our physical self.

On top of this, consider this treacherous cycle, as noted by a survey (and additional research) for Psychology Today:

"When we feel bad about anything, our body satisfaction plummets, and when we hate our body, our mood takes a dive. " [8]

 

So even if you thought you overcame your concern over your wrinkle or tummy roll, the next time you have a fight with your partner or have a bad day at work, the more likely that same body image concern is to sneak up and grab you again. And the cycle spins round and round.

 

But wait, there's even more....

AND - Just in case you weren't aware of yourself or happen to be in a good mood most of the time - no fear, there's money to be made here!

Billions of dollars are spent in enticing you to notice how your body is changing and aging, how your weight looks on your body, how ok your life is but how much better it would be if you looked differently, ... and, you know, just in case you might want to CHANGE any of that, there is a product / program / system to help for only $19.95 (per month)! What a deal.

Try this today: Between Facebook ads, commercials, billboards, products on the shelves of the stores you visit, intentional or unintentional messages from friends and co-workers, and print materials, notice how many message you are offered about how you COULD appear. Anti-aging products, fitness ads targeted to creating a certain body shape, makeup ads, weight-loss and diet products and conversations, food packaging promising lower calorie or less fat, clothes that lift / tuck / hide / minimize, and so on. 

 

Add all of this together: thoughts that happen every hour of every day + thoughts that are loaded with self-judgment + external messages that tell you that you could (and should) look differently than you do.

We are DROWNING ourselves in judgment and creating toxic environments for our daily lives.

 

It's not like this is a new thing. I'm sure that in one way or another, body struggles have been around since there have been bodies. 

But in this age of selfies, social media, and a beauty industry worth billions, there is no escaping awareness of how you look and messages of how you could look. The image issues that you and I face are, I would argue, greatly more prevalent than even a couple of generations ago. We can and do see and judge ourselves and others all of the time.

 

Ideally, this would of constantly seeing and being seen would be a perfect opportunity to dance in the mixing pot with curious awareness.

We could become aware of so many different body types and shapes and colors and sizes and abilities and be curious about and fascinated by them all.

We could listen to stories of how one woman's culture shaped her hairstyle, how another woman's great-grandmother led to her makeup style, or how a childhood injury created an opportunity to learn how to move differently.

We could explore the reasons for our own physical shapes and forms (the pooch that came from bearing a child, the uneven ears that mimic a beloved great-grandfather's), and decide to embrace them as wonderfully unique features.

We could adorn ourselves and one another - simply to play - in a giddy variety of styles and fabrics and makeups and colors and jewels or in absolutely nothing at all.

We could walk and sit and move with quiet confidence whether we were alone or standing before an audience of thousands.

We could eat whenever we were hungry with thoughts centered on the taste or the origin or how the ingredients were interacting with our body and influencing our well-being.

And we would sleep and stretch and walk and run and sit and dance whenever our bodies felt called to do so.

How does it feel to think about such a way of living?

 gala-sanchez-371211-unsplash.jpg

gala-sanchez-371211-unsplash.jpg

 

No Answers. Just Different Questions.

You don't know how badly I want to end a post like this with 10 bullet points that will leave you feeling body-positive for life and will provide the answers for all of our societal struggles for years to come.

But there have been other individuals, agencies, collectives, and organizations who have been working tirelessly on these issues for years. Their work is deeply valuable. I don't feel that I have any magical insights that they've not tried.

What I do have is YOUR ATTENTION. And what YOU HAVE IS YOU. And this is all we have right now so please, stay with me.

Let’s not focus on our culture. Let’s not focus on society’s problems right now. Let’s focus on you – just you.

That is enough. (You are always enough.)

And let’s not focus on any answers. We aren’t trying to fix you or your problems or to even find a way for you to be happy with it all. 

 

Let's just look around. Be curious. Ask questions. It's still going to be uncomfortable, but that's part of the point. You and I have gotten ourselves here because our judgments of ourselves have driven us on an endless search for answers in the hopes of comfort....comfort in the form of release from our self-judgment and that of others. 

You. Questions. Curiosity. This is where you begin and this is where you return to again and again - always in the Space of Non-judgment.

I can't tell you what this will look like. Your awareness of your own body, your joys and challenges with your physical being are different than my own. The questions you need to ask of yourself are different from mine, and they will be different each day.

I can tell you that the process will feel insanely uncomfortable from time to time. You'll feel it in your gut, throughout your limbs. Certain thoughts will make you squirm and your mind will do everything it can to pull you in a different direction. But please, please - take time to sit with those uncomfortable thoughts instead of running away from them. 

Please, please - every time you notice a negative judgment, let it fly away like a balloon disappearing into a vast blue sky. An ache is an ache. A roll of skin is a roll of skin. A torn this or that, a chronic disease, a wrinkle ... they are all just what they are.

Do not push away your pain around those issues. Your pain is valid - it is a communication from your body. As unpleasant as it is, it isn't bad - just a signal. 

Ask questions as if you were trying to get to know yourself, not as if you were trying to fix yourself. Be curious, not judgmental.

 

And here we are, sitting together with these questions and in the unknown. You, feeling the weight and shape of your body. The relaxed parts, the aching parts, the heavy parts, the parts you didn't even notice until you started paying attention just now. Me, doing the same.

Not knowing, but staying curious. Not judging. 

We'll come back to this again.

Breathing together...

 

 

References:

1.        Palmer, Mario. "5 Facts About Body Image." Amplify. Accessed February 24, 2014, http://amplifyyourvoice.org/u/marioapalmer/2013/05/21/byob-be-your-own-beautiful.

2.        Hudson, J. I., Hiripi, E., Pope, H. G., & Kessler, R. C. (2007). The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the national comorbidity survey replication. Biological Psychiatry, 61(3), 348–358.

3.        Le Grange, D., Swanson, S. A., Crow, S. J., & Merikangas, K. R. (2012). Eating disorder not otherwise specified presentation in the US population. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45(5), 711-718.

4.        Eating Disorders Coalition. (2016). Facts About Eating Disorders: What The Research Shows.http://eatingdisorderscoalition.org.s208556.gridserver.com/couch/uploads/file/fact-sheet_2016.pdf

5.        Neumark Sztainer, D. (2005). I’m, Like, SO Fat! New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 5.

6.        Manwaring, Ayarza. "Reality television and its impact on women 's body image." Encompass. Accessed February 24, 2014, http://encompass.eku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1049&context=etd.

7.        The 1997 Psychology Today Body Image Survey. David Garner, Ph.D. and Ann Keamey Cooke, Ph.D. Referenced https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/199702/body-image-in-america-survey-results, accessed May 17, 2018

8.       The 1997 Psychology Today Body Image Survey. David Garner, Ph.D. and Ann Keamey Cooke, Ph.D. Referenced https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/199702/body-image-in-america-survey-results, accessed May 17, 2018

 

 

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