Body Image and Attachment (originally published 11/25/13)

When I walk out of my bedroom door I am met with a reflection of myself in the bathroom mirror, which runs from counter (mid-thigh) height, up about three or four feet, and two to three strides to the right toward the sink, toilet and tub.  Sometimes I turn left into the rest of the apartment, but regardless it is hard to leave my room without coming face to face (or face to body) with myself in the mirror.  I noticed not too long ago my habit of coming out of my room and heading to the shower, taking a right and as I do frowning, or grimacing, or rolling my eyes at the sight of my ass in the mirror.  It’s a habit that seems fairly small and harmless, but one I’m working to change for various reasons.  We all have a personal narrative, an endlessly exhaustive collective of experiences that have brought us to this moment and our perception of who and how we are.  Some of these stories help us see ourselves honestly, some hold us back from going we need to grow.  Truth is always up for debate, but here’s the brief version of my personal story about body image:

I’ve always been, by medical standards, thin.  Sophomore year in high school I was walking through the cafeteria and a junior boy asked me if I’d “grown those things over night”.  Crass, yes, but I wondered the same thing myself.  Suddenly I had 32Ds, a tiny waist, and a backside that swished when I walked – a habit I tried hard to break because I hated the attention it seemed to command.  I always danced, participated in sports every season, and ate like a linebacker, and the end result was a body that people routinely referred to as “perfect”.  I never really knew what to say when someone complemented me on my figure (to be fair I don’t handle complements about anything well ever, but that’s probably a topic for another piece of prose).  It wasn’t something I’d earned or achieved.  It’s just how I was.  Whenever I offered that explanation it seemed to piss people off.  So I picked up the unfortunate habit of drawing their attention to some aspect of my person that might be viewed as unattractive and/or quickly changing the subject.

When I went to college we had a sorority exercise where everyone in the pledge class had a piece of paper with their name at the top, and everyone else wrote something they appreciated or admired about that person. At least 80% of the comments on my paper were about how perfect my body was.  I can totally acknowledge now that these were kind and well-intentioned complements, and that as a fairly introverted gal I probably didn’t give folks much to work with, but at the time all I felt was that people only valued me for the way that I looked, which was not something I ever really cared all that much about.  I loved what my body could do.  I loved to dance, hike, walk, boulder, run, bike…you name it.  If it’s physical I’m usually all about it.  What my body looked like wasn’t ever all that important to me, but I think that’s probably easy for me to say because my body generally always looked fairly acceptable by societal standards.

My shape changed a good bit though the years, especially through two pregnancies.  After having children and nursing for 3.5 years total between the two kids, I came out of the other side of that experiment looking different.  Anthropologically it makes a lot of sense: pre-kids I was generally soft and fairly voluptuous, practically a picture of fertility, and after kids I am leaner and more muscular, the ideal structure for defending the nest.  I haven’t tried to change my body, it’s just happening.  The choices I make about diet and exercise are related to feeling good, not looking good.  It’s arguable that, again, by society’s standards I’m doing okay, so it’s easier for me to take that stance.  But we all have our own expectations of ourselves, don’t we?  They’re born of our history and our upbringing, our cultural influences and the things that we see and hear.  Our culture is pretty obsessed with the female form, and standards of beauty over the years have become much more unrealistic as cosmetic procedures have become more accessible.  And even those high profile women who have had cosmetic procedures done, who have access to trainers and personal chefs and careers that revolve around their bodies, are whittled away, smoothed over and re-plumped in all of the right places by the magic of Photoshop.  Society has some pretty crazy – I’ll even go so far as to say inhuman – standards.  My favorite quote of all time on this topic is from Tina Fey’s book Bossy Pants:

“But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”

It’s so funny because it’s so true.  And while it can be argued that our insecurities are the fault of the media, I don’t buy it.  We’re only fed what we’re willing to swallow.  So many women I know complain about the standard, but then hold themselves to it more harshly that anyone else would.  I worked in a gym for a long time, and I heard a lot of locker room discussions that really saddened me.  The most complements I ever received on my body during a short period of time came in that gym after having the stomach flu twice in one month.  Thanks but no thanks.  Why do we value what we value?  Why are our standards for beauty so skewed?  So many people don’t feel at home in their bodies.  There’s so much shame and hate.  In my career I’ve found that sometimes those who from an outsiders perspective have the “perfect” body are the most miserable in their own skin, arguably the least healthy.  This is not something the media does to us.  It’s something we do to ourselves.  It affects some of us only in our weakest moments, and others of us are blindly consumed by it. I think we have a great opportunity, if we are willing, to listen to our stories about how we look, to our judgments about how others look, to begin as individuals to challenge our body images and standards of beauty.  Only then will there be a cultural shift.

So back to the bathroom mirror…why do I, in certain moments, find the body reflected back at me so discouraging?  I think it’s about attachment.  The body that I had 20 years ago has changed.  Things have shifted (mostly in the direction of gravity).  I’ve got veins and spots and bumps and dimples and I suppose I’m not supposed to talk about that stuff but I think it’s important for all of us to acknowledge that we are real, not airbrushed.  All of us.  I’m not perfect.  And I never was.  Back in the day I had a body that looked much like what those teenage boys were seeing in centerfolds, so to a handful of guys in my little corner of the world in a moment here or there I was perfect.  And probably only because they had an agenda I was too naïve to recognize.  The funny thing is that I knew it was bullshit then too, but it’s only as I age and realize that I’m moving away from that “so-called-perfect” body that I have moments when I feel less valuable because don’t look like I did half my life ago.

On my next birthday I’ll be 40.  And I look it.  I’ve got lines on my face from smiling and frowning and thinking and learning things the hard way.  I’ve got stretch marks from having babies and suns spots from having way to much fun on way too many beaches way too many times.  I have little to no breast tissue left because apparently lactating is one of my greatest talents.  Who knew?  But I’ve earned this body – every last line and mark and scar.  It’s the illustrated version of my personal narrative.  Moving forward, I have made it a practice to make eye contact with myself when I walk past my bathroom mirror, rather than doing a scan of my body to find satisfaction or criticism.   If I value all that my body can do, even these little moments can be flipped to lift me up rather than to silently and slowly sabotage my self worth.

I am responsible for two very observant and impressionable people – a boy and a girl.  I want them both, my son as much as my daughter, to know that I am proud of who I am and where I’ve been, and that I am grateful for the body that tells that that story.  I want them to understand that the human body is a beautiful machine.  I want them to feel empowered by what their body does not by how it looks.  I want all of us to expand our standards of beauty so that we can see it in the features and faces of each person we meet, to celebrate our differences rather than distrust or devalue them, to avoid judging ourselves as being greater or lesser for any reason, least of all appearances.

It’s been said that “people are like stained glass windows…their true beauty is only revealed when there is light from within.”  This is just one reason why the mindfulness practices of yoga are so valuable.  If the practice revolves around inquiry and a willingness to sit with change, to find stillness amongst the chaos of outer life and inner chatter, then yoga can truly be a life-long path.  If yoga is about the shapes we can make then it is only a matter of time before it becomes unfulfilling.  Because no matter how much time, energy and money we throw at it, the body it is constantly changing.  French philosopher Simone Weil said, “Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions…”  No matter how young we look, we are still aging.  And no matter how perfect we look, we are still human.  No matter how much we match the accepted American cultural standards of beauty we are still going to experience loss, rejection, failure, loneliness, disappointment, fear and heartache. 

The flip side of that is every single one of us can experience peace, love, joy, contentment and gratitude regardless of how we look, how much money we have, or any other interchangeable piece of our perceived identity.  I’m not suggesting that we can all be happy all of the time, but I think we can learn to see where and when our judgments and expectations are the source of our own unhappiness and start to wipe it out before it wears us down.  The things that we tell ourselves are powerful, so we have the choice to adopt habits and mantras that foster acceptance, gratitude and wholeness.  Poet Courtney Walsh asks us to remember:  “You didn’t come here to be perfect.  You already are.  You came here to be beautifully human.  Flawed and fabulous.”  Amen to that.