Our bodies carry our clothes, our bag, and sometimes our yoga mat, or a heavy box of books, or a squirmy child on our hip. Our bodies also carry less tangible things: our enjoyment, our worries, our injuries, as well as the stories about who we are and what our bodies mean in the world. What stories does your body carry? What stories do you tell yourself about your body?
My body used to carry the story that it was unlovable, that it would never be good enough. It was a story I wore around myself like an old tattered shirt I never took off, not even to sleep or shower. No matter how beautiful I might have looked to anyone else, no matter how happy I appeared for the moment, that gross shirt lay underneath it all, closer to my heart than even my skin.
Sometimes the stories about our bodies come from our parents’ or family members’ well- intentioned or thoughtless comments, from our friends’ comparisons, from bullies’ taunts, or from the media; all the massive billboards and glossy magazine covers showing impossibly perfect bodies. “You’ll never measure up,” these voices whisper. “There’s something wrong with you.” Eventually, we don’t need anyone to tell us how to feel about our bodies. We internalize the voices to the point that we whisper the same words to ourselves, alone in front of our own mirrors, comparing ourselves to the images stored in our minds. We forget that those stories are myths, opinions, and untruths, and in no way reflect who we truly are. How do we unlearn these stories? First, drag them out into the light.
In my workshops, I ask my students, “What are the myths we tell ourselves about our bodies?” It’s amazing; no matter how different the groups are from each other, every group comes up with a disturbingly similar list of myths. Only thin people are sexy and lovable. Fat people are ugly and unlovable. If you want to be skinny, all you need is willpower. Fat people are weak. Fat of any sort, anywhere on the body, is not okay. Growing older is also not okay. Etc, etc. You can fill in your own stories, the conscious ones and the unconscious ones.
Once you’ve got them out in the open, you can take a look at them. They don’t hold up so well in the light… shrinking and shriveling like drying blobs of jellyfish on a sunny beach. Each one of them is a small lie, but together they are powerful. You have to tease them apart, and they show their weakness: You undoubtedly know some skinny people who are not lovable at all, and fat people who are. You undoubtedly know skinny people who are not beautiful and fat people who are. You know fat people who have enormous willpower, but whose genetic makeup defies all diets. You know strong fat people and weak skinny people. You know fat is natural, that it’s normal (even skinny people have cellulite!), that it’s not inherently attractive or unattractive, good or bad. It’s just fat. And you know that growing older is simply part of life. None of these myths hold up to even the barest examination.
So what now? Replace the myths. Give your body a different story to believe about itself. What stories would you like to hold about your body? If you could make up the rules (guidelines, call them whatever you want) about bodies, what would your rules be? What stories do you want to carry around? Take a sheet of paper, and some colored markers, and make a list of the new rules you want to believe about bodies. Make up rules that resonate for you. That you actually want to live with. Here are some students have suggested:
Love a new body every day. Celebrate all bodies.
Touch and be touched.
All bodies are worthy.
Beauty comes in all sizes.
Don’t skip lunch. Bodies need lunch.
And mine is: Love your body no matter what. Whether or not you love your body doesn’t have to have anything to do with how it looks.
Make your own list. Put it in your wallet, or hang it up on your mirror, and when you find yourself telling yourself one of those old shriveled myths, pull your new rules out and remind yourself you and your body don’t live by those old, false rules anymore. You make the rules now.