Home BeautyBody Image The Quest For Healthy Body Image

The Quest For Healthy Body Image

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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.”

"Body Image. The subjective concept of one's physical appearance based on self-observation and the reactions of others."

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?

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JoAnna September 21, 2010 - 11:00 AM

Hi Erika.

I saw that show last night and part of me wants to jump up and shout to those contestants that losing 2 pounds a week is OK!!! It’s healthy and normal! Another part of me likes how Jackie made them face the messages they gave themselves daily.

When I used to teach, I would start the day with either a brain teaser or a writing assignment of something good that happened. It was always easier to start the day with a smile and positive thoughts. I think we forget to daily positively affirm our worth as adults. I know I have days when I’m bombarded by images of how I just don’t measure up to whatever beauty standard is out there. I’ve actually been told in the same night by different men that I was too big, not big enough (not enough butt), too afrocentric (’cause I replied intelligently on an african topic ’cause I lived there for 3 years), not “black” enough (’cause I don’t wear african attire everyday, nor have an african name, nor am I Muslim), too short, and so on. It can be downright hard to not define yourself thru someone else’s narrow view.

I recently cut my hair off and my friends and family are horrified. Like I’m so ugly unless I go out in a hot wig everyday. But that gets into european standards of beauty of silk-like flowing locks of hair that ride the breeze… I am who I am, and I gotta live in this body. I’m choosing to become a healthier me, a better me, and if that makes someone uncomfortable, not my problem.

Remember the scene when the dark haired girl said she was going on a blind date, and all the other people were ribbing her about how the guy was duped into going out with a “good personality”, or that she should “put out” in order to get a 2nd date, and other other hurtful nonsense?

First, Nikki would’ve been cussed out, and put in her place. Second, just because they’re in a work group doesn’t mean they have to like and hang out with each other. I’ve worked with plenty of people whose opinions I didn’t care for. None of that mattered as long as the job got done. And when you’re trying to build yourself up, and become a better you, you don’t need negative folks around trying to pull you down.

BlackBerry Molasses September 21, 2010 - 11:55 AM

I can assuredly say that my body image has been an issue for me my entire life. I was a big baby, a cherub- cheeked toddler, a chubby kid…and I’m dark-skinned. When I battled depression as a teen, most of it stemmed from the fact that I didn’t look like what was considered “beautiful” in my lily-white suburban high school.

Even now, after years of therapy and becoming a physically healthier and fitter me, its still an issue. I still pick myself apart in the mirror every single day. Hell, at the gym I work out AWAY from the mirrors. I have a hard time believing people when they call me pretty/attractive– I attribute it to them just being nice. Even my own sweet husband. Its that bad. I can feel good about myself for a while and all it takes is one careless comment or even reading something in the internet that is a trigger, and I start down the slippery slope again.
Its something I clearly need to work on…

Streetz September 21, 2010 - 4:30 PM

This is an excellent post.

I was chubby/bigboned as a child and i was teased. Puberty hit and i got hella skinny, and was teased again. At that point I realized that teasing will occur regardless, even if you were brolic/swoll!

So I took a real look at myself and determined what I wanted to look like, what needed work, and then I implemented. Simple as that.

Tracking my results helps me to realize that I get closer to my goals daily. It gives me focus and determination to get to the destination. No need to hate my body because I love myself. I look at any shortcomings in my life as room for improvement. We should all do the same.

buffedstuff October 8, 2010 - 1:14 PM

The process of learning to love the skin you are in, begins when we tune out what society labels as beautiful and we start to realize that we are each unique, valuable and precious jewels. We are so much more than our clothing size or the size that the scale registers. I am all for a health and fit lifestyle but mentally we must love ourselves and realize we are a Designer’s orignal. Great article, thanks for exploring this topic.

Lauren January 24, 2011 - 5:55 PM

I just found your blog today and I find it so incredibly inspirational! I’ve subscribed via google feed and I am looking forward to taking my time browsing through your site.

G/W January 30, 2011 - 7:53 PM

Wow, this was an excellent post.
I was also a chubby kid- I don’t mind pictures of myself as a toddler but anything 5+ makes me cringe. That’s so sad because I’m constantly encouraging all my friends and blog readers to have confidence in themselves and their bodies- it’s just a million times more difficult when trying to love your own self.
I keep asking myself what I can do to make it better for everyone (myself included) but doing thy is giving up- giving up the idea of perfection that I’ve been striving for. And it’s so hard to do that when it’s something I’ve been chasing all my life.

Keelah April 22, 2011 - 5:02 PM

Insightful and powerful as all of your posts are. Keep up the great work!

Melissa Stokes July 5, 2011 - 2:24 PM

Wow… I have really become quite a fan of your blog… I can’t remember exactly when I stumbled upon it, but everyday you pretty much affirm something or talk about something very relevant to my life experience. I lost 110 lbs. myself, and have had almost identical experiences as you. Even at one time plateau-ing for an exceptional amount of time because I felt by losing weight I was becoming a traitor to my own personal belief that everyone is beautiful no matter the size. I than realized, that I much like you had allowed my weight to become apart of my identity and image and apart of me felt like I would be losing myself with the weight. I did get pass this stage, but I still deal with body image and being comfortable in my new skin. It is something that I still deal with daily, although admittedly I am happier and healthier than I have ever been before in my life. Weight is funny that way, gone but still very much apart of you.

kb July 7, 2011 - 11:25 PM

wow… i.ve been reading yer blog for months now and i LOVE LOVE LOVE it… it has put alot of ideas in my head… Mainly to take better care of myself because i deserve that much… I’ve struggled with my weight all my life and i can honestly say that the reasons are slowly shifting… before it was i’m not skinny like everyone else… now it’s i’m not taking care of myself and i can do better… Having a healthy lifestyle and eating clean as possible has not been easy, but i do have a sense of satisfaction that i am trying to take better care of myself, even if my mom calls me a hippie for eating brown rice and shopping at PCC (natural & organic foods)… i know that having a healthy lifestyle will help lead me to a healthier me, which by default will have less weight especially unhealthy excessive body fat… Being a twig is no longer a goal or even an option… Just healthy now back to the main subject

i struggle soooo much with body issues and this post has really helped me think of the issues i need to work on… How would i address my neice who i LOVE and ADORE, is the same way i should address myself… With love, respect and kindness… Too often we dont give ourselves the royal treatment we sometimes give others…thank you so much for your kind words, guidance, and your authenticity!!! Although my journey is far from over, i know i have one more person who will hold my hand so to speak LoL… 🙂

Michelle Watson April 24, 2013 - 12:41 AM

I have come to love this site; mean it, really. I am in that ‘someone just shook me out of my trance..and how did I get in THIS body’ moment that comes at the beginning of a life changing journey. I am so grateful I have found an ally like bgg2wl to hold my hand.

With that being said I too now sit here pondering some of these same questions about my self image that I have whipped myself with and where they originated. I was born with two teeth already in my mouth so, yes I was the chubby one of seven to say the least! Yet, all sorts of light bulbs were going off as I read through this article and the responses to it. I loved each one because each made me think even deeper about how I was treating my fragile child within. After waltzing cheek to cheek with depression through a few different periods in my life, I know self image is something I need and want to work on from the beginning of this journey.

I thought long and hard about your question what do we tell ourselves to start and what came over me was this lesson from bible study years ago about our earthly view and God’s heavenly view. Why should it matter so much to me someone else’s idea of what beauty is as we all have the same view point advantage, which is only as far as our eyes will let us see (when our mind doesn’t get it their way that is). If someone can only see as far as I can, then why would I let their opinion set my course?
Sounds like I just gave myself homework, huh?

Erika Nicole Kendall April 25, 2013 - 8:34 PM

Yep. 🙂

Pam July 20, 2013 - 6:44 AM

Dear Erika,

Your words resonate deeply. I was the only plump child in a family of very thin (skinny) people, and have had a distorted body image my entire life. I always thought I was too fat even when the photographic evidence proved otherwise. I was always dieting, and was focussed on eating correctly and cleanly. I became a vegetarian and then a vegan and I spent tons of time and energy going to classes and gyms to get in some exercise to take care of my ‘problem spots’. Then in my late thirties i gave birth. I was also faced with the loss of my friends, my spiritual community, and shortly thereafter, my relationship with my child’s father. Body changed, diet changed (for the worse) priorities changed somewhat, but I did what I could to stay above the obesity threshold. I even fasted on water, oats, and bananas for 30 days once. Thirteen years ago I actually crossed that threshold into obesity, and have remained there for various reasons, most of which boil down to not really wanting to lose the weight. Or rather, not really being ready to give up what I think having the “armor” will give me.
Last year I decided to try something new. I decided that I would speak to myself the way I expect and demand that others speak to me. I don’t allow people to talk to me as if they are crazy (or like they think I am), but I had a habit of being verbally abusive and judgemental to myself. I called myself all of the same names my brothers and sister called me when we were growing up. Well, I stopped that. I spoke to myself encouringly, and without making excuses for myself when I acted in a manner that was not in keeping with self love. The most amazing thing happened. I stopped eating candy and chocolate! Even in times of stress! That’s major. And I dropped two inches from my waist too. I still have a long way to go, and I am headed in the right direction, so I know that I will eventually get there. I’m learning over and over that there is so much more than calories in/calories out. Keep working and exploring, Erika. And keep sharing.

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