I just finished watching a Victoria’s Secret commercial on TV. These commercials always make me uncomfortable and a little squeamish, especially when my husband is around. Almost instinctively, and unbeknownst to him, I sit up a little straighter, I secretly check out my belly or legs and hope I look okay.
Today, he wasn’t sitting next to me. It’s just me with my laptop. I’m wearing a dress that accentuates my curves beautifully when I stand up. When I sit down on my bed, leaning back, though, I see the double bulge of my belly underneath the t-shirt fabric. I want to pat the wobble that is my belly, tell it that I love it and that I’m totally fine with it — yes, that I love it. But as I’m preparing to write this article, I find that the question about whether or not you can love your imperfect body is not quite as simple as saying, “Yes, you can.”
In the summer of 2013, I was diagnosed with hemangiomas of the liver. These benign tumors, as my surgeon called them, had grown to the size of grapefruits and oranges, and they crowded my liver and caused considerable pain. I had a liver resection in October, during which 65 percent of my liver was removed. The lasting piece of evidence is a 15-inch scar on my belly ranging from the tip of my sternum to a couple of inches above my belly button and to the right underneath my ribcage. It looks like a large letter L. Thanks to my great health — and I am certain my great diet also played a role in my quick recovery — I was able to get back into my regular routine of everyday life about three times faster than predicted by my doctors.
But the realization that I was in fact not invincible, and that even with this healthy lifestyle I was still vulnerable and could still get sick, left a lasting impression. I was filled with a deep gratitude for life and for my body. I was in awe of what my body was capable of doing. My liver regenerated in about six weeks, and the scar on my belly faded so quickly that I barely even notice it anymore.
It was easy to love my body after major surgery. How can you not love being alive and well and on your way to better health? I even wrote about it on my personal blog. But the truth is, that feeling didn’t last too long. Before I knew it, the same old feelings of being too big, too tall, not good enough settled in again and left me wondering why I couldn’t just love and appreciate the body I have, just the way it is.
And this is where we need to make a distinction between loving our bodies for the way we look and loving our bodies for what they do for us. I can tell myself all day long to love my dimply thighs, the scar from my c-section, the double belly with its stretch marks, the saggy breasts, and the 15-inch surgery scar, and I just can’t. I have eyes and I have a pretty good idea of what is beautiful, or at least media has trained me well over the past few decades to look at skinny as beautiful. Maybe I would feel different if I lived during the times of Rubens who had such a love for very curvy ladies in the 1600s.
However, and this is more important than my love for my imperfect body parts, I do have an undying appreciation for my body. I may not love my sagging breasts, but I am proud to have nursed three healthy babies. I don’t love the surgery scar, but I am ever so grateful for my body’s ability to heal, to do exactly what it has to at any given time. I didn’t have to take drugs to stimulate my liver to grow. My body just knew that it needed to be done. And while I’m certain that there are great, scientific explanations of exactly what was going on when my body figured out it needed to grow a new liver, I like to think of it as magical. What a wondrous thing this human body is, dealing with everything that comes its way until the day we die.
Last year I read a book by Cherie Carter-Scott, If Life Is a Game, These Are the Rules. The following paragraph had me in tears.
“The body you are given will be yours for the duration of your time here. Love it or hate it, accept it or reject it, it is the only one you will receive in this lifetime. It will be with you from the moment you draw your first breath to the last beat of your heart. Since there is a no refund, no exchange policy on this body of yours, it is essential that you learn to transform your body from a mere vessel into a beloved partner and a lifelong ally, as the relationship between you and your body is the most fundamental and important relationship of your lifetime. It is the blueprint from which all your other relationships will be built.”
I yo-yo dieted my way through much of my adulthood, never giving much thought to what this would do to my body. My one and only goal was to be skinny, to fit into size 6 jeans, to be “the hottest mom in town” as I once wrote on a form when joining a gym. Low fat, low carb, low cal, diet pills, diet shakes, prepared meals and canned soups, I tried it all with more or less success. Never once did I consider looking at my body as my beloved partner.
This passage from the book was a life changer. I was determined to be a better person and to really learn to treat my body well. I had already changed my way of eating to a mostly ancestral diet and I was working out four days a week. But that was not enough. I really wanted to make a difference for myself, and here is how I did it.
- I stopped dieting. Eating a healthy diet doesn’t mean that you have to be on a diet. It means that you choose healthy foods for life, but that you allow yourself treats now and then. Sometimes “now and then” was every day. Sometimes it was every other week. I found that by not dieting I was able to stop binge eating, because I no longer deprived myself of the foods I wanted to eat occasionally. Surprisingly, I started losing some weight when I changed my mindset from dieting to just eating.
- I put all my small clothes away. I always thought that leaving all of my smaller sized clothes would make me more motivated to stick with a diet and that this would make me lose weight faster. The only thing it really did was make me depressed every morning when I tried to find clothes to wear. Ridding my closet of the small stuff was incredibly liberating. Imagine opening your closet and you find only clothes that fit!
- I forced myself to smile at myself every day. I know that this approach may not be for everyone, just like positive affirmations aren’t for all of us. But smiling at myself in the mirror became easier after a while and now I am even able to trace that big, old scar on my belly and give it a friendly pat. Also, smiling has been shown to lift your mood regardless of how you felt before you started smiling. Give it a try!
- I stopped reading health and fitness magazines (and any other magazine for women only). I am done being force-fed an image of a woman that doesn’t exist, so far removed from reality that even the photoshopped models admit that they don’t recognize themselves. Look around you and just appreciate the people you see there. Thick or thin, none of them are photoshop perfect.
- I started believing compliments and accepted them, too. When someone compliments you, is your initial reaction to come up with an excuse for why you look so good today? “Your eyes look so beautiful today.” Wrong answer: “Oh, it’s just the new mascara.” Right answer: “Why thank you!” Accepting sincere compliments from others doesn’t come naturally for most of us, but with a little practice you’ll learn to appreciate them for what they are, and won’t try to find excuses anymore.
This is another quote from the book mentioned above:
“For many people, their body is the target for their harshest judgments and the barometer by which they measure their self-worth. They hold themselves up to an unattainable standard and berate themselves for coming up short of perfection. Since your physical shape is the form in which you show up in the world, it is very often the way you define yourself, and often the way others define you….”
I would love to say that my 5-step approach is the ultimate solution to self-love and acceptance. It is not. However, it has helped me to find peace and to truly appreciate my body, my beloved partner in life. I am no longer trying to hold myself up to that unattainable standard. I am no longer trash-talking the woman in the mirror. And this has not only made me happier, but it has also shown my children that imperfection is normal and good. You don’t have to love your imperfect body parts, but by learning to appreciate your body for all that it does for you every day of your life, you will become a happier version of yourself, and isn’t the pursuit of happiness what we’re all about?
Ute Mitchell is a Freelance Writer and Nutritional Therapy Practitioner located in Portland, OR, where she homeschools her kids, cooks healthy meals for her family, and hikes the forests and mountains around the Pacific Northwest. She is an avid CrossFit athlete, and loves to encourage others to live a healthy and active lifestyle.
If Life Is a Game, Then These Are the Rules, Cherie Carter-Scott