What We Can Control

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Therapy has taught me that I can seldom change the behaviors of others. I spent years dating men who needed just a few minor personality tweaks to be perfect, years embroiled in friendships with people who would be awesome if I could just shore them up through one more massive crisis, years accepting jobs in toxic environments that would’ve been amazing if I could just have taught my superiors to appreciate me. And finally, one day, I got it. Maybe I could gradually affect certain minor behaviors, but I could not fundamentally alter anyone. Not directly through confrontation, indirectly through example, or passively through patience. I had to either find better relationships, or learn to manage my own contributions to my current ones more effectively. I had to change myself to react differently to people and behaviors that hurt me, and stop expecting those people and behaviors to change.

And I am trying to apply that same philosophy to my struggles with body image. Because as much as I want to convince casting directors that I’d love to see America Ferrera and Queen Latifah in addition to Renee Zellweger and Angelina Jolie, as much as I want designers to include bodily diversity in their runway shows, as much as I want companies to know that advertisements showing older women and petite women and curvy women DO motivate me to purchase products, I may not see these things happen in my lifetime. And I’d prefer to feel serene and fulfilled instead of frustrated and impotent while I’m here on earth.

So I must start with my internal monologue.

I can look at ads that tell me my eyelashes aren’t long enough, my butt isn’t firm enough, my cellulite and body hair are unsightly and repellent and acknowledge that those messages are manufactured to get me to spend, spend, spend on products that will never actually “solve” these “problems.” I can look at the models on the runways and acknowledge that they’re hired specifically for their height, weight, and shape to showcase clothes I cannot afford anyway, and that no one I know would ever expect me to look similarly. I can look at Jennifer Aniston’s gorgeously toned bod and feel a twinge of jealousy while acknowledging that she has an entire STAFF of people paid to keep her looking that way, whereas I squeeze in four gym visits a week in my precious free time. I can look at websites that trash-talk women for gaining weight or dressing badly or shirking makeup and acknowledge that bullies often use shaming language to secure power, but bullies are the most miserable, frightened, unhappy people in this wide, diverse world of ours.

I can use my internal filter and personal judgment to redirect the self-loathing, negative comparisons, unhealthy pressure, and demeaning messages that batter me from outside sources. I don’t have to believe them. And when I step back and consider the facts surrounding and motivations behind those messages, I can discard them more easily. Those messages shouldn’t be broadcast in the first place, of course. But since they are – for the time being anyway – I believe my best defense is to take control of what I allow myself to accept as truth. And while I struggle to sort out what I believe inherently and what I believe due to external repetition, I understand that making those distinctions is key to changing how I feel about my body. And I’m working on it.

Are you?

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  • eek

    Great post! I thing I gave up changing people a long time ago and just try to surround myself with positive loving people (which is why the majority of my friends are gay men!). I also think it helps when your family supports you 100% no matter what 🙂

  • orchidsinbuttonholes

    It's hard not to get angry about those messages (that seem to be everywhere), but I feel like that reaction is still a negative one and lets "them" stick with me longer than they should. It is diligent work to remind myself of what I don't need and to just let the rest go, but I'm trying.

    Some messages are more difficult to resist than others. I'm the daughter of a woman who openly hated wrinkles, and I'm at the age when wrinkles are starting. I have to remind myself that such things happen and that the slowly changing me is just fine, but I tend to be a sucker for face cream and anti-wrinkle products. It's a frustrating push-pull, and I try to keep it in perspective.

    Thanks for this post!

  • Almost 40

    Yes, sweet Sal, yes! 1000 times yes!

  • Deja Pseu

    Bravo! When I realized that I ultimately can choose how I perceive just about any situation, it really changed my life. It's taken me longer to learn to apply it in the area of body image, but feel as though I've made substantial progress in recent years. Thanks to blogs like yours and more media literacy, I'm hopeful that the next generation of young women will throw off this yoke earlier in their lives.

    Or as the bumper sticker says, "Change how you see, not how you look."

  • Anonymous

    One of the basic principles of Zen is that 'you cannot control your environment, you can only choose your experience of your environment'.

    So, I cannot choose what advertisers/media/society want me to believe/purchase but I can control how I manage (or process) those incoming messages.

    They tell me 'You have crooked teeth, grey roots, cellulite and these things are bad, ugly, signs of AGE and imperfection' and I choose to hear 'You are perfect as you are and you never have to subscribe to anyone else's expectations'.

    It has taken years of work but I am so happy to be able to say that this comes pretty naturally 99% of the time.

    I am choosing to love myself, crooked teeth, grey roots, cellulite and all… and choosing not to care what anyone else thinks.

    It has been the most liberating discovery of all… and it works in EVERY area of life: relationships, body image, even traffic. I can always control my experience and I choose a peaceful, accepting and joyful experience most of the time.

  • Couture Allure Vintage Fashion

    Hear, Hear! Well said, Sal.

  • Amy

    You have no idea just how much I needed to read this entry today. THANK YOU!!!

  • Anonymous

    worthwhile ideas. spouse and i haven't had TV access in 10 + years now (we have a set, but no cable or broadcast access). when i watch the tube these days i can't BELIEVE the stupid, ridiculous, offensive cr!p on there – and that's all there is! even the stuff people i respect tell me is 'actually really good' stinks.

    for anyone struggling with de-programming themselves from our society's ideas on body image and-, well basically anything, a TV fast is a great way to go. talk about getting outside of our culture's group-think.

    plus you free up time, money, mental energy…..i promise, it's possible to do it and survive.
    looking forward to everyone's ideas on this one! steph

  • Erin

    Sal, you rock my Monday. Thanks for a fabulous post!

  • tippchic

    ''Maybe I could gradually affect certain minor behaviors, but I could not fundamentally alter anyone''-
    Ooh this is a lesson I am learning in a hard way. One of the best skills is – Have no expectations of others; realise that what others say relects where they are NOT who I am.
    Sally I could go on for pages but you have put it well here.
    M

  • Claire

    Yes! The serenity and freedom that comes from attaining this point of view is sooooo worth the work it takes to get there.

    We can strike a balance between working what we've got with personal style and self-confidence, and accepting and celebrating the natural beauty of the female figure at a variety of ages, shapes and sizes!

    Excellent topic, Sal.

  • Sidewalk Chalk

    Beautiful post, Sal! I've stopped comparing myself to lady magazine articles and images — it's gotten to the point that so many ads and covers are photoshopped that they really should be classified as performance art, and not the real deal.

  • V

    What a fabulous post, Sal! I need a reminder every now and then that I can not change anyone, they have to want to do it for themselves and I can only control myself, my thoughts, and actions. Love this!

  • jungleworldcitizen

    It's honestly easier said than done, but I do agree 🙂

  • Susan

    Wonderful post! I am glad I stumbled on your blog to read this.

  • Charlotte

    What a great way to begin the week, Sal. I think your approach to stepping back & really thinking about what advertisers have up their sleeves is the best way to understand that it's all about making you feel insecure, so you'll buy their product. This insecurity ploy increases as you get older–not only are you too fat, too this, too that, but now you're OLD to boot. Recently I saw an ad for OVER-eye cream, absolutely crucial for women of a certain age because UNDER-eye creams don't target the sagging, drooping, crepey lids…. And I thought, Oh puh-leez, this is too freaking much.
    This was graduation weekend here & I had two visual moments that were all about this ad-based insecurity, involving two female colleagues, one about my age, one about ten years older. The younger one had obviously dyed brown hair, too dark for her lightening skin, the haircut something better suited to a 5-year-old and the older had shining silver hair in a becoming short cut. Yes, it was obvious the silver-haired woman was older, but which one looked BETTER? Hands down, it was the silver woman, who exuded a kind of happy confidence that was reinforced by that hair. Finally, it's important to understand that age is not a disease, no matter how much advertisers tell you otherwise. Healthy, happy aging is the best gift you can give yourself. Life's too short to spend it feeling insecure because you're not "forever 21."

  • Future Lint

    ahh yes, one of those things I need to keep hearing over and over because somehow it still isn't ingrained in my head!

  • Kira

    Bravo!! So many of us need to know we are not alone in this fight with ourselves. I have to remind myself daily that I am beautiful and not to listen to the negitivity that fills our world today. Soon it will change, maybe not in our liftime but the next generation is going to be even better for women of the world. You are such and inspiration!

  • Laikabear

    I'm not that into fashion. I stumbled upon your blog a couple of months ago and I've been hooked because of your personality and your message. You are a supercool chick, you are well-adjusted and well-spoken and you have amazing insight into what it is to be a woman (and exposed to the media) these days. And regarding the media, I don't even read fashion mags or have TV. Shit, I am 5'10" and 135 lbs and I have "fat days" sometimes. WTF?

  • myedit

    Warning…I may rant away…
    My biggest frustration with the beauty side of media is the lack of truth. When I see a mascara ad, at least I can usually laugh and point out the falsies on the ad (which makes no sense…anyways) or I know that the butt cream ad has been touched up. I think the celebrity world is driving us mad… mothers who pop out babies and then tell us their slim bodies are the result of running after children (no nannies, right) or fit celebs that say their bodies are the result of ice cream and couches. It's great to have a good body and work at it but don't discourage people and say that it's just natural. Admit it, a little bit of botox, lifting and a lot of excercise go a long way.
    End rant… though I have so much more to say. thanks for making me think on a Monday.

  • JB

    This is such a powerful post, thank you! Personally I have to limit my exposure to advertising to help my body-image, therefore I stopped subscribing to beauty/fashion magazines. That helped me a lot.

  • Kayleigh

    Darling Sal,

    I haven't commented here in a while, and I know you understand why I've been so remiss, but I just HAD, HAD, HAD to write something about this wonderful post.

    You are totally freakin' awesome!

    ('scuse me, my 'Jersey is showing, lol)

    Seriously, this kind of writing is why your blog is so consistantly fantastic. Not only couldn't I agree more with EVERYTHING you said, but you said it so well. I am truly grateful you address these issues, they are so important and you express what so many of us need and want to hear.

    Rock on 😀

  • lisa

    "I had to change myself to react differently to people and behaviors that hurt me, and stop expecting those people and behaviors to change."

    Such powerful words, Sal. You discuss this principle in relation to promoting a healthier self-image and changing one's internal dialogue to reach that goal. But for me these words ring true in other areas of my life, namely learning that friends who let me down and leave me in the lurch are friends I can't rely on to be there for me emotionally.

  • Rad_in_Broolyn

    Great post and reminder to all of us. While I'm doing better with body image now than in my 20s, I had to realize how to apply this all aspects of my life, as my greatest feelings of self-loathing involve in my intellect and ability to perform at my job. I read everything as testament to how poorly I did as a professor and it was really harmful. I can keep the body image demons quiet more so than the "imposter syndrome" ones, and this was an important message for me today.
    Thank you!

  • Pelusa

    Oh, yes! I am! And I owe much to this kind of post from you… Thanks!

  • en

    One important way I exert control over such things: I read your blog and others like it for my fashion fix, and shun magazines and runway blogs that don't show body diversity.

    Thanks for this blog and this post.

    (however, I wouldn't mind it if you went activist and posted names and emails of people to thank/complain to about showing diverse bodies)

  • Savvy Gal

    I like reading this post. I figured out I can't change others, only my attitude. Life is often better when we can just take step back, for my own sanity anyway.

  • Maria

    Totally on board.

    My view is that my feelings are too precious to be wasted. I choose to limit what I watch and read, and feel fine turning off or tuning out negative messages. And when they do filter through, I refuse to empower the message or message maker, by getting mad.

    I do fight, but on my terms. By being a positive role model, by asking probing questions when someone makes an inane comment, by acting with grace and dignity if affronted.

    Great post!Thank you Sal!

  • tiffany

    What a wonderful post. I'm going to bookmark it to return to when I need a reminder … Thank you!

  • Walking Barefoot

    "…years embroiled in friendships with people who would be awesome if I could just shore them up through one more massive crisis… And finally, one day, I got it. Maybe I could gradually affect certain minor behaviors, but I could not fundamentally alter anyone."

    So essential, so brilliant.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    I've got a few of those friends in my life and I am trying to figure out how to disentangle and stop hearing about their self-sabotaging behaviors. I was similar for years, and finally got a clue and took charge of my life. Now it hurts to watch those I love pursuing relationships that can only lead to heartbreak and accepting work that doesn't acknowledge or make use of their capabilities.

  • Rachael

    What a great post, thanks for sharing.

  • Kyla

    Amen to that! I had a sociology professor in college who ended every semester by passing along his top ten life lessons to his students. The only one I remember was "you can't change a jerk. period."

  • Jean

    Truly, one of your best Sal.

    Thank you,
    Jean

  • Anonymous

    Awesome post! This is what i have been trying to articulate, thee feelings but could not find the right words.

    Thanks

  • Chelsea

    Wow, this post brought me a bit of peace. Changing the media and how it portrays beauty and affects people's self esteems is something I want to believe will one day happen… but it is most important for ME to be able to change how I internalize all this shit. Knowing that I can decide what is truth and what is marketing gives me my own power over the huge media machine, and that alone is a worthy struggle.