As someone who’s been through a lot of eating disorder treatment, I’ve heard a lot about improving body image (ho boy have I ever). One of the recurring themes in talking about body image is focusing on all the things that your body does for you besides looking the way it does. We would be asked to name one thing we liked about our bodies and most people would focus on things like “my body is healthy”, “my body gets me where I need to go”, “my body can run” and so on and so forth.
I was reading an article today on Grounded Parents about a fat mom who loves her body. She said that sometimes she looks in the mirror and smiles when thinking about how easily she can carry forty pounds or how she can walk for long distances. For some people this is a great way to get to love your body, and I in no way want to diminish anyone’s journey towards caring for their body (cause hell is it hard. Take whatever tools you can).
However I was thinking about this method of finding self-love today and realized that it just doesn’t work for me, and that suggesting that it’s a better or less problematic way to have a healthy relationship with your body is fraught with pitfalls. Not everyone has a body that is healthy or functions the way they want it to or is strong in the way they want it to be. Just like predicating acceptability on beauty undermines many people’s ability to love themselves, so does predicating it on functionality. What about the disabled or the chronically ill or anyone else whose body doesn’t do exactly what they want it to do?
I’m going to use myself as an example because I am most familiar with my own experiences, but feel free to chime in with your own. Whenever I’m asked to identify things that I appreciate my body I usually use the cop out of “well I’m still healthy” or “I am physically capable”.
Unfortunately these things are not true, and when I say them or when I hear others talk about how much they appreciate the things their body can do, I feel really broken. I am not capable of doing as much exercise as I used to be, and some days I’m not capable of doing any. Much of the time I can’t even keep up with my dad, who’s almost 40 years older than I am. Sometimes I feel dizzy randomly (ok more than sometimes). I run out of breath easily and I get tired easily, which means I can’t walk long distances. Because my dietician made me promise not to exercise for the better part of 9 months, most of my muscle mass is shot and I can’t do many things I used to be able to do (like carry heavy things up the stairs or be self-sufficient when it comes to putting together furniture or moving). I used to be really quite strong: in high school I was a competitive swimmer and swam 5-6 days a week. There were few physical things I couldn’t do if I felt like it.
I also very regularly fall into anemia and vitamin d deficiency, which both can lead to fatigue, low mood, and other lovely things. Overall in terms of my health I’m not doing horribly, but I hardly feel like my body is doing me any favors. More often than not, I feel like my body is fairly broken. It doesn’t look healthy: it has scars on it. It doesn’t feel healthy: I’m always tired. It can’t do the things that I ask of it. This means that coming to some level of self-love or even appreciation is more difficult than it would be if my body were fit and healthy.
How do you come to love something if you don’t think that it looks right and you don’t think that it functions right? How do you love your body when it doesn’t do the things it’s supposed to do: the very definition of broken? This is something that I’m still struggling with, and it’s absolutely a theme that makes me feel a great deal of empathy for those dealing with chronic illness or those who are disabled.
But here are the most preliminary ways to fight this way of thinking that I have come up with:
A body is not simply a machine to be appreciated aesthetically or to be used. We as human beings have a consciousness and this is something that most of us value. If you don’t I really can’t help you out here. But our consciousness is really only capable of existing because of our body: we need those brains and the whole life support system that is our internal organs and our bits and pieces. Without your body, you would cease to exist. There is no mind/body duality here kids, that thing that carries you around is an integral part of you: it is how you perceive everything, it is how you act on the world, it is how you express every emotion you have, it is how you feel every emotion you have, it is how you think every thought that has ever crossed your mind. It is you.
Now I know that many of us have difficulties loving our personalities and the whole package of ourselves as well, but when you think about how amazing it is that a hunk of flesh can allow us to literally change the world around us and can provide the resources and materials for thought and feeling, that is pretty damned amazing.
It also seems as though the struggle to care for one’s body has a whole lot of baggage that the struggle for general self-acceptance doesn’t. There are far more should’s and don’ts and do’s in the world of body image. There is far more shaming and hatred and vitriol spread about the simple thing that is a body than I think I’ve ever seen for someone’s personality or mind. If we even think of the threats and jokes that people make most often we see that those are enacted on someone’s body. No wonder we feel the need to protect our bodies.
Of course it sucks to realize that your body is not doing everything that it should to support your life or to let you act the ways you’d want. But no matter what else it does, it is the essence that allows you to exist. I haven’t found a way forward from this point, but it seems like a pretty good place to start appreciating what my body does.