My quest to cultivate respect for my body in every stage of life
Facebook gave me a “memory” this morning. It was a photo of me on vacation in Spain, 15 years old, on my way out to dinner with my family. I look at the photo and I see an incredibly skinny girl: flat stomach, narrow hips, lean, tanned arms. I look both fragile and confident at the same time. I was beautiful, but I wasn’t able to grasp it. “Ah, to be that young again,” I think to myself. “Everything was so simple. Those were the days.” But, on second thought… Were they? I think back to this vacation, this time in my life, and I remember thinking at the time that I was fat. I’d lie on the beach holding my stomach in, careful not to exhale too deeply for anyone to notice my (non-existing) stomach bulge. I thought my inner thighs should have been more toned, my arms less flabby, my stomach tighter. I kept a food journal, scribbling down everything I ate and drank on a daily basis along with my weight and a “+” or a “-” sign in the corner, signaling if I’d done up or down a few hundred grams on that specific day. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin — I didn’t think I was beautiful. I compared my body not just to friends and people around me, but to absolutely everyone. Celebrities in magazines. Models in ads plastered to the sides of a bus. Women on TV who always looked so inexplicably perfect. Actually, now that I think of it, I cannot remember a single time in my life when I haven’t wanted to change something about my body. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be thinner. Even in my thinnest days I never felt thin enough.
It breaks my heart, thinking of my teenage self. I was so gorgeous! So perfect. If I’d only had the wits to enjoy my body and my beauty instead of scrutinizing it and looking for flaws that weren’t there. Luckily, I tell myself, I’ve matured. I’m smarter now. I’ve mastered the art of self-love. I’ve even made it part of my career! I share my thoughts on what a healthy body image means with my millions of social media followers, I make YouTube videos on how to accept ourselves for who we are, I teach meditations and yoga practices focused on loving your body… I’ve even written a book centered around the subject! So, surely, I must be an expert by now. I love myself. I love my body. All the time. Right?
I wish I could tell you the answer is yes. I click away the photo of me as a 14-year-old and start scrolling through my Instagram account. I look at photo after photo of myself in yoga poses, on the beach, traveling, teaching, working. I get to photos taken a year ago. And yes, on the outside, I look stunning. There is one shot in particular: I’m in Dancer’s Pose, balancing on a rock, peacefully gazing out at the ocean. What an image! Last year’s Rachel Brathen really had something going for her! But then I remember — I know how I felt then this photo was taken. I was holding my stomach in, arching my back in a way I knew would make me look taller, leaner. This wasn’t a peaceful moment. In fact, I wasn’t enjoying this moment at all — I was posing for a photo for social media. We had been enjoying the moment, my husband and I, sitting on the beach watching the sun set through the waves. I’d remembered I hadn’t posted to Instagram yet that day and handed him my phone to take a photo. Dutifully, the always-present Instagram husband as he is, he said yes. He got the shot but I wasn’t happy with it. He asked me why — the colors were beautiful, the line of the horizon in the back was even, the sunset magnificent, the pose beautifully aligned. I shook my head. No, I don’t like the angle. Take a few more. So he did. What I didn’t say, what I never say, is this: Actually, I don’t like my body. I don’t like my body in this picture. The pose was beautiful and the backdrop gorgeous but I’d forgotten about holding my belly in so there was a distinct line there that I didn’t approve of: the silhouette of my stomach. Too round for my pleasing, not flat enough to be Instagram worthy. Of course I didn’t tell my husband this. He would tell me I’m crazy, that I’m the most beautiful girl in the world, that he loves my stomach and that the picture is perfect. Because that’s the kind of man he is — he loves me. He thinks I’m beautiful. He’d never tell me I look fat or that I should hold my stomach in; for one, I don’t think he ever in a million years would notice such a thing, and two, if he ever did… I’d slap him on the head! I’d never let anyone speak to me like that. I’m a strong, independent woman. I deserve respect, not scrutiny. But then again… How come I allow it toward myself? My standards for how I want other people to treat me are miles higher than the standard for the judgment I allow from myself. In my adult life I’ve never lived with self-hate or self-harm, and my yoga and meditation practice has always kept me with a healthy level of respect and appreciation for my body. But, somehow, through it all, it just hasn’t been enough. There has always been that little voice inside my head to ruin a perfectly good photo or smudge a beautiful moment.
I’m pondering this sitting in front of my computer in a body that’s far different from both that 15-year-old girl and the woman in the yoga photo one year ago. I’m 21 weeks pregnant with my first baby right now and physically, I couldn’t be further from the images in the magazines I looked at as a young teen. I’m gaining weight all over, my stomach is huge, my thighs rub together when I walk and I feel bloated, swollen, and congested. But somehow, I also feel incredibly beautiful. There is a new dimension present that separates me from the woman I was before my pregnancy and the woman I am now. Before, objectively, I was always beautiful. I can look back at any time in my life and see, yes, there was always beauty in me. The difference is this: I didn’t feel it then. I never truly felt it in the present aside from fleeting moments of feeling content that in the end always came and went. But today, in this pregnancy, I feel absolutely gorgeous. All the time! I feel beautiful and I feel it now. There is a bigger purpose to my body now. I’m creating life. I’m making space for a miracle. All the petty things I’ve always wanted to change have faded in the light of carrying and growing my baby girl. The sense of beauty I feel isn’t derived from the image I see when I look in the mirror or from meeting my own expectations (or society’s). Right now… I feel beautiful — just because I am.
I want to hold on to this feeling so badly. I want to find a way to manifest this to stay. More than I’ve ever wanted to cultivate a strong, lean, “perfect” body, I want to cultivate the awareness and respect for the love I feel for my body right now to stay. I want to find the secret recipe to share with you all, knowing that feeling beauty has very little to do with external circumstance. Our physical appearance is fleeting. We all know this. Isn’t it time we stop looking back at past versions of ourselves and start appreciating who we are now? I think about my little girl making her way through the world and I wish this so strongly for us all; to raise the standards for how we treat ourselves and above all, to teach ourselves love so that we can pass it on.
I wish for there to be a time when we can all look at a Facebook memory and say, wow, was I was beautiful then. But look at me now.
Originally published at medium.com