A couple of years ago, I was looking at myself in the mirror, and I felt a sense of pride with my progress in body positivity. I had made peace with my flaws, accepted (and even learned to greatly love) my body and made body positivity a priority.
“I’m okay if my body changes,” I thought to myself as I examined my flesh knowing full well that my body shape and size will change and fluctuate over the years and even days. Then, as I applied my intensive retinol hydration facial masque, it dawned on me… what if one day, my body looked old?
Would I be so accepting of my cute little creases when they were more deeply set? Would I still be able to love and nurture my body when my stretch marks were more pronounced or my skin less firm?
The truth is that no matter how enlightened we are, no matter how much reading we do or how many of our negative thoughts we confront, we all have deep, subconscious body-based fears. These can be reinforced by our own privilege, the youth-valuing cultural climate that we live in and the beliefs of those nearest and dearest to us.
For many women, we grew up watching our mothers meticulously applying their anti-ageing cream, embarking on diet and diet and desperately seeking yet another Little Black Dress that would tuck, tone and conceal all the parts of their body that they were ashamed of. And as we matured into grown women, even if we didn’t share the same insecurities, the links were there; reinforced by magazines and television and celebrity diet gurus.
“What if I get fat? Or old? Or, the worst thing I could possibly be… fat and old?”
Whatever your body-based fear is, the best time to confront it is now.
When we talk about body-based fears (be they fear of gaining weight, losing weight, getting old, not being able to look exactly the same forever or otherwise) what we’re really fearing isn’t a loss of our body, but a loss of control.
A loss of control of our place in society, of how others see us, of what we can accomplish as limited by our appearance.
From a psychological level, it boils down to projection and years of deeply-rooted emotional connotations that we’ve learned to attach to certain aesthetic ideas. Thus, we find ourselves taking preventative measures (such as anti-ageing creams and dieting) and associating those measures with self-worth and control.
Despite how unhealthy these practices are, they’re relatively normal and when you remember that the desire to fit in and be accepted by our peers is part of the very fabric that makes us human, it’s not that hard to understand. So, in knowing this and in also knowing that self-love, compassion and body positivity breed a healthy mental climate for us all to thrive and nourish ourselves at an individual level… how do we make sense of the fears that we have around our bodies?
Much like body positivity as a whole, the key to moving past these fears lies in acceptance.
Accepting your fear and tracing it back to the roots
Let’s conduct a little exercise to illustrate the connotations that surround your fear.
Step 1: Take the word that identifies your body-based fear of control (fat, thin, old) and write it on a piece of paper.
Step 2: Beside that word, write down some feelings that you have about people who embody that word (e.g. do you think fat people are lazy, or perhaps that old people are unsexual?)
Step 3: Looking at what you’ve just written down, try and trace those thoughts back – is there anyone in your life who reinforced those beliefs, or have you encountered situations that have made you feel that your beliefs are factual?
Once you start looking at your beliefs around your fear and where they come from, you’ll then start to realize that you’re projecting those perceived negative qualities all over yourself; viewing things as black and white.
The fact is that nothing in psychology is black and white. Not all fat people are lazy. Not all old people lack sex drives. The transition from fat to thin or young to old isn’t instantaneous, nor does it look the same for every person, nor does it guarantee that if/when you hit it, you’ll become all of those negative qualities that you assumed came as a package deal.
From there, you can then begin to ask yourself some hard questions:
- Theoretically, what would happen if you became the thing that you fear? Would this make you a lesser person?
- The preventative steps that you’re taking now to try and stop that fear – do you think they’re reasonable, or can you feel them starting to manifest in more serious ways throughout your life?
- What is it that you think that you don’t have to offer the world if you lose aesthetic control – do you think you’ll be worthless as a person if your face is less youthful, your skin less taught or your body less flawless? Where does this belief come from, and are you ready to move past it?
If, after asking yourself those questions, you draw a mental blank and still feel certain that it’s just your destiny to live in fear of losing aesthetic control… dig a little deeper. Ask yourself those questions again. Keep looking, even when it makes you uncomfortable.
Because I can guarantee you one thing: regardless of how your face or body changes; regardless of what you gain or lose – you will remain worthy.
You are worthy of self-love and self-care and kindness and compassion whether you’re young or old, fat or thin, spritely or decrepit.
But you won’t be able to claim all (or any) of those things from yourself unless you first accept the fact that your appearance is not fixed or static in any way.
We’re coming back to acceptance again, because that really is the big theme here.
Are you willing to accept where your fears come from, and learn from them?
Are you willing to accept that you’re a dynamic and ever-chaning being, and accept that merely having your fear won’t do anything to stop the thing that you fear happening?
Are you willing to accept that you’ll still need to find a way to love yourself, even if the thing that you fear happening to you occurs?
Without acceptance, there can be no progress.
And if you’re carrying this subconscious fear with you throughout all your efforts at body positivity, you’re not really giving yourself the best love that you can.
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