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The Right Way To Talk About Body Image

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Misty Pittman

“Girls have it so much easier,” said the former Abercrombie & Fitch model who, with a glass of homemade kale and strawberry juice in one hand, lamented over the socially imposed pressure to frequent the gym as often as he did to maintain his “masculine” muscular definition of a six pack and sculpted physique.

Truth be told, body images are not just “easier” for girls, nor are they a “girl issue”; they’re an every body issue, for they embody exceedingly more than physiological and aesthetic standards. They embody you.

We are so much more than the arrangement of matter composing our bodies. Whatever your weight, your jean size, your cholesterol, you matter. You, your future, your capabilities, and your gifts are not defined by a number on a scale, a pair of jeans, or a dress. Your value as a human being, a being worthy of respect, is independent of how you look or how much you weigh.

Yes, weight is generally a solid measure of health, however, it is not the only one. In the pursuit of a holistic approach to physical well-being, consider resting heart rate, body fat percentage, nutritional intakes, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, cholesterol, and other measures of health, which can be achieved across sizes.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight, when the rationale and methods are sound. Indeed, there is something respectable and rewarding about challenging one’s self, exchanging comfort and immediate gratification to enjoy a higher quality, more fulfilled sort of life through goals and discipline. Self-improvement, including weight loss or “bulking up,” fueled by intrinsic motivation, reaps more reward than self-improvement to comply with outside standards.

Yes, people are going to have their preferences of attraction or beauty and that is okay; sometimes even respectable. What is not okay is to shame people for their bodies, to assign guilt to someone as a person for how their body stands as a physical entity, because then we confuse somebody with some body. There is beauty in everyone, and once we start looking at people as agents capable of thought and feeling, not a collection of physiological pieces, we will find more peace. However, we cannot give that which we do not have, so be kind to yourself and give yourself the respect you unconditionally deserve, even if this idea seems too idealistic.

There is beauty in everyone, and once we start looking at people as agents capable of thought and feeling, not a collection of physiological pieces, we will find more peace.

If you’re unhappy with your body image, I challenge you to think of ten things you are thankful your body can do. Maybe you love that your eyes can see little details that others often dismiss, or maybe you love the way your hands can dance across piano keys and uplift others’ spirits. Perhaps you appreciate the fact your smile makes others smile, or even admire the power of your posture that allows you to present yourself as a confident professional.

Keep a mental list of ten things you like about your body that aren’t related to appearance or weight. Beyond that, I challenge you to prioritize physical functionality over body image. Fitness targets physical functionality, and self-respect, emotional stability. A healthy, positive body image encompasses both functionalities for ultimate fulfillment.

Challenge yourself to something healthy because you love your body and yourself. Treat your body as if it belonged to your future child or anyone else you love. Reframing the idea of healthy practices as the medium to live a more vibrant life doesn’t seem like a chore, but rather a privilege, and an opportunity to celebrate life. And it is something you deserve right now just as you are.

When I wanted to start running at age 17, I was told by several people that I “did not look like” a runner. A few months later, a physician diagnosed me with 30 degrees of curvature called scoliosis, and told me that I not only had to stay lean, but embrace the great likelihood of no longer running. To this day, my motivation to run is not fueled by the desire to maintain a lean figure, but to chase the “runner’s high” and happiness. I say “kale yeah” to veggie drinks to care for my brain, fight disease, and have sufficient iron levels to donate blood. My wish for everyone is to find a fitness approach that brings them happiness in and of itself, rather than chase fitness as a means to be accepted by others based on appearance.

For me, running 50 miles a week is a party for my body and a prayer in physical form. Every time I run, I thank God for my life, my health, and stamina. Of the many reasons to run, a few are of primal importance: I run because I can. I run because it makes me feel joyful, beautiful, and empowered. I run because I am deeply in love with an activity that paradoxically makes me feel alive at the verge of physical exhaustion.

Whatever your fitness of choice among the diverse variety, find it, and let yourself fall in love with the enrichment it brings. You deserve to be happy with yourself and celebrate the body you have, be it through dancing, boxing, tennis, or swimming. You deserve to fall in love with the fitness style of your choice, and you deserve to reap the fulfillment that sort of hard work brings. Because if you do work hard, you may discover that your capabilities exceed those constructed by yourself and others.

Yes, there is a happiness that accompanies health, but that happiness is not thinness, nor is it a quantity on a scale or inside a pair of jeans.

Maybe in the sphere of social media, we’re all preoccupied about un-tagging ourselves, filtering and editing pictures to adhere to that “thinspiration” to get more likes. But inspiration is no means to motivate an eating disorder. It doesn’t even make sense, anyway, to fulfill an emptiness by keeping our stomachs empty. Whether you are overweight, average, or underweight, you need to eat because no size is immune to disordered eating, and it entails both overeating and under-eating. You don’t need to have a thigh gap to be pretty or a six pack to be handsome. You need to nourish your body and take care of it, wherever you are in your fitness journey.

I’m aware that advocating the idea of loving yourself stands somewhere on the verge of a cliché, and a generic psychological prescription. I’m aware it’s easier said than done, but I am aware of what it can do. Above all, I am aware that it is something you can do.

But it starts with ending the “fat talks” among our friends, dismissing “fat-shaming” and “skinny-shaming”. It starts with being kind to yourself and not saying things to yourself that you wouldn’t want others to say to you. It starts with exercising to celebrate, not conform. It starts with deconstructing the idea that our happiness is relative, that it is something we can only measure against that of others.

Yes, there is a happiness that accompanies health, but that happiness is not thinness, nor is it a quantity on a scale, or inside a pair of jeans. Rather, it is well-being that brings happiness. The very word itself screams being. For we are beings, not just bodies, and it is “well” that we seek, not having been or will have been, but being. “Well” is a part of beauty we can assign and give to ourselves for simply being. It is something we deserve for simply existing. It is something that no one can take from you. It is something that you can have now.

The present is a gift and in the context of body image, it means appreciating our bodies as they are in this moment. No, this idea is not mutually exclusive from the idea of working in the present towards a future fitness-oriented goal. For in doing so, we are preparing for a joyful arrival of the future while honoring the power of acting now.

So eat that chocolate chip cookie and enjoy it. You don’t have to completely eliminate certain foods to have a healthy weight, and you don’t have to be athletic to enjoy fitness. We can’t be consumed by calories or exercise, but we do need to be comfortable in our skin – literally. Maybe this all sounds hard, intimidating, or difficult, but it’s a journey worth taking. A positive body image, among many things worth having, doesn’t always come easy, but it makes the long run – no pun intended – for every body, easier. TC mark

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