Around a year ago, I was sitting at a table eating lunch with my daughter. Seated at the table behind me was a bevy of young, beautiful, thin women. The sort of women who have incredibly successful blogs and Instagram accounts devoted almost entirely to selfies. The sort of women who instantly make me shrink and feel conspicuously ugly.
I happened to catch a snatch of their conversation, though, and was intrigued. The group of women–none of whom could have been larger than a size 6–were griping about how they looked. They never called themselves fat, but there were complaints about how their minuscule thighs were too large, their flat stomachs too convex, their taut upper arms too flabby. One girl with perfectly coiffed hair complained of a bad hair day. Despite fitting into virtually all of our society’s beauty ideals, none of them seemed very happy with themselves.
It made me wonder. Beauty standards aren’t just about how we actually look. They’re about how we think about ourselves and our bodies and our worth. They’re about the words we use to talk about our bodies. Our beauty standards are about viewing ourselves with a constantly critical eye and defining ourselves not by the things we are and do and have, but by the things we aren’t and don’t do and don’t have.
I feel like as a woman, I’m constantly being told to view my body as a never-ending improvement project, even as an adversary. What’s keeping me from the ultimate reward, which in our society an incredibly thin, toned body with nary a flaw? Me. And so I’m apparently supposed to wage war on myself in order to torture my body into the shape society says it’s supposed to have, even though 1) most of the images we see of ideal bodies are so heavily photoshopped, even the people photographed don’t actually have those bodies, 2) the people with “ideal” bodies typically spend several hours a day getting those bodies, and 3) my body may never, ever look like theirs, even with hours-long work outs every single day.
I will never have large breasts or a completely flat stomach without surgery. I will never have a flat rear-end. I will never be free from stretch marks and scars and blemishes. And I most certainly will never have a thigh gap. I say this as a person who once weighed 95 lbs. and wore a size 2. A thigh gap is never going to happen in this body.
But I’m still told this should be my goal: big boobs, flat stomach, flat butt, thigh gap. Even if it’s totally unachievable for me, the point is not achieving the perfect, but undergoing this constant process of trying to be perfect. It’s the hating yourself and beating yourself up and constant comparisons to everyone around you and the unproductive cycle of fad diets and fitness routines and pain and self-loathing.
I don’t think it’s healthy to approach fitness by looking at pictures of other people and saying, “I should look like that.” I certainly don’t think it’s healthy to approach fitness by telling myself that my body is my enemy, and I need to punch my flab in the face or that I need to destroy parts of myself that aren’t “perfect.” I want to like my body. I don’t think you can ever get to a place where you truly like your body if you see yourself as constantly trying to achieve someone else’s body, which may or may not even really be their body depending on the photo, and continually looking at all you aren’t versus all you are.
I certainly don’t think you can ever achieve happiness with yourself if you’re constantly making yourself feel bad every time you eat the wrong food or skip a workout.
You will skip work outs. You will eat ice cream. You will have periods in your life–maybe long periods–where other things are more important to you than being thin, being fit, being healthy, working out, eating the “right” foods. And guess what? That doesn’t mean you’re letting anything to go to waste or that you don’t deserve good things in your life or that you shouldn’t be happy.
You will never find happiness by falling into this fitness philosophy that happiness only happens for as long as you’re fighting with yourself to look better. Happiness is always one more workout, one more denied cookie, one more carrot stick away. It depends on you doing the “right” things, all the time, and no matter how many right things you are doing, there’s always more you could be doing. Meaning: there’s always one more thing to hate yourself or berate yourself for not doing. This is why even thin, beautiful women hate the way they look and obsess over diets and workouts and every little “imperfection.”
How you look is only how you look. It is a teeny tiny portion of all the things in your life you can be happy about and proud of. The best version of you has nothing to do with your washboard abs or your amazing triceps. You can have all those things and still feel terrible on the inside and have very little you feel proud and happy about.
My approach to fitness is that my body is amazing. Walking and breathing and talking and thinking and writing and reading and feeling joy and loving and laughing…these are all miracles. Life itself is a miracle. I am so lucky I get to wake up every day and experience it. My body has allowed me to do so many things and see so many things and experience so many things. My body grew a person. I fed that person with my body. I prefer to view my body as the vessel that allows me to experience the world and life, and I don’t want to view that vessel as an opponent. I want to work with my body to keep it as healthy and strong for as long as I can, but that doesn’t mean I have to hate myself for enjoying french fries or sitting on the couch some nights. I love french fries. They’re delicious. How amazing is it that something so simple can taste so good, and that I can enjoy that with this incredible body?! Of course, I also love vegetables. I love getting exercise. A lot of things that are good for you are actually fun and enjoyable. Focusing on the deprivation and sacrifice aspects makes healthy living a punishment, a sort of perpetual martyrdom in the name of “fitness.” It doesn’t have to be.
I want to treat my body well. I want to love it, and I want to enjoy every moment I have in it. I don’t want to hate it. I don’t want to fight myself. I don’t want to feel guilty about things I do or don’t do with it, just because of how it might affect my appearance. My youth and beauty (because, yes! I am beautiful, even if no one wants to see a blog of nothing but my selfies) are ephemeral. Someday I will be old, and being conventionally pretty will be entirely beyond my reach, and all I will have left is how much I can do in and with my body. I don’t want to continue to be locked into an approach to my body where I’m constantly hating it for all it’s not, rather than all it is.
My best self is not 115 lbs. with 18% body fat. My best self is being a great mom and wife and friend and coworker. My best self is reading good books and traveling to new places and enjoying sunsets and playing in the dirt with my daughter. My best self is random acts of kindness and advocating for a better world for everyone.
You’re never going to find happiness through hating yourself. Stop putting yourself down. Stop feeling guilty. Stop focusing on your “flaws.” Love yourself. Love your body. Love your life. Love others. Love them unconditionally, radically, and without reservation. That’s the path to happiness.