“The maturing of a woman who has continued to grow is a beautiful thing to behold.” Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth.
Waiting for the shower to heat up, I catch a glimpse of my naked self in the flimsy full-length mirror that rests against the bathroom wall. I survey the landscape, allowing my eyes to linger where they may. I am alone here, the door closed, my husband and children downstairs. Slowly, I take in my entire 40-something form. Everything is as it should be, there are no surprises — except, perhaps, for the absence of judgment and disgust that used to define these moments.
Three years ago, it was all so very different.
Back then, my morning ritual was marked by harsh scrutiny and certain disappointment. Each day began with a piercing personal assessment that was utterly devoid of appreciation, compassion or kindness. Every morning I stood before this mirror, evaluating my appearance with a laser focus on my perceived flaws – the belly, the arms, the thighs, the ass -until the parts I didn’t like were all I could really see.
This pre-breakfast routine always came with a heaping side of shame, as the only thing I hated more than my imperfections was the extent to which I cared about them. Intellectually, I knew I looked fine – even better than fine. I knew there were far more worthy goals to pursue than washboard abs, that surely I could be putting my law degree to better use. I tried telling myself I should be grateful – for my health, my family, my good fortune – but I felt trapped in an endless cycle of self-criticism and despair, obsession and denial.
This is nonsense, my inner scold would insist. Get over it! Maybe if you went back to work, or had a REAL problem to tackle, you might snap out of this pity party. Stop crying before I give you something to cry about!
Now, my face softens as I step lightly into the steaming shower and relish the feeling of contentment washing over me, as warm and soothing as the water. It is an ordinary moment at the start of a regular day, but it feels like an accomplishment worth celebrating.
We have worked hard to get here, my body and I.
I haven’t changed my diet, increased my exercise routine or discovered any new weight loss wonder drug. It is not the image in the mirror that has changed over these past five years, but rather the lens through which I see it.
And that, Dear Reader, is exactly what I want for you.
Millions of women recently took to the streets in protest after our nation elected a man with an ugly habit of rating women’s appearances on a scale of 1 to 10, not just objectifying us, but reducing our humanity – and our value – to a digit.
Putting politics aside, I’d like to ask you:
Have you ever done the same? Perhaps, to yourself?
Do you ever look in the mirror and feel judgmental or critical? Ever feel dismay over the bulge in your belly? Some fine lines on your face? Those pesky pocks of cellulite? Ever wasted an otherwise lovely day mired in mild self-loathing because you were feeling ugly or fat or otherwise lousy? Do you occasionally compare yourself in a despairing or distressing way to other women you see, wishing you had a little more of something they’ve got? Can you ever truly enjoy a hearty meal or a decadent dessert without the bitter aftertaste of guilt? Have you ever shied away from a challenge, balked at an invitation or rejected intimacy because you were feeling insecure about your appearance? Ever slogged through a day at the office feeling less than stellar or off your game, because your clothes were feeling too snug?
Ever thought to yourself, If I could just lose the weight, then I’d be happy?
I know we aren’t supposed to talk about any of this. We are MODERN women! We must be CONFIDENT! We must love ourselves and our bodies, lest we be branded vain or shallow or silly. Sure, there are endless magazine covers and billions of dollars of industry hell bent on making us feel permanently dissatisfied and always striving for more, but we aren’t supposed to buy into any of that. There are far more important issues in the world — from fake news to global warming, from the Syrian refugee crisis to the hate-mongering and divisiveness closer to home. We can no longer afford to waste our time or energy obsessing on petty issues like how we look in a bathing suit.
Or … is this next part just a tiny bit more true? While caring deeply about whatever national or global issues get you all hot and bothered – not to mention your commitment to the more immediate demands of work and family – you also spend a lot of time and energy focused on your looks. There are the hours at the gym (or the guilt and distraction when you don’t get there). There are the visits to the hair salon, the mani-pedis, the clothing, make-up, body creams, face creams and the ever-expanding possibilities for filling every wrinkle. There is the sense of defeat that sets in when you fail to honor the restrictive diet du jour — or the exhaustion and irritability you feel when you do. You know there isn’t enough hair-dye, botox or plastic surgery in the world to get you back to your 20-something self, but dammit, you are not going to go down without a fight! You are bombarded with images of unattainable perfection and you yearn to live up to them — all the while denying to yourself and others that any of this is even remotely important to you.
Or is it just me?
When it comes to our friends and family, we women tend to be a constant and reliable source of support, love and encouragement. We see them as whole people, admirable and worthy, despite whatever flaws they might have. When it comes to ourselves, however, we can be harsh, myopic, and often cruel.
Our tendency to hold ourselves to impossible standards and unrealistic expectations, then go about our lives pretending everything is fine, shrouded under a layer of shame and disappointment is the ultimate self-sabotage. Believing “I should look better,” “I should be thinner,” “I should have more discipline,” “I should not care how I look (but I do!)” – or any host of similar notions – wreaks havoc on women’s lives. It not only robs us of time and money, but drains our energy and clouds our abilities as well.
It also factors far too greatly in the more-relevant-than-ever issue of why more of us haven’t cracked our own personal glass ceilings.
Still with me?
Look back over your own life, the choices you’ve made, the priorities you’ve set. Tune in to your own playlist of negative thoughts, your own Greatest Hits of self-critique. What do you tell yourself, and how does it make you feel? What does it do to you, and what does it make you do? What does it prevent you from doing?
Tara Brach, psychologist, writer, and all around brilliant spiritual guide puts it like this: “When we are stuck in the trance of negative self-image, we are operating off the brain’s negativity bias. We are just scanning for the ‘what’s wrong’ and when we are stuck in that, it is all we are capable of seeing, over and over again.”
Now, imagine letting go of that worn-out soundtrack, replacing it with something more forgiving and encouraging. Look at yourself through the eyes of a loving mother or a best friend, and try to feel the glow and warmth of unconditional love and complete acceptance.
Bask in it.
Now, consider the following scenario. A fairy flies into your room at night, sprinkling you with magic dust. Upon awakening, you are no longer capable of disliking your looks. You feel utterly at ease in your own skin, content to be exactly as you are — flabby skin, wrinkles and all.
Bask in that, too.
You might not believe that simply changing your perspective is the answer. You might be so firmly attached to long-held notions of a physical ideal or certain ubiquitous standards of allure, that accepting yourself exactly as you are seems like giving up at best, like a slippery slope toward new personal lows at worst. You imagine that if you let go of the angst and the fight, you might let go of yourself completely.
I used to be exactly the same way.
October, 2014. I was approximately three years into a very time-consuming, energy-sapping addiction to burpees, lunges, planks, squats and all manner of physical exercise. I have always been an athlete, always loved a vigorous, sweaty workout. What began as a healthy habit, however, had clearly crossed a line from “Just Do It” to “Overdoing It But Can’t Stop.” I was tired and in pain, occasionally shirking other responsibilities and routinely ignoring my aching body’s pleas for rest. Then my back basically said, “ENOUGH!” knocking me off my feet and shutting down the entire operation. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” I practically heard it say, with the disappointed, deeply sad-but-determined tone of a parent, punishing a rebellious, misguided teen.
The physical pain was debilitating, but also a relief. It granted me permission to rest, afforded me the gifts of humility and perspective. It was exactly what I needed.
The first rule of life coach training was “Live it to give it.” Prior to my injury, I was “giving it” – regularly encouraging others to be gentler with themselves, to pursue health and well-being but not perfection – but I was definitely NOT “living it.” While hurt, I took up meditation, applied myself wholeheartedly to my coaching and discovered that far beyond bodily perfection, what I truly craved was contentment.
I even lost a little weight. (A thorough scientific explanation of this is beyond the scope of this essay, but basically, stress and dissatisfaction trigger a cascade of hormones, including cortisol, which is connected with fat storage. That’s right … beating yourself up makes you fatter. Go figure!)
Coaching has taught me many things — none more important than the power of going inward, identifying thought patterns and investigating how those thoughts shape our lives. I came to see that my unquestioning belief in the truth of one pervasive thought – “I should look better than I do” – had powerful and far reaching physical and mental implications. It caused my back, neck and shoulders to tense, as if trying to resist something oppressive. It caused me to over exercise and abuse my body. It drained me of energy throughout the day, limiting my willingness to pursue other interests, restricting my time, my patience and my creativity — even my enjoyment of the people I loved. It caused me to be cruel to myself — ignoring my many good qualities and over-focusing on a few flaws.
Then someone asked me a simple question:
Who would you be without the thought?
I took a deep breath and held it, then felt a huge release along with the exhale, as one small but mighty word came to mind.
So now, I’d like to turn the question back to you.
Who might you be if you loved yourself exactly as you are? If you accepted and appreciated your body, your face and all of your parts, no improvement required? How would your life look different, if you didn’t secretly wish you looked different living it?
Close your eyes. Inhale. Imagine yourself – your morning routine, you getting into the shower or sitting down to a meal, your interactions with family, friends and colleagues – imagine how the small moments that make up your day might all be different if rather than hating the way you look, you simply felt …. fine. Absolutely fine. Imagine the space and ease around you, the increased energy, the possibilities for creativity and excellence were you to free yourself from the usual patterns of criticism and disgust.
Now … imagine the same happening in hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of women. A nuclear explosion of female power and possibility.
Who might we be? What might we do?