Body Image Struggles: Finding Contentment in the Ups and Downs
Body image struggles and societal pressures about our appearance affects us all. But our joy should not be conditional, based on what we look like or even how we feel.
Although I didn’t plan it this way, it seems fitting to write about body image right after Thanksgiving (lol).
Male or female, young or old, body image struggles and societal pressures about our appearance affects us all.
We could all name at least one thing we don’t like about our bodies. Some attributes we can control while others, like height, are simply fact. When we look in the mirror, it is easier for us to criticize and nit-pick rather than nod in approval, regardless how fit we are.
By now, social media is flooded with discussions about body image and beauty. People spend millions during their lifetime trying to stay youthful.
Some posts and articles are disheartening. We feel like we constantly have to live up to certain ideals while battling thoughts of comparison when we see flawless friends or influencers.
Most discussions are positive and healthy, though, encouraging us not to define ourselves by our appearance alone. But unfortunately, a lot of this verbiage is beginning to sound cliché.
Mantras about being kind to your body and loving yourself are everywhere. People say, “you’re beautiful the way you are” and “your body shape and size doesn’t define you as a person” and, of course, those words are true.
Even scripture reminds us we are made in the image of God, that He only sees our hearts, and our character is the only thing we’re taking with us when we leave this earth.
But as comforting as all those words are, we can still struggle with applying them to our everyday lives. Our human brains still get anxious over how we look and feel and how others might view us.
My Body Image Journey
To be honest, I never imagined I’d be writing about this topic from such a personal level. Up until about two years ago, I was never overly obsessed with my weight or body shape.
I always had an interest in physical exercise and grew up eating a healthy diet. Even when I did gain weight for a season, my metabolism (or perhaps even muscle memory from crucial years in the weight room) burned off the extra pounds eventually. From age 15 to 29, my size range remained consistent.
I had, I suppose, a case of the invincibility complex. With both my parents being thin, I believed my genes would trump anything.
But then, toward the end of 2018, I endured some emotional strains and lifestyle changes.
At the time, Andrew and I had just started dating. Before you jump to conclusions, no, he didn’t cause any emotional damage or hardship. However, we did face anxieties and difficulties while together which ultimately bonded us closer.
Anyway, due to misunderstandings and social rumors, a more demanding role at work, a new relationship, an increase in eating out, decreased activity due to time constraints, mental exhaustion, sleep deprivation, turning 30, and other challenges, my body became unbalanced.
Stress can cause many dysfunctions, both mental and physical.
If you didn’t already know, these are just a few effects chronic stress can have:
· Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and other mental issues
· Joint and muscle aches
· Chest pain
· High blood pressure
· Low energy
· Upset stomach
· Brain fog
· Drastic appetite swings
· Skin and hair issues
· Weight fluctuations
While people might lose weight during a stressful season in life, chronic stress may actually lead to weight gain down the road.
In the long term, spiked cortisol levels can cause adrenal fatigue, or burnout. Eventually, if these hormones and habits are not leveled out, if we don't make a genuine effort to implement intentional rest, these mixed messages can turn our system upside down.
That is my story, anyway.
In about six months, I’d gained 15 to 20 pounds and realized my wardrobe no longer fit me. The clothes once big on me became my staples.
Over the last two years, I’ve tried to do what I know to get back to what I consider my normal. I did lose a little for my micro wedding earlier this year, but the process has otherwise been slow-going.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve overcome or that I don't care. Now that we are closer to 2022, I wish this had the happy ending every infomercial about diet pills and miracle weight loss journeys conclude with.
But the frustrating part isn't that I'm overweight, it's that I don't feel like I'm the best version of myself. The extra pounds have taken a toll on my self-perception and, to be honest, it's shaken my confidence.
This extra weight has caused me to hide behind extra layers. At least, I’ve attempted to.
I was recently approached by an acquaintance who expressed that I looked “uncomfortable” in an article of clothing. They said they would be happy to give me a replacement that might fit me better.
They really did mean well, I know it. They didn’t realize what their words suggested. Nonetheless, it hurt.
Believe me, I know how I look right now. I really dislike taking pictures these days. Most photos I do post are from behind because I feel ashamed at how full my face is.
Bear with me, I know this is not the positive direction you expected. I'm getting there. I’m just being honest because I know I’m not the only one who struggles with body image stress.
As a disclaimer, I’m not saying any of this to dwell on the past, to make excuses, to solicit pity, or to fish for compliments. I don’t need anyone to say, “Oh, but you look fine.” Even if I do in your eyes, my own perception has trouble accepting it.
I guess all I’m saying is, I understand now.
I just never thought it would affect me. I never believed it when people said your body changes at 30. I never wanted to think it would be difficult for me to maintain my average body size.
But there are so many stigmas and biases around weight gain and body image.
For instance, if someone complains about being overweight, we might internally analyze what they eat. Or we might wonder if they ever put effort into exercise.
Until you go through it yourself, you don't realize that telling someone to "eat better" and "get in shape" isn't the only antidote.
Don’t get me wrong. Eating the right food and in the right proportions is vital for our well-being. So is physical activity. (See: creative ways to burn calories here).
But food doesn’t directly make someone fat. In fact, we need food in order to burn fat.
Being in shape doesn’t protect you from weight gain either. We all know someone who has never worked out a day in their lives and yet remains lean. (This is what we like to call skinny-fat). While others might carry more weight and yet can run a mile without sweating.
The point is, sometimes you can do all the right things and still not achieve the right results right away. There are many factors that determine our body changes, and not all of them are in our direct control.
Our bodies are immensely complex. They are also underappreciated for all the beautiful science that takes place beneath our skin.
When something like stress or a trauma shoves just one part of the assembly line out of step, we should intuitively assess our bodies and give them grace to mend. Instead, we often pile on guilt and demand more from ourselves, which only triggers a vicious spiral.
What we must remember is that our body is listening to everything we tell it. Our mental condition is more than half the battle when facing our body image expectations.
How to Change Your Perspective on Body Image
You have probably heard it said that confidence is the most beautiful accessory you can wear.
Even now, I still believe that. I know the weight I’ve gained does not define me. I believe I’ll achieve my weight loss goal when my body is ready, as long as I continue to care for it.
Although my self-esteem is low right now and looking at old pictures can trigger negative thoughts, I have to remind myself that my body image is only a fleeting glimpse of who I am overall.
Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, but we have to stop making the beholder someone else other than our Creator.
In truth, I am so loved. My husband adores me, love handles or not. God is so good to me. I am truly blessed in every aspect.
While it's possible to feel both discouraged and appreciative at the same time, our feelings, while valid, should never be used to tear ourselves down.
If I don’t adjust my own perception of myself, I won’t be able to experience the full joy available to me even in this frustrating circumstance. Our joy should not be conditional, based on what we look like or even how we feel.
All other aspects in our lives should be considered before we judge our progress or become obsessed about our current condition. You owe it to your body and mind to be fair and allow for the ups and downs that come with change.
Finding contentment doesn’t mean settling or giving up. True contentment takes a holistic perspective.
Yes, we should still strive for improvement. But, more importantly, with practice in maintaining the right mental attitude, we can break cycles of shame, guilt, and our own misconceptions about body image.