Fighting the Body Image War

On the road to Mount Democrat

By Angela Noel

February 2, 2017

Simone de Beauvoir, French author and philosopher, wrote, “To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.” Put another way, to have confidence in one’s body is to have confidence in oneself. Like many American women, I have some body issues. When I’m not mad at it for its pimples, wrinkles, or saddle bags, I’m disappointed in it for not being healthy enough. In 2016 I struggled with my body. My confidence wobbled. Clearly, something was wrong.

If your read my post A Resolution Resolution you’re familiar with my annual commitment to creating Intentions, statements that encompass an idea or way of being, to live into. This year, one of my Intentions is to honor my body. To do that, I’ll need to address years of negative influences, both outside and inside my own head.

Bodies Break. But That Doesn’t Make Them Bad.

My body broke this past year. I fractured my hip and tore two ligaments. I didn’t fall or anything; I just pushed myself too hard, and paid too little attention to my body asking for rest. I’d even injured the same hip the year before.

Stupid body.

But wait.

Bones heal if you’re nice to them. Miracles of mending, little biological mechanisms using calcium and vitamin D knit fractured places together again. Amazing! And they don’t typically break in the first place if you treat them with respect.

I also worried I’d developed some kind of bladder problem. (Fun!) At the same time I couldn’t trust my body to walk or run properly, I also couldn’t trust my bladder to work like a happy bladder should.

Anxiety over something else–possibly my broken hip– caused the problem, then anxiety over the problem itself made it worse. What if I have to wear diapers? Would I need surgery? What if  . . . ? Shame and fear all mixed together.

After days of worry, like a fever breaking, I stopped.

So what if my bladder wasn’t behaving? Millions of people have misbehaving bladders. Why should I feel shame about that? I went to the doctor and talked with my mother. I stopped hiding and paid attention to my body. I worked with it not against it. My body figured things out. A little mental reboot solved my pee-pee problem.

Honor my body means listening to it, and celebrating what it can do without feeling ashamed of its quirks. When my body needs rest, a bath, a massage, a hard workout, I vow to listen. When my mind feels shame over what my body can’t do, I’ll observe that shame, find the source of it and set it free.

But honoring my body is about more than celebrating its capabilities.

Becoming Size Wise
A young teen, Angela Noel.
On a Caribbean vacation the year before I started high school, I was already worried about my weight.

As a teen, I worried about being “fat.” Sweet Valley High books told me heroines are blond and a “perfect size six.” I believed it, and I’m not alone.

(Imagine for a moment that Frank and Joe Hardy from the The Hardy Boys had been described this way: “Along with solving mysteries, Frank’s perfect 32-inch waist was the envy of all his friends.”)

Consider a recent Huffington Post article about a twenty-seven-year-old woman offered a clue about why body image continues to torment many of us. In the article, a woman demonstrates how the very same human at a particular point in time could easily own a host of pants, all fitting generally the same, but labeled with widely varying sizes from six to twelve or beyond. So does size matter?

Fashion people know bodies are different. An international standard for “size six” doesn’t exist. Whereas an ounce of peanut butter weighs the same as an ounce of gold, a size six from one brand is not the same size six offered by another. And yet, the world seems to care–to devastating effect. A 2011 article by Glamour magazine claims 97% of women are cruel to their bodies on any given day. Ninety-one percent of women, according to DoSomething.Org, are unhappy with their bodies. But if you don’t believe the statistics, just Google “what pant size is considered fat?” Then marvel at the results–all 1.6 million of them.

Making Conscious Choices
Chubby cheeks and missing teeth.
Me at seven years old. Freckles, missing teeth, chubby cheeks and a smile.

I spent my childhood making up dance routines and reading fairy tales. I wrote short stories and played for hours alone in my room. Neither sedentary nor active, I valued imagination over exertion. But something changed in my thirteenth year: I started working out. I had a gym membership by the time I was sixteen. Why?

I’ll call it The Sweet Valley High effect.

For most of my teen and young adult years I worked out as a means to an end–keeping my weight down and relieving stress. Only in the past three years has working out become a joy and not a chore. Now, I love how strong I feel after a hard lift, or a billion and one squats. I love the rubbery feel of my legs after a long run. But that doesn’t mean I’m free from inspecting my butt in the mirror with a look of disgust. It happens less, but it still happens. I want to look in the mirror and enjoy the strength of my glutes not lament the dimples in my skin.

Honor my body means making conscious choices to see through what the world expects, and live into a gracious and loving relationship with the one set of organs and limbs I’ve been given. I vow to honor the size of my body, whatever weight it is, how ever many inches it is, whatever pant size it wears. I will feed it healthy foods (no sweets during the week, fruit for dessert). And I promise to steer clear of too much wine, beer, or Moscow Mules. Not because these things could make me “fat” but because my body feels better when I treat it well.

Fueling My Contribution to the World

As de Beauvoir said, my body should be a source of confidence, not the reason I lack it. I want the energy I have, the strength I feel, and the mountains I climb (real and metaphorical), to guide me, not the size on a label affixed to a waistband.

My body can hike fourteen thousand feet. It runs, practices yoga, and dances. It hugs, cuddles, and kisses. My body cooks, sneezes, and types. It smiles and laughs. It fuels my potential and my contribution to the world. It deserves my respect. So this year, I honor it.

Your turn: Have you struggled with body  image or know someone who has? What’s amazing about your body? How will you honor it?


Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

34 thoughts on “Fighting the Body Image War”

  1. Love this! I forgot about the “perfect size six” detail of those books. How horrible to feed information like this to young girls! I completely fell prey to it too.

    Having my 3 little ones makes me think of this all the time and how I can help them to feel confident in their bodies (and not restrict calories in middle school to achieve weight loss). This is an ever important conversation that has to keep happening for change in our society and ourselves to occur. Thank you!

    1. You are such a loving and thoughtful mom. Every time I hear you talk to your girls, I know you’re reinforcing their self-worth and not their self-doubt. Those books (and all kinds of media) do a number on us don’t they? I think we’ll see change, but I hate that it’s taking generations. Thank you so much for reading, J.

  2. You had me right up until the promise to steer clear of Moscow Mules! *grin*

    In all seriousness, this is just the reminder I needed. I’ve also struggled with body image (okay, still struggling), and I’m in the slow process of recovering from a knee injury that occurred in October ’16. I’m trying to remember to be grateful for all the incredible things my body does for me (like, gave me three healthy and amazing children) and stop beating myself up for perceived failures (those kids arrived via c-sections when I “failed” to go into labor). Thank you for such a wonderful, positive reminder!

    1. Oh man! I love Moscow Mules–something about that copper cup! 🙂 Thank you for sharing a bit about your own struggles. I remember when my son was born, I was disappointed in myself for not being able to go drug-free. But then I realized no one was handing out bumper stickers that said, “I made it to ten centimeters!” It’s amazing what odd standards we hold our bodies to. I’m glad you and I can both change our own minds about how we want to relate to our bodies. I’m already in awe of you for having three children–you’re a wonder woman to me!

      1. Aww, thanks so much! And you’re exactly right – we really need to have realistic ideas of what our bodies are capable of, and cherish the good instead of bemoaning the bad. 😀

  3. This was a very interesting read! There’s a new body image movement going around the world called Embrace. It is quite liberating and focuses on embracing your body and not trying to fit in with society’s expectations. If you get a chance the documentary is called Embrace.

  4. Our body image can be so warped. Sorry to hear about your setbacks last year.
    This year is all about strength. I never weigh myself and expect to put on a few pounds. Ha!

  5. Well said. The thing that surprises me most, in a way, is that eating healthy actually makes your body feels better. Keeping that habit up, leads your body to prefer the healthy food and all of a sudden, it is not that hard anymore to eat less and focus on a plant-based diet, for example. Once in a while, I still sin, but my body is happier with this kind of “diet”. I don’t think about being too fat, I don’t think about the future, I focus on how I feel right now, physically and mentally and try to keep that in check. 🙂

    Liesbet @ Roaming About – A Life Less Ordinary

  6. For what its worth, we men struggle with body image as well. While we have far fewer societal pressures than those you mentioned above, my inner dialogue often vacillates between criticism over not living up to impossible standards, and a hungry search for a means to achieve these impossible goals.

    I’m sorry to hear about the recurrent hip injuries you suffered, but love that despite these setbacks, you have chosen to focus on honoring your body rather than degrading yourself. Sounds like a far surer path to happiness (and success).

    I’m really glad I found your blog. Your posts are well-though out and clearly structured without sacrificing the underlying intention, which is to inspire and educate. Love it!

    1. Thank you for pointing out that the struggle to accept ourselves isn’t a women’s issue so much as it’s a human issue.
      Your encouragement means the world to me! I’m delighted to find you as well, and look forward to all we’ll learn.

  7. What I’m about to say is irrelevant to the important point you make, but I just can’t help myself: An ounce of peanut butter may weigh the same as an ounce of gold, but a British hundredweight weighs 112 pounds, whereas an American hundredweight weighs 100 pounds. By the time you get to the ton, they’re 240 pounds apart. And it gets worse from there: a British fluid ounce is .96076 of an American fluid ounce and a U.S. cup is .83 of a British cup. I’m not sure if that means there’s more of me or less of me in Britain, but the things we think are stable? They’re not.

    1. Awesome! I love your point. I was just re-reading one of my favorite books, “The Art of Possibility.” One of the introductory chapters is titled, “It’s All Invented.” Their point being nothing is what we think it is, so best not get too caught up in definitions because, “We see a map of the world, not the world itself.”
      Thank you for the perspective!

  8. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Angela! All your points are ‘right-on’! Our brains can be cruel to us, can’t they? I didn’t think about my body until middle school when a boy pointed at my thigh (as I was sitting in my school desk) and yelled out (yes, he yelled) “Ewww… look at that! You have a hole in your leg”. He was pointing to a cellulite spot. I had never noticed until then. I was one of the tallest in my class at 5’8″ and weighing in at 115 lbs. I played soccer year-round and enjoyed being active every single day. But, I still had cellulite. Needless to say, I never forgot that moment, but I do have to say that I am the most comfortable in my body now, in my 30’s, than I have ever been before. Maybe my brain has learned something, because it is definitely kinder now. 😉 Glad you have found contentment and confidence! <3

    1. I truly hope that boy has learned some manners! I can’t wait to meet the woman who has never given a second thought to her body and how others perceive it. Maybe our children’s generation can break that cycle. I know men feel it too. But I think girls grow up with a much heavier emphasis on how we look, versus the contents of our heads. I honestly think the times I’ve commented on my son’s appearance can be counted on one hand–except things like, “Dude, you’ve got yogurt on your face.” But, I know little girls hear, “what a pretty girl!” Or “nice dress” from a very early age. I wish I knew the answer, but like you, it took years for me to feel comfortable in my skin. For the next generation, I want so much more.

  9. I had pressed like on this post a while ago, but I just re-read it and loved it even more this time.

    I went through a phase of being bulimic when I was a student. It was mostly because I was dating an older man who thought I was pudgy (I wasn’t. I was tiny, but that is beside the point…) It took me years to recover and feel happy in my own body again. It’s really scary how throw away comments from someone you care about can have such a bog effect. 🙁

    I have to admit though, when i was a child, I wanted to grow up to look like barbie. Well, a brunette barbie – I’ve never been blond! I guess I didn’t start with particularly realistic expectations.

    1. Thank you for reading again, Josy. I am so sorry you experienced an eating disorder because that dude was a jerk. I wish so many of us could have a do-over when it comes to these kinds of relationships. I’m glad you found the path back to being happy in your own skin. You deserve to be!
      I do wish Barbie would go away. I didn’t play with them as a child, but I think many women would agree with you. Barbie is nowhere close to a real woman and that image imprinted at an early age cannot be good for any girl, or boy for that matter.
      Thank you for adding your insight! Such valuable thoughts.

      1. The thing is I LOVED playing with my barbies. I made stories for them and sewed clothes for them. I never even considered that they are completely unreal when it comes to body shape. It does make me wonder if they were designed by a man!?

  10. A childhood friend who has rheumatoid arthritis and has had and will have multiple major surgeries changed my outlook on my body. She said if you have a body that functions, look after it, and treasure it.
    I had body issues through my teens and twenties, but I think I’ve sorted it out now. Yoga and hiking have helped. I was the least sporty child, but yoga makes me feel graceful, and walking makes me feel strong. And yoga really helps when balancing in the flowerbeds with a pair of secateurs in one hand and a bucket in the other.
    Thank you for another thought-provoking post.
    By the way, did you hear that Formula 1 are getting rid of grid girls? The girls in catsuits or bikinis that hold an umbrella over the macho racing drivers? I had forgotten about this weirdness, but am so pleased the world is changing. When I explained the whole thing to my daughter it was so horrifying, and yet I just absorbed all this stuff as normal.

    1. I think you and I must be workout soul mates. I love yoga and hiking too. I don’t need to be coordinated to do either, and that helps–because I’m not. I walk down the street okay, but following more than the most basic of routine is out of the question.
      I did NOT know about the grid girls. I don’t watch the racing, but I am very glad they’re out of the picture. Maybe Cheerleaders are next? I think dance is wonderful and those women work SO hard to do what they do. But for very low pay and not the greatest of circumstances–I wonder what’s next there? Thank you again and again for your thoughtful comments. They make my day!

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