"I don't know what I look like," she said. "I can't pass a mirror without looking at myself in it, obsessing, scrutinizing and yet no matter how many different mirrors and changing angles, I still don't really know what I see."
This wasn't the first time I'd had a client tell me she didn't know what she saw in the mirror, and it wasn't the first time I could look across at her misty eyes and say in all honesty, "I get it."
There was a time when I too had no idea what I looked like. I knew what I was supposed to look like. Flat stomach with those two lines going down the sides, a toned, uplifted ass, perfectly defined yet still "feminine" looking arms, thighs with a generous gap, and slender, tapered ankles. I was disciplined about my food, regimented with my workouts, did all the actions required to be fit, healthy, beautiful and yet I had no idea if all my work was paying off. I'd look in the mirror and be blind to what was there.
I'd compare my ass to other women's trying to gauge if mine was better or worse. I'd covertly watch what "healthy" women ate, sizing it up against my own diet. I'd asked my mother what she thought of my body to make sure I was living up to the standards we both subscribed to. There were a few rare days when I liked what I thought I saw. And then I'd catch a magazine cover, indulge in a cookie, or wake up with just the slighted amount of bloat in my belly and be sent spinning again, running to the mirror to pinpoint the evidence of my unworthiness.
How does this even happen to us?
Simple. We want love. Acceptance. And we are told, usually, first by our families and then the society around us, that love and acceptance come with a price. The price being how you look and behave. And these messages are subtle. My family never specifically said, "We will not love you if you get fat." But we don't need specifics. We're smart women who read between the lines. It's all inferred. When our mothers always comment on someone "getting heavy" or "losing weight" we immediately scramble to see where we fit in and measure up. We think, "Crap, what the hell do I look like? Have I gained weight? If I do gain weight will my mom now think I'm lazy and fat?" And so we lock in tighter with our food, amp up the body criticism and desperately grip what we have, praying it's good enough, all while hoping to lose that little layer of fat that pooches out between our boob and armpit when we wear a sports bra.
Of course we can't see what we look like in the mirror. Our vision is clouded, veiled, over run by the images, judgements and misinformed requirements of how we believe we should look.
So how do we approach ourselves to see what's actually being reflected back to us?
These are the steps that helped me and the ones I now share with my clients.
1. Stay away from mirrors. If you currently aren't sure what you see, continuing to look and nitpick in front of that glass is not going to suddenly reveal the answers you're searching for. Use a mirror only when you need it. For makeup application or tweezing your eyebrows and other than that, stay away. The goal is to eventually use a mirror to reflect your present beauty back to yourself AND you can't do that while you're still using it as a gauge to see if you are OK or NOT.
2. Once a day, with incredible reverence, touch the body parts you're most critical of. Massage your thighs, gently trace your stretch marks, hold your tummy, cup your breasts and let yourself feel them as they are. When we're always looking in mirrors we forget to actually look down to see what's in front of us. This practice let's your hands see for you when your eyes are veiled in judgement.
3. Body comparison is the quickest way to 1) feel like shit about yourself and 2) put you at odds with other women who are, in fact, in your exact same boat. There's not a woman alive who isn't hard on her body and our comparison with each other simply compounds that pain. Next time you catch yourself comparing say, "May she love her body as much as I am learning to love my own." This mantra makes you sisters, teammates, two women doing the best you can to stop harassing yourselves and find peace.
4. Be fiercely protective. We are so eager to throw our bodies under the bus. You are your body's only advocate. She is yours and you are hers. Stand for her. Fiercely protect her as you would your child from the thoughts and images that threaten to tear her down. You may not love her in this moment, and that's OK. But you must never abandon her.
What I'm suggesting may feel scary, which is why we need support in this. It's subversive to put down the shoulds and have tos we've picked up from our environment and courageously embrace our bodies as they are. We've also become so used to the internal struggle we don't know who we'd be without it.
I also know it's both maddening and soul sucking to look in the mirror 40 times a day and not know what you see for all the stinging smoke in your eyes.
I will tell you this. Your brilliance is being lost as you busy yourself with mirrors and thigh gaps. Your incredible brainspace is being wasted on perfecting something that's been perfect since the day you were born. The only thing that's changed is your perception of it.
Start slow. Start easy. But start. For the only way to see what's actually in front of you in the mirror with clear, accepting and dare I say, loving, eyes is to first step back, close them and let yourself approach your body anew.
Jamie Greenwood wants to live in a world where truth is spoken, bodies are trusted, and dancing is a daily ritual. For the last 7 years Jamie has helped women address their big WHY: Why do we believe our worth is based on how productive we are, how "healthy" we are, the size of our thighs, the kale or cookies we eat, or the miles we run today?
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.