While it’s true that I avoid poppy magazines and other media with their pictures of stick-thin supermodels and perfect hair, I can’t say that I’ve entirely escaped their influences.
True, when I was little my parents did an excellent job surrounding me with books and magazines and movies of substance, where people trafficked in ideas and critical thought rather than weight loss tips and ads for perfect makeup. But when you’re young and you have friends and you’re trying to find your place in the world, of course you start to wonder if it would all be easier if you looked and acted like the people on the covers of those magazines that your parents won’t buy for you. And though now I would never look at a People’s magazine (or whatever) and consciously say “Wow, I wish I looked like that woman,” or “I bet that woman has a way better life than I do,” I know that implicitly, some damage has been done.
It’s in the sneaky way I sometimes wonder if I could be more “fit” (i.e. more thin, the world’s worst association), or the way I wonder if I would be more beautiful if I shaved my legs again. Or the fact that I even think at all that it’s worthwhile to be more beautiful, as though physical beauty itself were a laudable life’s goal.
It’s in the way I sometimes start to measure myself up against other women, either real or imagined, as though there were actually some sort of competition. There isn’t.
But I do have a secret weapon against this sort of bullshit. And that secret weapon is activity. When I am running, when I am biking, when I’m walking through this world, when I can breathe deeply and feel my muscles working flawlessly beneath me, that is perfection. When I can power myself up a hill, my lungs gasping triumphantly at the top, that is beauty. When I feel healthy and capable and strong, I know that I’m just fine, and I don’t need a mirror or the consensus of a whole narrowly-defined-beauty-obsessed society to tell me whether it agrees.
That is what we should talk about instead of body image. A body is not merely something to look at, to be admired. It’s not a static image. It’s something that allows you to be in the world, to travel through the world, to experience and create. It’s something designed to respond perfectly to what you need it to do. It’s meant to do, not simply to be. And when you’re doing, moving, creating, there’s no time and no need to wonder about what you look like.
Whenever I forget this and find myself slipping into gloom about looks, I remember that I need to hop on my bike or pull on my running shoes and reset my conception of what actually matters. This is my secret weapon and my response to superficiality. Move. Do. Pump my legs until they scream, breathe hard, walk through the park and remind myself of all the natural beauty in the world, fall into bed exhausted at the end of a day well spent on what I love.
The antidote to worrying about being beautiful? Being alive.