How I Finally Achieved Total Freedom From Society’s Body Standards
If you’re a woman living in modern society, chances are you’ve uttered (or thought) the following words, and you’ve likely heard your female cohorts utter them too: “I hate my….” The end of that sentence changes, of course, depending on which body part du jour you’re dissatisfied with. Thighs, hips, calves, stomach, breasts, neck, butt—the list is seemingly endless. As women, we are trained practically from birth to believe that it’s natural to hate our bodies—while the male segment of our species undergoes no such training.
As a 31-year-old woman, I’ve lived a large chunk of my life in this vein. I was mocked for being “fat” in grade school, and my mother—though I know her intentions for me have always been rightly motivated—still to this day makes derogatory comments about her own frame and finds it appropriate whenever she sees me to look me up and down before happily exclaiming that I “still look good.” In high school, I battled a terrifying eating and exercise disorder that caused me to completely lose my menstrual cycle for several months at the age of 15. I was scared by that experience, but not scared enough to stop; I loved my newfound popularity and how all the other girls expressed jealousy over my slim build.
Turns out, this mistaken view that our external bodies determine our internal worth (or lack thereof) is a legitimate mental illness. After 30+ years of walking the Earth and meeting all kinds of women along the way, I’m 100% convinced there’s a silent plague among us: a sort of collective body dysmorphic disorder. Not only do women loathe their bodies in ways men would never dream to, we also seem to form some kind of twisted bond over this universal hatred—remember that scene in Mean Girls when Gretchen, Regina and Karen stand in front of the full-length mirror and engage in a back-and-forth concerning who dislikes which parts of her body? The brilliant cinematic story weaved by Tina Fey in 2004 might be fictional, but that part is anything but.
Getty Images/Christian Siriano Fall 2017
At a certain point, I just grew sick of this way of life, constantly berating myself simply for the way I was existing in space. Years ago, I became convinced through a personal experiment that the language we use to speak to our bodies has a very real impact on their physical states. I marched drum corps during the summer of 2005, and it was one of the most grueling physical activities I’ve ever undertaken. I would wake up every morning sore from head to toe, nearly unable to move from the pain. With no other recourse at hand, I decided to conduct some new-age research. Each night as I was falling asleep, I silently thanked my body for all the work it had done. It sounds so silly, but I literally thanked every body part I could before I drifted into unconsciousness: “Thank you, feet. Thank you, legs. Thank you, arms.” The first time I tried it, I woke up the next morning feeling about 50% as sore as I had been the previous day. I jumped out of bed with the greatest of ease. I was absolutely astounded.
Based on what I viewed as proof of the power of language, I made it my mission to be kinder to my body on a regular basis. Another major paradigm shift came for me many years later, when I underwent yoga teacher training in New York in 2012. A teacher thoroughly blew my mind one day when she was instructing our class to take up more space in a warrior pose, and she said, “Women especially are always apologizing for taking up space. On the subway, on the sidewalk, always trying to be smaller, always saying ‘I’m sorry’ for no reason. Stop doing that.” I abruptly realized I was guilty of this, and I began noticing it too: other women apologizing in troves. Entering a crowded train, lightly brushing up against a stranger as I passed him—I felt I needed to say “I’m sorry” just for existing. Our teacher encouraged us, instead of apologizing, to say “Excuse me,” a habit I adopted immediately and never let go of. I’m very proud to say that I’m no longer sorry I take up space, no matter how much space that might be.
Fast-forward several years. I try very hard to never use hateful or apologetic language when I talk or think about my own form, and when I hear other women do so, I try to (kindly) encourage them in another direction. There are resources that help: A friend recommended to me a book by body-image coach Summer Innanen called Body Image Remix, which despite at-times cheesy approaches to self-love (I hate any modality that tries to get me to “workshop” anything), has an excellent core message: Your body does not determine your worth. I joined a body-positive Facebook group open solely to women by invite only, which has been amazing for both my self-confidence and my self-enrichment. The stories they tell are at once inspiring and enlightening.
Getty Images/Christian Siriano Fall 2017
Another thing that helps: I remind myself on a regular basis that by society’s BS standards, I will never be younger or more beautiful than I am right at this moment. It’s so unfortunate that as a supple 20-year-old I ever hated my body—because now I look back at photos and think, “Damn, I looked great.” And I don’t doubt that when I’m 40, I’ll look back on photos of myself as a 30-year-old and think the exact same thing. I try very hard to enjoy my body and my objective “beauty” right now, because it’s only downhill from here, ladies. The crucial difference in my viewpoint on this fact of life, compared with so many other women’s, is that I celebrate it, I don’t begrudge it.
Arriving at a point of total freedom from societal body standards is no overnight feat, and if I’m perfectly honest, I do waver. I still sometimes look into the giant mirrors at yoga and compare my body to the body of the petite, perfectly toned gal next to me; I still struggle with the internal monologue of, “Ugh, I wish I had her body, I could wear anything” or “My stomach looks so gross today.” The growth I’ve experienced enters here, when I acknowledge those voices and know, on a deeper level, that they’re false; when I fight against them and remind myself that my physical body is here as a vehicle for my experiences, not as a way to completely define them. I look forward to a time, whether during my lifetime or sometime long after, when all the amazing women of our planet live just as freely and as powerfully as its men do—and with nothing but admiration and appreciation for their own incredible, astonishing, perfectly imperfect bodies.