My family just returned from a lovely vacation. We explored new areas of the country and did a couple of college visits with our 17-year-old daughter, which was exciting.
As my husband was showing me pictures that he took from the trip, he focused on one in which our daughter, our 15-year-old son, and I were sitting on the edge of a fountain with a beautiful college campus behind us. I looked at that picture and saw only one thing: my belly. Inwardly, I groaned and said a few choice (read: negative) words about my belly. But I've been working on this habit over the past few years, so I was able to catch my nasty thought in the moment.
Unfortunately though, my thoughts instead went right right to some self-acceptance clichés: “You look great," I told myself, rotely. " Be kind to yourself,” I continued. But guess what? Those affirmations of self-love were every bit as unhelpful and useless as saying nasty things to myself. But why?
Well, here’s the thing, and it's pretty simple actually: that picture had absolutely nothing to do with my belly or my appearance. Of course, I can’t be too hard on myself when considering the fact that I automatically resorted to criticizing my appearance. For women especially, self-criticism like this is the norm; it's something we've been basically raised to do.
I remember hearing my own mother do it. She has been known, for years, to look at old pictures and to comment on each one regarding her weight: “Oh, that was my fat stage,” or, “Oh look, that was my skinniest.” I’m assuming she learned it from her mother. Then I learned it from her, and I’m now realizing that I'm afraid I’m passing it on to my own daughter.
My daughter tells me that many teenaged girls use apps to make themselves look skinnier in photos or to make their teeth look whiter. They hide areas that they consider flawed, and change their photos to make them look more like the women they see in magazines and on television. In other words, they're focused on editing their appearances, and totally divorced from thinking about the memory captured in the photo, or the people in it.
Appearance obsession isn’t just ruining our pictures; it’s stealing our joy. If we can’t look in a mirror or look at a picture without some version of derision or need to change the picture, how can we ever be fully present, fully engaged, and fully joyful? I don’t think that my children will some day look at that picture and say, “Wow, look at mom’s big belly.”
I think they will say, “Remember that amazing trip to the Pacific Northwest when we looked at colleges with mom and dad?” They will remember a fun and adventurous family vacation not their mother’s physical appearance, regardless of whether I have a flabby belly or one that's toned and "perfect." Focusing on these things simply isn't the point.
Most importantly, here’s what I’m missing when I’m focusing on how my belly looks in a picture: I’m missing the glorious, nostalgic scenery of a college quad. I’m missing that look on my daughter’s face that is part little girl part full grown woman. I’m missing her look that says, “I can’t wait to go to college and I’m terrified to go to college” at the same time. I’m missing my little boy who is both bored and nervous for his sister, and I’m missing the man behind the camera who loves to take our picture and who loves me regardless of how I look.
I’m also missing the opportunity to capture the memory of myself as a mother, a wife, and a woman in middle age with teenaged children. My belly and ultimately my appearance is the least important aspect of that picture, and of me. Even if and when I focus on cultivating acceptance for my body, I’m still focused on how I look and not on all of the other, more important aspects of my life that make me who I am.
I’m ready to shift the focus, how about you?