Like every woman I know, I have spent much of my life in bondage to body-image issues. For years I have ridden the pendulum between self-hate and lukewarm self-acceptance, with an occasional fleeting moment of actual, true self-love.
But these moments have been hard to grasp, and before long I am pulled back into my frenzy of media-driven comparison, where I stand naked before the mirror, before my enemy. My gaze is thick with contempt and disgust as I stare at my flaws, my imperfections, at all I see that does not align with the image of the woman I am told is beauty.
She is beauty. I am not her. I am not beauty.
I stand up straighter and suck my stomach in to create an illusion of thinness I will never have. My stance widens in an effort to create a thigh gap, my shoulders pull back in the hope my breasts will take on a more youthful shape. I am sick with discontentment, dissatisfaction, with hopelessness and failure.
I look at the clothes in my wardrobe, clothes I have bought because I loved them. But they are clothes I put on, then rip off and throw on the floor. They do not look as good on me as they did on the size 6 mannequin in the shop window.
I am disgusted at myself, angry that I cannot be disciplined enough or focused enough to be skinny. Instead, I feel enormous in my size 12 body. Hot tears stream down my face. I am overwhelmed with guilt that I have eaten too much and not worked out enough. I am drowning in shame because my last New Year's resolution was to have the perfect bikini body and as I stand here I'm nowhere near it. Not even close.
I hate the woman in the mirror. She is not perfect. She is not beautiful. I promise myself no more wine. No more Cherry Ripes. Start to think about how many meals I could skip each day before I would lack the required energy. How I would fit a couple of hours of exercise into my day. I make my 2017 New Years resolution, to have the perfect bikini body by next summer, and mentally I begin a checklist of all I need to sacrifice and how much I will need to strive to make this happen.
Already I am exhausted with the energy it takes to hate my body, to punish it. The more I hate it, the more I unwittingly focus on it. The more I obsess over it. The more it takes me away from what I am passionate about, from the achievement of my goals and dreams. The more energy I put into hating my body, the less energy I have to enjoy my life. I am at war with myself once again, and in that moment, I realise it's a battle I no longer want to fight.
I look at my body again, except this time I make myself see its strength. The way it conceived, nurtured and grew four babies. The pain it was able to endure at the birth of those babies. The way it nourished those babies countless for hours, months, years at its breast. I see all it is capable of, the life and joy it brings me. It can swim, surf, kayak, run on the beach. It can play games of basketball and cricket in the backyard and mountain bike ride up and down hills. It can stretch, bend and twist in yoga, hold a plank for 2 minutes and 36 seconds, and can do cartwheels and handstands on the grass with my children. As Taryn Brumfitt, founder of the The Body Image Movement, says: my body is not an ornament to be looked at, but the vehicle to my dreams.
In her recent documentary, Embrace, we see the journey Taryn has taken to not only learn to love her own body, but empower other women to do the same. We see the mother of three's struggle with her post-baby body, and how she believed cosmetic surgery was the quick fix she needed to find happiness.
Until she looked at her daughter and realised how much it broke her heart to think that her choice to change her body would set her daughter up to want to change hers too, and what kind of message was she giving to her daughter about her body? She was unable to go through with the surgery, but was still left with a body she hated.
Desperate to know what the perfect body felt like, she entered a body building contest, and for 15 weeks trained until she had the perfect body. Taryn stood on stage knowing she had made it. But she wasn't happy. It had been too much time, too much energy, too much sacrifice, too much obsession. It wasn't worth it. Taryn's entire mindset changed, and she set out on her quest to learn to love and embrace her body exactly as it was.
I recently watched Embrace. I watched as beautiful women shared their beliefs about themselves. That they are disgusting, too fat, too ugly, need smaller thighs, bigger breasts, a flatter stomach. That they are not enough just as they are. I cried for them, and I cried for me. For the culture we live in that defines what we must be in order to be beautiful. The lies. So many lies.
Because, as Taryn points out, we are only shown one type of woman. She is young, flawless, perfect, blonde haired, blue eyed. She is not real. She is Photoshopped to a level of perfection that will never be attainable. We kill ourselves to be like her. We compare ourselves to her. We do not see our own beauty, for we are too consumed with worshipping hers. When all the while, our beauty lies beyond measure, unnoticed by our critical gaze.
We believe the lie that thinner is better. We suffocate under the pressure to be hot, no matter what our age or circumstance.To be young and hot. To be pregnant and hot. To be postpartum and hot. To be a mother and hot, a cougar and hot. It's no longer uncommon for women in their 30's and 40's to battle eating disorders that once affected mostly teens and women in their 20's. The spectrum is so much wider now and nobody is immune, from 50 year-old women being pressured to be the new 30 -- because God forbid they look their age -- to over 50 percent of 5-12 year old girls who believe they need to lose weight.
And as parents of these daughters, we are frantic with not knowing how to shield our girls from the onslaught of media and advertising, as well as the sexualisation of their bodies from such a young age. They are bombarded with messages at every turn. Thin is sexy. Thin is beautiful. Thin is what will make boys like me and girls want to be like me.
Being thin has become their measure of success. Who can eat the least? Who can exercise the most? The thinnest girl wins. And it is utterly heart breaking that this is what our girls face, and what most will succumb to in order to find their acceptance and their worth.
How do we change this?
In the words of Taryn, we embrace.
We stand before the mirror and see the beauty of our bodies, we see them for the strength they possess, for all they are capable of, for all they do for us, and we thank our bodies for how amazing they are, for being the vehicle to our dreams.
We embrace our flaws, knowing the moment we do that, we will no longer judge others for theirs, and we will find ourselves at a place of peace. We stop comparing ourselves to what we see in the media, and to each other. "It's not about us versus them. It's about women coming together and saying we're all beautiful, let's work together, let's show the world we can be beautiful together." ~ Taryn Brumfitt.
We speak to ourselves the way we would speak to another woman, the way we would speak to our daughters. You are beautiful. You are perfect as you are. You are more than just a body. You are strong, brave, intelligent, creative, a life-giver, a universal force, a complete miracle of creation, the very essence of all that is feminine in this world. We say these words out loud and believe them in our minds, embed them in our hearts.
We nurture our bodies with good food to fuel us, we run and jump and play and move because it makes us feel better to do so, we do things that bring us life, bring us joy. And then we eat a piece of cake that our kids make for us and pour a glass of wine with our friends and enjoy the balance that is paramount to a healthy life.
We do not waste another day of our lives being at war with our bodies, and instead we love them. And then we take all the time and energy we spent on hating our bodies, and we use it to instead do what matters. We use it to contribute. We use it to accomplish. We use it to make a difference, to make change. We use it to become the people we were made to be, before the media told us who we were supposed to be.
We take the New Years resolution of the perfect bikini body and laugh in the face of it. We are already beautiful, because we get to define beauty. We get to call out the lies of our culture and rewrite truth on our hearts, and on the hearts of our daughters. There are no prerequisites to beauty. It is not measured by a size, by a number, or by comparison to another.
Beauty is ours the moment we choose to embrace it.
You can find Kathy Parker at her website, This Girl Unraveled.