For years I have struggled with two issues. Separately, they make perfect sense, but when viewed together, they contradict themselves. Let me explain here.
I completely agree that many of us need to learn to love ourselves, accept our flaws, and see beauty in dimensions that aren’t popular with the media. I whole-heartedly feel that society could learn to see hips, pudgy tummies, love handles, not-so-slender legs, and round cheeks as beautiful if we tried hard enough.
But I also know that childhood obesity has tripled in the last thirty years, and that two-thirds of America is overweight or obese (facts found here). And it doesn’t seem like the vital message of “love your body” is very often paired with “and treat it nicely”.
It’s a very fine line we walk here. There is a difference between noticing at age 15 that your hips are wider than your friends’ and noticing at age 25 that you’ve gained thirty pounds in the past year.
In the former, the most healthful choice would be to understand that everyone’s body is different and not berate yourself about your natural body shape.
In the latter, that might very well be the case, too. Maybe you’ve gained weight because you’re pregnant, you were underweight to start with, or you went on medication which made it unavoidable. Or maybe you started a new job and buy your lunch at a drive-thru five times a week now and are having problems finding nutritious meal alternatives. My concern is that as a society, we overlook the difference here.
I worry about both groups. My heart goes out to the people who have poor body image and self-esteem just because they are shaped differently, and are otherwise healthy. I fear for the people who are marching towards the danger zone on the BMI index, all the while maintaining a strong, healthy body image because they see the extra weight as just part of who they are.
I have bounced back and forth between the two groups myself. In the past five years I have made great strides towards positive body image, but it hasn’t been easy. Right now, I’m about 10-15 pounds above the weight I consider “healthy” for my body. It’s easy to use that “I’m beautiful the way I am” idea to justify lots of things, like forgoing exercise and eating too much junk food. “I’m beautiful the way I am”, at least for me, can turn into “I don’t need to worry about my weight”, which is what I call anti-dieting. And it is just not always the case, unfortunately.
At other times in my life, it’s been the opposite. I have denied myself food when I was hungry (and not just for an hour), and forced myself to exercise when I needed rest, which stems from the other kind of pressure, the “I need to look like Beyonce” pressure. For an example, check out this website, but brace yourself – it’s painful to look at.
Self-guilt and shame do nothing for either situation. If you shame yourself into losing weight, even when you need to, you will put it all back on eventually. If your diet is only a punishment, you will someday return to your old habits.
This is where I see that yoga hits the nail on the head. “Honor your body” would be a perfect goal for our society – much better than the polarities of “love yourself the way you are” and “you need to look like Beyonce”. In many ways, honoring your body is more difficult than dieting or anti-dieting. It requires body awareness, serious introspection, and analysis of the “am I really hungry or do I just want ice cream” sort. Honoring your body allows for those occasional treats, but also teaches us to feed ourselves what we need, when we need it, and sleep and exercise at a reasonable rate.
So that is my mission to try to trim off these 10-15 pounds. I will count calories, but I will also treat my body with the respect it deserves. I will eat when I am hungry and try to exercise self-control when confronted with food that is ultra-tempting (ice cream and French fries!). And I will let you all know how it’s going. : )