How to Love Yourself (Even in a Swimsuit)

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I feel compelled to write again about the hardest part of many of my clients’ work: improving their body image. They may have a better relationship with food and have done a lot of work on recovering from an eating disorder, but many of my clients still don’t feel good about their bodies. This is what I sometimes call the “last frontier” of eating disorder recovery. And, once in a better place with body image, I often think that persons who have fully recovered from eating disorders have a more body-positive viewpoint than the general public. After all, what person (particularly a woman) wakes up and looks in the mirror and says, “Ahh.... I love my body!”

In New England, when we shed our layers and finally show some skin in June and July, I swear the body hatred barometer rises along with the summer temperatures. I hear women and men everywhere talking about how they need to lose a few pounds or saying how much they loathe their thighs or their bellies. It sometimes takes me by surprise when I hear this, especially if I was not at all focusing on their bodies in our conversation. It’s hard to respond to these body-bashing statements. Mostly, I try to gently remind them that I like them for more than their thighs.

We are indeed a body-obsessed culture. Some of us are particularly oriented towards seeing the body as the self, instead of just one part of the self. We all know that a pretty house is delightful, but that alone doesn’t make a happy home.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of being a part of a dear friend’s 40th birthday celebration. This friend was strong enough to ask for what she wanted: a day of fun in the water with family and friends; followed by an evening with a small group of her favorite women gathering together to dance, play, and celebrate her milestone; followed by a late-night dance party that brought together a wider circle of friends and community. During the middle of this joyous celebration, when there was this smaller circle of friends, we gave the birthday babe a community rose-oil massage and two words apiece that described what we loved about her. We then talked about what prompted us to choose those words. The ritual finished with an “angel shower,” in which we dumped large quantities of rose petals over her body while we sent her blessings and talked about how much we valued her as a friend and human being.

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Needless to say, my friend is still sailing on this love -- and you can imagine the heartful energy that eased us into the dance party that night...

I wish that we had more rituals like this to honor passages in our lives -- particularly the aging of women. Birthdays are often seen as a negative thing, particularly the ones that end in zero. They are markers of decline and punctuate the loss of youthful energy, which we over-value. We don’t celebrate the wisdom that we gain; we prefer to talk about the force of gravity that works against us.

What I loved about the ritual of this weekend was the way in which we honored and cared for the body of our 40-year-old friend. We massaged it, covered it with fragrant and cool rose petals, hugged it (a lot!), and danced with it. But, more importantly, we celebrated my friends’ wisdom, spritely energy, warmth, and heart. We talked more about how blessed we were by her friendship and spirit than by how fabulous she looks at 40 (even though she does). And how can a woman not glow with all that love and honoring...?

I thought about the way that my clients talk about the dread of swimsuit season. I thought about how one client last week -- on a particularly sweltering day -- said that she’d rather sweat in pants than show her legs in shorts. Where is the self inside that body? Could she come out and be heard? (She’s hot in there and she wants to be taken care of!)

It was a turning point in another client’s recovery when she finally gave me the skinny jeans that she had been trying on daily as a gauge of how she was doing. If she fit into them, it was a “good day” and she could eat in a more relaxed way; if she didn’t, it was a “bad day” and she needed to restrict her food more. This created a roller coaster of under- and over-eating and kept her obsessed with food. It also meant that those jeans were determining many of her daily moves and feelings. She was no longer wearing the pants in her life; the pants were wearing her (and wearing her out).

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My birthday friend takes belly dancing classes and, at one point in this past weekend's event, she broke out her belly dancing clothes and twirled and radiated like the goddess that she is. She used her body to celebrate her self and her passage into a new decade. She celebrated her womanly curves and the spirit that was embodied in her dancing. My client with the skinny jeans is not quite there, but she is no longer measuring her worth with a piece of fabric or a scale. She is freed up to live the life that she wants to lead -- and to figure out what that is, in fact -- now that the body obsession is not such a large part of it.

Celebrate this miracle that is your body! Dance, swim, jump for joy -- and, by all means, feed yourself enough to have the energy to do so with abandon! But, please, remember that your body is just one facet of your Self. There is a spirit and soul within you that is your truest nature. Your body (or the way you choose to adorn your body) may reflect your values and spirit, but your body is not who you are. When my clients become more whole-self-focused and less body-focused, they eat in a way that is aligned with self-care (whatever that is for them) and they move in a way that feels good and feeds their souls.

Think about the reasons that your friends and loved ones like being around you. If you really can’t come up with anything, then boldly ask them. Make a list of the qualities that make you a good friend, sister, partner, parent, employee, pet owner, etc... Maybe it’s your ability to make people laugh and feel at ease, the way that you keep a secret, the wonderful hugs that you give. Maybe it’s your quiet determination, your strong will, your individuality...

Make a list. When you are having one of those “bad body days,” take out this list. Shower yourself with these rose petals of worth and remember that you are unique and divine, despite the parts of your body that you’d rather trade in. Take care of that body and feed it well, as it takes you where you need to go in life, but recognize that it is just one juicy part of the whole that is You.

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