How would your life be different if you weren’t worried about how your body looked? What would you do, what would you wear, and how would you feel? How would you talk to yourself if there were no mirrors or cameras, or you and everyone else were blind?
I recently listened to a couple episodes from The Liturgists Podcast about “embodiment” and “body image,” and one of the hosts, counseling psychologist and PhD student Hillary McBride asked the above question to the other hosts. It was almost impossible to answer (I tried it myself), because it’s so unrealistic in our modern world. The media we consume, our relationships with others, even our healthcare system all place high emphasis on the value of looking a certain way. One of the major indicators of health, fitness, and beauty is how we look. But what are those standards we compare to, and who set them? Are they based on actual health? And when considering “embodiment” and that our bodies are a vessel for our soul, that without one the other doesn’t exist, does the standard physical representation of health and fitness also represent mental/emotional/spiritual health?
I’ve struggled with my own body image for most of my life. My first recollections of comparing my body to others was in elementary school. I remember noticing my legs and how they were thicker than most other girls – my calves were rounder, my thighs were bigger, and I remember noticing my knees weren’t pointy when bent – just rounded. In 5th or 6th grade I vaguely remember a boy commenting on my “big” thighs when I was wearing some brightly colored floral pants that I was really excited about wearing, and then I never wanted to wear those pants again. Ever since I can remember, my parents wanted to lose weight and they tried various diets along the way. They were always open about whatever diet they were doing and I frequently picked up their diet books left out on the table and read through the methodology. I guess I’ve always had some interest in human physiology, maybe inspired by those books. My parents certainly never said anything degrading about my body, but they did say things like “you’ve got your grandma’s wide shoulders and your dad’s short, muscular legs.” So no matter how negative or benign the comments, my physical body was being compared and commented on by myself and others for most of my conscious life. I catch myself commenting on my own daughter’s bodies – both of which I think are beautiful in their own different ways. But I don’t want them to feel labeled or less or more than others based on the shape of their bodies.
We do focus on healthy eating and activity in our household. Skyler knows I went to nutrition school and that healthy, nutritious food is important for many reasons. She knows that exercise of all kinds helps our bodies stay healthy. Even when I’m buckling down on my own nutrition and workout routine to lose some weight, I’m careful to explain to her that I’m trying to be healthier. But that is the problem. I AM HEALTHY. Other than Vitamin D levels that are chronically on the low end of normal (thanks genetics and northern hemisphere living), my blood work is always perfect. I exercise 5 – 6 days a week, a mix of heavy weightlifting, lighter resistance training, cardio intervals, and low impact activities like yoga, walking/hiking and bike-riding. I choose high quality protein, fat and veggies for most of my meals, consume very little dairy, grains and sugar. I limit my caffeine intake to one cup of coffee per day, and opt for herbal teas or bone broth or just plain water the rest of the time. I drink kombucha, take probiotics, fish oil, vitamin D, magnesium, and a few targeted liver support supplements (based on things I’ve learned from my genetic data regarding my liver). I splurge for one or two “cheat meals” (though I disagree with that term), usually on the weekends, that often involve a couple alcoholic drinks. That’s probably my one unhealthy habit – but it’s not daily and I rarely overdo it. Sleep is a priority to me – I attempt 7-8 hours during the week and don’t set my alarm on the weekends. Thankfully my girls are good sleepers and rarely wake me up. I’m very self-aware and in tune with my body and I make adjustments in all of the above if something doesn’t feel right. Over the longterm – I’ve run a marathon and a couple half marathons. I’ve birthed two children with uncomplicated labors. I’ve summited a 14,000 foot peak in the Rockies. I can lift a decent amount of weight, more than the average person, multiple ways (squats, bench press, dead lift and olympic lifts). I have no mobility issues other than residual soreness or mildly achy joints from a hard workout.
So somebody please tell my why I think I need to lose 15 lbs? Because the way I looked 15 lbs lighter than now is actually healthier? Is it? Or because the way I looked 15 lbs lighter than now was more in line with what others think looks healthy? It makes no logical sense. Why do I get grumpy that I can’t fit in older, smaller clothing? Why do I get dressed and look in the mirror and critique the size of my arms and legs – these strong arms and legs that have carried and lifted so much throughout this life? So I have a little extra layer of insulation over everything – if a catastrophe were to happen and we found ourselves without accessible food, I would be far better off than everyone else with a lower body fat percentage than mine. I am strong and fit and would survive on my own fuel source longer than they would.
I would be lying if I said the above logic is enough to set me free from my own body image issues. I would be lying if I said old pictures of myself when I was thinner didn’t make me feel motivated to go exercise harder. I would be lying if I said I don’t “feel fat” most of the time. I would be lying if I said I don’t judge other people’s health/fitness by the way their body looks. It’s an absolutely ridiculous sickness that I hope and wish I can heal.
Circling back to the “embodiment” concept, this is one area of my health that I know I still need work, and I think it’s an aspect of health that is rarely recognized in our modern world. This mind-body-spirit connection is profound. Imbalances in our physical bodies can lead to mental and emotional problems, and vice versa. Emotional trauma and spiritual issues can seriously impact our physical health. I have found as I age and have experienced various stressful events, I struggle with more and more anxiety and mild depression, and I am not good at releasing these feelings from my body. Though those feelings are “all in my head,” I physically feel them in my body. Anxiety causes a heaviness and dull pain in my chest, a choking feeling around my throat. Depression feels like extreme exhaustion – heavy, achy limbs, and a desperate craving for sleep. And when I hold these feelings inside and don’t talk about them, I feel a constant knot in my gut and my heart. I’ve heard about the health benefits of crying. I have heard references that some kinds of cancer are thought to be caused by emotional trauma and that there might be a psychological component to “spontaneous remission” in some cancer patients. And it is now commonly accepted that stress has a negative impact on our immune system, so we must do a better job of connecting emotional health to physical health. Considering these things, I have recently theorized that perhaps my extra 15 lbs I’m carrying these days could in fact be emotional baggage from burying my negative emotions instead of releasing them. All things considered, it’s not that far-fetched, but that theory doesn’t necessarily free me from unrealistic expectations of what a positive body image should be. It’s still me finding another reason why I don’t look healthy “enough.”
So I guess what I am getting at, is that obviously society’s definition of what a healthy body looks like is bogus. I am living proof. While I am not a perfect specimen since I still have some emotional health issues to deal with, I think one could make a case that healthy/fit has a much broader physical embodiment than what we have been conditioned to believe. However, I think we have this knee jerk problem on the other end of the spectrum telling overweight folks to love themselves and not worry about how they look and to have a healthy body image even if it’s different than what society says. And people who are naturally “healthy-looking” don’t take care of themselves because they’ve never “needed” to. I don’t think any of this kind of self love works if you aren’t actually healthy or taking steps to be healthy. Obesity is a serious issue. Malnourishment affects all shapes and sizes. Lack of exercise causes health problems, no matter how big or small you are. And mental illness knows know body weight limits. We have to be actively engaged in our own health – mind, body, soul, in order to be healthy. So if we are choosing nutritious foods, engaging in healthy physical activities, fostering healthy thoughts and relationships, and doing those things as an act of love for our whole self, the resulting physical embodiment of our being should be balanced and beautiful, no matter what the inches or pounds say. With that, I’m off to go lift some weights.