Some people don’t like Valentine's Day. They feel pressure to be in a relationship, or to accomplish a big, romantic gesture. Actually, the most important relationship you’ll ever have is the one with yourself.
As Oscar Wilde wrote, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” So might I suggest that this year you reframe Valentine’s Day to be about loving yourself. At first glance, focusing on self-love might seem selfish or entitled. However, self-loathing is a real epidemic in our culture, and we can’t love others more than we love ourselves. Some might argue that they love their children more than they love themselves. However, modeling self-loathing to our children is not a loving act. If we despise certain qualities in ourselves, that will naturally extend to others who display the same qualities. In order to be our best in all our relationships, we must develop a good relationship with ourselves. So I like to spend a little time each Valentine’s day, wooing myself and reminding myself that I am worthy!
One of the foremost experts on worthiness is Brene Brown. She has done years of qualitative research on wholehearted living. We all want to experience love and belonging, but before we can, we must believe we are worthy of love and belonging. Not at some future point when we’ve lost 20 pounds, or when we get it all together, but right now, just as we are. She says, “It’s about waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.’”
One of the biggest barriers to worthiness, according to Brene Brown, is “shame.” She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame is different from guilt. Feeling guilty can be uncomfortable-- we realize we did something bad-- but it can motivate us to apologize, make amends and change our behavior in the future. Shame is when we feel like we are bad. (The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown) It does not lead to productive outcomes, but rather to self-destructive behaviors like defensiveness, aggression, depression and addiction.
We all experience shame, but our reactions to it may vary. There are 3 common reactions to shame (Dr. Linda Hartling at Stone Center, Wellesley). Sometimes we “move away”-- by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Other times we “move toward” -- by seeking to appease and please. Or we may “move against” -- by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame. All of these strategies, however, move us away from the love and belonging we seek. The way to combat shame is to bring it out of the shadows. Shame cannot survive in the light. When we share our mistakes with others, who have earned our trust and with whom we feel safe, not only does our own shame lessen, but we inspire others to be vulnerable with us and to face down their own.
The ability to face our shame, and move through and past it, is called “shame resilience.” In order to cultivate shame resilience, we must learn to recognize shame when it happens. Learn your physical symptoms-- dry mouth, time slowing down, tunnel vision, hot face, racing heart. When you recognize you are in the midst of shame, pause and “reality-check” the messages and expectations that are causing you to feel shame. We don’t have to buy into the messages that society and others are sending us about how we “should” be. We don’t have to believe that being imperfect means we are inadequate. Then, speak about your shame -- call it by it’s name-- with a person you trust. Contrary to what you might expect, sharing your shame won’t make you unloveable. It will deepen your relationship with your confidant. We relate through our struggles and common human experience.
Another barrier to worthiness is perfectionism. (The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown). Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. It is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. To the contrary, perfectionism actually increases the odds that we’ll experience painful emotions. Perfectionists, as children, were often praised for achievement and performance-- grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, etc. The message was “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.” (The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown). So we seek perfection in order to earn approval and acceptance. Perfectionism can lead to “life-paralysis,” in which we miss opportunities because taking risks means we might fail and our self-worth is on the line. However, we are setting ourselves up for failure, because perfectionism is not an attainable goal. Perfectionism doesn’t only affect oneself. It is passed down to our children. It affects the people we work with as we impose unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others. It keeps us buried in shame. Luckily, as we develop our own self-compassion and authenticity, that is also catching.
The antidote to perfectionism is similar to that of shame. All we have to do is acknowledge our vulnerabilities, and talk about them honestly, with the knowledge that we are doing the best we can. We can act like we’re fine with our imperfections (dirty house, lack of knowledge, mistakes) until one day we find that we actually are okay with our messy, imperfect self! As we develop this self-acceptance and self-compassion, we will no longer have to engage in the constant hustle for worthiness that consumes and exhausts us.
I cannot write an article on self-love without addressing body-image. I am not here to tell anybody what their natural body shape or size is, or whether their weight is affecting their health. Obviously, it is important to have a healthy diet, with room for the occasional treat, and some type of regular movement that suits you. But what if you do all this, and your body still doesn’t fit the narrow definition of what is acceptable?
There is not one among us who has not experienced self-loathing of some aspect of our body. We seek comfort or control through what we eat or choose not to eat. If we add up the amount of time we engage in negative self-talk or negative feelings about our body in our lifetime, we would cringe. Even as we are consumed by it, we regard this obsession as petty and embarrassing. Perhaps the fact that we view it as petty and embarrassing is symptomatic of the problem. The idea that our “weight struggle” is trivial, when it is universally held by all women in our culture, serves to negate our experience as women. (Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness by Kim Chernin.)
It is hard not to be obsessed, when the world is filled with reminders that we are not as slender as the women on the magazine covers. The media presents an impossible ideal, which leads to suffering. We often start the day or our work-out convincing ourselves that we just want to be healthy, and that it is love of our body that inspires us to great lengths. But it doesn’t take long before our mind wanders to self-criticism and judgement. We experience our mind and body as separate entities. It is the mind’s task to control the unruly and despised body. At the same time, we seek comfort from food -- companionship, reassurance, a sense of warmth and well-being that is sometimes hard to find in our own lives. Our emotional state fluctuates with our weight. We are happy and elated when in our “skinny” clothes. However, there is something precarious about this false sense of well-being. The overwhelming majority of people who lose weight, gain it back. Then, of course, we can no longer bear to look at ourselves in the mirror. What kind of solution is it to make one’s acceptance of oneself dependent upon the losing of weight that may not remain lost? (Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness by Kim Chernin.)
Who made up this ideal for women which causes us to self-loathe? We are not born into this quest for a type of perfection that is unattainable. As babies and children we once delighted in our bodies, fascinated with our toes and our flesh. We were curious and held no judgement. Further proof that the quest for the ideal body is not inherent but imposed, is the fact that the “ideal body” changes over time. In other time periods, like the 19th century, the beauty ideal was large women with full hips and thighs-- soft, sensual and inviting. A good question to ask if we seek to uncover who is imposing this ideal is, “Who is making the money?” Dieting and exercise are a multi-billion dollar industry. Our discomfort with how we look fuels purchases of clothes, makeup, books, foods, drinks, supplements, health club memberships etc. It is about power, in the form of money and control. Ask yourself, “Who wants to keep us under control?”
“A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.” - Naomi Wolf
Even as we struggle as women in this culture, we long to fully embrace our bodies and appetites. I remember watching the Gilmore Girls and loving the scenes involving food-obsessed Lorelai and Rory, as they binge-watched movies and allowed themselves to eat all their favorite foods! When you see someone who has let go of a strict diet and seems to just enjoy a treat without anxiety before, or guilt after, it’s as if you can almost taste their liberation! I remember being so inspired by a friend who decided to quit killing herself in the gym and exercise classes, and embrace her home yoga practice and gentler movement. She had an epiphany that she had been working exceptionally hard to make a tiny change that could only barely be noticed when her clothes were off. She gave herself permission to lead a healthy, balanced life and then accept the shape of her body as it naturally is.
I was also inspired by my friend Lauren King, whose New Year’s Facebook post a couple years ago shouldn’t have been as radical as it was. She wrote, “My resolution last year was to get fat, to once and for all let go of this silly notion that the purpose of life is to be skinny. So I vowed to start enjoying life and use this short time on Earth to experience more pleasure and stop devoting so much brain power and emotional and physical energy into something so trivial as being skinny. It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve made significant progress in being true to myself. I’ve learned not to abandon myself. I’ve learned how to listen when I’m hungry and actually eat, instead of denying myself precious energy. Everyday I feel better in my own skin. When thinking about my resolutions for this year, I wanted to think of the best ways to free myself from the prison of the overculture. The overculture says women should be small and they should be quiet. So this year, I’m going to be louder. I’m going to piss more people off. And when I see someone stuck in the status quo, Imma say what I see. I’m gonna be so honest and not just quietly honest. Honest and loud. Consider yourself warned.”
As we realize that the problem is not with our body, but with our attitude about our body, we take back the right to decide how our bodies should look. We can choose our own individual aesthetic according to optimal health and our unique bodies. We can celebrate slim bodies on women who are meant to be slim and celebrate round bodies on women who are meant to be round! We can look for examples of this new aesthetic in life and in art. And when we are faced with a message that makes us feel less-than, we can practice critical awareness. We can reality-check the messages and expectations that drive our inner voices. Is what I’m seeing real? Do these images convey real life or fantasy? Do these images reflect healthy, wholehearted living, or do they turn my life, my body, my family and my relationships into objects and commodities? Who benefits by my seeing these images and feeling bad about myself? Spoiler alert: This is always about money and/or control. (Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness by Kim Chernin.)
We can then begin to see ourselves as a whole, rather than just parts. We see what is really there, rather than what we think should be there. We can embrace our daily, monthly and lifelong cycles and their effects on our body. During our menstrual cycle, our body gets fuller. Emotions flow and we have more of an appetite. During childbirth, our bodies grow fuller, our hips grow larger, and our breasts become heavier. As we approach menopause, we grow more ample than we were before-- we are deepened by life and broadened by experience.
Once we have embraced these natural cycles, perhaps we can reconnect with the joy of eating. We can let go of the fear that causes us to obsessively count calories or go hungry. As we take pleasure from our plate and our hunger, we may find that food will actually satisfy us. But what about health? Again, I acknowledge that making healthy food choices is important to the health and longevity of our body. We thrive when we seek whole, nutrient dense foods rather than fast foods. As we heal the disconnect between our body and our soul, we will be able to eat more intuitively, listening to our body’s signals about what is good for it and what should be avoided. Of course, we must allow for treats now and then! But what happens when we eat a relatively healthy diet and are still considered “overweight?” Health risks of being overweight is the main argument in our culture that keeps us from the last step toward body acceptance. I cannot tell you if your weight is a healthy weight for your body. But I can tell you that many many women who are at perfectly healthy weights still have disdain for their bodies and obsess about food.
I can also tell you that some of the health arguments may not be as valid as you think. The medical profession rarely tells us about the dangers of dieting to excess, or losing weight too fast, or the side effects of chronic dieting or surgical procedures. However, the risks of being overweight are accepted without question. Dr. Andres, a professor at Johns Hopkins and Clinical Director of the National Institute on Aging did a 14 year study on 1,233 people and found that the lowest mortality rates occurred among those who were 24-38 percent “overweight” as defined by statistical charts. The desirable weight if you want to live longer has been underestimated. Dr. Ancil Keys, Professor Emeritus of Physiology at the University of Minnesota found that in the absence of high blood pressure, being overweight is not a significant health risk factor. This sounds like crazy talk! But read on.
Dr. Margaret MacKenzie studied attitudes of various cultures on the body. She studied Western Samoa, where the inhabitants are much larger, even considered “obese” by our society’s standards. There is no social stigma attached to large bodies in Samoa, and they move with ease, dance without shame, and fully inhabit their bodies. These women of Samoa do not suffer from heart disease or high blood pressure. Even when they migrate to the US, only 3 out of 100 immigrants weighing two hundred pounds or more showed any signs of hypertension. This raises the question… is it the fact of being heavy that causes these symptoms, or could it be the experience of being stigmatized? It is safe to say that although some percentage of the health-effects observed in people who are “overweight” in our culture are related to the weight itself, some percentage is also the result of the shame, anxiety and stress we carry about our weight? So why not spend at least equal time and attention on our attitude as we do on our weight?
Loving ourselves as we are, and accepting our bodies as they are, does not mean that we stop taking action towards self-improvement. The fact is, that real lasting change does not come from self-loathing, but from self-acceptance. The more we embrace who we are in this moment, and the more we love ourselves, the more we will make healthy choices in our lives, in our relationships, and for our bodies. If you are ready to practice the radical step of loving yourself just as you are, accept the following call to action from Brene Brown, and from me:
“This is your invitation to join the Wholehearted revolution. A small grassroots movement that starts with each of us saying ‘My story matters because I matter.’ A movement where we can take to the streets with our messy, imperfect, wild, stretch-marked, wonderful, heartbreaking, grace-filled and joyous lives. A movement fueled by the freedom that comes when we stop pretending that everything is ok when it isn’t. A call that rises up from our bellies when we find the courage to celebrate those intensely joyful moments even though we’ve convinced ourselves that savoring happiness is inviting disaster. Revolution might sound a little dramatic. But in this world, choosing authenticity and worthiness is an absolute act of resistance. Choosing to live and love with our whole hearts is an act of defiance. You're going to confuse, piss off and terrify lots of people, including yourself. One minute you’ll pray the transformation stops, and the next minute you’ll pray that it never ends. You’ll also wonder how you can feel so brave and so afraid at the same time. You’ll feel brave, afraid, and very, very alive.” Welcome to the revolution.
** (For further reading, check out “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown, and “Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness” by Kim Chernin. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)