We want our bodies to represent our own view of our best selves
I read an article by Cassie Brighter recently, describing her desire for larger breasts, and why that specific desire is so meaningful to her. I was spurred to write this article by a comment from Bonnie Jacobsen, describing her desire to have smaller breasts. I believe her comment was well-intentioned, but it seemed to chastise Cassie for wanting larger breasts, or at the least, to say that everyone wants what they can’t have.
I know that Bonnie’s feelings of not wanting her breasts seem diametrically opposed to Cassie’s feelings of wanting breasts. However, I think the two of them are expressing the same thought. Neither sees herself in the image of the body nature gave her.
Like Bonnie, I had next to nothing in the chest department prior to having children. In fact, the size exists now (in some product lines) that didn’t then: Barely A. I basically had enough breast tissue to cover with a bra, but not enough to ever actually need a bra. However, I connected with every word of Cassie’s article.
Like Cassie, I did not feel like a real woman. One of my boyfriends teased about my breast size, without knowing how much my body shape bothered me. My girlfriends would sigh and make comments about how I always passed the “four fingers test”, and dress code must be so easy for me.
My first husband’s jokes about “bite-sized boobies” and “if boobies were like batteries” (most days mine would be “button boobies”, but some days they looked like “they could almost be AAA boobies”), did not help my conflict over feeling woman enough for my life. I was naturally very slim, my hips were straighter than a board, and I am reasonably skilled in traditionally male sports (hockey, soccer, track).
Then I got pregnant, gave birth, and nursed my infant. And, like Bonnie’s, my breasts did not return to their prior size. The unfeeling jokes didn’t stop: they just changed. I got pregnant again, and lost the baby. Larger breasts, and no baby to show for it. A second miscarriage resulted in another cup size added. A fourth pregnancy, a second live birth, and when I was done nursing, I was rocking a 36 triple D (“is that even a battery size?”).
Changing our thinking first helps determine whether we need to change our bodies
I’m now 5’8", due to a back surgery, but I was 5’10", far too tall to shop in regular department stores for clothes that fit the restrictive religious dress code I was raised with. I also wear a size 11.5W shoe, though I started with a size 10, my feet having grown with each pregnancy as well. With my breast size, my long torso, and my giant feet, I wasn’t comfortable in any clothes, anywhere.
I felt alien. I didn’t feel like a woman at all, but more like a joke in some story where men are dressing up like women and use birthday balloons for boobs because they did a Google search, and found an image of my body to use as the model of an “average American woman”.
They could have made a movie about a woman who woke up one morning and discovered that her breasts and feet were growing more and more every day, and the jokes about buying shoes, and needing new bras, and the mountains of trash created from the things she could no longer wear… That movie would have felt all too true.
In the space of 5 years, I went from wanting to have augmentation surgery to wanting to have reduction surgery: drastically different surgeries, both wished for to “enhance” my breasts. To overcome my desire for breast surgery, one way or the other, the biggest help was learning how to be comfortable in my own skin — whatever shape my skin was in.
That’s a lot easier to say than it is to do. I did a lot of the work of becoming comfortable in my own skin when I packed on so much weight that I was almost 400 pounds and then had to lose that weight. If losing weight were about willpower, a lot of fat people would be thin. If being a real woman were about breast size, a lot of males would be real women.
That understanding was helpful to me. But there are cases when that is not a helpful thing to say to someone. There are people who are not ready for that truth, or it will never be their truth.* Some people can never be comfortable in their own skin until they find a way to change that skin. And that’s okay.
Our reflections affirm or deny our real selves
The image we see in the mirror impacts so much of our daily life, affirming or denying our internal selves. There are so many mirrors everywhere in our world… When you are confronted over and over and over, every single day, with an image that others declare is you, but you cannot find yourself in that image…
Your own reflection feels like mental assault. And the worst part is, you are the perpetrator. You are the one casting your reflection.
We all dress to hide our flaws — men and women alike. We all primp and preen in the mirror, put on makeup, whiten our teeth, buy this facial soap or that hair gel, tug on the hems of our shirts, smooth the wrinkles in our pants— all seeking a reflection that we can identify with. When we look in the mirror we want to say, “Yes, that’s me. I feel good. I look good.”
So what if you can’t get that image of what you should look like out of your head? What do you do?
My recommendation is to learn to compliment others. It sounds hokey, and you feel like a dork and a creeper at first, but you’ll get better, and it’ll get easier. When you can genuinely compliment another person, a completely random stranger, then you will be better able to genuinely compliment yourself as well.
We are hardwired to find flaws, all kinds of flaws
Many believe that all life is genetically hardwired to ensure the survival of its own species. For humans, this means that we seek compatible mates, with strong genes, so our offspring will be stronger and more prepared for this world. Even if we don’t want children, many of us still find ourselves drawn to certain traits in our intimate partners.
We are equally repelled by certain traits. Some caterpillars are a bright green color to warn predators of poison, and other caterpillars have taken on that trait to mimic the warning, trying to scare off predators. Just like the predators avoiding bright green caterpillars, we are hardwired to look for what we don’t like.
We are also hardwired to find the flaws in the world around us. This tendency to notice what isn’t quite right about our environment would have helped our ancestors to avoid danger, spot illness, and generally to preserve their own lives and thus the future of the human race.
Now we are the dominant species on the planet, and we’ve taken that skill to a debilitating level. The counter-measure is to learn to look for things we like, things that are good, things that already are safe.
When we train ourselves to look for good traits, the things we appreciate, about others, then slowly we will begin to see those same things in ourselves.
Gratitude is the key to self-love
“The struggle ends when the gratitude begins.“ — Neale Donald Walsh
Compliments are, at their heart, gratitudes. We are grateful, whether in a small or a large way, for the people we are complimenting. By expressing gratitude regularly, we can actually, little by little, undo the damage inflicted by internalized negative thoughts, whether the thoughts originated with ourselves or others.
Learning to be grateful for even small things will help us to balance out the constant influx of negative from seemingly every direction. We are more able to bear the bad, because we know there is good to lighten that load.
As we practice gratitude, our thoughts and our lives will become more balanced. And in my experience, as that balance grows, it will manifest in every area of our lives, including our reflections.
A few guidelines for complimenting others:
- Make your compliments genuine and specific. People can sense insincerity a mile away. Vague compliments come across as weird, at best. Further, false and/or non-specific compliments will do nothing to help you learn to name things that you like about your own reflection.
- Make the topic of your compliments something that the person has control over. I used to get compliments on how straight my hair is, and I always thought to myself, “Thanks, I guess?” As you learn to appreciate the efforts others put into presenting themselves, you will value your own efforts even more. You may also learn new tricks that you can employ in your own life.
- The point of the compliment is to share your kind thoughts about someone else. Their thoughts about you are irrelevant to the exercise. Don’t worry so much about if you come across as weird, or what else they might think about you. You think about you way more than anyone else will. If they think of you at all after the event, they will think how nice you made them feel, and possibly how brave you were to approach them.
*Note: I am not advocating for or against body alteration surgery. Sometimes, the best way to be comfortable in our own skin is to make our external reflection match our internal reflection. But until we can truly evaluate our internal reflection, until we can truly define ourselves, I don’t believe any surgery would be successful in making us feel more like ourselves.