In-Between Thoughts: Building Better Body Beliefs

Sunday 3/1/20: I did 8 pullups in a row! That was my all-time high about a year ago and I’ve been hoping (and working) to get back to it. Today was the day. I hit pullup 6 and decided I could do one more, then mid-7 decided to go for 8. I am quite pleased. Good job, upper back. (Lower back, you just keep resting. PS – I love you.)

I keep thinking about how I think about my body after writing about bad body beliefs last week. In an effort to try to think more kindly towards my body, I decided to think about my body as a partner, as a separate and beloved person in my life. And one morning I spoke to her as if she were a real person.

Yep, I spoke words out loud. To my body. Like it was a sentient person.

I told my body I was sorry for pushing her past what she could do when she had been telling me she was hurt. I told her I loved her and was grateful for what she does, what she can do, and what beauty and joy she allows to enter my life. I placed my hands calmly and solidly on my stomach, legs, and lower back and cultivated loving, comforting, releasing thoughts about those areas of my physical form. I promised to take better care of her.

I realize this makes me sound a little crazy. But words are powerful. And oh my goodness, how many messages we take in on a daily basis that try to undermine healthy self-love and self-acceptance. It gets worse when we accept and amplify those messages to ourselves. Studies have shown that feeling shame about our bodies and speaking negatively about our bodies (whether out loud or just in our head) results in higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. If we aren’t intentional about loving our own bodies, no one will do it for us. And we have no choice but to be active in this, because our passive messaging is overrun by society’s messages encouraging self-hate, self-denigration, self-loathing. What if we stopped accepting the messages from marketing and social media that we are “less than” if we aren’t skinny and/or muscular, and started speaking lovingly to and about our bodies instead? What would it take to get us to get there?

When I grew up, I never heard positive reinforcement about body image from any female in my life. I only heard negatives. That’s very damaging, because then you’re programmed as a young woman to immediately scrutinize yourself and how you look. … I stand in front of the mirror and say to [my daughter], ‘We are so lucky we have a shape. We’re so lucky we’re curvy. We’re so lucky we’ve got good bums. And she’ll say, ‘Mommy, I know, thank God.’

Kate Winslet

I’ve realized that what greatly impacts my ability to shrug off those societal messages and resist negative self-talk is how I’m defining the goal of my diet/exercise habits. The “end” I’m aiming for really matters. And I can choose an end that is truly good (which results in my body being healthier and happier), or an end that has society’s stamp of approval of good but which leads to unhealthiness (like shame and injury).

Of course in my current limitedly-mobile state I am thinking mostly about the purpose or end to my movement. I love to move, and to move in a variety of ways, but what is good about movement? What am I making good, or choosing to say is good, about physical activity and exertion? Am I proclaiming it good because I think it will help me get closer to whatever particular image of unattainable bodily perfection I have embraced and shamed myself with as a result of societal messaging, or am I proclaiming it good because I believe it is an important part of me taking care of my body?

If I move (purely) for unattainable bodily perfection, then I can expect more injuries. I can expect to find myself pushing myself too hard, eating too little, going too far, because the goal I’m aiming for will forever be out of reach — but it will always “feel” like it’s just beyond the next workout. I can expect more emotional stress in treating a body that isn’t able to keep up with my idealized body image as if it were capable of such transformation.

But if I make the goal of my workouts to take care of my body, then my movement and workouts will take on a different force in my life. I will still challenge my body, because high intensity workouts are great for the body and for the brain (plus I freaking love them!). But I will also start listening to my body and will STOP and rest when it tells me I need to rest. I’ll start taking it easy when it tells me I need to do more low-impact workouts. I’ll wait for it to let me know the time I am finally able to do a particular workout again (just give me the “running/Insanity” word, body! I stand [literally] at the ready!!). Whatever is best for my body will become the desirable thing, whether that is intensity, rest, or some mixture of the two.

When my only goal is an aesthetic ideal, then the only attention I pay to my body is visual. I only see my body and I judge it solely on its appearance. When my overarching goal is care, then I listen to my body and I judge me by how healthy and happy I am making my body. This doesn’t preclude an interest in how I look, but it does remove appearance from the nexus of my decision-making and normative bodily claims. In listening to my body, I am guided to take better care of my body than I have before.

My body is always listening to me. I and it “hear” and absorb all the negative things I and society speak about my body and about myself. I need to listen to my body for a change and then change how I speak to and think about myself, to counteract the onslaught of toxic messages delivered every day through many different mediums. Positive change, as is usually the case, begins with increased, intentional listening and results in increased, intentional care.

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