Chasing that Elusive Self-Acceptance
I'm tired of thinking about my body. Not the functional, healthy parts I often take for granted, but rather the way it looks. So much time wasted, itemizing each flaw, considering how life might be different with a “perfect body,” and feeling guilty if I surpass the appropriate meal size or blow off a day of exercise.
What would it feel like to jump out of bed each morning, throw on some clothes and exuberantly enter the day? What if I were consistently thrilled that my body was working properly, allowing impromptu breakfast dance parties and backyard somersaults?
As a little girl, I had a tummy that went on for miles. My favorite outfit was my matching, (horizontally striped), gymnastics leotard and leg-warmers, regardless of the weather or circumstance. I would parade around the house, belly-first, seeking viewers for my frequent performances, extremely proud of my coordinated attire.
Somewhere in late elementary school, that joy and pride in my body began to shrink. I recognized I didn’t look like some of the girls in my class with their twiggy legs and flat stomachs. My focus became choosing clothes to hide, hoping a carefully placed t-shirt would mask my shameful body. One way I coped was to start dressing like a boy, escaping into giant shirts and sweatpants.
I am certainly not the first to sacrifice femininity for protection, but at the time, I didn’t appreciate the loss. I needed to identify with the males surrounding me who seemed to be given much more latitude in their appearance. Their job was to be smart, ambitious and powerful, not beautiful, thin, or desirable.
In high school, playing a multitude of sports, my mother’s enforcement of healthy food choices, and growing several inches meant I abruptly achieved a level of thinness deemed acceptable by peers. In my head, however, I was still the same chubby preteen, seeking to cover my body. Do we ever really change our self-perception after experiencing childhood shame? The therapist in me says yes, but I know personally it’s a difficult journey.
I’m fascinated by those promoting body positivity at all sizes. I watched every episode of “Shrill” with Aidy Bryant, amazed and inspired by the confidence of those on screen reflecting anything but the societal feminine ideal. Women who appear comfortable in their skin are both intimidating and wondrous to me.
In my practice, I sit across from women as they shamefully describe each perceived fault, and I struggle to maintain my therapist’s distance, wanting to shout “Do you know how amazing and beautiful you are?” But I certainly identify with their struggle. I vacillate between days of acceptance to moments of despondency, wondering how I can face the world in my own imperfect skin.
During a recent coaching session, I was asked “What if you were enough, just as you are?” In the rare quiet moments of a working mom, I’ve tried to explore that question. What if, rather than a sum of parts, vulnerable to ever-changing assessment, we were each a singular, glowing ball of energy, fully integrated, inside and out. You could look at me and see my love for reading, my quirky sense of humor, my compassion, rather than the imperfections on my surface.
What if our appearance lived behind our intellect or emotional strength? Could we then, as women, move more easily through the world, unburdened by the expectation of beauty? What could we do with our newfound time and confidence? Would we become leotard-wearing dancers, exploring the world belly-first, proud of ourselves and unafraid of failure?
If you are reading this essay and can identify with the challenges I’m sharing, I would love to hear your story. It is an honor to coach women toward greater self-acceptance, particularly of their beautifully imperfect bodies, and I continue to feel inspired by your strength and resilience. There is no common path to self-love, and we must learn from one another.