Letters to My-Body-Of-Yesteryear and to Yours-of-Right-Now
I saw a young woman the other day who was in her late teens.
I had a moment of admiring how strong her legs looked, how able her shoulders; where she had curves and where she didn't, how kind of mixed-up and funky some of her coloring and parts were, a study in contrasts. It was a moment of appreciating what, in my eyes and perspective, her beauty was and how aesthetically beautiful I found her. As someone who's worked in art and photography, who looks at people and their details deeply and richly out of habit, I didn't think anything of it until I realized something about her was really resonating in a big way with me. I was having a hard time looking away.
Then it struck me: the things I was admiring about her and taking in so much of? Those were all ways my own body looked at her same age. It was like looking in a mirror that traveled through time.
But when I was her age, and my body and its parts looked like hers, I didn't appreciate them this way; I didn't find them so interesting or so beautiful. There were some parts and ways of looking, ways she and I both have looked like -- me twenty-five years ago, and she now -- that at best, I had a grudging acceptance of, often balancing those things out with more positive feelings about other parts of my body or how it looked. At worst, I was horribly unkind to myself and my body about some of our shared physical traits.
It's tragic, really. There I was, looking at a body that was nearly an exact replica of my own-body-of-once, appreciating it, thinking it so fantastic, when I did not do the same for my own at the same age. There I was, wishing I could send some sort of note back in time, an apology letter, to my body-that-used-to-be for clearly not seeing it clearly.& For being unkind and unaccepting, for lacking the perspective, the esteem and the basic kindness to see it differently, to see it the way I was seeing this young woman's body now. For wasting any time or energy at all, even the briefest of moments, hating on my body or its parts when there wasn't a thing on earth wrong with them.
I'm in my mid-forties. Through the years, I've experienced times where the beauty standards, cultural aesthetics or ideals were such in one time that a given part, or way I looked met the standard, while other parts of ways I look have not. I've experienced times where the beauty standards, cultural aesthetics or ideal then shifted or changed -- as they do, always, over time -- and sometimes the roles even reversed; where a part of way of looking that was held up as beautiful or sexy in one year or decade no longer was in the next, and a part or way of looking that was seen as not meeting a standard at one time now does. And,. of course, our bodies change over time, so I have had parts of ways of looking changed, even when the ideals or standards did not. Sometimes my body changing meant I not longer met one standard; other times it has meant I met an ideal I didn't before.
For instance, there was a time where being very muscular in certain places was The Way To Look, then a time when it wasn't. A time when being curvy here, or angular there, was seen as hopelessly flawed and then later celebrated as the very pinnacle of beauty. There was a time where being thin in this part of the body was where you "should" be thin, then another time where that was the place you should not be. When you're in this stuff, any or all of it often feels permanent, but it never, ever is. There's no meeting any of these standards for a lifetime, if a person ever meets any of them at all. It's all temporary -- some for longer periods of time, some so briefly -- and not just because we age and then have aging bodies. It would all be temporary even if all of us looked the exact same for the whole of our lives. Beauty standards are about fashion and the making of profit, both of which are ever-changing and never the same for very long. Both fashion and commerce are utterly ruled by whim. They are also cultural: what's "perfect" or "sexy" or "beautiful" in one part of the world can be very different from what those things are considered to be in another.
But you can't usually experience all of that without the long view. You can read about the history of these ideals, but that isn't quite the same as actually experiencing how they change. You can also get so deep into hating on yourself that even when the truth of this stuff is staring you right in the face, you just can't see it or feel it.
The toughest thing for me about this kind of experience is that my sense is, working with young people, especially young women, now, is that for however rough I was on my own body, y'all are often at least twice as harsh. My idea of treating my body without kindness is probably mild in comparison to your idea of what that is. Not wearing shorts, or saying "Oh yuck," every now and then to a body part; jumping on the occasional diet not for health, but because I determined some part was too big by some arbitrary standard but just as quickly going, "Oh, what the hell am I doing? This is silly," and jumping off? All of that is quite different from literally beating up a body or its parts, considering cutting a body part, or parts of it, off, adding something on surgically (often for what some higher education or an amazing trip across Europe would cost you), getting body fat sucked out or daily squishing my whole body into spendy undergarments designed to make my body look like someone else's while giving up the right to breathe freely. Dissing a body every now and then is a whole different planet from nonstop, tortured hating on it, or spending vast amounts of your time, energy and money trying to change it.
Even my idea and experience of what was unkind, when it was? Was unkind. Some of yours, I know, are literally vicious, even violent. I know my level of unkindness had an impact on me, and wasted my valuable time and energy. I want any and all of those days, hours or even minutes back: I had so many better ways of spending them that would have benefitted me and actually made me feel good instead of shitty. And I feel awfully lucky I'm not wishing back years, decades, or a lifetime spent on body hate: the amount of time I want back strikes me as less time than I see my peers, or young people now, have probably spent being body haters.
I have no doubt that someday, you are going to see your own body-of-once somewhere and likely have a similar experience. I have no doubt because the struggle for a positive body image is so pervasive right now, and clearly so challenging. I wish I could make it so you never had to have a look-back like this, but I can't. But you can. To some degree, anyway.
What can you do? Know I'm giving you some truth here. Your idea about what isn't right about your body -- just like the media's idea, or the fashion world's idea, or some moron who posts at some forum you go to and feels it is their sacred duty to diss other people's bodies -- is not likely, at all, to be a forever idea, especially if you don't hang onto it tightly and instead work to let it go. I know it can feel, whatever your body-ugh is about, like there are things that are and will be just Forever and Always Wrong and Hideous. But those feelings will change, especially if and when we make real efforts to change them and be kind to ourselves and our bodies. Our critiques, if we work on it (and sometimes even if we don't), will soften. Our lack of appreciation for one part and how it works (or doesn't), or how it looks (or doesn't) will often change for the better if we stop holding unto those feelings and beliefs so tightly, and make more effort to look for and find the good stuff and less in looking for and finding the bad. If for no other reason, at some point chances are good you'll simply get sick and tired of how much it takes from you to hate on yourself so hard and stop doing it because you just don't have the energy anymore. The older you get, the less of it you have to waste.
You also don't have to be passive about this, or quiet down if you're screaming with the body hate-ons. You have the power and the option to take any fuck-you's you would aim and fire at your body and aim and fire them somewhere else, like at anyone or anything that would encourage and enable you to treat yourself and your body poorly. If you ask me, that's the right place, the best place, to put your disdain and your big-pile-of-grrr.
Your body didn't do anything bad to you: it looks how it looks mostly because it's operating almost entirely on the genetic material and information it was given to work with, and that's all it really can do. Your body hasn't done anything to deserve your wrath. But some people, companies and systems who are trying to gain in some way -- be it through profit, or by making you feel like crap so they can distract themselves from their own self-hate -- over getting you to hate on it and yourself have treated you poorly, and usually intentionally, no less, and with little to no care about the way what they are doing can really mess you up. Being mad at them and those things? Now, that makes sense.
As you age, if you haven't experienced this yet already, you're going to have body parts that work a given way, then won't work that way anymore. Even things about yourself you love that won't stay the same for any number of reasons. Despite being teased about my freckles relentlessly by some growing up, for example, I always loved my freckles. Now, probably due to living somewhere where I'm exposed to less sun, I have far fewer of them, and have had times where I felt like I didn't look like myself. But of course I do: I can't look like anyone but myself, because I can't be anyone but myself. And myself, and how the body of that self looks, how the body of that self works, is not going to stay the same, but will always be changing, just like people's ideas about beauty. If I only like it when it meets certain ideals? Well, I can never really like it, because even when I meet those ideals, either they will change in time or my body will. It's such a losing game.
What will always be a constant is that that body will always be inhabited by me, and I will always be the ultimate arbiter of how I treat it and feel about it. I can be its harshest critic or its biggest ally. Other people, or systems, or cultural tides may have ideas about it both broad and specific, but my own feelings, and my own treatment of myself, will always have the biggest impact. Even if every single person and thing outside of me got down on it, I'd still have the most power and influence over how I feel about my body and its parts; it is mostly up to me if it is treated with care, kindness, love and acceptance, or with neglect, cruelty, disdain and nonacceptance.
If and when you find yourself admiring someone else's body or someone else's parts? We get to find things aesthetically appealing that we don't have; find ways people look beautiful that are their beauty, not ours. That's just part of appreciating the diversity of the world and everyone in it, and that's a cool thing. But that's not the same as coveting someone else's body or how it looks, or getting down on ours because it isn't like theirs. If we can stick to just admiring, recognizing and appreciating that other kind of beauty we see, without wanting to colonize it, take it, or wish like hell it were ours, we do a lot better by not just ourselves, but by everyone. That right there, just that, has the power to help dismantle the whole system that pits us and our bodies in some kind of whackadoodle competition; that sets us up more to hate on ourselves and each other than it does to find all of us -- ourselves and everyone else -- if not beautiful, than at least equally acceptable and worthy of care and kindness, in our great diversity.
Dear-my-body-of-once: I'm so sorry I was such a big jerk to you sometimes. I'm sorry I didn't see you with my own eyes, and know that my own eyes -- and my own feelings, and my own sense of worth as a whole person, not just a body or its parts -- were the most valid yardstick of all. I'm sorry I didn't always get that my own eyes and feelings were way more powerful than systems or sentiments expressly designed to make me feel bad, powerless, and to obscure my own sense of esteem and value so I'd be more likely to fill someone's pockets with the money it costs to try and change a body.I'm sorry that I didn't double-down with my efforts to dismantle anything and everything designed to make me or anyone question our own sense of self so that we'd put focus on things that didn't matter, and put less focus on things that really did. I'm sorry it took me a while in some ways to get that taking care of and honoring myself as-is was what I should have been doing instead of ever investing cash, time or energy in changing or "improving" myself for someone else's benefit or by someone else's standard.
I was foolish any and every time I let myself get sucked into any of that and chose, then, to obscure and warp my own vision and value. I know that know, and wish I had really gotten that, always, and without any doubt or reservation, then. You have my word that I will aim to never be so foolish again.
I sure hope you don't ever feel like you need to write a note like this to your body and self. My hope is maybe a little perspective like this can at least temper all the other messages you just can't help but get. Those messages are big and they're shiny and they're so, so freaking loud (often bigger and louder than we feel as people, especially when we're just getting our footing in life). I know my saying what I am right now is a drop in the bucket against all that. But hey: drops fill a bucket in time.
Only appreciating our bodies or their parts when, in some ways, or all ways, we have left them behind, or they are no longer part of us in the same way is a big bummer. We can't go back and make better how we maltreated ourselves, we can only do that in the present and the future, not the past. So, if we are, right now, spending time and energy and money in being mean to ourselves, or demanding differences rather than accepting who we are, including the body we inhabit, we're hurting yourselves. We probably are hurting others, too, because for every time we express how some part of our body is the worst, out loud, in any way, we send a message that someone else must have parts about theirs that also are unacceptable, and we perpetuate the whole damn mess. Hating on our bodies limits our lives and our experience of living life through our bodies, which is what they are for in the first place. We all need to stop holding up systems and ways of thinking that will keep on hurting us and everyone else instead of doing what we can to counter them so that we all get to be a lot happier, and all can, for instance, see our strong, thick legs as awesome and mighty and things to go out and live with, rather seeing them as parts that hold us back, which pretty much guarantees we'll use them and the way we feel about them to hold our whole selves back.
I hope your dear-body-of-now note can go something like this: I love you. Sure, I love you the way I love anyone I love, which means sometimes you annoy or frustrate me, and other times I think you are awesome, even when no one else does. But I'll always love you, which means I'll always do what I can to accept and appreciate you as you are, not as I wish you were, and do my best to use any conflicted feelings I have about you as a means to grow, rather than as ways to hold myself back and keep from growing. I'll aim to keep seeing you, my own body, or the body of someone else that's a lot like mine, with gentle, understanding eyes and a mind that is about a million times bigger and wiser than any vapid, plastic messages I get, from anyone, including myself, that there's any right, "better" way of looking or having a body than however you look or are right now; however, in all your changes, plenty of which are still to come, you have ever looked or will ever look. And if I don't love you just yet, or don't love you as well as I could? I'm going do just as much, if not more, to learn to love you as I could do to keep from learning.