‘Love Letters’ is a Petal + Sass blog feature that regularly asks a group of diverse women in their 20’s and 30’s about their experiences with health, sex, emotional wellness, body image, college, careers – and what they wish they had known themselves as teenagers. Visit the ‘Love Letters’ To My Former Self page to learn more about the contributors.
Question Posed: What advice would you give to a girl who looks at her body in the mirror and hates what she sees? Is there any way to feel better about how you look?
Miss CallaLily: I am a logically-minded monster. If it doesn’t make sense it isn’t real. When I looked at my body as a young woman, all I saw was fat legs and squinty eyes, all in a sheet-white sack of a body. Very rarely would someone say something to me that would change that belief in my mind. Here are the things that happened that did:
1. A former lover told me that I had strong legs. This made me realize that the qualities of beauty were not as black and white as “good” or “bad.”
2. Beyonce. I was lucky enough to come of age when a variety of beauty ideals were available. I looked at a woman with larger legs unabashedly be beautiful. I studied the way she and other strong-legged women stood, their posture, the way they carried themselves because by the time I was in my teens, I had no idea how to exist / move / stand like the beautiful person I was. I started wearing skirts at the natural waist, paying attention to tailoring rather than being concerned if my teensy boobs offered cleavage. They won’t ever.
3. I took a fine arts class and learned about perspective. I learned that the closer you are to a thing, the bigger it looks. Period. This made logical sense. Your body looks huge because you are close to it. Physically, emotionally, and psychologically. You are physically incapable of seeing yourself the way you exist – you are too close to it. Letting go of this allowed me to really dive into a commitment to listen to what’s going on inside: I feel best when I am working out every single day. I like eating veggies because they make me wake up alert in the morning. I drink way too much water because otherwise I get headaches. I also need to have a high fat breakfast without grease, (usually a tablespoon or two of coconut oil in my smoothie!) so that I can keep my anxiety down and my mood up. This means my weight will stay the same. Low-fat, low-calorie makes me mean to friends and co-workers, so I don’t diet.
You will not feel better about your body until you hear or see or say something to yourself over and over that makes it feel better. Who knows what that will be – no one. Be open to it when you hear it, though. Allow yourself to take those things to heart.
Miss Peony: My advice would be to surround yourself with different people. I know it can be lonely, but if your choice is being around bad influences or nobody, go with nobody. If you’re friends with people who constantly talk about their waistlines or boob sizes, I mean… you’re never going to feel better about your body if that’s the kind of conversation your hear all day, every day. If anything, it will sneak into your head and become a voice you hear constantly.
The second bit of advice from me is to hone your mind. Read, a lot. Talk about your ideas. Write. Focus your thoughts and your time on being smarter and learning and becoming a better person. Once your mind becomes more important to you than your hair volume, you won’t focus on what’s in the mirror as much.
Finally, I would say to join a team sport. Your health and fitness is really important, and if you can learn that your body is a tool that functions best under certain conditions, you’ll stop seeing is as a purely decorative instrument. When you can run fast, or lift heavy boxes, or feel good in your sports gear, it’s easy to focus more on what you can do with your body rather than what your body looks like.
Miss Rosebud: I think there are two pieces to this pie. Confidence is one half of the pie, and staying in shape and keeping healthy habits is the other. Something that always helps me is remembering that no one gives nearly as much of a damn about you, or thinks nearly as much about you, as you. You might agonize over the fact that you’re up 3 pounds, or that your skin is breaking out, but it is not even a blip on anyone else’s radar. That’s not a reason to throw all effort to the wind, though: Keep it to one cookie, and go for a run every other day. An added benefit of working out is that it actually makes you more confident (clichéd but true). Put some effort into your appearance. Learn how to dress for your figure and wear makeup (but not too much. A caked on face and too much eyeliner looks good on no one, particularly not young girls). And, when all else fails, I always fall back on my mother’s time-honored advice for everything: F*@k ’em!
Miss Bluebells: It’s too easy to say “you are beautiful, don’t listen to what other people say; don’t compare your body to what you see in the media, or to the popular girls at school.” It’s also easy to say “you’ll look back at your body in photos at this age and wish you looked that way again – you were actually beautiful all along.” Then there’s the classic, “beauty is skin deep; you are beautiful within.” The trouble with all of these adages, even if they’re often true, is that it doesn’t take away the pain or shame or inadequacy you feel in the moment when you’re standing in front of the mirror as a teenage girl. The reality is, we all come in different packages, and it’s very rare to fit the mold of skinny and objectively beautiful. So how do you get through each day thinking you’re ugly, or fat, or unworthy?
My only advice is that, no matter what you actually look like, all you can do is try to grapple with your self worth. I know a model – literally a woman who has won a beauty contest in a major city – who sees a therapist because she thinks her body is ugly. I’ve come to understand that physical appearance has very little to do with how you feel about yourself. If this is true – that appearance and self esteem are not necessarily related – then there has to be a way to find peace with your body. Do everything you can do to make that peace: because especially at your age, it can determine the rest of your life. Be the girl who cultivates her interests and chases her dreams. Be the girl who values her health and puts whole foods into her body and stays active, even if it’s dancing in her room at night. Be the girl who sees a life after high school – because life is so much more than body type and clothing once you exit those high school halls.
If you need a plan just to get through tomorrow, or this week or year, just make a promise to yourself to take care of your body one day at a time. Treat it well, make an appointment to see a nutritionist if you need to. Consult with a stylist so the clothes you wear make you feel great at any weight. Talk to a school counselor or therapist or coach about the way you’re feeling. Value your body, and your life, because it’s the only one you have – and it’s constantly evolving.
Miss Hydrangea: Every. Body. Is. Different. Everybody is different. It’s so hard to internalize that. We live in a society that is looks obsessed and at the same time disconnected with feelings associated with our bodies.
It is very “easy” to say that you should accept the body you are in, so if you look in the mirror and you aren’t satisfied — take inventory. Are you eating well? Are you exercising? Are you getting enough sleep? Any responses to either extreme (too much or too little) can cause you to not like what you see. Are you looking at images on tv and thinking your body needs to look like that? Well you don’t know if it’s a personal trainer, personal chef, genetics, or even an eating disorder. What may be healthy for someone else isn’t necessarily healthy for you.
The body I had as a teenager is different than the one I had in my 20’s and is also different from the body I have after childbirth. It’s not perfect. But I have learned to be less critical. Am I healthy? I don’t own a scale. Because it led to a lot of unhealthy behaviors. For me, I remind myself that the way I look is only one small measure of who I am. It is definitely not the most important.
Here’s a great project and an ongoing process to look into to: The Foundation: Love Your Body.