by Ophira Edut
This is not another diet guide. It will not show you how to lose ten pounds by Thanksgiving. It will not introduce you to a new set of “miracle ab crunches” or rave about the latest liposuction advances. And there will be no butt pads, silicone, or fat-free recipes to share.
I’m writing this because I, like many women, used to diet until I was dizzy. I looked at my body and hated the parts that stuck out, and the ones that didn’t stick out far enough. And I believed that having the so-called “perfect” body—at any expense—would guarantee success and eternal happiness.
Do I need to say it? I was deluded.
As women, our relationships with our bodies are dysfunctional at best. With multibillion-dollar diet and cosmetics industries barking at our heels, and even role models like Rosie O’Donnell caving to the “thin-is-in” pressure, loving our bodies is no stroll in the park. It’s especially hard when our friends complain about their bodies, and our moms have been on diets since we were in diapers.
But this is a matter of life. When we don’t feel comfortable in our bodies—our natural bodies—we deny our spirits everything from dancing to delicious food to lustful abandon. We miss out on all the sensuality and joy that life offers. And we deserve to have it all.
Here are seven ways to fight the pressure, and practice the new art of loving your body, just the way it is.
A friend of mine used to tear pictures of models out of magazines and tape them to her wall. She said it gave her “inspiration” to work out.
But how inspiring could it be, I wondered, to surround yourself with pictures of people you could never actually look like? (At least, not without the help of surgery, an airbrush, and some DNA scrambling.)
This same friend only frames photos of herself that make her look thin. The rest stay sealed in their Kodak envelope, as though the FBI might raid her bedroom one day, discover a few extra pounds, and drag her to a maximum-security prison.
Take a look at the images you surround yourself with. How do they make you feel? If it’s inferior, ugly, imperfect, or bad, a ceremonial ripping-down may be in order.
One thick woman I know decorated her room with images of voluptuous, full-hipped goddesses, who were not only considered beautiful, but powerful. Another created a “wall of inspiration” with pictures of women from her family who had loved and supported her for who she was.
How do you find that inner goddess? Start with a full-length mirror. Many women play a love-hate game with mirrors, gazing at the parts we like, and avoiding the ones we don’t. We never looking at our bodies as they are. Instead, we pick ourselves apart like chicken dinners, scrutinizing our thighs, our breasts,our legs. And what we see in the mirror is often no reflection of what is really there.
Find some private time, even if it’s just a few moments. Then take off your clothes, and look at yourself. Let the hateful thoughts run their course, then pass. It will clear space in your mind for positive ones to replace them. Don’t turn away from your reflection — try to clear your mind of judgment and keep looking.
Now look closely at those parts you struggle with most. Do they remind you of anyone? Perhaps those full hips once belonged to your great-great-grandmother. If not for them, you may not even be here—her size could have helped her to survive pregnancy and childbirth. Our bodies are living family albums. Pay homage to your ancestors by loving the body they gave you and the legacy it represents.
When you picture your body, do you think about your heart, your brain, your kidneys? Probably not. More than likely, you think about your thighs, your hair, your stomach.
Because our society places so much emphasis on appearance, and so little on our inner selves, the balance between the two has been thrown off. Have you ever had an upset stomach, a rash, or a giant zit because you were stressed? Has your heart literally hurt when you experienced emotional pain? We forget that our bodies are simply the canvasses upon which our internal conditions express themselves.
Judy Stone, a bioenergetic therapist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, teaches women how to reunite their minds and bodies through a program called Feeding Your Whole Self. People with eating disorders and body image issues, she says, feel like their bodies have betrayed them because they can’t sculpt themselves into some ideal form.
For many women, controlling our appetites or looks gives us a false sense of control over our lives. As long as we can focus on “fixing” ourselves, we can avoid thinking about the fact that we’re unhappy, or that we have unmet needs we’re afraid to address. “People tell me that they’re scared to stop dieting because they’ll ‘eat themselves huge,’” says Stone. “But what they’re really afraid of is the tremendous amount of feeling that would come up.”
Feelings are made up of energy, Stone explains, which flows through our bodies. Compulsive eating and dieting blocks that flow, repressing the feelings we don’t want to deal with. Stone’s solution is to engage the mind and body in a conversation.
The places where we feel heavy, she explains, are often where we hold in feelings. Instead of doing 200 sit-ups when your stomach seems to be “sticking out,” Stone advises that you look to your stomach and ask yourself what it’s telling you. “A heavy feeling may mean there’s a buildup of energy or feelings there,” says Stone. “Instead of dieting to ‘fix’ it, try to understand what the energy means, or how it’s serving you.”
When you think negative thoughts about your body, Stone advises doing something to feel more in touch with it. Talk a walk, write down your feelings, breath, sing. “Getting energy moving restores the flow,” she says. “Even if it leaves us crying and raging, we have to get it out and let life happen. The more the culture gets obsessed with denial, the more we overeat and indulge.”
Imagine what would happen if women decided that building mental strength was as important as pumping up our biceps. We could start businesses. Earn degrees. Travel. Uncover new talents. And imagine the economic power we’d have if we stopped giving our money to Jenny Craig and started saving, investing, or spending it on life-enhancing adventures.
“I have a theory that dieting is a way to make women disappear,” says Rosa, 30. The less space we take up, the less power we have.”
Although men are becoming more conscious of their bodies these days, Rosa points out, “Men work out to get stronger, to take up more room in the world. Women try to get smaller, daintier, until we just turn into pretty little things who can only think about how many grams of fat we’ve eaten today.”
You are responsible for taking care of yourself—and this may mean adding some activity and healthy foods into your life. But to neglect your inner self and favor your body is a waste of your gifts.
Well-intentioned or not, families and friends can be a major source of body stress. They’re often the first to criticize your appearance, or to let you know how pretty you’d be “if you just lost 20 pounds.” Why don’t they realize how hurtful and destructive this is? The people closest to you should build up your self-esteem, not knock it down. They may think they’re offering helpful suggestions, but they’re not. So let ‘em know: it’s my body and my business. Stop projecting your hangups on me. Go eat a Twinkie and leave me alone.
Of course, that’s not always as easy as it sounds. “My father constantly laments about how tiny my mom was when they met,” says 19-year-old Carmen. “I’m like, she’s had five kids! And he’s not even in shape himself. I can tell it really bothers my mom. She’s always talking about needing to lose weight.”
After Carmen left for college, her mother was quick to point out the fluctuations in her daughter’s weight with every visit. Carmen began to dread going home, expecting another comment that would send her running to the mirror to reconsider her attractiveness.
Finally, Carmen declared the topic of her appearance absolutely off-limits with her mom. “I even threatened not to visit if she didn’t back off,” says Carmen. “It worked. Now my mom is forced to ask about more important aspects of my life, like my classes, my friends, and my ideas.”
It’s hard to stand up to our families and friends. But we have every right to set whatever boundaries help us live in peace.
Although many people argue that being fat is unhealthy, this is not necessarily true. Weight-related health problems often stem from a history of “yo-yo dieting. Losing weight also causes you to lose muscle tissue. The heart, which is a muscle, is affected by drastic fluctuations. Regaining weight suddenly also puts tremendous pressure on your heart.
Furthermore, diets tell your body that food is scarce. Your body reacts by holding onto its fat; your metabolism can get thrown out of whack. In the long run, your system winds up in worse shape.
Bottom line: Healthy people come in every size. There are plenty of fat people who are active and “in shape,” and plenty of skinny folks who are thin but unhealthy. In this case, it’s what’s inside that truly counts.
Sadly, we women can be our own worst critics. But consider the toll this has on sisterhood—and on you. Criticizing another woman’s looks makes you look and feel totally insecure. It also makes you paranoid—if you do it to them, you’ll automatically assume they’re doing it to you. Dogging each other keeps us divided, and therefore defeated.
Besides, we all have a unique beauty to cultivate, whether we’re thick or thin. “I like to think of myself as authentic,” says Dina, 21. “I may not look like a fashion magazine model, but no one else has my genetics. So I just try to be the best me I can.”
Dina’s attitude has helped her to stop regarding other women as enemies. “It’s not a competition,” she says adamantly. By working toward self-acceptance, and checking herself when she finds insecurity flaring up, Dina finds that she now has room to appreciate the individual beauty in other women, as well as in herself.
Many people consider being called “fat” the kiss of death. The fear of gaining weight—or of being seen as fat—is greater than the fear of destroying their health with punishing diets and exercise.
Fat discrimination, some would argue, is the last truly acceptable form of prejudice in America. “She can go on a diet and change that,” people say. “After all, there’s Slimfast, diet pills, and a gym at every turn.”
Today, many women are choosing to describe themselves as fat—proudly.
“Fat is an adjective, like black, short, or blonde,” explains Alice Ansfield, who in the 1990s published Radiance: The Magazine for Large Women. “Unfortunately, it’s been used against us,as though ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ go hand in hand.”
And fat, Ansfield argues, is a lot less judgmental than overweight. “Over what weight?” she asks. “Is there some perfect weight I’m supposed to be at? Our bodies are all different because of our genetic makeup.”
As for the 120-pound woman who stares in the mirror and moans, “I’m so fat!” Ansfield comments, “People who are not experiencing the struggles of society’s size discrimination should not call themselves fat.”
While she acknowledges that all women suffer from some degree of body hatred, Ansfield points out the distinct difference between not fitting into a size 8 dress, and not fitting into a bus seat, a restaurant chair, or a movie theater aisle. And longing to lose ten pounds is different than weighing so much that you’re routinely denied health insurance, or discriminated against by companies who stereotype you as lazy and unemployable.
Adds Ansfield, diets simply don’t work. “You can’t live in a state of deprivation forever,” she says. “And who wants to? There is a person here. We need to be gentle with her, to allow her to feel pleasure. That’s good living.”
To help large women enjoy the good life, Ansfield pioneered Radiance Tours. Since 1994, she has led groups of large women on cruises to Alaska and the Caribbean. For many, it was the first time they wore shorts and swimsuits—Ansfield herself hadn’t put on shorts for 20 years. “A lot of women live from the neck up,” says Ansfield. “We hadn’t allowed this much joy or pleasure into our lives in years.”
Her advice to ALL women is to walk with your head up, and to never, ever apologize for your size. “Get into your body,” she adds. Treat yourself to a massage, an hour in a hot tub or a sauna. Dance naked in your room, or go out and shake whatever your mama gave ya. Take a walk for enjoyment’s sake—and leave the five-pound barbells at home.
Related Content: Five Surprising Ways to Love Your Body this Halloween