Self-Love-Based-Improvement: Another Side of Body-Positivity

The third season of Queer Eye is out, and there’s one particular thing that I really appreciate about this season—they balance the concept of self-love with self-improvement. The fab five are always showering whoever is the focus of the episode with love and encouraging that person to learn to love themselves, but they also challenge that person to grow in the areas they are most struggling.

Sometimes, that’s in challenging one to practice social skills or find people to connect with. Sometimes that’s in buying somebody a gym membership and teaching them how to work out so that they can lose weight.

The idea that self-love and self-acceptance aren’t mutually exclusive from self-improvement goals is a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Quite a bit of the body positivity that I’ve encountered has been combatting this unhealthy approach to physical health—the inner critic that tells you that being thin is equal to being beautiful or that you’re a lazy slob if you eat a piece of cake. It’s a fucked up approach to dealing with diet, exercise, and appearance because it relies on bullying oneself and working towards goals based on arbitrary standards of beauty and acceptableness.

But at the same time, there are times when it is appropriate and healthy to want to exercise more or lose weight or change one’s consumption habits—just as it is healthy for one to want to grow in being able to reach out for emotional support or get a different job or improve one’s mind.

Queer Eye reminded me that it’s possible to have physical goals while coming from a place of love and acceptance.

Externally, the approach might look similar—watching what you eat, getting to the gym, etc. But internally the process is very different.

Instead of “I hate myself; I can’t love myself until I am like _____ (insert appearance-based goal)” or “I hate myself; I’m such a pig. I shouldn’t eat ____” or “I hate myself; I’m too lazy to get the the gym” the dialogue is “I love myself; therefore I want to see my body at a healthier weight” or “I love myself; therefore I want to be stronger” or “I love myself; therefore I choose to eat foods that will nourish my body.”

The universe is bringing this reminder to me at the right time.

For the last several years, I’ve been struggling with on and off injuries that I couldn’t seem to overcome. It limited my ability to be active, with the frustrating side effect of gaining weight. I watched myself lose the ability to fit into some of my favorite clothes, lose the stamina I had worked so hard to build in being able to run, hike, even do a yoga class, and lose my confidence in my sense of self.

At that time, I needed the reminder that my body isn’t only worthwhile when it looks a certain way or is a certain size. I needed reminders that it’s okay to be where I am, that I’m not lazy or unhealthy or worthless or ugly or any of the other messages that got instilled by media and advertising growing up as a girl in our society over the years.

But more recently I have begun treatment with a physical therapist for EDS—a condition that results in hypermobility (e.g. being able to partially dislocate my arm simply by raising it above my head). The physical therapy is focused on strengthening my body so that injuries don’t happen as often…and I’m starting to see results. I’m able to be more active as a regular rule rather than spurts of activity followed by a long healing process for whatever latest injury I have.

And I’m starting to get hope. I’ve begun monitoring my diet more, trying to encourage myself to adopt healthier habits like not snacking after 9pm, making sure I eat in accordance with how physically active I am so that my caloric burn is higher than my caloric intake, and choosing foods that are more sustainable and less empty calories.

It’s slow, but I’m beginning to notice results. I’m liking the changes I’m seeing in my body, starting to get hope that maybe I can wear some things I haven’t had the heart to get rid of but that haven’t really fit for a while. I’m also starting to be able to do things I love again that I haven’t been able to do for a long time–things that make exercise fun for me.

At first, I felt ashamed of the fact that I had these goals for my body, wondering if that was a sign that I wasn’t really able to love and accept myself.

But Queer Eye was able to remind me that it’s possible to want to change my body’s way of being in the world without it being about self-loathing. Loving myself doesn’t mean being perfectly content with where I am and never wanting to grow or change. It means respecting my limitations, seeing the value in myself as I am, and finding respectful ways to work towards my goals.

Most importantly, it means my goals are rooted in my love for myself rather than trying to make myself loveable.


It’s Not Just About the Boundaries

I’m visiting my family this weekend, and I have so many mixed feelings about it. I’ve been grappling with yet another layer of grieving what I never actually had.

I wish I had a family that loves and accepts me, a family that doesn’t disdain me for being bi or non-Christian or feminist or anything. I want a family that can be proud of me for my accomplishments rather than seeing me as a blight on their reputation.

But I don’t have that.

I’d settle for a family that owns up to the abuse of whipping me as a child and gaslighting me as a teen and young adult. I’d accept a family that could apologize for raising me in a cult with all of the religious and psychological terrorism that accompanied that.

But I can’t have that either.

The last few years have been about me learning how to remain unhooked around them. I’ve practiced non-confrontational answers that allow me to set a boundary and avoid conformity while also keeping the peace. It usually involves little things like not closing my eyes when my parents insist on praying for the meal or changing the subject when they start to stray into a topic that would lead to conflict. I’ve passively refused to answer letters or questions from family members. I’ve mastered the ability to not respond to the subtle backdoor messages of criticism and guilt. I’m great at blanking out so that they don’t have anything to grab hold of.

It takes two to tango, right?

At this point, I feel pretty confident that I can avoid anything uncomfortable and have a fairly smooth visit with my family for a few days. But now that I’ve achieved that, I’ve come to realize it’s not what I want going forward.

It’s nice to have that option, but thinking about that being the sum of my relationship with my family for the rest of my life feels intolerable. It still involves a measure of my hiding myself. I’m not longer allowing them to dictate my morals to me. I won’t allow them to nose into something I want to keep private.

But I also don’t feel like I can bring myself into my visits either. It’s like I leave myself at home but bring all my boundaries with me.

I’ve toyed with the idea of cutting my ties and allowing myself the freedom of not having to worry about whether there will be disapproval or arguments or whatever…but if I only give myself permission to be in contact with them when I’m trying to keep the peace, then ultimately, I’m still letting them dictate what it’s acceptable for me to be around them—letting their approval determine what they see of me or don’t see of me.

I want to be me, regardless of whether they accept it. I want to be proud of being me. To be able to stick up for being me.

Even if that means they hate it.

My parents can’t take a belt to my backside anymore. They can’t send me to hell. They can’t hold me captive.

They can talk and say horrible things, but ultimately those things have little power in and of themselves.

I know this cognitively, but it’s surprising how incredibly scary I still find them. Somehow, my brain thinks the most catastrophic thing that could happen is their vocalized disapproval.

I have almost talked myself out of this visit so many times I’ve lost count. I recognize that I don’t want to be there…

But I need to be.

I need to challenge myself to show up and be present, to dare to let them see me, even to dare to let a fight break out because I refuse to accept the dichotomy that I either need to walk away or hide who I am.

I don’t expect myself to be perfect. I’m sure there will be times when I could stand up for myself and don’t because I’m not ready to take on that battle yet. However, if I can walk away from this visit having refused to be invisible in small ways, I will consider it a successful phase of continuing to develop my ability to give myself what my family has never been able to give me—acceptance, pride, and unconditional love.

Fighting the Wrong Villain: Thin Women and the Thin Ideal

It’s the beginning of a new year, so I expect to see a lot of posts and articles about losing weight, working out, eating healthy, etc. I’ve been encouraged by seeing some fighting back against the annual guilt fest and claiming their right to love their bodies and selves as they are.

However, as you can easily guess, the positive body-image posts and resolutions are the minority. Even on sites whose entire mission is to fight the unrealistic expectations of the thin ideal, there is body disparagement, ranging from the typical self-critique to demonizing and criticizing others.

A couple of days ago, Beauty Redefined posted a quote from Zooey Deschanel about refusing to give in to unrealistic beauty standards, and I was dismayed to see how many people dismissed what she had to say because she is thin.

But I probably shouldn’t have been. It’s not really much different from what I have gotten on a regular basis from others.

I’m not a particularly large person, though certainly not as small as Zooey. My mother was very petite, and I inherited her small bone structure. My freshman year of college, I went through a brief period of being slightly heavy, according to the charts, but for the most part, I’ve always been within a “healthy” weight.

That doesn’t mean that I haven’t struggled with my body image. Even though I can’t be classified as overweight or obese, I’m still far from meeting the standards of the thin ideal.

I’ve been working hard the last couple of years to learn to accept and love my body for what it is instead of what it isn’t, but it’s been a lonely journey. It’s difficult to express my insecurities to others. More often than not, when I dare to bring up my own struggle with the thin ideal, I’m met with comments such as “You’re thin; you have nothing to worry about” or “If only I were your size. You’re perfect.”

Perhaps comments like that are meant as an encouragement, but they don’t feel encouraging. Failure doesn’t really come in degrees. I fail to meet the thin ideal as much as anyone else who fails. The goal is still as much out of a healthy, realistic reach now as it would be if I gained an extra hundred pounds, and my need to overcome the thin ideal and to accept my body is as great as any other woman’s.

I’ve grown so tired of being dismissed. I’m tired of seeing women like Zooey vilified for being small. The goal of redefining beauty standards shouldn’t be to make thin “bad.” Rather it should be to accept the range of healthy expressions that women’s bodies can take–“fat,” “thin,” and anything in between.

More importantly, it should be to break away from the idea that a woman’s value is based in her appearance. Zooey’s wisdom or my journey aren’t diminished because of our weight—or at least they shouldn’t be. No woman’s should be, no matter what her weight.

So while we’re all talking about our resolutions and health goals for the year, can we also please stop demonizing women, whether heavy or light, for their bodies? I’d love to see every woman reach a place where she can stand up and celebrate her body as a beautiful part of herself, as my beautiful and amazing friend Dani did, but I understand that kind of journey is a long one that some may not ready to make.

At the very least, though, we can refrain from making the journey harder. The next time you feel like dismissing someone’s body concerns because they don’t match yours, take a step back and just try acknowledging that she is allowed to struggle too.