I read a great post the other day about how to talk to your daughter about her body. In a nutshell what it said was: Don’t. Celebrate its strength, work to promote its health, and explain its functions, but skip all the criticism or praise about how it’s shaped. The soundness of this philosophy is backed up by the experience of one of my close friends. Her parents never mentioned her beauty, and because of that, she grew up with a blissful unawareness and lack of concern over her looks. That they happen to be gorgeous is a help, of course, and now she knows she’s considered lovely, but it’s just never been a focus for her. She doesn’t inspire jealousy in friends, doesn’t need attention from men to make her feel worthwhile, and doesn’t spend more than ten minutes at a time styling her hair.
Can you imagine how much hours it would free up, to rarely think about how you look? To concentrate instead about how healthy your choices are, how much energy you have, how wonderfully your body works to keep you active and functioning? For my clients, a hyper-focus on body image leads to two results: spending inordinate amounts of time and resources on keeping it “acceptable,” or giving up altogether and limiting their life in fear of how others will judge them.
Here’s a quick list of what people who are preoccupied with their looks miss out on: Sex. Swimming. Exercise. Enjoying food. Socializing. Buying clothes that fit and flatter them. Being in photographs. Dancing. Attending family functions. High school reunions. Dating. Dining in public. Basically, it’s a laundry list of precisely those active and social pastimes that stave off depression and keep us healthy both physically and emotionally.
Under our worry about our looks is the assumption that everyone—family, friends, complete strangers—are commenting on and judging our bodies for the worse. This is likely created by the awful reality of having family members who criticized our looks as we were growing up, or even family members who remarked positively, but constantly ·(which relates back to that post—just don’t do it). We, especially we women, are taught by society and media and those around us that our looks will be evaluated.
And yet I believe this happens far less often than we think it does. When you go for a walk, are you assessing and criticizing the appearance of everyone you see? Or are you more concerned with your own thoughts, your list of worries, or appreciation of nature, or conversation with a friend? And if you are looking around gauging everyone else’s looks, isn’t it really in comparison to yourself, to make yourself feel better (or, often, worse)?
I don’t believe people care that much about others’ bodies. I think they care far, far too much about their own. Therefore, if we can practice shifting the focus from looks to health, from them to us, from critical to celebratory, we’re doing a favor not just for us, but for everyone around us, and for the generations to come.