By Lindsey Abston Painter
“Love yourself!” is a constant, cliche refrain that we repeat over and over to one another. But loving your body isn’t always easy. Nearly every woman I know has a love-hate relationship with her body. I read in a book once that nearly half of all women have stayed home from school or work at least once in their lives because they felt too ugly to leave the house. And that number jumps up much higher if you include women who have cancelled social events because of feeling ugly.
When I first proposed writing this article, a man told me to be careful, because I would be writing about loving your body from the perspective of a young and slim woman. I actually laughed out loud.
In one sense, his concern is valid: I don’t want to preach at people whose bodies are less close to the “societal ideal” than mine is. Women who are dealing with societal fat phobia face much more discrimination and hate than anything I have faced in my personal battle with my body. What I found laughable is that I do not feel I am either of those things—young or slim. In a way, he was illustrating my point: it doesn’t matter what age or shape your body is, if you’re a woman, you are almost 100% likely to feel hatred toward it sometimes. Even women who are actually young and thin have a love-hate relationship with their bodies. There’s an old joke that goes, “I wish I was as thin as the first time I thought I was fat.” Because even when you’re a young woman, in her prime, you still find flaws.
I blame much of that on the beauty and diet industries, which make money by creating problems that only they can solve. These companies have staked billions on making us hate our bodies, so that we will spend money “improving” them.
I recently learned at a work training event that anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of any mental disorder. Three-quarters of women in the United States are dissatisfied with the way they look. Half of girls have been on a diet by age 9 and three-quarters have been on a diet by age 10. Just think about those numbers for a minute. Think of 4 girls you know who are 10 years old. Statistically, three of them have been on a diet. My own daughter is 10. That statistic makes me shiver with rage and fear. 90% of high school girls diet regularly, but of that 90% only 15% of them have a body mass index above a healthy weight range. That means that nearly all high school girls are dieting regularly even though they don’t need to!
I have come to believe that loving your body is an act of resistance against a society that has tried to make money off of us feeling bad about ourselves.
God views my body with a lot more delight and respect than I afford it. Take Psalm 139:13-14:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
The Psalmist wasn’t living in our modern body-critical world, and was probably a man. But he describes God creating our bodies with such care and attention. Would God want me to punish my body for not being small enough? Somehow I doubt it.
I also find Mark 12:31 interesting in this context: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Many of us have an easier time loving other people, than we do loving ourselves. Unless I were a very jealous, petty person, I wouldn’t spend any time hating other women’s bodies. So in this case, “loving my neighbor as myself” is an exhortation to be as understanding of my own body’s flaws as I am those of others.
Loving All Bodies
Of course, not all of us are kind about our neighbors’ bodies, either. There are plenty of Adventists who are ready to criticize other people’s bodies. The temptation peculiar to us is to criticize fat people in the name of the health message. I’ve heard people say, “I’m talking to them about their being overweight because I’m concerned about their health!”
In our society, being fat is one of the last things we are allowed to publicly comment on. Beyond health, there is a perception that fatness is a moral failure. This isn’t true, of course. Different body chemistry and metabolism, medications, and many chronic medical conditions contribute to body weight. Some people simply have different priorities in their life than forcing their body into society’s “acceptable” weight limit. I know women who have experienced trauma or sexual abuse, who have unconsciously become fat as a shield against further abuse or attention.
On top of all that, it’s just very, very hard to go against your body’s genetic tendencies.
I promise you—I promise you—that every single fat person in the whole world already knows they are fat, and has already thought about their health. They have probably discussed it with physicians. Your “concern” isn’t going to suddenly bring it to their attention. Nothing you say to them about their body or their weight will be helpful or motivating. It can only heap more hurt upon them. Just as in a previous article where I cautioned women not to criticize another woman’s clothing choices, we should take the same care not to criticize each other’s bodies. Remember what your grandma taught you: if you can’t say something nice, then shut up.
Is This Really About Health?
For years I have struggled with the idea of loving myself. I’ve been on diet after diet. They usually work. And for a short time I feel good! But then I stop dieting and slowly I gain the weight back. My clothes are too tight and I’m uncomfortable. I can love my body and still want it to be a “healthy” weight—right?
But was this ever about health? I can make the excuse that it is. When I’m thinner I have less heartburn, for example. But I think the real, deeper reason is that I want to look closer to society’s standards for a woman’s body. I don’t want to buy clothes that fit my larger body because that would mean admitting that I plan to stay at a bigger size. And dieting means being hungry. It means teaching my brain to value the feeling of hunger. Nearly all diets say “You won’t even have to feel hungry!”—but they’re lying. Some of them are better than others, but all diets are about depriving yourself. When I’m dieting, and I feel hungry, I tell myself: “good! That means I’m doing something right!”
Does that seem right to you?
For decades I’ve wondered: what’s the alternative? How can I love my body and reject diet culture and still have a thin body?
And I’ve found my answer. I can’t. But what I can do is love my body the size it is. I’m not at an unhealthy weight, just one that’s larger than I personally like.
My big revelation is this: it’s okay to love myself just as I am. Without trying to change anything.
It sounds so cliche, but do you know how hard that is? What does it mean to love myself exactly how I am? It means loving my soft round tummy that sticks out farther than I like. It means loving that my neck starts just under my chin so when I put my head down I have a double chin. It means loving my stretch marks and those tiny hairs under the skin by my knee that won’t be shaved off.
It means that when I look in the mirror and feel disgust, I have to take that moment to think a different thought, a thought of acceptance and love.
I follow Jamie Lee Finch on Twitter, a woman who has spent her adult life helping people, especially women, overcome the trauma so many of us have experienced related to our bodies. She refers to her body as “she.” That is, when Jamie speaks of her body, she gives her body personhood, a sort of separate, individual life.
In a moment of self-hatred once, I realized I needed to change how I was thinking about my body. So I decided to try this. Instead of referring to my body as “it” I referred to my body as “she.” She is soft and round. She is larger than I wish she was. She is hungry and she hates when I make her stay hungry because I wish she was smaller.
I don’t know why, but this small language change has made a big difference in how I think of myself. Perhaps it’s because it makes me realize that would never treat another woman the way I have treated my body. I would not starve her, I would not hate her or pick apart her every flaw. When I think of her—my body—that way, I remember to appreciate what she does for me. I appreciate the marvel that she carried my babies, that she moves me without complaint through my life. I want to take care of her. I want her to get enough water and sleep and—yes—food.
My body is fearfully and wonderfully made and she deserves nothing but the most loving care from me. And that is what I intend to give her, for the rest of her life.
I end with this disclaimer: I am only addressing the concern that we may be harming ourselves emotionally and physically, not for the sake of health, but to try to reach unrealistic standards. I’m not saying this as a physician, however, so please do follow your physician’s recommendations.
Lindsey Abston Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie.