New contributor and former Chalkboard staff member Katie Horwitch is preaching up that body positive message we love from a new pulpit: WANT: Women Against Negative Talk. In this personal essay, Katie hones in on an all-too-true reality about our own body image. Read it through and overcome the urge to compare yourself with that unobtainable woman: your past self.
One of the little details I love best about my life is that my parents still live in the house I grew up in. My room is practically untouched from the time I was a teenager – photographs and books stacked up on my desk from when I moved home my senior year of college. All my things are right where I left them, the magazine cut-outs and quotes still taped up to my walls and cabinet doors. The Beatles poster still hanging to the side of my bed as a reminder of my classic rock roots.
My closet is also fairly unchanged.
I used to have this weird ritual when I came back home of going into my closet and trying on clothes from years, even decades back, just to see if they still fit. The words of magazines and role models would echo in my ears; about women getting back to their “high-school weight” or fitting into the jeans they wore when they were 16. Every adult woman in my life at one point or another wished out loud to have their “best body” back. Getting older came to mean getting bitterly nostalgic and insufficient.
I figured that as long as I was always approximately the same size, I could avoid the diet campaigns, the negative self-image, and moreover, the self-imposed stigma of not remaining the same size as when I was apparently “at my best.”
We talk about how we’re affected by media images and how we compare ourselves to others…but how about the way we compare ourselves to ourselves?
When it comes to body image and, dare I say it, body satisfaction, many times we base our opinions on either what we’ve looked like in the past or what we hope to look like in the future. We view our bodies as a constant companion, and any deviation is almost like a betrayal. We view times in our lives as being “at our best” and other times as having “slipped up.” I know I’ve done it – not just my sixteen-year-old self, but coveted that 23-year-old body that I now view as myself at my best.
What’s crazy is that very few times during those years did I actually see myself in that way. And it started young. When I was 13, I wished for the body I had at 11. When I was sixteen I coveted that 13-year-old frame. And when I was 23, I grappled with the fact that my 21-year-old body was unhealthily “healthy” on the inside, yet what I thought looked pretty fab on the outside, and that I missed that.
On the flipside, each of those ages brought its own set of hopes and wishes. When I’m 11, I’ll look grown-up. When I’m 13, I’ll fill out dresses. When I’m 16, I’ll be a few inches taller. When I’m 23, I’ll be fitter. When I’m 26, I’ll finally lose this baby face. And so on, and so on, and so on…
Rarely do we see our beauty and so-called “perfection” in the moment. No matter what we look like, there will always be something better, something sparklier, something more prefect than who we are now. I look at photos of my 23-year-old self and can’t imagine why I ever wanted to look any different. I want to shake that girl and say, You are literal perfection, baby! What are you thinking? Why can’t you see that?!
But I know my 23-year-old self would smile, hug me, kindly thank me, then put herself down. Because ultimately, perfection is subjective. Because ultimately, what has-been in the past and what could-be in the future are usually more sparkly in our mind’s eye than what is – in the present – right here in front of us.
It’s not really fair to say it’s “bad” to covet another shape, size,or incarnation of ourselves – we’re only human. But whereas we’re often looking to a past or future version of ourselves to guide how we feel about our body, I think it’s more productive and powerful to look at our present self and ask how we can be the very best version of where we’re at right now.
Not only do our bodies change with time, sometimes by the month – hello, hips! – but our lifestyles change as well. Location, occupation and even sleep patterns can affect our bodies on a profound level. We have kids. We change jobs. We shift obligations. Life happens
Health and self-care should always be our number one priority – because only when we take care of ourselves, are we able to take care of everything else. Yet not all of us can walk to and from work, or spend 60 minutes at the gym, or home cook every meal in balanced nutritional ratios.
But we can do the very best with what we’ve got.
What I usually don’t remember about my 23-year-old bod, and 23-year-old self, are the months of bank overdraft upon bank overdraft because I was only just making enough money to survive. What I don’t remember are the exhaustingly long shifts at the yoga studio I worked at, walking in and out and in and out, then cleaning the entire place after. I don’t usually think about the excess of time I had or the lonely moments of not really feeling like I had a group or person like I thought I was supposed to have. Basically, I don’t remember that I had a lot less that I genuinely cared about.
Now, my life looks a lot fuller. And my body reflects that – the good and the bad. It reflects the stress of a very long daily commute. It reflects the workouts that are shorter and more intensely interval-driven instead of longer and more steady-state. It reflects healthy, loving relationships and a self-respect I just didn’t have at a younger age. I know that my body will not look like it did when I was 23, because my life does not look like it did when I was 23. And I don’t want it to. Because I love my life now.
We think our bodies are turning against us, but maybe we’re the ones turning against our bodies. We’re holding ourselves to a standard that was never really the standard at all. We’re reminiscing about how we think things used to be instead of embracing how we know things are now. Essentially, we’re making decisions to shape our lives and blaming our bodies for going along for the ride.
I spent a recent weekend at my parents’ house, in my old room. And instead of trying clothes on to gauge how much I needed to “work on,” I did something drastic – I tried on what I thought I might want to keep, and threw what didn’t fit in a pile to donate. Which, by the way, was pretty much all of it.
I knew I was throwing away dresses I’d loved and tops I still wished I could wear, but I was also throwing away a barometer for “success” that no longer served me and frankly, never did.
Next time you find yourself wishing for your 13-, 16-, 21-, 23-, 28-, 34-, 48-year-old body, do this exercise:
– Remember what that time was like. For better or worse.
– Remember what this time is like. For better or worse.
– Ask yourself one question: How can I do my best with what I’ve been given?
Then go clean out your closet to make space for the present.