When I recently took part in a “Love Your Body” blog post for Girls Gone Strong, it struck me how *none* of these fitness goals/body image crusades have ever actually helped me.
When my fitness goal was being lean and getting that six-pack, I initially felt a new sense of control because of it; yet eventually I realised it wasn’t the answer I needed. When my fitness goal turned to what I could do over how I looked, I initially felt empowered by it; yet eventually I realised it too wasn’t the answer I needed. The current “trend” of learning to “love your body flaws and all” seems wonderful and liberating … but I’ve come to realise that after the initial surge of feel-good hormones, I can’t seem to actually do it! Why doesn’t anything stick?!
If nothing really changes after I get an answer, perhaps I am asking the wrong question. Or maybe I’m hoping the answer to one question will be the answer to all questions.
I have managed to be on both sides of this: both the seeker and the answer-giver. I started to feel less like I was really dealing with the right question when I was left feeling dissatisfied and empty with each answer. Each time I’d think: “yes! That’s that’s where I should be”. At best I’d end up faking it hoping to one day wake up “there”… but why do I feel I need to fake it? What do I think “it” will bring me? And more importantly, what was wrong with where I was at?
These fitness/body image messages all rely on the same concept: the reader believes that there is something wrong with themselves. If “Fitspiration” messages appeal to you, somewhere there is an underlying belief that you will improve yourself only if you look a certain way (i.e. you need improving); if “acceptance” messages appeal to you, the message only makes sense if you believe there is something wrong with your thinking or feelings about yourself (i.e. “you shouldn’t want to change, you should love yourself”). Rather than actually help, they seem to feed into fear, into perfectionism, into the underlying message that something must change: either yourself, or the way that you think about yourself. It’s still saying that you will feel better when you’re here; it’s what you need. But where is “here” and why is it somewhere you want to be? It’s just confirming over and over again what you already feel: where/who you are isn’t enough!
For me, I’ve realised that I tend to feel an enormous pressure to keep earning my value from places that don’t offer me any. These goals make me promises that they’ll be just what I need. It goes like this: I want to feel valued so I look for what’s valuable … and I try that. What does it mean when I don’t make it? It reinforces my belief that my value is contigent on achieving something else; it’s “evidence” that I’m still not good enough.. The goal is not the answer, it’s a condition to another condition that takes you further from even asking the real question.
I see all these goals/achievements and narratives we formulate about ourselves as bricks that we build up around us like a giant cold wall (maybe with paint on the outside). We build a version of ourselves who we like more, who we maybe even love. But there are always a few cracks or missing bricks (getting damaged in storms like failure, self-doubt, cognitive dissonance) that we desperately try to fill in just to keep our true selves from being seen. We keep looking for new bricks and before we know it, we are locked behind this wall feeling more anxious, less loved, maybe more alone. We might even wonder: “why don’t I ever feel good enough?!” or “why can’t I just be happy?”.
What if the wall fell down, maybe I start pushing some bricks away. With those “badges of honour” shaken off, there I am naked and vulnerable, full of shame for being less than I think I should: Can I love myself now? It feels mighty uncomfortable and I feel small and insignificant… but I am also feeling the heat of the sun on my skin, and radiating a healthy glow. Can you see me past your wall? Can I see you?
Perhaps the better questions I need to ask myself are:
- What do I think I lack that these things (being leaner, being stronger, loving my body) will give me?
- What does it mean if I don’t achieve these things?
- What does it mean if I do?
- Why are any of these things important to me at all?
As Timothy Keller put it:
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”