A few days ago, I was in the women’s locker room at my gym and a young collegiate-aged girl came up to me and said, “Your body is perfect.” I laughed gently but told her, “No bodies are perfect, and they weren’t designed to be.” She shrugged and said, “I’d still kill for it.” It was funny to me, not in a funny, ha-ha way, but funny nonetheless. I haven’t felt my body has been at it’s best for almost a year and half now for a variety of reasons. But it’s telling that others see perfections where we see faults.
Recently, I was looking at collegiate pictures of myself, what I looked like, after a lifetime of competitive sports had ended, and I didn’t like it. Then I looked at pictures of myself when I was younger than that, effortlessly thin and athletic. But I remember not liking it all that much either. It seems that at every stage of my life thus far, I had to justify my body to others, and to myself. I don’t always like my body now, even though I’m supposed to be a much wiser. But every time I don’t like it, I stop and tell myself just as I had told the girl, “No bodies are perfect.”
American culture, as in United States culture, is a paradox. It certainly is when you come here as a late teen. On one hand, everything from the food production systems to the media and marketing structures suggests an acceptance of unhealthy lifestyles. On the other hand, there is an expectation that the individual will make good choices in spite of this, without any accountability to the society. And then there is the privileged “purchasing” of health through higher cost food items and lifestyle choices that many do not have access to. But through it all, there is an expectation that the mixed messages of the society will lead people, and especially women, to aspire for the standard of beauty (sometimes promoted as a standard of health), that is deemed acceptable.
You have to be thin but not too thin, lest anyone think you suffer from an eating disorder. And God forbid if you are anywhere close to being considered “fat.” You have to walk this ever-shifting fine line where you are trying to lead a lifestyle that is healthy, but often one that is inevitably also related to how you are perceived in terms of beauty. There is always something to be perfected, always places to lose or gain or sculpt or tone; there is always something that needs to be better, isn’t there? Maybe I should have just taken the girl’s compliment at the gym. But I wanted her to know something more important.
After several athletic-related injuries to my body in the last year and a half which I had never experienced before, I have a different relationship with my body now. I do not wish to abuse it by overworking it to achieve some kind of “look.” And I do not wish to abuse it by not utilizing its capabilities to the best of my ability. I do not wish to treat it like it’s a vehicle where I can go back and forth between the extremes of caring for it one minute and neglecting it, the next. I do not wish to make my body the battleground of society’s unrealistic ideals or its imprudent psychologies. My body is not just my own, and in many senses I can argue that. But if there is something I refuse to let it be – it is the vessel for society’s pleasures and pains.
It’s both unfortunate and lucky that it took particular and (hopefully) temporary imperfections and incapabilities of my body to recognize the importance of one’s relationship to the body, outside of the popular constructs society inflicts on it. I am still recovering from these injuries. And while I sometimes I get frustrated by what my body cannot do (currently) or the physical pains I experience, I recognize too the importance of gratitude to the body, regardless of how yours might function, temporarily or permanently. The body does so much more than we can ever thank it for.
LIke every person and especially woman, I still fall for society’s paradox. Drinking a few glasses too many, picking apart the areas I feel self-conscious about, not always eating as well as I should, etc. But one of the consistent factors of having a healthy relationship with your body is being compassionate to it. Whether it’s compassion for it’s limitations or compassionate in the imperfect choices you sometimes make. Still, compassion, above all, is the name of the game. And along with prudence, paying attention to the individual choices we can make, holding society accountable for its shortcomings, and the ultimate desire to achieve not an arbitrary standard for what one looks like, but an appreciation for the best version of ourselves in accordance with our imperfections, that will allow us to achieve a healthy relationship with our bodies.
I think it all comes down to wrongly perceiving that relationships with our bodies are healthy when when they are deemed beautiful. But in reality every person, regardless of their shape and size feels the brunt of society’s expectations. Perhaps then the reverse is actually what is true: That we feel most beautiful when our relationship to our body is healthy. That, at least can alleviate society’s propensity to equate health and beauty to idealized bodies. Indeed, borrowing words from a poster and making them my own, and like I eventually told the girl at the gym, “As long as you’re treating your body like it belongs to someone you love, your body needn’t be perfect. That aside, perfect bodies simply do not exist.”