I see you everywhere.
You’re on my Facebook, posting selfies of your latest workout as sweat drips from your brow, words like dying, puking, exhausting are hash-tagged underneath.
My Instagram is filled with pictures of you, sporting your Lorna Jane as you burn away the calories of the cake you shouldn’t have eaten, but were too weak to resist.
You sit opposite me, order your salad, no dressing, and berate yourself for being a kilogram heavier this week.
You are fraught with comparison, with how short you fall next to the mothers at the playground you’ll never be as fit as, the group of women at the gym you’ll never be as strong as, the bodies in the magazines you’ll never be as sexy as. You beat yourself up. Promise that tomorrow you’ll eat less and work out more. No excuses, no matter what. Push yourself, purge yourself, pressure yourself.
I was once like you. I obsessed over the number on the scale, lived by punishment or reward, survived on protein shakes, and applauded myself for staying under 1,000 calories a day. I worked out, no matter what. No matter how tired my body was, no matter how run down, exhausted, or unwell. I worked out until I almost threw up, head over my knees, rebuking myself with slogans. Go hard or go home. Unless you puke, faint or die, keep going. Excuses are for people who don’t want it bad enough. I pushed past the pain and worked out when my muscles were fatigued, when my body screamed for me to stop, when I injured my knee, my shoulder, until I eventually tore a disc in my back.
And that changed everything.
In an instant, I could no longer work out. My world ended. There was no worse fate that could have happened to me. I laid on my stomach for a month, unable to do anything. I cried with frustration, beat myself up with failure, drowned in self-hatred. I feared. I feared getting left behind, losing all the work I had put into my body. I feared people thinking I was lazy or weak. But mostly, I feared getting fat. Because in my eyes, that was the ultimate failure.
And so before my body was healed, I started to work out again. Each time would see me back where I’d started, in pain, on the floor, unable to walk. I did this for months until I just no longer could. Until I had to listen to my body, to surrender to what it needed. Rest. Recovery time. Gentle walks. Stretching. Yoga.
No more sweat-pouring, fat-burning, muscle-aching workouts.
At first it killed me, this surrendering. It yelled defeat, poked and prodded into my deepest places of insecurity and challenged my self-worth to the core; I was more bound in my body image than I realised. It’s subtle, the infiltration of what we are programmed to believe is beauty—we don’t realise the way it creeps into us, the way we yield to society’s standards even when we think we are immune to them.
Eventually, it became easier to surrender, easier to let go of the demands I had placed on myself to look a certain way. I stopped seeking my value in the number on the scale and found it instead in my mind, my heart, my character, and my contribution to the world. I shed lies, so many lies, of what I had come to believe beauty should be. I realised I had nothing to prove to anyone. Every day, I practiced kindness and spoke to myself the way I would speak to any other woman.
Beautiful woman, who you are, right now in this moment, is perfect.
I know you don’t believe me. I know you fill your head with your prerequisites of beauty. A flatter tummy. Toned arms. Size 10. Lose another five kilograms.
But I understand now.
Beauty isn’t measured in centimetres, my dear.
And the moment you understand will be the moment you find freedom.
You’ll begin to exercise because you love your body, not because you hate it. You’ll eat food that brings you life and health because your body craves nourishment, not deprivation. You’ll run in the sunshine because it brings you joy, not because you’ve earned punishment. You’ll let go of striving, of negativity, of guilt and frustration and failure.
But mostly, you’ll come to realise how beautiful you really are. How strong, how brave, how kind, how intelligent, how clever, how funny, how generous, how thoughtful. How much you love. Not how much you weigh.
Beautiful woman, stop.
Stop striving to be skinny, as if that’s the only measure of your worth.
Instead, strive to change the perception of beauty, the lies we have been told.
Strive to empower women, our daughters, through the truth of their worth.
Strive to see how beautiful you really are, right now, exactly in this moment.
And then watch the world become more beautiful, because of you.
Author: Kathy Parker
Image: danielle tineke/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman; Travis May