I love my body.
When I say this, I frequently hear lots of clapping and even cheers. I give talks across the country about my personal recovery from an eating disorder, and people in the audience are often fed up (no pun intended) with assaults against women's bodies. It is not often that we actually hear someone say, "I love my body."
Samantha Brick recently attempted such a thing and did not receive applause for it. Of course, her self-proclamation of being beautiful was tagged with her belief that women hate her for it. I don't think women hate me because I love my body.
Like Samantha, I do think I'm beautiful. I also know that women don't hate me for that. In fact, I am told that they respect me for it. But I would argue that Samantha and I have different definitions of beauty.
When I say "beautiful," I don't mean society's picture-perfect face and body. I mean beautifully strong, healthy, and happy. In fact, after getting a massage a couple of weeks ago, my masseuse enthusiastically reported, "Your body is very happy!"
My body is happy even though I have cellulite on my legs and still get frequent pimples on my chin. It is happy despite the fact that I will never have chiseled calves or rock hard abs. My personal definition of beauty no longer includes these things. After being tortured for years by an incessant voice in my head saying, "You aren't good enough," I finally stopped listening.
Won't you join me? Whether you have an eating disorder or not, it is likely that you have negative body image thoughts. For me, true beauty confidence only came when I found it within myself. I used to ask others for constant approval, posing questions like, "Do I look fat in this?"
No matter how people answered that question, their words were never enough to make me feel okay about myself. If approval from others isn't enough, why are more and more people turning to the Internet these days asking questions like "Am I pretty?" and "Am I ugly?" Responding Internet users, of course, posts an onslaught of comments from positive to just plain mean. Either way, my guess is that these answers don't make anyone feel better.
Today's media culture has us convinced that beauty is a narrow thing that requires outside approval. It doesn't. Instead, let's ask ourselves, "Am I pretty"? And let's change our definition of "pretty" to what really matters. Maybe a pretty person is one who is authentic, self-respecting, and kind to others.
Even if we don't ask for criticism directly, I realize that we often get it -- from a friend's offhand comment to a boyfriend telling us we'd look great if we just lost a few pounds. (Side note: Dump that guy.)
On a large scale, Ashley Judd recently spoke out against this kind of outward assault when the media called her "puffy" among other things. I was once called puffy, too, but it was during the process of recovering from anorexia and bulimia. On my way to health, my body went through all kinds of weird phases. One was a puffy stage that ultimately pointed toward a full recovery. Let's all hope we go through that kind of "puffy"!
This week, responding to Vogue's announcement that it will not feature models "who appear to have an eating disorder," Tyra Banks also spoke out about the importance of rejecting external critiques of our bodies. She revealed that when she "started getting curvy" in her early 20s, her agency supplied her mom with a list of designers who didn't want to work with her anymore. Instead of starving herself, she "strategized about how to turn my curves into a curveball," a decision she believes led her to the top of her field. Instead of changing herself for everyone else, she owned her looks. I'm no supermodel, but making that decision myself was one of the most important and empowering of my life.
Today, like everyone else, I receive feedback about my body that I don't ask for. Knowing that I've recovered from anorexia, some people will say that I am still too thin, while others, on the same day, might think that I have let myself go and swung too far the other direction on the scale. Both of these perspectives come from insecurities within the individuals saying or thinking those things. I don't have to believe them, so I don't.
I have learned to stop engaging the negative body image muscle. When I used to work that muscle out constantly, it got bigger and more powerful. But, like any muscle, when I stopped engaging, it atrophied.
During my public talks, I actually encourage people to stop engaging their negative body image muscle and to start changing the conversation. Stop talking bad about our bodies. When a friend says, "My butt looks big in these jeans," don't jump right in with how bad your hair looks today. Have you noticed how women bond around this kind of negative body talk? Instead, maybe say something seemingly shocking like, "Hmmm ... I look beautiful today," and encourage your friend to find it within herself to say the same. It might require changing your definition of beauty. No, I am not saying to settle for less or to lower your standards. This is really about setting your own standards.
Why should fashion magazines (possibly excluding Vogue, if it fulfills its promise) get to tell us -- real women -- what we are supposed to look like? With photoshopping, the models in those magazines don't even look like themselves. Supermodel Cindy Crawford once said, "Even I don't wake up looking like Cindy Crawford." If she doesn't even look like herself, we can't possibly.
Why chase after society's unattainable and ever-changing beauty ideal? After all, it is just that, ever-changing. Trying to live within this flawed system might actually be considered settling. Make a choice today to love your body. It will love you back.
Recently appointed Chair of the Ambassadors' Council with the National Eating Disorders Association, Jenni Schaefer is a singer/songwriter, speaker, and author of "Life Without Ed" and "Goodbye Ed, Hello Me: Recover from Your Eating Disorder and Fall in..." (McGraw-Hill). She is a consultant with Center for Change. For more information, visit www.jennischaefer.com or www.facebook.com/lifewithouted.