As a college counselor I work with several dozen students each semester. This semester, about two thirds of the individuals I’m working with have expressed some amount of body dissatisfaction, be it general dislike of their overall shape, specific hatred for a particular body part, or dissatisfaction with their weight. Years ago, I was right there with them. Occasionally, I still do have days when my eyes settle on a particular body part and I think, “Will I never look different in this area?” My healthy, recovered self chimes in with, “Nope. You probably won’t. But you’re doing what you can each day to be healthy and that’s important.”
As far as I can tell, Western cultures still value beauty over health, but there’s a subtle and insidious shift occuring. Women and men are encouraged to live healthier, to be more active, to eat fewer carbs and fats, to aspire to the new ideal body type: lean and muscular. At first glance this ideal seems perfectly fine. What’s wrong with trying to be lean and muscular? When you look more closely, however, you begin to realize that chasing any ideal instead of honoring the needs of our individual (and very different) bodies is unhealthy. Why should…no, how could…anyone, anywhere tell us what our own body needs in terms of percent body fat and nutrients and amount of physical activity?
The idea of honoring my body is on my mind today because I had a nasty stomach bug two days ago that left me feeling physically drained. I was feeling pretty much back to normal this morning so I went to the gym and joined one of the workout classes. About 15 minutes into it, I felt more fatigued than usual and took a short break to get some water while the class continued. One small voice in my head was annoyed that I couldn’t keep up with the pace of the class and a louder, healthier voice said, “Honor your body.” I’m thankful I listened to that voice. Yes, my body was ready for some physical activity today, but not at the level of intensity of the class. So I continued as best I could, checking in with myself and taking breaks as needed. This feels like a huge accomplishment; years ago I was in the habit of listening to that first voice…the one that said, “Your body wants to eat now, but you should definitely avoid everything you WANT to eat, because all of those foods are BAD for you.” That voice also told me, “You only exercised for 30 minutes today. How lazy are you?!” The same voice said, “You’re a failure for having eaten that brownie today. You should just eat a whole lot of junk for the rest of the day and start over tomorrow.”
Thankfully, I can now hear my body chiming in: “I’m craving protein and fat after that workout. How about a banana peanut butter smoothie?” Or “You only exercised 30 minutes today because you have been on the go all day. It’s okay to rest now.” And “Yay! A brownie! It’s great to satisfy a chocolate craving.”
I’m not really sure how I got to this point where I can listen to and honor my body’s needs. I think it began with being open to the possibility that the voice I heard so loudly (the critical voice) wasn’t the only voice inside of me. I recognized that there was a part of me that wanted me to be healthy, not just beautiful…let me say that again: There’s a part of you that wants you to be HEALTHY and NOT JUST BEAUTIFUL.
The members of the Health at Every Size community recognize that health is more important and more attainable than any societal ideal (be it thin or lean and muscular). I love what they write on their homepage:
“Health at Every Size is based on the simple premise that the best way to improve health is to honor your body. It supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control). Health at Every Size encourages:
- Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes.
- Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite.
- Finding the joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.”
Acceptance, flexibility, and joy…now those are things I want in my life! Let’s try to spread the word about honoring our bodies’ needs and focus our efforts on promoting health instead of a beauty ideal.
Peace, joy, and health!