Say the word ‘belly’ anywhere near my 17-month-old daughter, and she immediately lifts up her shirt up like a Mardi Gras reveler. “Bay-yay!” she announces with an enormous grin, her eyes wide and shining. She looks like she can’t believe her good fortune to possess her soft, poofy, paper-white stomach.
When do we lose this awe of our own bodies? When does that awe turn, as it so often does, to self-loathing, particularly for women?
I travelled a long way from the amazement and pride I see in my little girl. Starting at a tender age, I alternated between strict diets and overeating. I stood on the scale thousands of times, waiting for the number to tell me how to feel about myself. I obsessed and stood in front of the mirror, turning from front to back, side to side, eyeing my own body with disgust. I wished myself different. I wore long sweaters even in the summer, an attempt to camouflage my “too big” butt.
Focus on the positive: When I used to look in the mirror, all I would see was what I didn’t like. It was as if I was just a pair of hefty hips or lumpy legs. I didn’t see my delicate wrists or smooth skin. Try shifting the focus to what you like about yourself. Zoom in on your thick hair, your pretty feet, the dimples that bloom when you smile.
Focus on the minutiae: Have you ever stared at your hand so intently that you notice the patterns in your own skin? The desert of tiny triangles, the small hills of turquoise veins weaved over long, straight bones? Our bodies are amazing, intricately choreographed systems. Sometimes our bodies encounter problems, but mostly, minute by minute, they work; they do exactly what they are supposed to do. Keep us alive.
Challenge yourself: I recently ran my first 5k. In middle school, I once tried to break my own leg to get out of gym class. I leaned on the excuse of asthma, sinus issues, and anything else I could conjure up to excuse myself from running and team sports. For me, running for three miles on purpose, with nobody chasing me, was a small miracle. As I rounded the finish line, I felt expansive. What else might I be able to do, that I didn’t think I was capable of? What might your body be capable of?
Make a list: What accomplishments has your body already performed for you? Have you carried, given birth to or nursed a baby? Had an orgasm? Maybe you can do party tricks with your body: I can take off my socks and roll them into a ball without using my hands. How about you? Can you walk? Run? Swim? Enjoy a massage? Stare at clouds floating across a sky? Make a “ta-da” list in appreciation of your body. Post it somewhere you can see it often.
Have compassion: Our bodies, these beautiful jungles, these secret gardens of organs collaborating and pulsing, unseen; they are mortal. We die. It is bittersweet to remember this, maybe even terrifying. But when I remind myself that I am human, that one day I won’t have this body anymore, I find it impossible to be critical. Instead, I want to curl up with it, love it fiercely, soaked in gratitude.
Every time my daughter unleashes her sweet, round belly, it reminds me to challenge my perspective and perceptions. To look with love instead of criticism. I might not ever get to the point of pulling my pants down and gleefully announcing, “My bum!”
But then again, I just might.