Happy feel-bad-about-your-appearance-holiday! Whether it’s Christmas, New Years or the summer holidays approaching, they all come bearing gifts of body issues. There are the obvious things, like magazines and “newspapers” and blogs and instagram accounts and commercials and advertising posters, constantly reminding you that the most important thing in this world is to be a beautiful little fool. You will never see any body or face that truly looks like yours in this photoshopped territory, which reminds you that your kind of looks don’t deserve to be seen, to be visible. In some ways, though indisputably a tough enemy to face, this is one of the easier ones, because they are easy to label as just that, an enemy. We are all aware that advertisements of any kind were not created to make us feel happy or satisfied.
Then there are enemies that aren’t really enemies at all. Food, for instance. As the holidays approaches, I always notice how the words used to talk about food become saturated by guilt, as though food is something we shouldn’t really allow ourselves, and we are only doing it because we are too weak to resist. People talk about “guilty pleasures”, “being bad”, “allowing themselves” this and that. No meal exists on its own, because we have to make sure we have the correct amount of “good” to outweigh the “bad”. A bar of chocolate isn’t merely a bar of chocolate, it’s “decadent” (“characterized by or reflecting a state of moral or cultural decline”), “luxurious” (“giving self-indulgent or sensual pleasure”) or “extravagant” (“exceeding what is reasonable or appropriate; excessive or elaborate”).
Holidays also bring more festive occasions, whether they are glittering nights or sun-soaked afternoons. How you look will become of more importance. It will matter more how beautiful you are in party makeup, or no makeup at all; how your body looks in strapless dresses, or oversized, shapeless t-shirts. You might become obsessed with some new “flaw” of yours that you weren’t aware of before, such as your suddenly inexplicably obtrusive upper lip hair, or a crisscross of purple, or red, or silvery stretch marks. You will limit yourself because of these “flaws”, or you will make ever effort to “improve” the situation. That’s our mission in life, isn’t it, to always improve? Fortunately, improvements are easy to keep track of, because we have numbers. Numbers for weight, circumference, good and bad things in food, alcohol units, exercise reps, speed, length, fat, muscles, clothing sizes, age – the list never ends, does it?
Your focus will shift. Instead of simply being happy you are spending time with your best friend, you’ll make comparisons. Who looks better in red/a bikini/winged liner/pajamas/a santa beard? You believe the gazes of strangers give you the answers. This constant stream of comparison feels even worse because part of you thinks it’s completely irrational and immature, which makes you feel shallow and petty, which again makes you snappish and grumpy. Once we are caught in this whirlwind of negativity and confusion, more things “get to us”, too, which creates a downward spiral that can take a long time to recover from. Probably just in time for the next holiday to come around.
So, in generous holiday spirit, I thought I’d share with you some tips on how I “protect” myself during times like these. The general rule is: do I feel worse about myself after reading/watching/listening to this? If the answer is yes, then it has to go.
My guidelines for overcoming holiday body issues:
– knowing what my starting point is. It has taken years of thinking and reading and feeling, but I know now that I think one can be healthy at every size, that our value as people does not lie in appearance, that I do appreciate beauty, and I think it comes in a multitude of forms. I know that because I am ill (hello depression, hello probably-CFS, hello anxiety), I need to be extra careful. This especially applies to the topic of exercise, because I am simply not able to exercise in my condition. Workout articles/blogs/pinterest boards/conversations make me feel guilty and sad in a way I don’t think non-ill people can truly understand, both because having CFS is a world of are-you-sure-you-aren’t-just-imagining-things, and because it reminds me of all the things I miss. In short, your own starting point can work as a sort of center, to give all those external influences some context.
– anything that contains numbers about bodies is a no-go. The number might describe weight, percentage of body fat, number of times an exercise is done, body measurements or other similar things – if I encounter these, I immediately stop reading, even if it’s in one of my favourite blogs. I think it’s because numbers are so concrete, and therefore tend to stick in my head for a long time. They become something against which to measure yourself, which, at least for me, only leads to trouble.
– finding positive angles to tricky topics. For instance, when I noticed my thoughts on food started to go awry, I decided to watch more cooking shows (I’m in love with British Nigel Slater), read cooking blogs and books, and teach myself how to make even more food from scratch. Please notice that all these things focus on the simple pleasure of making and eating food, not any kinds of diets. I think that nowadays, many people find food becoming increasingly difficult, and so they turn to diets for guidance. If you adhere to a single type of diet, there will usually be clear rules for what is right and wrong, which, in a way, makes things easier. For me, though, diets and how they often focus on losing weight, is simply out of the question. Instead, I seek out positive influences on food.
– seeking out “alternative” images of bodies and appearance. With “alternative”, I mean people that aren’t photoshopped to death, wearing three layers of shapewear, or styled and groomed for five hours each morning. This can be reading blogs with a similar photoshop policy to mine (no liquify tool, for instance), or just watching normal people in a café or public transportation. I think it’s frighteningly easy to forget that nobody actually looks like the photoshopped images we see everywhere. And nobody looks perfectly styled and stylish without (what is to us, invisible) hours of preparations. I also read blogs like Eat the Damn Cake, Growing Out My Bush (NSFW) and Dances With Fat, just to get many different perspectives on things. Perspective is good, as is remembering what reality looks like.
– no body-snarking talk of any kind. I don’t mean those actual conversations about how we feel or how we look, but those “I look so ugly today”-rants or “I need to drop ten kilos as soon as possible”-deals. The Norwegian culture isn’t as full of this as for instance the American seems to be, and fortunately, most of my friends don’t do it much, but sometimes it pops up nonetheless. When it does, I usually do one of two things: I either change the subject completely (and people tend to get the hint; if they don’t, I’ll do it again in a way that makes them get it), or I talk about the issue properly. Not in a hey-I’m-now-going-to-lecture-you-about-body-issues-way, hopefully, but just to let a friend know that I truly care about her/him, and how mean thoughts like that aren’t doing them any good. It’s what I want someone to tell me when the situation is reversed, at least.
– focusing on something else. Who has the capacity to worry about thighs that rub together if one is busy doing a silly dance on the living room floor with a sister, reading an amazing book, humming over Benedict Cumberbatch-interviews, cooking a gluten-free AND lactose-free lasagna from scratch, sleeping till noon, re-writing that French grammar rule book you created in high school, trying to keep those bloody house plants alive, watching the fog make everything outside your window disappear, flirting with the bus driver, or surviving a trip to IKEA on a Saturday?
– if all else fails, I imagine myself as Leonardo DiCaprio in a Baz Luhrman movie, covered in sweat and dirt and blood, staring wildly up at the sky, half-crying and half-laughing, screaming “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT?!“, at the top of my lungs. I might be sad, or scared, or angry, but I’m still alive, and still fighting, and my inner Leo can survive anything.
What are your ways to handle the holiday body pressure? Do share, as the more tips and stories we can gather, the less alone we’ll be!