I think everyone who writes about body image has a blind spot or a subject that makes them feel a bit hypocritical. After all, most of us haven’t gotten the whole “Love your body exactly as it is 100 percent of the time no matter what” thing down yet, and although we might have a great understanding of all the concepts, and can easily explain them to others, we haven’t quite internalized them for ourselves.
For me, that hypocritical blind spot is comparing my body to others, and specifically to celebrities. This is actually really embarrassing for me to admit, because it seems like it should be such an easy thing to overcome. Unlike other body image issues that are steeped in complex emotions that may take years to unpack, the logic of comparing your body to celebrities can be debunked by a few simple facts. I’ve written about it before. I know that images in magazines are heavily edited. I know that celebrities have entire teams dedicated to making them look perfect. I know that articles about how to get Jessica Alba’s abs by doing specialized crunches are complete and utter bullshit. I know that our body shapes are determined almost entirely by genetics and that I could do 1000 crunches a day for 100 years and still never have Jessica Alba’s abs. Not to mention the fact that I’m sure Jessica Alba is very fond of her abs and would prefer to keep them for herself.
One thing I’ve noticed about my comparison habit is that I tend to compare myself to celebrities who kinda sorta look like me, or at least have some similar features. Peppy blondes like Carrie Underwood, Sienna Miller, Kate Hudson, and Julianne Hough tend to trigger me most often. As a peppy blonde myself, I look at their super toned bodies and flawless faces and think, “Maybe, if I just worked a little bit harder or bought the right kind of moisturizer, I could look like that. After all, I already have the hair!”
Maybe it’s because I spent so many hours (SO. MANY. HOURS.) lying in bed at night throughout my adolescence, visualizing myself with a “perfect” body and the perfect life I believed would come with it. My definition of a perfect body was wholly unoriginal: skinny, toned, lithe. My actual body was short, round — definitely womanly but on the stumpy side. My body looked like my mom’s body and my grandmother’s body and many more generations of Italian women who had come before me. We were designed to anchor families and endure crop failures. We were hardy, strong, feminine, difficult to knock over.
This body was my destiny, but this was not the body I wanted. This was not the kind of body I ever saw in the fashion magazines I read or the movies I watched (unless it was a funny sidekick who was constantly reminding the audience that she was fat and undesirable).
I’d gotten enough pitying, “but you have such a pretty face” comments to know that I had something going for me in the conventional beauty department: blonde hair, full lips, big green eyes. So when I envisioned my skinny self, I looked a lot like Kate Hudson or Sienna Miller. And thus, a complex was born. I decided I had the potential to be really, truly beautiful, and all I had to do was fundamentally change my entire body shape and possibly grow a few inches taller. Pretty simple, right?
Through years of weight ups and downs, my body’s shape never changed. I followed the workout plans in those stupid articles, I cut carbs, I skipped lunch. My body got slightly bigger or slightly smaller, but it always remained short, curvy, stocky. Even when I followed the very specific tips laid out by Kate Hudson’s trainer in a magazine, my body never looked anything like hers. To my dismay, I still looked way more like my mom and grandma than a Hollywood starlet. What was totally lost on me was that Kate Hudson, while she undoubtedly does put in a lot of hours at the gym, also looks like her mom (who just happens to be Goldie Hawn). Her genetics trend toward skinny, toned, lithe. All of my celebrity body idols’ do. Mine don’t. This is a fact that the media and the diet industry really doesn’t want women to accept. This is a fact that has taken me years and years to understand, and I’m still not all the way there. Not even close, actually.
Case in point: this past month, Carrie Underwood appeared on the cover of Women’s Health magazine. Carrie looks predictably gorgeous on the cover, showing off her toned bronze muscles in short shorts and a tank top next to the headline, “Carrie Underwood Reveals Her Slim Down Tricks.”
I’d been feeling pretty good about body image stuff around the time this magazine came out, but as soon as I saw it, I felt a familiar desperation rise up within me. Every time I saw the cover at the grocery store checkout, my heart beat a little faster. Carrie Underwood’s slim down tricks were in those pages! The secrets I had been waiting for! The magic formula that would finally transform me into the airbrushed blonde goddess on the cover! It sounds silly, but on some level I actually believed this, because I wanted that magazine, bad. I resisted my impulses until one Friday when my boyfriend and I went to the store. We were planning for a laid back night at home, and I tricked myself into thinking that flipping through Women’s Health and learning about Carrie’s top secret slim down tricks could be part of my relaxing agenda. I grabbed the magazine and threw it in the cart.
As we walked around the store, I started to feel guilty. I knew I was lying to myself. I knew that reading that magazine would make me feel like shit and trigger dormant body image issues I thought I’d conquered long ago. I also knew that, at this particular moment in time, I wasn’t strong enough to resist the temptation to fall back into my old habits. I needed help. So I tapped my boyfriend on the shoulder in the canned goods aisle and came clean.
“I need to tell you why I’m buying this magazine, and then I need you to tell me not to buy it,” I said.
“OK,” he said.
“I’m buying this magazine because of this stupid headline on the cover that says if I read it, I’ll learn how to slim down and look like Carrie Underwood. Even though I know that I will never look like Carrie Underwood, and I was feeling pretty good about my body up until just now.”
He gave me a little heartbroken smile the way he always does when I bring up my body image issues, then he took the magazine out of the cart. “How will you feel after reading this magazine?” he asked.
“Shitty,” I said. “And fat and ugly and helpless.”
“Exactly.” He turned around to go put it back on the shelf.
“Wait!” I said, plucking the glossy pages from his hands. “I want to be the one to put it back.” And then I walked over to the magazine rack and put Women’s Health back where it came from. It was one of the healthiest decisions I’ve ever made.
Here’s the thing about body image issues. The path to self-acceptance and body love is really just a series of small successes: passing little tests that bolster your strength, filtering out toxic messages, replacing negatives with positives, resisting old patterns, slipping up and continuing forward, taking good care of yourself. The journey looks different for everyone. For me, it looks like walking away from a grocery store magazine rack on a Friday night, letting Carrie Underwood enjoy her own thighs, and making an earnest effort to appreciate mine.