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Do we have to make body love the goal?

the cyclist.

Today’s post was originally published on the Beheld, a blog about ‘beauty and whatit means’. I’ve been a fan of Autumn’s since I first found out about her through the Feminist Fashion Bloggers group, her posts are always so thoughtful and she is the most prolific blogger. I struggle to put together one ‘thinky’ post a week, but she does it day in, day out!

I asked if I could reproduce this post on here because it really struck a chord. I have been uncomfortable with the idea of body love ever since I first came across it. I’m big on body acceptance: I think it’s hugely important for people not to hate their bodies, not to obsess about them, but to accept them as part of the whole, to live with them contentedly. And as such I am totally on board with what proponents of body love are writing about. But I really don’t see why we need to love our bodies. I don’t believe that there is a person in the world that loves every single part of themselves, and assuming that it’s possible is just creates another unattainable ideal to which we can’t measure up. But I’ve never been able to articulate my discomfort beyond that, so I will stop rabbiting on now and pass you over to Autumn.

As a feminist who writes about appearance from an explicitly feminist perspective, I shouldn’t be surprised when people assume I’m a body image blogger. Still, every time I see myself attributed as such, it gives me pause. It’s not that I feel unwelcome in that corner of the blogosphere; if I am a body image blogger, I’ve got some excellent company. Nor is it exactly that I feel inaccurate; I suppose whenever a feminist writes about beauty, the tyranny of the body beautiful organically comes under critique. And while I do have a body-positive spin in the sense that I don’t think any of us should suffer in the name of our bodies—and I made a conscious decision early on to never bash any bodies in my blog, including my own—less than 10% of my posts at The Beheld deal with body image, or even bodies at all.

But when I was encouraged to join in NOW’s Love Your Body Day blog carnival, I had to wonder exactly what that even meant. For I do not love my body, and I don’t particularly want to, and not once on my blog have I said any of us should.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t love our bodies, or at least sound an alarm when we find ourselves treating our body the way we’d treat something hated. But in my experience, the way to experience a relief from bodily scrutiny isn’t love, but not thinking about it so damn much. We’re at our best when we’re in a state of flow, wholly immersed in whatever we’re doing, whether that be our professional work, creative expression, or merely being fully present in the moment and sharing it with whomever is in our company. We’re at our best when we’re engaged—oftentimes engaged with others. Certainly many women treat their bodies shabbily because they’re focusing their energies on others and neglecting themselves; others, like me, start to treat our bodies shabbily when we become too focused on ourselves, allowing the roar of body dissatisfaction to dim out the world around us. And while conscious body love is a better response to that roar than continuing to punish my body in various ways, when I am focused on body love, my focus is both inward and separate from myself. When I file acts of self-care under that of love, it makes my body feel even more separate from my very self, instead of more unified.

Bumper-sticker wisdom aside, love is not only an action word: It is a feeling. I don’t want to have feelings about my body any more than I want to have feelings about my intellect or my voice; I want it to be one part of the entirety of who I am, not something I have to have all these emotions about. To do that I need to care for my body—and I also need to consciously devote my love to things greater than my body, my self. If I keep my body into the category of Things That Should Be Loved, I’m continuing to sever my self—the self that can love—from my body. As with many people who have struggled with an eating disorder, the disconnect between the self and the body is part of what has allowed me to treat my body poorly at times. The times when I’m truly treating my body right are not times when I’ve decided to love my body for all it’s worth, but times when I’m authentically engaged in the world around me.

If that bit of bumper-sticker wisdom is correct and “love is an action word,” that leaves me with little to work on. Care, on the other hand, is also an action word, and one that leaves me with a goal, not an elusive sense that I’ve either succeeded or failed in “love.” Care is a step we can take to make sure that, as Rosie Molinary writes, we are doing “the work we are meant to be doing and [giving] the gifts we are meant to be giving to this world.” At its beginning self-care may even be a way for us to even identify what that work is, something I struggled with for a long time. Care prepares us for our lives’—and our bodies’—greater journeys. My journey does not necessarily exclude loving my body. Neither is body love my goal.

I don’t want to diminish the wonderful work of people who explicitly work to activate body love—women I consider my allies in trying to help all of us not be so damn obsessed with this stuff. Golda Poretsky’s Body Love Wellness, Medicinal Marzipan’s Body Lovin’ Projects—this is good work from smart women, and they’re but two examples of the plethora of body love work out there. Participating in these programs can bring a sense of flow in their own right, and I imagine the power of being wholly engaged with body love is mighty indeed. I know many people have been helped by programs specifically targeted toward body love, and that aid is vital and real—and in many ways, what body love experts are saying isn’t that different from what I’m saying here. As Golda says, “You can’t just arrive at [body] acceptance. If you’re coming from a place of not accepting your body, you first have to swing the pendulum the other way to love.” But the active path to body love isn’t the only path toward a similar end goal, even as it’s alluring when you’re in a place of tumult with your body.

That place of tumult—of war—can be damning, silencing, and most frightening when you don’t even realize how much it can hold you back. I’ve been in that war at times. I know how hard it can be. I know. And looking at body love from afar seems more comfortable than the prickly, unbearable spot of shame that we inhabit when we wage war on our bodies. It is more comfortable. But body love is not the only way to find that space of comfort; love needn’t be the goal you’re working toward. For some of us, striving for body love as our personal pinnacle serves to reinforce the very self-consciousness that prevents us from doing our work in the world. Self-consciousness needn’t be negative in order to be damaging; caring for ourselves can be an act in its own right, not a pit stop on the path toward body love. For if the problem is that we wage war on our bodies, consider that the opposite of war is not love, but peace.

What do you think? Do you subscribe to the body love idea?

Unrelated but majorly awesome picture via here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Buttercup Rocks 30 November 2011, 12:05 am

    I think it depends on one’s definition of body love. Regrettably, society seems to have internalised the notion that a body has to be “perfect” in order to be deserving of love or any kind of positive attention. (You see it every time someone who fails to conform – Beth Ditto, for instance – gets a scintilla of public recognition and they’re immediately lambasted for being a “bad role model”). And, of course, the definition of perfection is extremely narrow, totally arbitrary and pertains to very few actual human beings.

    Personally I don’t think body love means wanting to snog your reflection every time you pass a mirror, though I did when I was younger and I didn’t believe I’d ever manage it either. For the older me, self-love and self-acceptance are actually the same thing. I believe that fat phobia and stigmatisation contribute significantly to the inability of women of all sizes to love and accept their bodies. In order for that narrow definition of the body beautiful to exert the power it does, another type of body has to be demonised. While I appreciate that most women feel oppressed by that narrow societal ideal it adds a whole new dimension to self-hatred to know that others bond over their mutual fear of looking like you.

    When Autumn says, “… in my experience, the way to experience a relief from bodily scrutiny isn’t love, but not thinking about it so damn much” that simply isn’t an option for fat women. The world never lets up telling us how undesirable we are in an infinite variety of ways that are crippling to self-esteem. It’s an act of love to stop denigrating one’s body in our toxic culture. Given that the fashion industry routinely ignores and short changes us, it’s an act of love to believe that one’s fat body merits attractive clothes, a sharp haircut or an expensive lipstick. Learning to cultivate a new aesthetic is crucial to this process and body love is key. For many of us in FA actively seeking out positive images of fat bodies in a fat-phobic culture, sharing those images, making our own and learning to find beauty in them is the way we come to appreciate our own beauty and accept our perceived flaws. When you love another it is never conditional on their being “perfect”. We simply love them, warts, knobbly knees and all.

    I do believe our culture breeds most a disconnect between a woman’s body, mind and spirit. I’m way more integrated, (and therefore less inclined to obsess), since I resolved to accept myself and redefine my personal idea of the body beautiful.
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    • Franca 30 November 2011, 9:22 am

      Thank you for this comment, i was worried this post was going to die without a sound.

      I thought it was really interesting what you said about other people bonding over their fear of being fat. It always freaks me out when people who are way smaller than me go on about how horribly fat they are and diet talk makes me really quite angry. Especially diet talk that is in code where people say healthy but mean thin.

      Anyway, on the body love thing, I think we are talking about a similar outcome and similar things, but I suppose what Autumn and I are saying that an explicit focus on body love isn’t the only way to arrive at a position of acceptance/happiness/whatever you want to call it. I have had lots of eating disorder type problems (in both directions) in the past and I really hated my body as a teenager. I look at the pictures now and I look gorgeous. But there was no way I could have felt better by acknowledging that at the time, I would have felt I was lying to myself – and I am basically incapable of that. And then felt like even more of a failure. For me, the path to body acceptance lay in generally growing as a person, in achieving other things that had nothing to do with the body. Once I was more of a confident person, I almost automatically stopped obsessing about all the body stuff. And then I was in a position where I could really enjoy enjoy the dressing up, the adorning myself and thinking about style, and that does contribute further to my confidence/self acceptance. But I couldn’t have got there without the more general growth first. Of course other people may find the sort of positive affirmation stuff works for them, and that’s great. but as Autumn says in the comments on her page, the body love idea is so dominant, that it sometimes feels like the only way.

      It’s interesting you mention Beth Ditto actually, because I get the sense that although no one ever talks about her without mentioning her size/weight, she herself doesn’t see herself as primarily a fat person. I may be wrong, it’s been a long time since I read any interviews, but I always thought her attitude was more “yes, I’m fat, we’ve established that. Now lets talk about music, or fashion, or gay rights’. And that I would say is the kind of position that I think of as ‘not thinking about it so damn much’, as the body not being a topic of investigation and conversation but something that just is.

      • Buttercup Rocks 30 November 2011, 10:46 pm

        So with you all the way on the diet talk crap. I was having lunch with a colleague yesterday and she started talking about how she had to be thin enough to wear a bikini over her impending holiday and I swear my soul left my body for the duration.

        Obviously I can only speak reliably for myself, but Beth Ditto does identify as a fat activist. She turned down TopShop’s offer for The Gossip to come and play in their flagship store window because they, like most high street manufacturers, actively discriminate against plus sized women. Since she gets no end of media flack and public opprobrium for her size, (because, as I said earlier, there really is no escape for any fat woman, let alone one in the public eye), I think it would be pretty difficult for her not to be acutely aware of it. And once you bring fashion into the equation, it’s the proverbial elephant in the room.

        Fashion is all about the body – generally the tall, thin, white, girlish/boyish body – whether it’s couture or high street. And I think that’s why there’s so much bitchery and externalised self-hatred flying around in the fashion industry at every level. It seems to me that blogging about fashion or being professionally involved in it would make forgetting about your body and just going with the flow something of a challenge. I was 25 when I consciously realised just how lousy women’s magazines made me feel about myself. I’m now 52 and haven’t bought one since and my life has improved immeasurably.

        Like you I tend to think affirmations are a load of bull unless you genuinely believe them. I never believed I would come to love my body aesthetically speaking, but I was positively galvanised by the notion that I could actually choose not to hate it. Had the internet been at my disposal in my 20s I’d have got where I am an awful lot faster.
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  • Buttercup Rocks 30 November 2011, 12:07 am

    P.S When I say “I don’t think body love means wanting to snog your reflection every time you pass a mirror, though I did when I was younger” I mean I thought that when I was younger – not that I snogged my reflection!
    Buttercup Rocks recently posted..If I wasn’t such a wuss, I so would…My Profile

  • Teeny 30 November 2011, 1:51 am

    Hey Franca, I agree with what Autumn says about being engaged authentically with the outside world and how that is when she treats her body right – i feel the same way. However, on a personal level, when i’ve gone through body hatred, the best way for me to stop being negative is to actually say outloud “i love my beautiful (insert whatever bodypart I didn’t like)…changing my words helped tremendously. That doesn’t address seeing my body as being separate to self – but then, I’m not sure that such self/bodyimage cohesiveness exists? For example, if i said to myself “oh, i hate how i laugh so loud” does that mean that i see my laugh as being separate to self? I am so grateful not to be 20 anymore with all of the body woes i had back then – nowadays…i am more concerned with an accurate expression of myself as opposed to how my body looks.
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    • Franca 30 November 2011, 9:33 am

      Like I say below the positive affirmations stuff does not work for me at all, and if anything just makes me feel worse, but i’m glad it works for you. I do think a cohesive whole is possible as well. right now, I’ve put on some weight and gone really spotty, because I’ve come off the pill six weeks ago. I have caught myself several times thinking about this in a really bad way, like ‘I need to attach my fat and my spots’, like they aren’t part of me. That’s the kind of thing that is so harmful. But when I am engaged in other things, I don’t worry about it, I don’t feel like a thin person with a layer of fat, I just feel like me. It doesn’t mean I love my spots, or the extra centimetres on my thighs, though I don’t hate them either.