I recently had the pleasure of having Ellyn, my 2 ½-year-old niece, over for the afternoon. I gave my brother two bags of hand-me-down clothing for her, and Ellyn wanted to have an impromptu fashion show. She fell in love with a lacy number that was a flower girl dress for Mary. I helped her slip into it, and she immediately twirled around in it like the princess she is and then asked to see herself in a mirror.
She looked at her reflection and immediately said, “I am beautiful.” (She really does speak in full sentences and use proper pronouns, and that’s a direct quote.) She also said she would wear this dress for Easter, but I’m pretty sure her mom already has something else picked out for her. Prepare for a toddler-mom showdown!
It was just so, well, beautiful to see her captivated by her own reflection. Only earlier that day one of my best friends stopped by for a visit and brought me a delicious lunch over, and I told her that I immediately lost tons of weight after I gave birth to Charlie, but now I was pretty sure the scale hadn’t budged. (I don’t weigh myself any longer, although sometimes doctors slip up and accidentally tell me my weight or write it down where I can see even though I’ve expressed my desire to not know a specific number given my eating disorder past.) I told her, “But I’m fine with it. I honestly don’t care any longer. I’ve come a long way.”
Most of the time, when we use the word “fine,” we are anything but.
This dear friend has known me through all my struggles – when I was a little girl and teased for being chubby, when I started counting calories and miles in an effort to get thinner and be in control, when I later became bulimic, and then through my quasi-healthy adulthood when I worked on making peace with my body but still from time to time wrestled with wanting to be thinner or fitter or simply faster as a runner – so I’m pretty sure she knew I wasn’t being completely truthful. What’s frustrating is before her visit I actually even told myself: “Don’t bring up your weight or your body.”
Yet, I did and despite my insistence that I don’t care anymore, a small part of me still harbors some shame and feelings of weakness for no longer being a certain weight, although I will give myself some credit: I have indeed come a long way and only have short-lived bouts of body image angst that are usually quickly crowded out by peace and faith and a good dose of healthy self-love.
Still, I had my own fashion show not too long ago when I went shopping with my mom and a birthday girl in the house. I was trying on shorts and was a little surprised that I seemed to have gone up a size. I said something about it in passing, and my mom said, “Oh for goodness’ sake, you just had a baby!”
She then proceeded, as a 60-plus woman, to buy the same size shorts as me, and old feelings of inferiority rushed back. I grew up with a beautiful, thin mother. When I was younger, I actually had a few people say things to me like, “Your mom is so pretty. You must look like your dad.” I never felt as pretty as she was. I was never jealous of her; I was just sad that despite my “great genetics” I couldn’t live up to the “pretty” label. I eventually got over this, and I also grew up and recognized that I was beautiful. Except in the dressing room just a week ago, I was brought back to my childhood when I felt ugly and flawed and anything but pretty compared to everyone else, even my own mom.
When my mom, more recently, had mentioned the fact that I’d just had a baby what she was saying was this: “Be kind to yourself. You just gave birth. Your body does great things. You are beautiful just the way you are.”
But I heard something entirely different. I heard, “Yes, you’re bigger [weaker, not good enough, lazy].”
The other day I put on one of the pairs of “bigger” shorts I bought, and they were very loose. I don’t know if I had just convinced myself that day that I needed a bigger size (shopping in the early postpartum period is never all that fun), or if perhaps my body is continuing to shift and change in the postpartum period. What I do know is it doesn’t matter.
Like Ellyn, I am beautiful. (And so are you.) I’m taking care of myself. No, I can’t go to regular Pure Barre classes like I did during pregnancy because I have a little nursling I’m reluctant to leave. Yes, I’m probably eating more because I’m no longer plagued with nausea every day, and I’m a nursing machine and need extra calories to make that liquid gold. I have entered a new season. Every time I have a baby, it’s a new season. It’s getting to know my postpartum body and self, which always changes slightly after each baby. It’s renewing my promise to be kind to myself and to not let those old demons fully resurrect themselves.
So many of us pursue worldly things that we think will make us more valuable, and many of these pursuits have to do with our physical selves. We’re chronically on diets; we train for 5Ks and then when that feels too easy, we pursue greater distances. Or, we obsessively try to cover up or completely erase the signs of aging. Maybe we don’t go to an extreme (or we don’t think we do; our children and spouses might tell a different story though) but when we notice our reflections, we’re frequently not happy with what we see. We see the flaws – the too thin arms, the too flabby thighs, the stretch marks, the cellulite, the wrinkles and gray hairs… Then we scroll through Instagram or go to the grocery store, and we only notice the more beautiful people of the world instead of recognizing the beauty that lies in each one of us – the beauty that is waiting for us to share with others.
Little Ellyn has it right. She recognizes her beauty – whether she’s in a frilly dress or not. Later that same day, she told me she was cute, and boy, is she! She’s also sweet and smart and full of energy and life. Yes, she delights in what she sees in herself (and that fancy dress!), but she also just delights in life.
Life is good. Yes, indeed.
Love God? Then love your body. Yes, give it the attention it deserves. Fuel it with healthy food. Move it because you can. Don’t let yourself or anyone else take it for granted or abuse it. Because it’s not really yours at all. It’s on loan from your Father.
But also give it kindness, patience, and gentleness. Maybe losing a few pounds would help you to be at a more healthful place or have more energy, but you don’t have to hate yourself until you get there. Who cares if you’ve gone up a clothing size if you’re eating healthy, exercising, and/or getting enough sleep, especially if there’s a very good reason you might have a different body – say, you’re nursing or pregnant or are recovering from a surgery or illness.
“Loving” your body doesn’t mean punishing it for not looking a certain way. Love doesn’t translate to daily, maniacal high intensity interval sessions to negate the calories of the two cookies you ate. Love doesn’t mean you whip your body into submission and make “thin” or “super fit” your standard of happiness with your self. Love doesn’t require you to turn to the number on the scale or on the label of your clothing as a measure of your self-worth and value as a human being. Love isn’t obsessively logging food intake to My Fitness Pal or stepping on the scale multiple times a day. Love doesn’t mean groaning in the critical glow of florescent lights in a fitting room. (I never try swimming suits on in stores anymore. I only order them online and try them on in natural lighting in the comfort of my home. It’s a much more fun experience then! Trust me. Those fitting room lights are awful, flaw-seeking monsters.)
We still have a few more days of Lent. Maybe you’ve given up sweets or coffee. That’s all fine and good. Fasting on food or other worldly things, when approached spiritually, bears much fruit because it helps us to see we only need God. But how about giving up something else in the final stretch? How about fasting on any feelings of unworthiness? As soon as they creep into your mind or your heart, remind yourself: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139).
How about looking in the mirror, and like sweet Ellyn, delighting in what you see and all that you are?