Thursday, November 29, 2012

Learning To Love My Muffin Top (okay, maybe not loooooove . . . )

 This photo is of me at about 7 or 8 years old. When I look at this picture, my brain barely registers my silly smirk, the way I am looking confidently right at the camera, or my jaunty pose.  All I see is my muffin top.  This picture was taken right around the time my gymnastics coach told me that I would never be truly competetive as long as I had a fat belly. That one statement has played over and over in my head for the last 30 years. It has changed many times: you won't win dance competitions if you have a fat belly, boys won't like you if you have a fat belly, students aren't going to listen to you if you have a fat belly, your husband won't stay faithful to you if you have a fat belly. The bottom-line message I have been repeating to myself most of my life is that it doesn't matter how smart, loving, fun, accomplished or healthy I am-- I CANNOT consider myself successful if I don't have a perfect body. I realize that my a-hole coach is not entirely responsible for this tape that loops through my head. In our society, we are constantly bombarded by the media and the people around us with the message that our appearances are the most important and defining aspect of our selves (especially for women). Welp, I'm shutting off the tape. I'm making a conscious decision to change my internal dialogue and to contribute positively to the way the people around me feel about their own bodies. To that end I will remember the following lessons.

1. What I say tells my kids how to think about their own bodies and the bodies of the people they love. My daughter is almost 8 years old (same as me in that pic) and we jokingly call her my mini-me. So when I look at this picture, I think of how her experiences right now could shape who she is and how she thinks about herself for the next 10, 30, 50 years. I want her to always know that what she does is much more important than how she looks. That being healthy, smart, kind, loving, resilient, determined and courageous will be the keys to her success. I also want my son to grow up believing that women should be respected and valued for who they are rather than their waist or bra size. If I spend all day talking about how I wish I had a flat stomach or bigger boobs, my children will learn that my physical imperfections are more important than the fact that I am a healthy, happy, and sucessful wife, mother and business woman.

2. What I say tells my friends what I value and can make them feel bad about their own bodies. Sometimes, we try to make our friends feel better by putting ourselves down. Have you ever been part of a conversation like this:

Friend 1:"God, I hate my muffin top."
Friend 2:"Are you kidding? It's barely even noticeable. At least you've got great legs; look at my thunder thighs!"

Now TWO people feel crappy about their bodies! A recent study conducted at Mount Allison University in Canada and published in the research journal Sex Roles, found that after women had a conversation about their bodies with other women, they felt worse about themselves. The researchers believe that when a woman criticizes her own body, she is effectively saying to her friend, "The way my body looks is very important to me and if it is not perfect, then it is unacceptable. Therefore, the way your body looks is also important and if it is not perfect, then you are also unacceptable." I like my friends. I know some really awesome women. The last thing I want to do is make them feel less amazing than they are.

Interestingly, the same study showed that when women talked about exercise, they ended up feeling BETTER about their bodies. So stop comparing body parts and start talking about the Zumba class you're going to take, or how strong your legs are getting in Strength and Stretch, or how flexible you're becoming from taking Yoga, or how your body just made an entire human being from scratch and then pushed it out! If you have to talk about your body, talk about what it can DO and not how it LOOKS.

3. Negative thoughts reinforce neuronal pathways that make me feel bad. By the same token, talking kindly to myself creates new, feel-good pathways. When we learn something new, a new neuronal pathway is created. Every time we rehearse this information the pathway is strengthened. When my coach made his comment about my body, a new pathway was created. For the last 30 years, every time I complained about my muffin top out loud or in my own head, I've strengthened the pathways to those negative thoughts and feelings. It's become automatic that when I look in the mirror, I feel dissatisfied and upset. But if I stop myself, and rehearse positive messages, I can rewire my brain. So instead of berating myself, I will find good things to say about my body. 

My body can:
1. Lift my children into a tree
2. Carry heavy objects and move furniture
3. Coach my son's soccer team
4. Show my daughter how to do a cartwheel (pointed toes and all)
5. Do crazy-fun stuff like take a flying trapeze class
6. Take hikes and explore nature with my family
7. Walk with friends
8. Engage in a career that I absolutely LOVE!
9. Hug my family and friends

What's on your body-loving list?