Let's All Stop Hating Our Bodies
In a recent therapy session, my therapist asked me to think of a recent moment in which I felt dissatisfied with my body. This wasn't very hard, because I experience fleeting moments of dissatisfaction every day. Most of us do. Fortunately, these moments happen less often than they once did. The hatred I felt for my body was once all-encompassing, causing me to obsess over every bit of food I ate and every bit of physical activity I endured. Now, my self-hatred crops up most when I'm under a great deal of stress, or when I feel a lack of self-worth due to some other part of my life.
When my fiance and I broke up a few months ago, my self-hatred reached new levels. Despite being the one to end things, I felt rejected, unlovable, and generally not "good enough." I knew that the relationship had become toxic and that we both deserved better, but ironically, this enormous move toward self-love left me feeling less lovable and more lonely than ever before. I began adopting old disordered eating behaviors in an effort to feel "small enough," "pretty enough," simply enough. But my eating disorder had been so quiet for so long that its resurgence frightened me. I started seeing a new therapist who specializes in eating disorders. He helped me acknowledge the painful truth that my lack of self-worth and self-love had never been fully or truly resolved. So Thursday morning, when he asked me to think of the most recent situation in which I didn't feel good about myself, I answered,
"Earlier today, when I looked in the mirror after going for a run."
"How would you describe your mood, as you looked in the mirror?" he asked.
I paused, unsure of what to say. "Exhausted," I said, "Exhausted and guilty and just really sad."
"Okay. And what thoughts were you having about yourself?"
"That I looked fat," I answered without hesitation. "I couldn't eat breakfast. I thought I looked awful."
"That's actually good," he said, "A worse thought would be, 'I am awful.' Or, 'I am fat.' Thinking you're awful and thinking you look awful are two totally different things."
Our thoughts, he went on to tell me, become our truths. The situation of looking at myself in the mirror was not the problem. What was problematic were my thoughts about the situation. This is true in any situation: someone cutting you off in traffic, someone snapping at you for no reason, someone not holding the door for you. All of these are situations, but the thoughts we have in response to them not only impact our mental health, but influence the way we see the world and, more importantly, how we see ourselves. The most insidious thing about our bodies though, is that we are conditioned to be dissatisfied with them.
This study, published in February of 2018, found that most Americans (nearly 80%) are unhappy with how their body looks "at times." Dissatisfaction is highest when looking in the mirror, when at the beach, or when shopping for clothing. Interestingly, when asked to describe the perfect female body, 43% responded "athletic physique," closely followed by "curvy" (34%), and model thin (11%). Despite "model thin" being preferred by only 11% of male and female respondents, it is the body type that is overwhelmingly glamorized in the media and popular culture. According to this study, about 62% of professional models have been asked to lose weight, even if they're already considered underweight by the World Health Organization. This is only important because models are seen everywhere that is or feels important: billboards, magazines, social media, television, music, movies, et cetera. Bodies of any other size are not glamorized, so we learn that any other type of body is inherently not good enough.
It isn't just the size of our bodies that we're taught to dislike. In 2017, nearly 1.8 million cosmetic surgical procedures were performed in the U.S., with breast augmentation, liposuction, nose reshaping, eyelid surgery, and tummy tucks topping the list. An additional 15.7 million minimally invasive cosmetic procedures were performed in 2017, such as soft tissue fillers, chemical peels, laser hair removal, and microdermabrasion.
It may seem trite to boil down such a complex issue so bluntly, but nothing we change about our bodies will fix our dissatisfaction, lack of self-worth, or negative thinking. With the right amount of money, we can fix just about any part of our bodies, but we can always find something else to fix. Low self-worth or a lack of self-love might manifest as an obsession with getting a nose job. After the procedure is over and the novelty wears off, we are likely to find something else to fixate on and dislike about ourselves. I've met women who've undergone dozens of cosmetic procedures, but it's never enough because they haven't realized that changing their bodies cannot change their mind about their bodies.
When my eating disorder was at its worst, I weighed about 110 pounds (I'm now about 140). I thought that if I were smaller, I'd be happier. Of course, that assumption was glaringly false. When I was extremely thin, I was the most unhappy I've ever been in my life. My body, your body, anyone's body, is never the problem. Our bodies are incredibly complex, beautiful, beating, breathing life forms. There is no reason to starve them, nip and tuck them, cut them open to augment them, shape them, or reduce them. There is no reason to hate our bodies, yet we do, because we're taught that our bodies are wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth.