What’s Your Life’s Masterpiece?

you're awesomeSomeone left a message on my Facebook page along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing because I deleted it toute suite) “This comment probably won’t be appreciated here [correct!] but this page seems like a big excuse for people to be overindulgent and lazy. You don’t have to do crazy fad diets or anything but people should try to eat better and be the best they can be.” It was left by a gentleman who was very muscled and shirtless (and notably, headless) in his FB photo, so based on that and the general negative tone of his comment, I’m guessing he disapproved of my message to love our bodies as they are through a Health At Every Size® approach.

I deleted the comment because of the negative, accusatory tone – I intend for my Facebook page and blog to be safe, positive spaces for people practicing HAES®, body positivity and Intuitive Eating. People of size, people who have suffered from eating disorders, even people with “normal size” bodies who want to step away from dieting – we all hear enough pro-diet, negative body talk in the world every day. I don’t owe anyone a platform for their thoughts, and there are plenty of places on the internet where those kinds of comments will be appreciated. But one thing I do want to address here is the particular sentiment of “People should try to be the best they can be.”

First of all, while I would love to encourage people to be the best they can be, the word “should” is troublesome because who are any of us to tell anyone what they should do? People can do what they want and they don’t need anyone’s permission.  But say some folks decide they want to be “the best they can be” (if they feel they aren’t currently at their best)? Great! Does that necessarily have to mean our bodies??

Maybe my commenter’s version, based on what he said and how he’s choosing the represent himself in his online persona, involves doing what it takes to have a body shaped similar to his: lean, large, muscled. Perhaps his body is the masterpiece of his life and that is his idea of being his “best.” That is absolutely a-okay because that’s what he wants. That works for him.

But does that mean improving one’s body is the universal meaning of “be the best you can be?” Not for me, it isn’t. I tried for many years to make my body the masterpiece of my life, and all it ever did was leave me unhappy. Even with all the societal approval that I “won” with my acceptably-small-sized body, I was simultaneously profoundly unhappy with my body and fearful that I would lose what I had created. My masterpiece left me wanting so much more out of life, not the least of which was peace of mind.

I realized my body did not have to be the culmination of my life’s work, that there were other things I could be “my best” at – like loving myself without judgement and then learning how to stop judging others for the thing I had agonized over in myself.

I learned I could learn things – like chemistry! – that I never thought I could when I was so busy creating my “best” body. I learned that when I did learn new things – microbiology, ho! – I felt much better about myself than when I had dutifully eaten like a dieting all-star all week. Sadly, I could have earned two PhDs for all the unhappy time I had spent thinking about ways to maintain my societally correct body.

The “best” me can have vigorous conversations about politics, science, pop culture, sociology, religion, fashion – things that don’t even involve my profession, nutrition (but I like talking about that, too) or my body (a topic which, frankly, bores me). The “best” me want to read books that bring me a new understanding of the world. And – unlike my body-shaping efforts of years past – doing these things actually makes me happy!

I learned that “the best I can be” is different for everyone, and that there was a better “best” inside of me than out. You get to choose what your best is, and it will involve your body, whether you want to conquer a sport or have a better understanding of constitutional law or become an ace quilter.

So I’m sorry I couldn’t let your post roam free on my Facebook page, dear commenter, but my followers don’t deserve to be shamed for choosing different paths to the best they can be.

*edited from original to add a link I had forgotten to add!

Whose Yardstick is it Anyway?

My yardstick. I’m going to use it more often.

Two news stories this week inspired this post. The first one is about fitness instructor Cassey Ho, who created this video after receiving a barrage of body-shaming comments on social media.

In the video, she has the opportunity to change all the parts of her body that have been shamed in the comments. She creates thinner thighs, a smaller waist, a bigger butt and boobs, a more sculpted face and she even changes her eye color. At first she looks in the mirror pleased with these changes, but in a few seconds, her expression changes to dissatisfaction. The video ends with the message, “What would you change?” Cassey said that she created it to help combat body shaming.

The other news story was about supplement company Protein World and their new ads for their “weight loss collection” products crap featuring the words “Are You Beach Body Ready?” and a picture of a typically unachievable-by-most-people body of a woman in a bikini (there is a counterpart ad with a similarly unrealistic-for-most male body). Thankfully some people who saw these ads responded with acts of civil disobedience, vandalizing them with their own messages such as “Your body is not a commodity,” “Each Body’s Ready,” and my personal favorite, “Fuck off.” These women are saying something, and it’s that they don’t want Protein World telling them that they must look like the woman in the ad in order to feel allowed to go to the beach. Responding to the criticism, Protein World tweeted:

protein world BS tweetSubtext: why make your insecurities our problem when you should be making them our profit!

Fat people are body shamed for not looking like the cultural ideal; then someone like Cassey Ho, who is the cultural ideal, is body shamed for not looking enough like the cultural ideal?? What the hell. I’m not saying one body type should be shamed while the other shouldn’t; I’m saying these body-police will never be happy any which way.

Lena Dunham showing her “less-than-perfect” but perfectly average naked body on television is treated as an act of heresy, the message loud-and-clear: “Your body is wrong, please don’t show it to us anymore.” I spend a lot of time watching HBO, and there is plenty of nudity, and I don’t recall anyone else ever getting questioned about why they are spending time naked on TV.

I don’t know about you, but I’m about fed up on being told how I need to look in order to be socially acceptable, on the beach or in a dress. It started young for me, when my mother implied I probably shouldn’t wear sleeveless tops because my arms were too big or dresses with elasticized waists lest I end up looking like a potato sack tied in the middle with a string (she didn’t say it to be mean – she really thought she was being helpful!). And now we have internet trolls and the weight loss industry to constantly remind us how “wrong” our bodies are. We have Dr. Oz shaming us into buying unproven weight loss products he endorses. We have the media reinforcing the stereotypical ideal by rarely showing bodies of diverse sizes (not to mention colors) in TV and movies.

What happens when we start to use all these external yardsticks of beauty instead of making up our own minds about ourselves? We stop living a life that is authentically our own. We go on diets that don’t work at best and hurt us at worst. We lose interest in all the things that make us interesting, exchanging them for a full-time focus on making ourselves “right” according to everyone else.

I’m not buying it anymore. I’m not using someone else’s idea of beauty to determine how I feel about myself. I’m expanding my beauty palate every day by looking at diverse bodies and seeing what is right about them (answer: everything!). I’ve become so successful at this that now when I hear body criticisms of any sort, it’s like hearing something spoken in Greek (note: I do not speak Greek).

So thanks internet trolls, Protein World, the rest of the diet industry, the conventional fashion industry and Hollywood, but I don’t need your advice on my body anymore. I’ll take it from here. I’ve got my own yardstick.