I don’t know that I was prepared for the outpouring of e-mails, FB messages, tweets, messages-in-a-bottle, carrier pigeons or smoke signals that I received the other day about my post. I didn’t want to write about it because I often question whether or not I’d be jumping the shark in writing about certain topics, but I realized that there are so very few positive and encouraging messages about women of color and body image (and the things that can alter and affect our body image) that I just wrote it and said “Well, if anyone doesn’t like it, there’s a whole Internet out there for ‘em.”
I enjoy writing about body image because it’s the one issue that is most intriguing to me – it’s one thing to love myself, but I can only love my body if my body lives up to someone else’s standards? When I was 300-some-odd pounds, my body didn’t live up to anyone else’s standards. When I finally reach my goal, and am able to compete in a figure competition, guess what? My body won’t live up to anyone else’s standards then, either. What message did I learn there? To stop giving a damn about anyone else’s standards.
Body image is complex. It’s a basic opinion and perception of our body. That perception is colored by our experiences. And, let’s be real – those experiences largely consist of what the community we live in tends to prize. So… if those experiences consist of video girls and “Miss New Booty” type chicks being desired, then that’s what we’ll compare ourselves to and strive toward. If your community is full of tiny track stars, you will shoot for that. I “grew up” in both kinds of communities, so to speak, and I didn’t even have a body image at all.
No, really – I had no understanding of my body or what I looked like. If body dysmorphic disorder is an excessive focus on a particular flaw, then I was the exact opposite. I had no perceived flaws because I had no perception of myself. I was so darn good at invisibility that I became invisible to myself. But if you asked me back then, I was awesome personified. Just didn’t relate it to my body. Maybe because focusing on it would force me to face what I’d done to it. I don’t know.
Now that I’ve become more focused on myself, I’ve reached a point where I’m questioning my body image and how it falls in line with my goals. I mean, it’s not very often that you find women who look like they’re stepped out of a figure competition walking across your neighborhood… so that means that I have to strive for something that might make me an outcast in my community. It’s also an extremely difficult goal to obtain and/or maintain. Am I punishing or penalizing myself for not reaching it/having reached it already? Do I think of myself as less than until I get there? Does this mean that I think I’m defective… y’know, because I’m working so hard to change myself?
I almost feel like I have a responsibility to myself – because I opened up that old wound about my lack of body image – to find a new way to identify myself… and strangely enough, it came last night by way of Jackie Warner’s TV show, Thintervention. Make no mistake about it, this falls under the category of “weight loss porn,” but Jackie’s show ends each episode with a therapy session among the cast that I find much more valuable than the corny advertisement/”healthy living tips” from other shows.
This week, Jackie did something that was so phenomenal and profound in ways that I don’t even think she imagined. I know I’m like, gushing all over her, but it’s from a genuine place. I love Jackie. She just rocks.
Jackie asked her clients to come to the therapy session with a photo of them as a toddler. She then asked them what they hated about themselves, and most of them made statements like “I had very fat thighs,” or “I was too ugly (!),” but then, Jackie asked: Would you say that to the child in that picture? No? Then why say that to yourself? Isn’t that you in the picture?
I sat and I thought about that. I thought about the kind of test she set up – talking to an insecure child with noticeably fragile feelings about how to look at themselves in a way that helps that child love and appreciate themselves – and then I looked at how I talk to my daughter. When she asks me questions about her hair, her skin, or her “big [post-dinner] belly,” I tell her to embrace those things and I kiss her and remind her that those are things that make her beautiful.
But what if that little girl was me? If I was sitting myself on my own knee, listening to me say “I could stand to tighten up here.. and here… and here…” what would I say to me? I mean, for those of us with no understanding of what “body image” really is, we’re tasking ourselves with the challenge of teaching a young girl (ourselves, really) how to love ourselves. Isn’t this the same thing that we, as adults, need? Regardless of age, we have enough experience in our life – especially since we are individuals who can acknowledge that we have health to reclaim and, ultimately, weight to lose – to know the value of good body image in this journey. You can wind up hating yourself for not getting where you want to be, and you absolutely can start to “hate your body” for the stress and undue pressure to change that it brings you.
So what would you tell a little pre-schooler about their body, if they came to you pulling and tugging on arm fat, belly fat or thigh fat? If they told you they “hate their body?” For someone like me, who is essentially pushing themselves well beyond what society might find “acceptable,” what am I supposed to tell myself?
First of all, I don’t punish myself for not being where I want to be. I don’t look at myself as less than, because I have a goal that actually requires work to obtain (and maintain, at that) and it won’t happen overnight. I can be realistic about what I want to change without thinking there’s something wrong with who I am today… especially to the point where I use words like “hate” against myself. My body also isn’t enough to make me look at the person I am as being “a less than,” because there’s more to me than that. I’ll put forth the effort toward making me the person I desire to be – because I am worth that much – but I still embrace who I am as an amazing, loving and caring woman. It’s ok to have a goal with change in mind, but I’d never tell a little girl that she was unappealing or add to her insecurity because of it. And really, deep down inside, we are all just that fragile. It’s ok to admit that.
So really, what messages can we start telling ourselves to combat these feelings and develop healthy body image even though we may have the desire to change?