Is "Always Love Your Body" The Right Message?
by Mia Lazarewicz
Last year, a friend mused to me, “Everyone says you're not supposed to care how your body looks, you're just supposed to care about what it can do. But sometimes your body doesn't do what you want. What happens then?”
It's been on my mind ever since. As a full-time trainer and coach for a dozen years, I've fielded heaps of unexpected questions about bodies. The simplicity of this one was jarring.
“There's always something to love!” I automatically said. But then I didn't have any backup for that. What else is a body besides appearance and action? You can love your soul, but your soul isn't why you hate all the clothes in your closet, nor why you're missing your power clean every time. I tumbled down a rabbit hole of bodily Mad Hatters and psychological March Hares, all with answers like Cheshire Cats—there, and then gone.
The problem wasn't with finding something to love about your body. Loving your body is easy. No matter how you feel about your appearance, there's always something to appreciate about the house you live in. It is an unimaginably complex beehive of biological achievement. Your tiny ear muscles, for example, which not only allow you to hear but can also reflexively detach your eardrum for protection in the event of a catastrophically loud sound. Or your eyelashes, which are programmed to fall out at a certain length before we all start looking like shih tzus. And for sure your immune cells, who are just like your best friends: they hate all the same people you hate and then murder them.
So then I thought the problem might be with how we define performance. Any athlete thinks of performance as primarily PRs and competition results. I wondered if we should be taking a more holistic view of appreciating how your body performs. The sheer human freedom of movement ought to be enough to fuel anyone with gratitude. Four limbs move on command in a 360 degree three-dimensional sphere. Your segmented spine bends, arches, and rotates so that proper thottery may be achieved at any instant. Fingertips are sensitive enough to distinguish a human hair from a mosquito, a grain of sand from a grain of salt. Walking is miraculous, hugs can be life-saving, dancing to your favorite song is pure joy. Our capacity for activity is limitless. Having an injury shouldn't even be a blip on the self-esteem radar because of how many other astonishing things we can do. So it should be easy to always love what your body is doing.
It should be easy. But it isn’t. Women are drowning under the pressure of even being in their bodies, let alone walking around in them. Yet our bodies are, objectively, breathtaking.
What's the problem?
It took me months, but I finally realized why I was stuck.
The problem isn't finding ever more things to love about yourself.
The problem is being told that you have to.
Always love your body. That's what they tell us now. Always love your body. Seems like the right message, but is it? I couldn’t answer my friend’s question because my approach to it was wrong. “There's always something to love!” I argued. I didn’t know it at the time, but this argument compounds the problem. It's the word always. We don't always love how we look, and we sure as shit don't always love how we move. So if at any point we feel disappointed by our bodies—in the face of a global message to do the opposite—self-love becomes just another thing we've failed at. Somehow this intended message of empowerment can leave us feeling completely worthless.
Telling us to always love our bodies is just another way of teaching women to require perfection in themselves. The only thing that could be loved all the time is a perfect thing. Everything else has flaws. There isn’t anything on the planet that any of us unconditionally loves all the time, and we should be allowed to include our own damn bodies on that list.
Let’s look at it a different way. I love macaroni and cheese more than I could put into words. At the base, it's pasta and cheese, which are awesome ingredients. But the dish can still turn out oily, tasteless, or grainy. I can love macaroni and cheese and not love it all the time. The problem with this message to women is that it doesn't distinguish between loving yourself at your base and loving yourself in your present form. You can admire your central ingredients and also feel disappointed in your current level of graininess.
The Cheshire Cat tells Alice, “I knew who I was this morning, but I have changed a few times since then.”
This is the kind of model I want (also he just ups and leaves conversations whenever he gets bored of them and I’m here for that too). There’s nothing wrong with wanting to change some aspect of your appearance, and there's nothing wrong with feeling disappointed in a workout or performance.
It doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad feminist to feel dissatisfied with yourself. There’s a reason that You Look Like A Man resonates with so many women. The entire planet wants us to take their advice about our bodies, and that includes their advice to love ourselves constantly. But the whole point of body positivity isn't self-love or bust. It’s that you get to decide for yourself how to feel about yourself.
Perfection is a stagnant concept. By definition, it's supposed to stay exactly as it is. Humans aren't stagnant. If all we’re supposed to do is think that we’re perfect, we’re bound to keep feeling disappointed. So you’re unhappy with your appearance or you’re unhappy with your performance. Okay. What happens then?
I should have told my friend: Anything you want. Because once you decide that you don’t have to simply accept everything with a smile, once you decide that it’s ok to want change, you’ll be able to take a step towards what you need to love yourself better.
Not love always. Just love better.
Mia Lazarewicz (@thebossiraptor) is a full-time trainer and coach, lifelong gymnast, and two time American Ninja Warrior. She's working on her first book (a training manual for beginners) and volunteers teaching English as a Second Language to immigrants.