Looking at yourself in a full-length mirror can bring about a variety of thoughts, from Hey, sexy to Oh, jeez. Ideally, we’d have more of the former and less of the latter, although unfortunately that is not usually the case. And in this sport, we don’t get any “sweatpants days.” If we wake up feeling bloated or self-conscious, we still need to pull on those almost-see-through tight white breeches and get on with it. For better or for worse, our bodies are always on display.
Our bodies are a physical representation of our experiences and actions and heritage. We only get one of them. And when we look in the mirror, we’re not alone with our own thoughts. Thousands of memories and voices keep us company – some positive and some negative. There’s the time your little brother said you have fat ankles. A boyfriend calling you beautiful, and meaning it. A glossy magazine page with a photoshopped swimsuit model. A leering, objectifying comment from a creepy dude at a bar. They all pile up and fight for attention, in a roar so deafening that you don’t even know it’s there.
So how can we fix this? We can appreciate our bodies for what they do, instead of how they look.
Self-confidence is not a switch that can be turned on with the flip of a finger. It’s an arduous journey full of setbacks. In a society that profits massively from cosmetics and weight loss products, there is an industry financial incentive for making us feel poorly about ourselves. To make matters worse, body types go in and out of style almost as frequently as clothing does. Waif, hourglass, athletic, curvy – they’ve all been hot or not at some point. Like we can change our bone structure as easily as we could a shirt.
When I think about body image, I get a flood of memories. Of spending Christmas morning in the Intensive Care Unit, visiting a friend whose eating disorder nearly killed her. Of wanting to shake my mother or my best friend or a barn mate when they complained about their love handles or thighs or wrinkles. Can’t you see how beautiful you are? Poor self-confidence does not discriminate. People who are the closest to society’s ideals of appearance are often the ones who are the most objectified, and the most insecure.
We can look around ourselves at this diverse and unique sport, in which on an Olympic podium you can have a glorious mix of men, women – tall, short, skinny, curvy, young, old, and everything in between.
So how can we fix this? We can appreciate our bodies for what they do, instead of how they look. That blue ribbon hanging on your wall? Your body helped you do that. That massive pile of hay you just stacked? Thanks, bod. There are opportunities within our sport to promote positive body image through fitness and ability. I remember a lesson I had last year, in which my coach remarked that I looked fitter. “You know, riding fit,” she said. Even though I hadn’t dropped a pant size, I had indeed been exercising more. I walked around the rest of the day with my ego inflated, proud that someone had noticed. Thank you, body.
We can look around ourselves at this diverse and unique sport, in which on an Olympic podium you can have a glorious mix of men, women – tall, short, skinny, curvy, young, old, and everything in between. A sport where when we excitedly talk about an epic jump-off, we’re discussing an excellent inside turn, not the rider’s pot-belly or underwear lines.
We can sprinkle those nice comments around like confetti. You should know that the dozen women I spoke with about their body images were quick to credit any positivity in themselves to the people in their lives who, as one woman said, “Thought I walked on water.” You can tell your mother that she looks nice in her new shirt. Or your best friend that it looks like her workout classes are paying off in a big way. Or a total stranger that her hair is gorgeous. Or, you can borrow my go-to, one-size-fits-all compliment for my girlfriends: “Damn, girl.”
We can look at the other things that matter in life. In the words of Chelan Kozak: “You turn 40, and you just don’t give a f***. You just don’t. And you kind of go, ‘I’m 40, and I know things, and I’ve got a muffin top.’ You’ve had friends that have been divorced and friends that have died and you start to understand that life is more than just being skinny.” Amen.
So, the next time we’re standing there in front of that infernal mirror, remember that our body image is a narrative of all the good and bad that has happened to us – but it’s our own narrative.
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