When I was five, I changed my outfit at least three times a day. One winter day, I decided I wanted to wear a sun dress. My mom told me to go put on something warmer. As family legend has it, I put my hands on my hips and said, "It's my body. I'll wear what I want to."
I love this story because it reminds me of the way we all were once — completely in ownership and in awe of our bodies. We flopped around on the carpet. We squished Play-Doh between our fingers. We weren't born loathing our bodies. We expected to feel good. And then we lost it: the sense of our body's incredible nature, a special gift that was all ours.
Each person loses this sense at a different age. Some lose it to trauma or abuse. Others lose it to bullying or a growing exposure to commercial images. Still others realize their bodies aren't "normal," or they become ill. Accounts from children born differently-abled show how many of them have no concept that something is "wrong" with them until someone else points out how they're different. .
However it happened, there was a moment when you went from thinking your toes were the most fascinating thing in the world to thinking that you weren't enough — ugly, fat, too skinny, awkward, the wrong color, or broken. Even the “beautiful people” tell disturbing stories of starving themselves or of deep self-doubt.
How do we reclaim our bodies? I had to examine the three institutions I'd given my power away to: the medical industry, the church, and the media. We are not fools. We turn toward major authorities because the good is mixed in with the bad. There are truly loving people who work within these institutions who provide healing and wisdom. We trust our society to look after us. We are socialized to listen increasingly to the voices outside of us and less and less to the voice within. Shame works its silencing magic, telling us that perhaps we are the only ones who feel bad.
I spent a decade in and out of the oncology ward from age 15 to age 25. Hideous side effects were expected. Deepak Chopra explained our system as having only two options: you're sick or you're well. There's not much room for degrees of imbalance. I had loving, brilliant doctors and nurses. Still, no one listened when I had extreme pain. More often than not, my body was right. Out of fear, I wanted the doctors to be infallible. I thought good patients quietly bore their pain and kept a positive attitude. My health improved when I realized I needed to be in partnership with my doctors.
Church gave me hope and community. Still, I grew up with purity rings. Abstinence was the only option. Sermons reminded girls not to tempt the boys by showing their shoulders or bellies. I understand the real fears of teen pregnancy, STDs, and date rape. But shaming young people about their bodies and desires is not the answer. It may seem like an impossible task to raise a teen with a healthy attitude about sexuality, but it's absolutely necessary. So many of us as adults have to undo the damage — teaching ourselves to be whole sexual people. Kids listen when we “slut-shame.” Caught between a sex-crazed, sexist society and ultimatums, young people need real information and models of loving respect.
Media seems like an obvious player in body image problems. We know media underrepresents whole chunks of our diverse population. We know pop songs don't always promote healthy (or even consensual) relationships. We know objectification is both a men's and women's issue because it degrades humanity. We know the beauty industry has put us at war with aging — the most natural cycle of our bodies. Most corporations advertise to us telling us we deserve their treat, promising us fun, or claiming they've always be part of our families. Many corporations do not love you and their products are poisonous.
We can feel small against these behemoth industries. It seems easier to say “this is just the way it is” or even to keep struggling to fit in. Yet, even the largest ships arrive at a totally different destinations with a small shift in the rudder. Awareness is the answer. Tap in to your body and question the validity of those outside voices. Simply begin to turn away from messages of shame. Gently insist on doing only what honors your dynamic, unique self — mind, body, and soul.