We suffer from an irrational, collective body image disorder. We make demands — for less fat, more muscle, flatter abs, firmer arms, or perkier breasts.
Some say we should substitute positive thoughts for demanding thoughts, but that is another kind of demand, more pleasant, but still authoritarian. I prefer preferences (and so does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
Perhaps this is why I recoil from vague body image mantras. Saying, for example, “I love my belly” tries to force a positive thought I am not ready to believe. Conversely, the demand “I need a flat belly” implies I am incomplete without one.
Better to say…
I would prefer a flat belly, but I don’t need one to be happy. I am not my belly, and it is not a marker of my success as a person. It is simply a part of me, just like my toes or my elbows. It should not determine how I act as a friend, a mother, a lover, and an intelligent human being.
This is much wordier and not as much fun as “I love my belly,” but if you truly don’t love your belly, why pretend like you do?
Why is the goal belly LOVE? Love, like hate, verges on substituting a part — for example, the belly — for the whole — you as a woman and mother.
This doesn’t mean liking specific parts of your body is a bad thing. Indeed, disputing irrational thoughts often leads to a new friendship with our bodies.
However, it can’t be forced. And it can’t be achieved by repeating uncritical mantras. Instead, we should notice and then refute irrational body talk.
Irrational Body Talk is Everywhere
Once you start looking, you will see irrational body talk everywhere.
For example, the following is from a celebrity interview in one of those magazines that pretends to be about your “Health” but is really about your “Abs.”
The interviewer asks:
What do you do to maintain your energy and mood?
The celebrity answers:
Working out is a main one. I just feel bad about myself if I don’t, because I like to eat, and I like to have a few cocktails.
Let’s parse that answer. This celebrity works out to feel better about herself. Great. Evidence supports exercise as a mood improver.
But she also treats exercise as an antidote for food and drink.
What is the irrational subtext? That your self, the “myself” for which she feels bad, is somehow at fault for indulging in calories. Eating is an action. Not a self. Remember, the query was about energy and mood, yet her answer is about minimizing weight.
Let us pretend we are this celebrity. How can we keep the sentiment, but recognize the irrationality?
She might say:
I feel good when I workout. I like to eat and have a few cocktails, but sometimes if I indulge too much I worry about gaining weight, and I beat myself up for this. Working out helps me worry less about weight gain. It also makes me feel good.”
Too Oprahy? Maybe. Still, much more self-aware than her initial answer.
I Love My Bikini Body
Another example. This from the Everywoman.
A Today Show article about a mom’s body image ends with a quote from a self-assured mother:
’I was the most confident about my body a week after I delivered my second baby (now 4 months),’ Amber Melo told TODAY Moms. ‘I was back in a bikini before three weeks postpartum. I didn’t look my best ever, but was so proud of what my body was capable of. I love my body.’
What do you think?
To me, the message is mixed. On one hand, her body confidence is awesome. Why shouldn’t she wear a bikini? I say “good for her!”
On the other hand, this example of Mom Power make me cringe, even as I want to give Amber a high five. Why?
Well, because ending the article with this quote reinforces the message that a displayed body is a synonym for a confident body, that the cure for body insecurity is slapping on a two piece and saying “I love my body!”
I don’t doubt that Amber actually loves her body, but I wonder a little why the editors of the piece view her as the de facto role model for postpartum women. This is a definite trend in “body positive” news coverage – celebrating the mom who still rocks the two piece even if her body doesn’t conform to stereotypical standards of beauty.
But let’s be honest, for most of us, this type of confidence is too forced, too unnatural, and, therefore, too irrational.
The media lacks imagination and nuance when talking about body image. It’s as if a good body image can only be exemplified by how a mom displays her body.
Wearing a bikini without feeling ashamed of your body is great. But, this shouldn’t represent the only available form of rational body acceptance. We have more than two choices, and we should give ourselves permission to live in the dusky gradations between “I hate my body” and “I love my body.”
Rewrite the irrational body image demands of an anonymous mother and then rewrite your own words from Week 1’s About Me.
Recognizing and changing irrational thoughts takes more work than you might think. Take time constructing your answers.
- Respond to this mother. Is she making any irrational demands? If she were your friend, what you would say to her?
“I am a 33 year old mother of 3 and HATE my body now. I am not over weight. I am 5’8″ and 135 lbs of nasty flab after having children. I love my children but my body is crap now… I will not get naked in front of anyone. My boobs sag now and my nipples are huge…GROSS; try looking at that in the mirror every day! I have stretch marks and cannot tone my tummy or thighs… I just want to cry! I am a pretty girl until i get naked…”
- Find your About Me answers. Look at your answer to Question #5. Do you notice any irrational body thoughts?
- Look at your answer to Question #7. You were asked about your least favorite body part. How would you rewrite your answer, still keeping it negative, but more rationally so?
- Look at your answer to Question #6. You were asked about your favorite body part. Does your answer focus on looks or function or both? Do you want to rewrite it, or does it make you feel good?
Return to Week 4