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Radical Body Acceptance

A guest post by the lovely and inspired Mama and Blogger, Rhea St. Julien. Find her blog, ThirtyThreadbareMercies here.

We were truly inspired by Rhea’s commitment to seeing her body as beautiful and focusing on what to love instead of how to suddenly change the body that is so incredible it birthed her gorgeous baby! Rhea is smart, witty, and wise. We loved this piece and look forward to reading more from her. Below, Rhea is pictured with her sweet daughter, Olive.

I’m trying something new this summer. In tune with The Year of Enough, I’m attempting to practice Radical Acceptance of My Body. So far, it mostly consists of me stopping my body-hatred in the act, and just saying, “Radical acceptance, Rhea.” Then I try to replace that frantic thought that I need to CHANGE something in my body with love, surrounding it like a bubble of protection from self-judgment. This has been working… until inevitably someone tags a photo of me on Facebook, which I viciously pick apart, like a vulture to her prey. “Why did I think it was okay not to wear sleeves? What is up with that weird bump in my figure? And there is definitely something off about my face.”

Interestingly enough, reading postings on Facebook is how I started down this whole road of radical body acceptance. One of my lovely friends from dance, Jennifer Portnick, has been posting about studies that show that dieting doesn’t work, and making comments about her philosophies about weight. I found this one, in response to someone who was touting their weight loss, particularly inspiring: “For me personally, and in my former practice as a trainer/fitness teacher, I have completely removed judgment about weight. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially given how our culture applauds thinness/weight loss and considers fatness/weight gain undesirable and even disgusting. The practice I’ve followed is to do all the things I know are good for my health– exercise, eat a moderate and balanced diet, get enough rest and manage my stress levels– and not to judge myself for whatever number is on the scale. I wish for everyone to have the opportunity to go outside and play, eat their fruits and veggies, and generally enjoy a good life in their body, no matter what size or weight it may be.”

Pretty basic, right? Be healthy, and try to forget about the scale? I’ve been trying to follow that path for years, with one glaring exception. In the back of my mind, I’ve always been flirting with the idea of drastically changing my shape. I think, “find a balanced (i.e. eating sometimes for health, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for both) way to eat, exercise when I can, do all of that as a baseline… and then at some point ramp it all up to 200% and get your 22 year old body back.”

Ah, yes, the fountain of youth thinking. I have such a selective memory. When I really sit to ponder what would come with with that young adult body, I rethink ever wanting to return to it. Constant anxiety about keeping my weight down so low. Mental instability in general, fear of death that led to frantic food restriction and over-exercising. Finally, my 22 year old body didn’t birth a baby. It wouldn’t know any of the steps to my favorite Rhythm and Motion routines. And, I was way less comfortable in that skin.

My 21-year-old self, which I have such compassion for now. She is gone, and she lives within me.

So, I remind myself of that, every time I wish I could turn back the clock. Sometimes it works, but sometimes I wonder, does anyone else find themselves thinking, “I want to become a vampire so I can live forever, but first I need to lose 20 pounds so I can be a thin vamp for life, not be stuck in an average body for all eternity?” The root of this thinking is dissatisfaction, which is at the very core of our economic system, which always leaves us wanting more, different, better, rather than finding contentment where we’re at.
Recently, I discovered the loving-kindness mantra, from Jack Kornfield’s book A Path With Heart, and I am using it liberally, in every situation of dissatisfaction and grasping:

May I be filled with loving-kindness.
May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.

I like to linger on that first one, asking God to plump me up with loving-kindness like an IV of saline solution to a dehydrated body. So, what the hell is this “loving-kindness”?  Loving-kindness is, in the Bible, agape love, which is characterized by acts of kindness, motivated by love. In the Theravāda school of Buddhism, it is the first of the four sublime states, and, in essence, love without clinging.

Go back to that mantra. Do you see, “May I be skinny enough to fit into the size 4 pair of pants I’ve been saving for the better part of decade” in there? No? Shucks. I guess happiness, well-being, peace, and love for myself and others will have to do. In fact, bringing myself back to this prayer every time I am feeling bad about my body is an amazing reminder of what is important in life. I could be skinny and wildly unhappy, like I was at 22, grieving the loss of my father and confused about how to keep myself sane. Or I could be skinny and happy, that much is true, but seeing as that is not my natural body type, it is an unlikely reality for me. So, I return to radical acceptance.

The funny thing about this whole body image issue for me is that I much prefer a bigger body type on other women. I think the soft curves of a full figured woman are incredibly beautiful, and I’m not just saying that to be PC or feminist. Whenever I find myself with a little “girl crush”, it is invariably on a woman who is nearing 200 pounds.

Katya Zharkova, a shining example of the body type I actually aesthetically prefer.

Last week, at the lake, the undeniably hottest woman on the beach was a thick-thieghed, huge-assed, stretch-marked-tummied sun goddess in a bikini. She was not hiding anything and I wish I could have snapped a picture to show you how much it was working for her. My friend and I marveled about it later, how comfortable she seemed with her cellulite and how incredibly sexy she was in spite of her “imperfections”. It was inspiring.

So, why do I love seeing curves on other women, but denigrate them on my own body?  For me, I think it is fear of death, fear of aging, and fear of change.  Seeing the effects of gravity on my flesh reminds me that I am not Superwoman, and I, too, one day, will die.  Aging gracefully was never modeled for me, and I want desperately not to end up like my grandmother, still trying fad diets in her 80′s!  Can you imagine?  Being a senior citizen and still hating your body?  But, ladies and gentlemen, that is our future, unless we learn to love our bodies now.  I hear a lot of people say, “Sugar (or white flour, or whatever the diet industry is telling us to get rid of completely these days) is slowly killing us”, but I think poisonous thoughts about your body, the place your soul currently resides, are much more dangerous!  Long-life feeling perfectly fit is not promised to us.  We only have today, and I’m going to try to love this corporeal being, even if it means giving up my entire way of thinking.

In my quest to find that kind of radical acceptance for myself, I am collecting information about staying body-positive, and striving to engage in dialogue with wise people like my friend Jennifer, who is light years ahead of me in this effort. I am trying to avoid conversations with folks about their dieting efforts, unless they are following a particular health-related plan (no sugar for diabetics, no gluten for celiacs, etc.), and I am cutting back on my fashion magazine reading.  I cannot give up Vogue yet, although I know I should (that article on the dieting child was unforgiveable) because the spreads that Grace Coddington does are works of art that I can hold in my hands and manipulate with scissors and glue.  As soon as GC retires, Vogue is hitting the dust just like Elle before them.  Other than that, I am totally open to suggestions for how to fully embrace radical body acceptance.  I am also open to hearing reactions to this idea in general — a friend of mine, when I told her about my radical body acceptance goal, said, “I’m so not ready for that.  I feel like a troll.”  She was being real and we had a great talk about it.

I have now been working on this post for over a week, and thinking about it even longer than that.  I am dragging my feet because thinking detrimental thoughts about my body and fantasizing about drastically changing it is an addiction, and one I’m reluctant to stop.  I know that if I come out fully as one addicted to thinking about my body image, I’ll have to change, and that scares me.  If I give up dreaming of ways to look different, will I lose all my standards and become really unhealthy?  I don’t believe so.  I believe my mean thoughts about myself are the most unhealthy  thing I’m doing these days, and if I can stop them, health will abound.

The best way I know to achieve a sense of well-being in my body is to MOVE it.  Using it, really getting down into what it feels to be in this body, right now, is the only thing I know that really works.  I can sit here and intellectualize until I’m blue in the face, but only movement and experience will change me holistically.  Well, my dance program, Rhythm & Motion, put out a video about the classes I take, and I’m in it, dancing my little heart out!  All the people in this video are my friends and co-conspirators in finding joy in your body.  One of my best friends, Michele, is truly stunning in it.  So, I will leave you on a positive note, a reminder that everyone can dance, even me, in my imperfect body, which I am trying to learn to truly love.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/44686594″>I Am A Dancer</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/rhythmandmotion”>Rhythm &amp; Motion Dance Program</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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