“I just need to stop caring about how I look.”
I hear this a lot. Many people in the body-positive community love to tell women to “just stop caring what you look like.” They mean well, and I’m completely down with the idea that we women should be examining and rejecting the impossible beauty and body ideals that our consumerist culture shoves down our throats every day.
But the way I see it, there are two problems with this advice. The first one is that I’m just not down with telling anyone what to do with her body or life.
I believe every single human on earth has a right to absolute and unquestionable autonomy over her own goals, her own life, and her own body. Nobody has a right to tell her what to do, and that includes well-meaning body-positive activists who want you to stop caring how you look.
Sometimes, for some people, focusing on aesthetic goals isn’t problematic, it’s empowering. Blanket statements like “women shouldn’t care about what they look like, they should only care about how they feel” hurt everyone. Although it comes from a positive and well-meaning place, it’s still just another form of policing women and their bodies.
A woman’s body (plus her mind, heart and soul) is hers and hers alone, and she is the only person who gets to decide what’s best for her. Period. So if you want to focus on how you look above all else, and that feels like an authentic and empowering choice for you, then that is totally effing fine.
But a lot of time, for a lot of women, aesthetic goals feel more like a prison than a choice. My readers often tell me that chasing a certain physique doesn’t align with the person they want to be, but that they struggle to let go of that chase anyway. They often desire to be role models for their families and friends in regards to body-acceptance and love, but feel like they can’t be, due to the fact that they also want to look a certain way. They know that a certain body shape or size doesn’t determine their worthiness, but they secretly feel held hostage by the need to constantly improve, improve, improve themselves.
“I don’t want to care about losing weight, but I do!
I don’t want my worth to be tied up with my aesthetics, but it is.”
This is when it’s no longer a choice. Or rather, it’s not a choice YOU made. It’s a choice society made, and you just haven’t learned how to disentangle yourself from it yet. And that’s different. That’s not empowering. That just sucks. Which brings me to my second issue with the well-meaning advice to stop caring about how you look:
Telling people to just stop caring how they look ignores what a multi-faceted and layered this topic is.
It boils a complex and enigmatic concept down into an issue of willpower, as though by simply trying harder, a person might be able to successfully stop caring.
To my mind, this advice is about as successful as the advice to get in shape by “never giving up,” or by “wanting it more.” There may be some truth to it, because on a fundamental level everything does kind of boil down to making a simple decision to change. But we never arrive at that decision because someone told us to arrive there. That is not how it works.
If it was, then I wouldn’t have to do all that pesky work of exploring, challenging, questioning, uncovering, aligning, and re-evaluating with my clients. Nope, I would just tell them to do the thing they want to do! Ha-ha! Of course! “Well Susy,” I’d say. “It sounds like you want to lose weight. So in my expert opinion, you should just go lose weight now.” And then Suzy would lose weight and I would be a smashing success! But, alas.
I can tell you to love yourself with any more success than I can tell you to lose weight. I can tell you that you’re perfect just the way you are, but me saying it doesn’t make it true for you. It certainly doesn’t motivate most people. And, in a cruel twist of irony, hearing that message over and over from hoards of healthy and radiant women (whom you probably follow on social media, because you want to be a body positive warrior) can actually make you feel like a total fucking failure.
Let me please assure you, you are not a failure. It is the advice which is failing you.
The problem is that we leaders and teachers and coaches are all still struggling to find the right words to explain this whole enigmatic issue of loving yourself and your body. We all walk a delicate balance between inspiring and educating. Sometimes we get it right, and other times we get it wrong. This one we’re getting wrong.
Let’s take a closer look at the various considerations that make this advice at best incomplete, and at worst damaging to your self-esteem.
First of all, please know that you can totally love and accept yourself AND want to work on changing the way you look. Those two things are absolutely not mutually exclusive, and no matter what anyone says, you are not required to choose only one.
Second of all, we’re wired to care about how we look.
Seriously, trying to simply stop caring how you look goes against some major biological shit that’s wired into our brains. For evolutionary reasons, we’re wired to find healthy, vibrant people attractive. That includes our sexual partners as well as everyone else. We want our “tribe” to be strong and healthy, so our brains are designed to dig other people who are healthy and vibrant.
Nowadays, healthy and vibrant people tend to be the ones who are eating well, exercising, practicing compassion, and getting plenty of sleep.
Social support used to be required for survival, so we have a built in powerful desire to be liked, accepted, and valued by our tribe. To be an outcast at one time meant certain death, and we still carry leftover fear of not being liked and accepted. We’re also wired to want to be considered sexually attractive, so that we can find a desirable mate.
The urge to be liked, accepted, valued, and even desired is natural, and normal, and totally fine. (Hell, I hope you like and accept me after you read this article!) But unfortunately, that desire to be liked, accepted, valued, and desired as a woman in today’s culture has gotten all distorted. Due to society’s idea of what is desirable (aka thin and toned and sexy and fierce and on and on) most women today have a powerful biological urge to become something that is literally impossible for them.
What people think of you matters. Telling someone to stop caring what people think of them is about as useful as telling them to stop needing to pee. You’re gonna care. You’re wired to care. Frankly, it’s a good thing that we have this mechanism, or we’d probably be pretty miserable to be around. Not wanting to be ostracized from our tribe is why we get toilet trained, and use manners, and don’t just run around doing whatever we want like raving sociopaths.
But you might have gathered by this point in your self-love journey that caring desperately what people think about you (and your body!) can be stressful, counter-productive, and maybe even ruining your life. When the desire to be liked and accepted ranks too high on your list of priorities, you’re going to have a tough time learning to like and accept yourself.
But the problem lies with the order of these priorities, not with the priorities themselves.
Right now, if you’re like most women in the US, then “losing weight” or “looking fit” or some other aesthetic goal is probably really high up on your list of shit that’s important to you. It might even come several notches before “pursuing my dreams,” or “liking myself” or even “being happy.” And if you’re reading my blog, you’re probably not ok with that. Maybe this knowledge makes you feel all hallow and gross inside, like you’re secretly vain, or a failure, or a hypocrite. But none of those things are true.
Before I move on to tell you how to handle it, let me pause and remind you that you’re big and complex enough to hold all of your various desires inside you. That includes both the desire to be a self-love crusader, and the desire to look amazing naked. You can want both. I want both. It’s ok to want both.
Now then. If you still care more about how you look than you feel comfortable with, you may have been trying in vain for a while to just stop caring. But rather than trying to eradicate such a powerful biological force from your list altogether, I suggest trying to simply bump it down a notch. To do this you first need to honestly assess your current priority rankings.
Take a sheet of paper and write your specific aesthetic based goal in the middle of it. Then write a bunch of stuff above it that’s more important, and a bunch of stuff below it that’s less important.
Answer based on how you actually behave and feel and think day to day, not on how you WANT to feel. This will help you understand what your current priorities look like, and bring to light some areas that you might want to promote or demote. Question your list with curiosity. Is “look good naked” higher than “get a boyfriend”? Why? Is “lose weight” more important than “rock a fabulous outfit I’ve been desiring”? Is “going to the gym every day” more important than “spending time with family”? Are these priorities truly yours, or are they the result of expectations of you and not wanting to let someone down? Get curious.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying than any of these things is “good” or “bad.” I’m just suggesting you start asking questions.
Your priority rankings will constantly shift and morph (just like absolutely everything else in your life and body) as time passes and circumstances change. Personally, a few weeks ago when I got to Thailand I had to immediately re-assess where “maintaining my physique” fits into my priorities.
The food scheme here us amazing, but confusing as hell. I don’t know whether I’m eating a meat or a vegetable half the time, let alone many grams of protein are in a bowl of “#63.” There are none of my staple “protein and veggie” options available, and I haven’t even been able to accurately listen to my body’s hunger and fullness cues, thanks to the insane amount of splice and sodium causing my belly to live in a constant state of WHAT IS HAPPENING?!
(I’m a highly salt-sensitive creature, and evidently there is no upper limit to how much sodium I can consume in a 24 hours period here. Trust me when I say I feel it, and it shows. I can barely get my rings off some nights, and when I puff up I look kinda pregnant. Below is a photo from before and after such a meal.)
Normally I eat to avoid the above situation. But the amazing food here is a big part of the experience I’m interested in, so I’ve decided to let go of any desire to keep from puffing up, because priorities shift. If “maintaining a flat belly and lean aesthetic” ranked as more important to me right now than “cultural immersion,” then I would be buying protein bars and cooking myself dinners at home. Which I am definitely not ok with.
Being ok with gaining some weight or getting puffy is totally different than “giving up” though. Just because I’m trying all the food right now doesn’t mean I’ll stop working out, eat til I’m comatose, or binge on junk food. That’s the difference between a self-loathing choice, and a self-celebrating choice.
Don’t get me wrong, I fucking love having a fit body. I love feeling strong, I love lifting weights, and I love feeling healthy and energized. I even love being lean and defined and having abs! But I love feeling open to new experiences more. I love feeling free, and doing things that I’ll look back on when I’m 90 years oldand say “I lived the absolute SHIT out of this life.”
I’m big enough and complex enough and powerful enough to house all of these seemingly conflicting pleasures and desires. But the order in which they’re ranked is important.
I’ve committed to a life in which “being a free spirit” is more important than “looking like a fitness professional.”
What order are your priorities in? Figure out what you currently consider more and less important than how your body looks, and question your ranking with curiosity. If you decide you want to give your aesthetic goals a demotion but don’t know how, I suggest you find something worthy and give it a promotion instead! The result is the same, only now you get to spend more of your time and attention pursuing something that feels wonderful and important to you.
How do you most want to feel? What do you want your life to look like? What skills do you want to be good at? Choose one thing and promote it (with your time and attention and energy) until it sits easily in it’s new place. Then repeat.
In this way- by tending to and caring about other stuff- you can slowly bump the importance of your aesthetic goals down lower and lower, until they’re in a place that feels right to you. Maybe that’s just a few notches below. Maybe that’s a hundred thousand notches below. Only you can know where it feels right for you.