I always found something lacking in the treadmill-jogging, stair-stepping, ab-crunching routine that so many other women I knew, including myself, defaulted to. But I thought there was no other way to get exercise. My mind was paralyzed by shoulds: “I should really go work out ... I should really get the whole wheat pasta ... I should have a light dinner and get some froyo.” The shoulds ran the show, especially when it came to my body.
The construction of an "acceptable" or ideal female body is multilayered and complex. Social media reminds us with a constant flow of images and ideals that airbrushed women are our "ideal." I would argue that most women feel like our bodies are always under some kind of scrutiny; our culture makes us constantly question whether our bodies are good enough, implying (on some level) that one’s value as a human is determined by body size.
The "skinny" ideal used to hold power over me. Skinny was what I wanted and needed. Skinny was good for me. Skinny was it.
And then I found yoga. Rather, I rediscovered yoga.
From competitive gymnast to classically-trained modern and ballet dancer, yoga was already living inside of me. Yoga had been part of my world before, but it took making some necessary boundaries from the dance world before I embraced it. As it turns out, yoga is the perfect prescription for my life: my practice invitef me to bring my body into the present moment at each moment, rather than clinging to the stories that used to plague my mind.
So many women I know think that they need to go on a run or hit the gym to get their workout on. What people don’t know is that yoga provides a form of exercise that strengthens your body, focuses your mind, and relaxes your spirit. Of course, the practice of yoga as a whole also gives many more physical benefits that you might think. Yoga is an excellent muscle toner, it increases flexibility and is a great practice for anyone with chronic back pain, and is tremendously beneficial to the nervous system. Even better, yoga raises serotonin, the happy brain chemical that is responsible for mood, sleep and appetite. Yoga helps me feel physically, emotionally and spiritually strong.
Although finding strength in these ways has helped me heal from my "skinny-addiction," I think the "strong" ideal is more complicated these days than we think. A couple of months ago, the catchphrase “strong is the new skinny” popped up in my world. I saw it on the window of a local yoga studio, on a bumper sticker, and a blog article titled "Strong is the New Skinny" flooded my Facebook newsfeed. My first reaction to this phrase was nothing less than enthusiastic. "Finally some equality around here!" I thought, "Men and women can be strong."
But after I chewed on this idea a little longer, I came to see an insidious message breaching the surface. I, along with many body positive folks, associate the notion of skinny-as-ideal with deprivation, sacrifice, guilt, and shame. I recognize that "strong" is supposed to replace "skinny." And don’t get me wrong, I appreciate and embrace strength. It’s powerful, it’s protective, it’s supportive. But this replacement puts pressure on us in new ways ...
What could have been an empowering approach to body pride has just become another way to prioritize unrealistic standards of how we “should” look. We’ve replaced one cultural construction — skinny — with yet another — strong. Secondly, "skinny" still holds the power, acting as the template from which we are determining new shoulds.
Sure, this catchphrase has a point: beauty should be about strength, getting healthier and more fit, rather than depriving ourselves. But something about this still does not completely sit right with me. “Strong” seems to give a woman’s physicality as much power as it always has. As a culture, we are still gripping onto this need to make a catchphrase about body ideals. We are still perpetuating the shoulds. To me, replacing strong with skinny is a juxtaposition that brings us back to point A: that our focus ought to be directed solely toward our bodies.
It’s time to stop talking about skinniness or strength or other hyperbolic clichés and start talking about health, about feeling good, and feeling happy and comfortable.
Pondering the many aspects involved in formulating self-image has been a productive activity for me. Last year, I started by making Monday’s gratitude Mondays. The first thing I do when I wake up before I get out of bed to brush my teeth is to think of one gratitude. Today, I am grateful for the warmth of the people around me, for figuring it out, one breath at a time.
So no more shoulds. Let's get curious about ourselves instead. Let us ask: Where does my body want to be when I eat healthy foods and engage in physical activities that I love? How can I treat my body well today? Can I try and be kinder to myself?
I am proud of my body for what it is, not for what it isn’t. I hold this, I write this on a sticky note, and I breathe it in. So, find some language that makes sense to you and your story. Make it your mantra. Write it down somewhere. And breathe it in. And for goodness sake, eat a cookie sometimes. Life is too short to make "skip dessert" your mantra.
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