A few weeks ago I was at a friend’s place and noticed a set of bathroom scales. I haven’t owned scales for years – I gauge my weight by the pants-fitting method. I’ve been feeling a little plump lately so, just for a bit of fun, I hopped on. To my genuine surprise, the scales showed that – despite an extended period of little exercise and lots of wine – I was only about 2kg heavier than when I had felt great about my body, about eighteen months earlier. And I was only about 4kg heavier than when, in the post-partum, breastfeeding, sleep deprived stage of weight loss, I felt like a wraith. 4 kilos from stick insect to hippo?! Ridiculous! But the freaky thing was, when I stepped off the scales and saw myself in the mirror, I looked thinner. Substantially thinner. I had one of those moments of epiphany where you realise something really obvious, but in a visceral way: my perception of my body is All. In. My. Mind.
Since then I have been reflecting on the power of self-talk: how I literally see myself is shaped by how I talk about myself to myself. This explains the futility of telling someone they’re thin when they feel fat – it’s not comforting because it sounds like you’re ‘just saying that’. We’ve all had the conversations:
‘Ugh, my thighs are so big’
‘No they’re not! But I really need to do something about the flab on my arms’
‘What? They’re fine!’
You know how it goes. You walk away still feeling like you have thunder thighs, and your friend walks away still concerned about their batwings, and nothing changes for either of you.
I had a different conversation with a friend, J, the other day. We were talking about our attitudes towards our bodies, and how that changes after having a child, and with age generally. I had to eat some words I had spoken previously: that my body shape didn’t really bother me. I confessed to J that, at the moment, it does. Not hugely, but enough to make me feel self-conscious more often than I like. J told me that her new goal is to view herself with acceptance, and to aim for a healthy body, whatever that may look like. I really like that idea, and it’s what I’m now aiming for as well. My body has certain bulgy bits and certain floppy bits, but they bear witness to my motherhood, and my enjoyment of life. I have given up aiming to be thin and toned (I doubt I will ever feel like those words apply to me!) and have started exercising with a view to being fit and healthy. If I feel comfortable and strong, that’s enough. I don’t yet, but I’m confident that I will. Eventually. I have already noticed a change, though – I actually look forward to exercising now. Those who know me well will realise what a big deal this is! The fact that exercise is no longer something I ‘should’ do, but something I look forward to is a huge shift. Making time to exercise regularly is the next challenge… I’m working on getting better at ignoring my own excuses!
Next time you catch yourself being negative about your body, try to notice the words you are using, and remind yourself how awesome your body is. It gets you through the day, doing all this weird, gross stuff that you don’t even notice. It carries you all around the place and, even though it isn’t perfect, it does a pretty awesome job. Look after it – feed it well and take it for walks, and give it treats and let it rest so it doesn’t wear out too soon. And be kind to it. Try talking to yourself as you would to a friend – acknowledge insecurities, rather than dismissing them – and be mindful of all the things that work, as well as the things you want to work on.
Actually, look… speaking of eating your words, some of the above is overly simplified and optimistic. It’s really difficult to change the way you speak to yourself, because you might not even be aware of it. You might just get a certain feeling when you catch sight of yourself from a particular angle, or when you eat or drink something you told yourself you wouldn’t, or whatever. It’s tricky business, and damn hard work, to notice that – let alone change it. But it’s all just part of a process and we’re all doing the best we can.
People say you are what you eat. I figure if you’re going to eat your words, you might as well eat healthy.