August 11, 2014 by Julia
It’s swimsuit season, and I can’t help wondering how many of those thin women with their children at the pool are utterly devoted to maintaining their figures. (I don’t concern myself with the young teen girls or the college singletons. They are a species unto themselves, just as we moms look like a different tribe to them.) What suprises me is how many fit, pretty moms are at the pool – much fitter than myself. Do they know how good they look? Does it satisfy them? Are they happier than me?
I have no idea how they see me. I certainly don’t feel smooth, tanned or stylish at the pool. I feel thick, lumpy, square and pale. But…I don’t feel totally unattractive.
I am getting to the point where I see beauty in all women, which must therefore include myself. I think the different shapes are just that – shapes. Bodies are interesting and sexy, period, and when we all try to look exactly the same it projects a kind of frail fear. I like when a woman who is not thin adorns herself with lovely things. She is without shame. She values herself; she has not gone into hiding.
There is something wonderful about the ease of letting your stomach rolls show around other people. Stretching out or curling in, allowing your inner self to guide your outer shell, without a thought of how your thighs look or if your slouching shoulders are adding ten pounds to your pooching belly.
Do potential lovers rank us according to our sizes like we do? Some do, surely. (Pro tip: never date a person as critical of your appearance as you are.) But they also see spots of interest, regardless of weight: an adorable freckled nose, a sparkle of confidence here, or a set of full, happy hips there. Because that’s how attraction works, regardless of gender or orientation. Spots of interest that catch one’s fancy and lure him or her closer.
You know what, ladies? We’ve all got them. You really are beautiful. I’ve seen it in every woman at the pool, in flashes of liberating insight that are becoming less flash-like and more just the way I see things all the time. You are.
The people you need as friends see it, too, and the lovers you want can see it, too.
So when I talk about achieving health, I am not talking about achieving beauty. You already have beauty and spots of interest and you are lovable to all the people who can see you clearly, who know you.
Instead, I am interested in health for better lives for women. We have been confused and shamed to the point that we don’t know anymore when we’re hungry, what we actually look like, or how we feel separate from what size jeans we can squeeze into. It’s a shit storm. And it can ruin your day, if not your life.
I’ve found I simply can’t come at health from a weight-loss perspective anymore. I can’t reach “rock-bottom” as I realize I weigh more than ever and then willpower myself (yes, I’m using it as a verb) into a thinner state through hunger and obsession. It’s too painful. Ain’t nobody got the headspace for all that crap – and for what? For what? Prettiness does not justify such suffering; I’m sorry.
When we’re doing it for more meaningful reasons, though, it doesn’t feel like empty suffering. Yes, my arms may get sore if I am trying to build my upper-body strength, but I am inspired by the possibility of strength. It doesn’t feel like punishment; it feels like achievement and a slow building of confidence in what I am capable of.
I am just starting to learn about the mind-body connection (in the most mainstream ways – eat plants and exercise and your mind and mood will be better, basically) – and I am loving that there are simple things I can do with my body that will help my mind out on the bad days. Let’s be honest. My anxious, unmotivated, bored, struggling, melancholy mind needs all the help it can get, and if there are steps I can follow to do that, to just fall into without overthinking it, then bring ON those physical steps. (My mind also has a bunch of other awesome qualities, but no need to bring those up at this juncture.)
As a person who has always been biased in favor of the inner life over the visible, physical life (I was the kid who wanted to play indoors and feared the casual neighborhood sports games), it comes as an epiphany to me that to care for my body IS to care for my inner life, too. I mean, duh. We all sort of know this. But it has recently struck home for me.
You know how I imagine my version of health? I want to feel strong and flexible and able. I want to forget my appearance the majority of the time, dropping self-consciousness like an unneccesary garment. I want to welcome hikes and swims and tire playgrounds that dare you to hop around on them like obstacle courses. I want to have energy. I don’t want to ache or suffer from stiffness in my joints.
I want to feel attractive as a side benefit of health, from the inside out – not attractive because I have devoted countless hours to figuring out how best to cover up whatever society tells me are flaws. From a practical standpoint, this might mean taking the five minutes I have left in the morning to moisturize all of my skin instead of spending five minutes putting on makeup. To me, that is something I can choose to do to care for myself over my appearance. (I realize that in certain professional enviroments, this approach is not always an option, but I hope one day it won’t matter whether or not a woman is wearing makeup or has styled her hair.)
I want to approach my body from a kindness standpoint, not a punishing one that is more about vanity and shame than anything, caught up in the horrible cycle of diets and binges and willpower and punishing exercise. I want the sort of health that comes from a genuine care and self-love.
I want to be comfortable in my own vastly flawed body – to remember the particular things that make me beautiful – but to still aspire to better health and fitness, because what would life be like without striving to learn and grow?
It is easy to write about self-love; it is not always easy to feel it. As I’ve been working on this piece over the past week or so, I’ve gone through days of peace with my appearance and total repulsion at myself. I think that is the way it goes for most women, maybe. Tellingly, I ate too much on the day I felt bad about myself, to the point of physical discomfort. Which kind of proves that beating yourself up won’t accomplish much in the way of weight loss, anyway.
I can’t think too much about weight loss, though, or I’ll lose my way.
I am also afraid of losing that vision of beauty in all women. It hits me when I am surrounded by women at their most exposed, and I don’t mean in a pornographic way, although they might be naked. When we have our “faces on” and our hair done and we’re standing around in a nightclub or sitting together in a fancy restaurant, hell yeah I think that my friends look hot, and it’s fun to feel like we’ve transformed from our usual daily default looks (some more than others…ME, I’m referring to ME here), but a lot of is just that: dress-up games like what we played as kids.
There is nothing wrong with dress-up, and I’m all for it on occasion. But a lot of it has to do with smoke and mirrors: “Does this make me look fat?” “Am I looking too trendy, or not enough?” “What do I do with this flat hair?” When I see women at the pool, or in a locker room or spa, though, I am continuously surprised at just how okay we are without all the disguises. All of us. I mean that. It’s an awesome vision of female beauty, and I much prefer it to the competitive, insecure viewpoint that tries to size up other women in relation to myself.
There’s a neat trick when it comes to love. If you are lacking patience with other people, try giving more to yourself and see what happens. And if you are lacking acceptance of yourself, try looking outward at others with more grace. The more you give, the more you have, and the more you can give, and on and on.
So, ladies at the pool, skinny, thin, average, fleshy, large: just know that I see how beautiful you are, and your warm, unique reality is helping me to love myself better, too.