Why Body Image Matters

There are a lot of worthy causes in the world. More than can possibly be listed, and every one of them serious and important and potentially life-altering. And we all have a limited amount of time and energy to dedicate to our causes and beliefs and battles, so we can’t all contribute to everything. Working towards a positive, peaceful, accepting body image may seem like such an insignificant goal, comparatively speaking. But here’s why I think that cultivating positive body image matters.

Because we cannot love others, help others, or support others if we hate ourselves. Because we cannot achieve to our fullest, realize our dreams, or conquer our fears if we hate ourselves. Because we cannot change who we are, grow stronger, or realize our potential if we hate ourselves. Because we cannot thrive and blossom if we hate ourselves. And hating ourselves includes hating our bodies. Our bodies are integral to our selves.

Because the world is full of messages about “good” and “bad” bodies. Because we are told that a certain weight, a certain set of proportions, a certain body type or shape will unlock happiness, and that we should do everything in our power to achieve those things. Because there are forces and industries that benefit when we hate our bodies. Because we should fight against anything that tells us we must conform or live in misery, that if we don’t conform we should hate ourselves. And hating ourselves includes hating our bodies. Our bodies are integral to our selves.

Because happiness is difficult in so many ways, and becomes even more so if we lunge at it from a place of self-loathing. Because understanding ourselves, loving others, and changing the world can seem utterly impossible if we linger in a place of self-loathing. Because many of the most rewarding experiences in life feel just beyond reach when we hate ourselves. And hating ourselves includes hating our bodies. Our bodies are integral to our selves.

Learning to love your body may seem small or selfish or pointless at times, especially when compared to fighting for larger causes and reaching out to help others. But to fashion yourself into a powerful, effective, whole being, you’ve got to come at life from a place of strength. Your body is your home. If you hate your home – if you flee from it, disrespect it, and wish it were fundamentally different – your strength will be diminished. Whether you want to help others or simply find your way to happiness in your own life, loving yourself is absolutely vital.

And loving yourself includes loving your body. Your body is integral to your self.

Image courtesy the amazing Christi Nielsen.

  • Jennifer

    “Because we are told that a certain weight, a certain set of proportions, a certain body type or shape will unlock happiness …”
    This line really resonates with me.

  • Bobbie

    Powerful truth.

  • http://www.rosiemolinary.com Rosie

    Love this post, Sally. It is exactly why I invest time and energy into helping people embrace their bodies and self-acceptance. There is just too much that we are not doing if we are looking in the mirror, lamenting. And the world has far too many needs for any one of us to be distracted or playing scared or small. Here’s to a world where our individual healing leads to global healing!

  • GRL

    Most excellent, thank you!

  • bubu

    Lovely, I could not agree more.

  • http://www.sarahsadventuresinmediocrity.blogspot.com Sarah

    Our bodies are integral to ourselves, but they are also not integral to ourselves. Alison Bechdel wondered as a child, as did many of us as children – how much of me is me?

    Am I still me if I lose a leg? Yes. Both legs? Yes. An arm? Both arms AND legs? Still me. It’s mostly theoretical but still a very important point to consider when unpacking body image. So much of us is body, and yet, so little of us is body. Which is all the more reason to love your body for what it is, instead of hating it for what it isn’t. No matter how much, how little, or what shape of body you have.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Fascinating and well said, Sarah.

      • http://www.sarahsadventuresinmediocrity.blogspot.com Sarah

        Thank you! It was a fascinating and though-provoking post from you (as always). :)

    • Cleo

      Quite thought-provoking, but is it OK if I push you a little further on this? For instance, if I lose an arm, I’m still “me”, but I’m a different me, a “me” constructed with the memory of having had both arms, but having lost one (even the word choice “lost” here is revealing of emotion), I’m a “me” who is looked at differently by other people and has to react to that (i.e. a different social me), I’m possibly a “me” with a wounded body image and a wounded reaction to other people’s reactions, a different sexual “me” who has new zones of involvement and fear, etc. So I’m still the same set of memories and social relations (perhaps, alas the world is an incredibly cruel place) and beliefs (mostly – I might discover some new things about said world), but I’m not sure I’m the same “me”. And in a much less dramatic way, cultivating body image also changes who “me” is, or at least the extension that we give it. What do you think?

      (to put assumptions on the table, though, 1) I do not believe in a stable concept of self very much (the old saws about social selves, certainly, and the newer ideas of distributed perception, which I’m mentioning but don’t really know in-depth :p), and 2) I just recently finished a project on the erotics of the disabled body in a certain type of (non-US, non-contemporary) literature, so I read a bit about amputees and sexuality. Not trying to play “authority” on you, this was the first time I thought about the subject, but you understand that I am fascinated by it. So… this is where I’m coming from!)

      • http://www.sarahsadventuresinmediocrity.blogspot.com Sarah

        YES. This adds so much to my original comment. Body image, and all of the other bits and bytes that make up self-perception as a whole, is extremely fluid and will inevitably change over the course of a lifetime. This is what is meant when women speak of feeling invisible as they age – they didn’t always feel that way. Society’s reactions to them simply changed, and their reaction to its reactions, as well as their self-perceptions, changed in kind. Certainly anything major enacted upon the body – quickly, like limb loss, or slowly, like age/weight gain/loss/pregnancy, etc. – will affect the self as a whole.

      • Courtney

        Cleo, mind sharing what kind of literature and even specific examples? Sounds fascinating!

        • Cleo

          Hi Courtney – only too happy to share, though I’m actually a bit shy about giving the specifics of my project! But as far as disability theory is concerned, I’m glad to share a few academic books I found useful (a little dense at times, and a bit expensive I’m afraid. Maybe they can be borrowed?); I also recommend Disability Studies Quarterly, which I believe has its archives available online (http://dsq-sds.org/). Other than that, I used:
          - Tobin Siebers. Disability Theory. Some pieces are hard reads, but the intro is not and is just the BEST intro to disability studies (of the few I read :p).
          - Sex and Disability, an anthology edited by R. McRuer and Anna Mollow. The piece by Alison Kafer was eye-opening for my project, but most of the anthology is excellent.
          - Stiker, Henri-Jacques. A History of Disability. Because I like my history (goes back before the middle ages!) but probably not fascinating to everyone :p)

    • http://chiralcraft.wordpress.com Laura

      Or, to use another example, am I still me if I’m battling a serious illness and my body doesn’t work the way it used to? Am I still me if I’m elderly and no longer able to do most of the things my body could do before? Am I still me after a mobility-limiting accident or an illness that made me gain a great deal of weight or lose it or… Clearly you are still yourself, although a self that’s had different experiences and will have to adjust to those and differing abilities.

      My disconnect from the whole positive body image campaign, which I acknowledge as laudable in general, comes with the idea that you have to love your body first before you can be a happy person. I’d agree that you have to be OK with your body, not actively at war with your body, because that would get in the way of the other things you want to do with your life, but do you have to *love* it? Maybe I just have a mental block about this, but what does loving your body really mean? I have the body I have, and can change it in small ways, but in the larger sense I’m kinda stuck with it. I live in it, and it is a part of me, but it’s not me full-stop.

      • M

        I do think this is a good point. I think for me, I first realized the things I could do and how interesting & caring I actually was. Only after that, could I learn to appreciate the body that I was using to do all of those things better. Until then, I had been reminded and thought a lot about how I just didn’t look “right” and was as a result, hideous and undesirable. I could focus on making my body look like some ideal all of the time or hating myself for not doing it, but when instead you spent time on things that bring you more joy and let you discover and use skills that you really have, that can build a sense of appreciation and love that otherwise might be hard to foster. Since then I’ve learned how to adjust my wardrobe to fit what I want to do and accomplish in life. I’ve found ways to let myself express myself through my body that are genuine to me, and because of that, it feels much better and easier. Instead of battling, I’m trying to go with the flow. I know what I am interested in and Iove doing those things and I need my body to do them. So from that, it follows that I should probably also take care of my body more. Regardless if I lose weight, I still walk miles every day because I know my body needs it and it feels better. I make meals at home and fill them with fruits and vegetables because I spend less time feeling crappy and I know it’s better for maintaining my health than other things I was eating.

        It’s a lot easier to make better decisions when you trust yourself, but it can be hard figuring out how to start that, especially with some of the messages that many people hear and echo.

        • http://chiralcraft.wordpress.com Laura

          “Since then I’ve learned how to adjust my wardrobe to fit what I want to do and accomplish in life.”

          Great way of phrasing it. I’ve tried to start doing this with both my wardrobe and the way I think about my body. I focus on what it can do and how it can help me live my life in the ways that I want, rather than an entirely visual focus. Obviously the visual is still there, for both yourself and the people who see you, but when I focus more on function and grace, and let the visual stuff be the frosting rather than the cake.

  • http://feedmedaily.blogspot.com Julia

    In eating-disorder-mania recovery, the topic of ‘body image’ is such a key and often overly hashed-out issue. It’s great for me to be reminded that this topic is TRULY important to ALL. And sometimes it’s just about changing our language. Sick of the term ‘body image’? Call it something else! (body grooving, body positivity, body reliance…).

    Thanks again, Sally, for getting my mind moving!

  • http://Www.considermelovely.com Rocquelle

    So very well written Sally! If you can’t love yourself, you can’t love others, help others, support others, or simply be all that you were meant to be in this world.

  • http://fitandfeminist.wordpress.com Caitlin

    “Because the world is full of messages about “good” and “bad” bodies. Because we are told that a certain weight, a certain set of proportions, a certain body type or shape will unlock happiness…”

    And yet, when I was at my skinniest, I was also at my most miserable. We have very much been sold this idea that our quality of life depends on externals, many of which are beyond our control, when so much of it is about our internal lives. Of course, the irony is that the externally-controlled idea of happiness is so appealing because it seems like it should be easier somehow, but I really don’t think it is.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Agreed. A dear friend underwent lap band surgery, lost hundreds of pounds, and fully expected to be happier and more well-adjusted with the weight off. She was devastated to find out that her life was pretty much the same afterwards. She’d been told for ages by so many sources that being thinner would make her happier, and was quite surprised to find out that it didn’t work that way. (For her, anyway.)

      • http://luxvivens.net Monique M.

        This is so true; it’s called our happiness set point! There have been lots of studies done on happiness, and it’s been shown that major changes in life circumstances still do not leave any real change in our overall happiness; we have a set point. I’m a little fuzzy on the details now, but I recall reading about this concept most recently in Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness.

  • Linda R Secretan

    Your thoughtful post put me in mind of a centering meditation from Qigong master Chunyi LIn: “The universe is in my body. I am in the universe. The universe and I combine together.”

  • http://luxvivens.net Monique M.

    “Because we are told that a certain weight, a certain set of proportions, a certain body type or shape will unlock happiness … Because happiness is difficult in so many ways, and becomes even more so if we lunge at it from a place of self-loathing.”

    This post is so timely. As I dressed this morning, I lamented so many parts of my body that, to an outsider who became privy to my thoughts, it probably seemed a heartbreaking litany of self-loathing. And then as I drove to work, I continued to obsessively catalogue everything I hate about my body. It seemed to cover on everything from the thickness of my legs and calves to the — I kid you not — the seemingly odd colour of my skin.

    So thank you so much for this beautiful post, as this need to address and conquer self-loathing has been on my mind of late. Although I don’t know where to start with undoing all of these negative thoughts, my love of style blogs — and the confidence that I think it must take any woman to post regular photographs of herself — has got me thinking about starting to focus on my own personal style in my own blog, perhaps as a way to start working through all of my body-image issues (and to have fun, as well!).

  • http://www.thinposter.com Thinposter

    I realized a couple of years ago that I was waiting to be happy until I was thin. I didn’t think I could have it…I didn’t think I deserved it, while fat.

    Then I realized how crazy that is, especially because I there is really no amount of pounds I could lose to consider myself thin enough. And that being thin wouldn’t solve my problems, or make the good things in my life any better.

    Now I’m just trying to have the things I thought I was waiting to have: a husband who loves me the way I am, skinny jeans, and everything in between. I’m fabulously happy, and my focus now is on maintaining my health so that I can continue to enjoy this happiness for a long, long time.

  • http://sidewalkchic.com joann, sidewalk chic

    “Your body is your home. If you hate your home – if you flee from it, disrespect it, and wish it were fundamentally different – your strength will be diminished. Whether you want to help others or simply find your way to happiness in your own life, loving yourself is absolutely vital.”

    Sal, these posts are amazing.

  • Mar

    Sal, I am all about positive self-image, but this rubbed me the wrong way: “Because we cannot love others, help others, or support others if we hate ourselves. Because we cannot achieve to our fullest, realize our dreams, or conquer our fears if we hate ourselves.” Cannot, cannot, cannot. I have ups and downs with my body image, and at its lowest, there are certainly situations where I can’t “conquer my fears” because I think my hips are too big or arms flabby or whatever. But only certain situations. I think some of the post above is a bit overreaching, and adding another layer of inferiority – see, you can’t realize your dreams or be loving towards others because you think your body is lacking, so you’re kind of a loser overall (and I am absolutely certain, having read your other posts, that that’s not what you meant – but that’s how I ended up reading it). Also, while I am not trying to belittle the problem, I’d like to think that women have a plurality of goals, dreams, ideas of happiness, and relationships, and not all of them are affected by body image issues.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Mar, you’re right, that’s definitely not how I meant it. But I understand where you’re coming from. My experience and the experiences of so many women I’ve spoken to have led me to believe that when self care comes first and when we have enough love and affection for ourselves to be kind to our bodies, doing so gives us the best possible launch pad for just about everything else we need to tackle. It’s like if you’re completely exhausted, hungry, and in an awful mood, you could definitely help a friend talk through an emotional problem. And in many emergencies, you just have to do that. But if you are able to be rested, fed, and relatively serene before you even TRY to help others or tackle your own big goals, you’ll do so much more effectively. For yourself, for them, all around.

      I see self love and body love as an important baseline. I think it’s something that many people gloss over because it’s seen as selfish, whereas I see it as supportive and invigorating. That was the main point I was trying to make, not that if you can’t love yourself first you’ll never do anything worthwhile.

      And I, too, believe in the importance of multiple goals for women: http://www.alreadypretty.com/2011/10/you-can-do-it.html Again, though, I think it is far more difficult to achieve most goals if you come at them from a place of self-loathing, which includes body loathing.

      • Mar

        Thank you for the clarification, Sal! Especially the second paragraph of your comment above – I totally agree (that self love and body love are often glossed over as selfish, while they are really quite integral to our well being).

  • Barb Ballenger

    What a wonderful post Sally! What you are describing is not one cause among many, though, but an orientation that connects to just about every justice issue. Because the lens that we use to regard, disregard and judge ourselves is a social lens, which we also use to judge others. Until I began reading your blog, I didn’t give my views on body image a lot of critical thought. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about those views, and how I was raised to instinctively reject some body types and accept others — in myself and others. To embrace and uphold people of all shapes and sizes while promoting their health and well-being and intrinsic beauty is an act of love that goes far beyond self regard. Because humanity is a body — and its image is manifold. The self love that you describe is also a love of humanity. And that is at the heart of social justice.

  • Carol

    Brava! Thank you, so much, Sally, for sharing your beautiful thoughts with us… this blog is a daily reminder to me that I am worthwhile, beautiful and strong!

  • http://ragsagainstthemachine.blogspot.com/ Terri

    I’ve just spent the afternoon at our local public beach. It is the first day that school is out here and I went to keep an eye on my three grandsons, who vary in age from 6-13. It was fascinating to watch the collection of bodies there today. Some were pale and thin and seriously burning. Others deliberately covered themselves with the finest mud. Some had improvised suits. Some had interesting tattoos. One was a dog who ran joyfully and then rolled around in the sand to dry off. But, I was most struck by a woman in a wheelchair. Her daughter rolled her down to the beach, where she then stood on crutches, and with her one leg she gradually eased down into the water. Her daughter carried her crutches back…People of all ages and body types enjoyed the water and the sunshine. And nary a one seemed shy of their body with this joy to experience.

  • http://www.amidprivilege.com Lisa

    So true. Our bodies are our selves, and life is way too short for hatred.

  • http://revasrags2roses.blogspot.com reva

    i totally agree, however, to do this would mean (for me) to live under a rock these days. I see only thin,lovely people in every form of media there is. I wish i could find the key to ignore all the things around me telling me i look ‘wrong’…..
    I suppose that’s why i love the blogging community i am a part of, real women, over 40, not particularly skinny, like me!

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  • http://brutereason.net Miriam

    “Because we cannot love others, help others, or support others if we hate ourselves.”

    This is a great post overall, although it perpetuates a myth that I’ve written about before (http://brutereason.net/2012/02/29/liking-yourself-and-being-a-good-person-is-there-a-connection/): that you can’t love others, contribute to society, be a good person if you hate yourself.

    Positive body image and self-esteem matter for a host of reasons, perhaps the most important one of which is that not having these things can contribute to serious mental health issues.

    But the notion that those of us who don’t Love Ourselves all the time cannot be good people who contribute to the world is a false one. And it needs to go.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      As I said in response to another commenter, my experience and the experiences of so many women I’ve spoken to have led me to believe that when self care comes first and when we have enough love and affection for ourselves to be kind to our bodies, doing so gives us the best possible launch pad for just about everything else we need to tackle. It’s like if you’re completely exhausted, hungry, and in an awful mood, you could definitely help a friend talk through an emotional problem. And in many emergencies, you just have to do that. But if you are able to be rested, fed, and relatively serene before you even TRY to help others or tackle your own big goals, you’ll do so much more effectively. For yourself, for them, all around.

      I see self love and body love as an important baseline. I think it’s something that many people gloss over because it’s seen as selfish, whereas I see it as supportive and invigorating. That was the main point I was trying to make, not that if you can’t love yourself first you’ll never do anything worthwhile. And certainly not that people who don’t love themselves can never contribute, be good people, or make the world a better place.

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