Last week, I returned to Austin a whole new me. I left in May to spend the summer in Boston, which meant a couple of months of a new routine. This routine included home-cooked meals from my Guyanese cousin, Soulcycle classes a few times a week, and daily neighborhood walks with my dog. Beginning on my 28th birthday, I became a vegetarian (excluding Sundays). Although this meant a bit more French fries and pizza than I would like to admit, it raised my awareness of what I ate and the effects that food has on my body. This new routine had a major impact on my body, the least bit of which not being the physical. Yes, my tummy is flat, my booty more sculpted and lifted, and my legs even more toned than they already were, and the reactions I’ve received have been favorable. This post is not to talk about how amazing my body looks, it’s to discuss beauty, body image, and the privilege that comes along with looking a certain way.
Zadie Smith made some comments a couple weeks ago that seemed to chastise women who spend too much time in the mirror perfecting their physical appearance. The response to her opinions included those that stated that she spoke from a position of privilege as a lighter-skinned black woman with virtually blemish-free skin. Basically, sure, she can afford to wake up and swipe on some mascara and keep it moving, but for others of us who pay more attention to the finer details, it may take a bit more than 15-minutes. While I agree that I probably wouldn’t be willing to spend more than 15 minutes in front of the mirror to perfect my contour (especially not on a 105-degree summer day in Austin), I also relate to Zadie since speaking on body image is something that I can’t always do because of my own physical privilege.
The responses I receive whenever I post a picture that shows my arms or legs (or God forbid your girl be on the beach in a bikini) are those that remind me that people think that my body is beautiful. And I totally agree! I know that I have sculpted arms and legs that women work very hard in the gym to attain. I know that my stomach is flat, and every once in a while an ab or two may peek through to say “hello.” My physical fitness, attractiveness, or whatever we may call it, puts me in a different position when discussing body image. When I speak to other girls who weigh more, have more defined curves, or have more body fat than I do, my personal physical concerns are often minimized because I’m considered closer to the ideal body for many woman my age. I know this about myself, and I’m sure that Zadie Smith knows this about herself, but does this minimize the validity of our comments when discussing how we as women view ourselves?
Considering one to be closer to some ideal is a dangerous assumption. Ideals are relative, and they can change at the drop of a hat given any trend or influencer’s sudden whim. Think about it, where would the prestige of fame be if everyone could look like a model or celebrity? Look at Instagram- everyone who meets some standard of beauty is out here trying to be seen. The conversations that I’ve had with women reveal a lack of confidence that is based on beauty standards that are simply unattainable for most of us. That being said, as long as beauty standards exist, that privilege will continue to create chasms between those closer to the ideal and those closer to the other end of some invisible binary. And while it doesn’t matter which end you rest on, that really sucks. As much as I love my body, I also know that it comes with lots of compromise, maybe not as much compromise as others, but enough to know that I am not perfect. And, really, who is?
IF WE CONTINUE TO RELY ON OUR ABILITY TO MEET SOME INVISIBLE STANDARD, WE’LL ALWAYS HIT A GLASS CEILING BECAUSE IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO REACH PERFECTION.
We’ve gone from a time when thigh gaps were the thing to have to the big booty being back in season. It’s kind of hard to naturally attain both, people. All I’m saying is that if we continue to rely on our ability to meet some invisible standard, we’ll always hit a glass ceiling because it is impossible to reach perfection. There will always be something about our bodies that we will want to improve, if even slightly. For me, it may be my stubborn lower belly that only I see. For you, it may be getting rid of the love handles on your sides or toning those thighs in an attempt to get rid of cellulite. Instead of nitpicking our every wrinkle and dimple, let’s take a moment to love our bodies.
I know it sounds cheesy, but seriously take a moment to pause and look at your body as it is right now. Take in every line, dimple, wrinkle, stretchmark, mole, scar, and bruise. This is your body as it is. If we spent more time appreciating our bodies here and now, the goals we have for some ambiguous time in the future when it will look different or better, wouldn’t matter. That’s the realization that I had this summer. I, somewhat of a perfectionist, had to remind myself that all of my imperfections were perfect. Instead of wishing for a more toned midsection and hoping for extra weight to fall off, I stood naked in front of the mirror, looked at my body, and appreciated it for what it was. Most women don’t do this enough. We may catch glimpses of it when looking for something specific, but truly looking at ourselves without intention to criticize or critique, but simply appreciate and express love for ourselves- our fearfully and wonderfully made selves- is sometimes all we need.
In June, I took in the 160-lb. frame that stood before me. I appreciated that there was a little pot in my belly- the result of a large bowl of Auntie Jean’s soup I made a routine of eating almost every day after work. I noticed the perfect imbalance of things that came in twos but did not look perfectly identical. I turned around to follow the now very well-healed scar that runs the length of my back (the result of a corrective spinal surgery that I had almost 15 years ago). I straightened my posture so that I rolled my shoulders back, extended my neck, and pushed my chest out, making me appear way more confident than I actually felt. I’ve always loved my body no matter how big or small it got, but I had to purposefully take a few seconds to remind myself of the specific things I love about it. That made the love real, and not just some cliché form of faux confidence because I had nothing to complain about. I did this same thing many times throughout the summer, noticing a transformation each time.
In August, I did it again. My acne and scars from the beginning of the summer had cleared up, the result of living a less stressful life over the past couple of months. Now 10 pounds lighter, I noticed a tighter waist, more toned thighs, and a rounder butt- the result of my taking on a workout regimen that forced me to sweat and overcome hills that I couldn’t face a couple months earlier. I stood taller, with a little smirk on my face that made me mentally tell myself “You’re beautiful.” And while I noticed changes, some things remained- things that are physically impossible to change through diet and exercise, but I smirked at those things, too. It wasn’t about more perfect skin. It wasn’t about a smaller number on the scale. It wasn’t about the way my clothes fit. I was beautiful because I always have been beautiful. Nobody had to tell me that to let me know, I said it and it was so! It shouldn’t have to take work to keep our minds from wandering into those dark places that tell us that we need to strive for perfection. We don’t need to be perfect. We need to, instead, strive to make ourselves healthy, strong, and confident mentally, spiritually, and physically- only then can we consider ourselves to be beautiful.