How To Be More Body Positive When Talking About Making Changes To Your Appearance
I'm pretty in love with makeover shows and stories, and I've been on a steady stream of them since my adolescence (thanks TLC!). My sister and I used to watch A Make-Over Story over grilled cheese on our lunch hour, and graduated to become disciples of Clinton and Stacy on What Not To Wear. These days, I can't help myself but to stream episodes of Stacy London's new show Love, Lust, or Run. I've watched them all — from shows that feature a closet makeover to those that involve cosmetic dentistry, serious dermatological work, and even plastic surgery. And I have no doubt that my consumption of these programs has contributed to making me reflexively body positive.
We have a borderline obsession with transformations and "becoming our better selves." Magazine headlines tell us that we can have our "Flattest Abs Ever" or "Look Our Sexiest Yet." Makeup promises to "give you sculpted cheekbones" and skincare proclaims to be able to "transform your face." Shapewear and even certain other articles of clothing promise to "trim inches off your waist and slim you instantly." Diets promise a "flat belly, fast" or "a totally different body in 30 days."
The thing is, I actually think that the idea of transformation can (sometimes) be relatively healthy and positive. I mean, if we didn't need to try new things and evolve, I'd still be wearing the pleather pants and crochet tops of my seventh grade wardrobe.
Being content with who I am now is important, but I'm also wondering who I'm going to be tomorrow and next month. Constant growth, being able to ditch what's not working for us, and incorporating new things that make us feel and actually be the best possible versions of ourselves, are all healthy things when it comes to our mental and emotional health. I think they're also really important things to embrace physically. If we're doing the work to understand ourselves and our motivations and there's something we'd like to change that would make us feel more confident, more like ourselves or the people we want to be — I'm all for doing it! Wax your legs, curl your eyelashes, wear those Spanx, dye your hair pink, pierce your face, join a gym, get that Lasik, go for a facial, grow your underarm hair, or wear those flats if it makes you feel good.
Anyone who tries to argue that changing the way you look doesn't affect your mental or emotional health is just plain wrong. Changing the way that we look to reflect who we are and where we're at now can be a response or a catalyst to change. How often have you heard, especially in the age of the lob, that "a woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life?" Like, everyday? Me too. It's not inherently frivolous, shallow, or harmful to care about the way that we present ourselves. The language that we use around our pursuits of looking the exact way we want, though, can be troublesome and entirely body-negative. Actually, the way that we talk about changing our appearance tends to almost always be done in this way — especially when it comes to weight loss.
Deciding to change the way we look doesn't have to be a body-negative experience or trigger the people around us, though. I think that we can all do a better job about talking about making changes to our bodies in ways that are still positive about the bodies that we and the people around us are in right at this moment. As a fat woman, I definitely feel a weird twinge in my stomach when people talk about losing weight or dropping clothes sizes in a celebratory way. I'm happy that this person feels better about the way that they look or feel in their body, but all I can hear is, "Fat is so bad and awful and terrible and I'm so glad that grossness is off of my body now." I mean, how could I not? That's the dominant paradigm about fat and fatness! Does that deny that some people feel better when they've lost weight? Not at all, but it recognizes the values and climate of our society towards appearance, which is something that we often fail to do when we talk about changing our appearance.
The language that we use to describe a change or transformation is based on a simple concept: The way we were before was "bad" and so we switched or traded up for something "good." We need to be able to separate what happened to make us different than before, from what changed about the way that we feel now. We need to operate on the understanding that any way we are is a fine way to be unless we decide that it's not what we want for ourselves.
But we also need to realize that all of this is subjective: Just because a certain way of being wasn't for us, it doesn't mean that it's now for anyone else, or that every single person who makes a change will feel the same way as you. There's no inherently "good" or "bad" when it comes to the way our bodies look — there are just differences. Being able to be as content as possible with who you are in order to make peace with the way you are right now allows you to make these changes from a gentle, genuine place — and allows us to talk about them in this way, too. It also allows us to still feel confident and okay about ourselves if what we're trying to do doesn't work or isn't permanent and we end up in that body again.
Saying things like, "I feel so amazing now that I'm thinner!" can be more specifically described as, "Man, going to the gym a few times a week has given me a ton more energy," or, "Being able to cook for myself is a total luxury, but I'm really appreciating the opportunity to do more mindful eating right now — I know it's not easy!" Starting a new, expensive skin regime or beginning to apply makeup more frequently doesn't have to mean talking shit about the way our faces looked before or wondering why more people don't undergo the same process, but it can mean saying, "Whoa, I can appreciate how this changes my skin/look and lets me spend way less time during the day worrying about how my skin feels or my face looks!"
I'm not saying we have to apologize for doing what it took to feel better or not acknowledge the rigid beauty standards that we're expected to conform to, and how they change our self-image. But focusing on the how or why of our change and continuing to appreciate and respect all different people's ideas of beauty and the confidence it takes to embrace who you are can help keep us and the people around us more body-positive, no matter where we're at. And that's the best outcome of all.
Images: Instagram/ianmcc; Giphy