Yesterday, I attended a few sessions at the BodyLove conference in Tucson. The event is billed as “a progressive, positive, high-energy event where participants can celebrate and inspire each other and themselves to change the world, and love their bodies.” And it was! Wow. Rarely have I seen such a diverse, welcoming group of people with such a deliberate focus on inclusivity. Rock on!
There were lots of interesting sessions (of which I sadly attended only a few) on topics including disability, self harm, surviving breast cancer, yoga, burlesque, masculinity, gender transition. . . lots.
But the overall ethos of the conference, influenced strongly by the ideas of its founder Jes Baker, is about accepting one’s body as it is. This inevitably comes with conversations about weight, food, and the cultural ideals of thinness, fitness, and beauty. The message comes across as something like “it’s ok to be fat, you are beautiful as is, and f#&* haters. Ok, I’m with you so far. Getting away from shame and fear is absolutely key to being healthy. But I start to get a little confused when the message veers into dismissing the practice of caring for one’s body through thinking about what we eat and how we move. I don’t know if my belief in caring for the body through pursuing maintaining fitness is influenced by my training as a nurse, or by something else, but this particular manifestation of body love seemed absent from the conversation. Perhaps this is a reaction to a general damaging cultural presentation of “fitness” around being thin (look at shape, self, or women’s health— weight loss, skinny girls, and make up, oh my!), and I get that. But it’s too bad if the solution is to leave it out. When an event dedicated to loving the body hands out donuts, but no other options, are we doing our best? Can we talk about caring for the body as well as the mind and the self-image without triggering self-hatred in people (especially young women)? Can we talk about eating well, moving well, and feeling well as paths to strength without talking about getting skinnier?
While I struggle with how to think about and answer these questions, I’m so, so glad that I have been challenged to think about them. I’ve always been reasonably fit myself, and I’ve always been tall, long-legged, and thin(-ish). While I have had moments of body dissatisfaction (mostly as a teenager), I have not felt the same things that many of the women who spoke at this event did. I’m in my 30’s now. I run, I practice yoga, I dance, I have sex, and I don’t think about my appearance all that much. Some of this is wisdom that comes with age, some is privilege that comes from having a “favored” body type, some has come through hard work. But I know this acceptance I feel for my body is not free, and it’s not universal.
I see a lot of people in clinical practice who want advice on what to do with their bodies. Even though I generally think I give advice from a place of acceptance and focus on health rather than appearance, I could use the reminder that this is a fraught place for the majority of people, and it’s all too easy to forget about the fragility of self-image in the face of what feels like criticism. I might suggest that you exercise more, or that you make some changes to your diet. I see that this could sound dangerously like advice that you’d see on a magazine cover along with “10 ways to lose 10 pounds this week!”. But I don’t tell people they should exercise because they’re fat or that that should lose weight because they’re fat. Yes, it is possible to be both fat and fit. Weight isn’t necessarily indicative of a pathological state. It’s not about your size. But your level of fitness and strength can and does affect how you feel and how your body ages and whether you develop some kinds of disease. Yet— body fitness can’t be some holy grail that we insist on pursuing no matter what it does to the rest of the self. I think these pieces need to be balanced, and for some people, maybe the balance starts with accepting a body regardless of fitness. Maybe that acceptance is more important sometimes.
This topic require more thought, and more listening, and more talking. I know I haven’t got a perfect approach, and I know I maybe never will. But I’m listening.