By Charlotte Oldbury
Have you ever looked back at photos of yourself from years ago and thought, “I wish I still looked like that. And why was I complaining about my body then??” We all do it. We look back and see things as they were, that old 20/20 hindsight. Then we turn to the mirror and start the process all over again. We pick ourselves apart, hiding behind the guise of a desire for self-improvement while totally overlooking the good that already exists. That need to better ourselves turns to more self-deprecation than self-analysis. So how do we get out of the cycle?
Honestly, it’s not easy. Some blame society for setting guidelines for how we should look. Others blame some seemingly broken part within themselves. The truth is, we are responsible for conquering our own thoughts, controlling our own emotions, loving ourselves as we are. So here’s how I figured that out for myself.
First, some background: I married my high school sweetheart when I was 20 years old. I was confident in my relationship, comfortable in my skin and ready to take on the world. I looked forward to having a family and experiencing all the joys of adulthood with the man of my dreams, dreams which included having two daughters and two sons--so each would have a playmate, of course.
Several months after we married, Michael and I took a weekend getaway to San Antonio, Texas. We stayed at a beautiful hotel with a balcony room overlooking the Riverwalk. Evening strolls, a gondola ride through the water and a romantic dinner in a restaurant atop a needle were interrupted occasionally for camera captures with 35mm film. No digital, phone selfies. These were the “point and shoot and hope to heaven the pictures didn’t come out blurry” days. They often did. When the developed prints arrived in the mail, yes as in postal mailbox, the pick apart process would begin. Why didn’t my husband/photographer see what a terrible angle that was and change my pose? Why didn’t I realize my thighs looked so thick in those shorts? Why did I wear that horribly unflattering top??
Ten years, three daughters and no sons later, I found myself looking through the photos of that San Antonio trip. I recall thinking to myself, “I should’ve been happier with me back then. I would love to be her right now!” Sure my thighs were a little thick but my hair was so long, my face so youthful, my skin so…..wrinkle-less. My body was my own and so was my time. At 30, I had three daughters to care for, a marriage to nurture, a household to maintain, stretchmarks galore and wrinkles beginning to appear. Having my 20-year-old body back would’ve been a dream come true.
Jump forward another ten years and that 40th birthday was looming. I hadn’t been particularly excited about turning 30 years old so I was even more apprehensive and unenthusiastic about being “Over the Hill”. More sagging, more aches and pains, more wrinkles, and more photos to remind me of the body I was continually losing. To go back to my 30-year-old body would’ve been the best birthday gift.
Well, you know that didn’t happen. We don’t get to travel back in time or turn back the clock but when I turned 40, I began a journey of giving myself the greatest gift of all: self-acceptance. Here’s how:
Exercise. The human body is absolutely incredible. The fact that it self-heals has always amazed me. We get a cut or a scratch and our skin closes back up, sometimes without even a scar. We fracture a bone and it reconnects, usually stronger than before. We push our bodies to do more and it finds a way to adapt to the increased demands, eventually more efficiently than in the beginning. Our bodies are extraordinary. Not only has this body of mine given birth to three little humans, it has allowed me to experience so much life and so much joy. At 40 years old, I decided to hire a personal trainer, set some specific time-sensitive goals and go to work. At 40 years old, my body was allowing me to build muscle, to gain strength, to do amazing things I’d never done before. At 40 years old, I found myself part of Dymatize, one of the oldest and largest supplement companies in the fitness industry, a sponsored athlete who was preparing for a bodybuilding competition. At 40! Today, at 45 years old, I’ve completed more than 15 bodybuilding competitions in the bikini division including three at the national level. My body has changed so much as I’ve trained and pushed it to new limits. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. There’s no such thing. But that physical activity does something for your spirit. Something about doing a little good for yourself makes any bad just fade. It also helps to put things into perspective. For instance, these stronger arms now get to cradle my granddaughter. These stronger legs now get to run with her and play on the floor. This stronger body now gets to continue to travel and see more of the world. The stretchmarks and cellulite and sagging skin still exist but either they’ve improved or I’ve learned there’s more to life. Probably both.
Refocus. When I looked through those old photos, I saw the good things I’d taken for granted. But then those same eyes would dissect my current reflection. The problem wasn’t in the pictures or in the mirror. The problem was in my perspective, my focus. As we spend more and more time on social media, we compare ourselves with perfectly filtered, perfectly retouched, perfectly edited images of the people and pages we admire. We accept those images as the new standard for how we should look. We know better but in those moments, we’ve lost focus on reality. When we pause and assess what we are viewing, we can appreciate the beauty of the images while understanding they are enhanced. Athletes have stretchmarks. Men and women have stretchmarks. Supermodels have cellulite. We know these facts but through the screens of our smartphones, we forget to focus on that reality and we judge our imperfections against altered photographs. Refocus on the truth.
Be kind. Would you walk up to a stranger and criticize their appearance? Of course not. Life dictates a level of etiquette and the majority of society abides by that. We speak in courteous tones and use polite words. Unfortunately, most people reserve such kindness for everyone except themselves. Since we spend more time awake than asleep and since conscious thought doesn’t stop, we hear our own voice more than we hear anyone else’s. What words are we using? Are we criticizing our own appearance? Are we berating ourselves for the stretchmarks that gave us children? Our bodies deserve a little kindness. And since what we think about we bring about, think good things.
Get over yourself. What I mean is, don’t assume that because you’re so obsessed with your perceived imperfections that everyone else is too. People are generally egocentric; we hyperfocus on ourselves and tend to think that everyone else is hyperfocused on us as well. Guess what? They’re not! No one notices. Honest. How many times have you thought how bad your outfit was only to have someone compliment you on your hair or makeup? We are all so consumed within our own busy lives that we don’t have time to worry about anyone outside of our very small circle, aka family. Don’t worry about whatever you don’t like; the folks you meet are too wrapped up with what they don’t like about themselves to care. So let it go.
Dress your body. As in, dress the body you have. Something you learned by the age of five years old, I know. But there’s something that happens when you dress the body you have today instead of the body you wished you had. It helps you to accept whatever shape you’re in. Have narrow shoulders that you just can change and don’t like? Wear structured tops. Hips are “too wide”? Skip the skinny jeans. When I go shopping, I have one question I ask myself before I purchase anything: do I love it? If the answer is not an immediate yes, it stays at the store. When you put on clothes, you should feel empowered when you see your reflection. There’s an old adage: clothes make the man (and woman). So choose what makes you feel like a million bucks.
Clean out your closet. One of the worst things you can do is not believe in yourself. You know that dress you swore you’d get back into one day? Let. It. Go. Those jeans from high school are probably out of style anyway so let them go too. Spend some time getting rid of what doesn’t fit, what doesn’t flatter your body, what doesn’t make you feel like a rockstar! Part of believing in yourself is accepting yourself today. As is. Anything that doesn’t contribute to that, donate it to someone else.
We are each given this one life surrounded by friends and family who love us for what’s in our heads and hearts. How we look will change from year to year. Loving and accepting ourselves, as we are today, enables us to fully love and accept those around us, and all the imperfections. There is no answer to world peace but finding “inner world” peace is within our reach.
The takeaway: Spend time exercising and fueling your body regularly. Adjust your focus and see the reality that we are all flawed. Speak kindly to and of yourself. No one else is focusing on your flaws so you shouldn’t either. Dress the body you have today. Let go of things holding you in the past.