In a couple of days, I’ll bring my body to my grandmother’s house for the first of many holiday celebrations to close out 2013.
I’ll bring other things. My kids, for one, squealing in excitement over the snacks and the cousins they’ll enjoy. An ice chest, with our name in Sharpie across the top to distinguish our box juices and beer from the other 20 plus families’ beverages. I’ll bring the veggie plate and Ranch dip I was assigned. I’ll be pulling together and packing up lots of things that morning as I prepare to spend the day with the ninety people I love most in the world. And yet, so far, 72 hours out, the only thing I’ve spent any time fussing over has been the body I’ll bring.
I’m not alone in this. The last representative survey on body image amongst U.S. women suggests that 78 million of you ladies are not happy with what you see in the mirror. Based on previous trends, it may be more. And you men aren’t faring much better, as growing waistlines, hair loss, and loss of muscle tone become of increasing concern with age. And what’s worse – those kiddos I’ll dress in their Sunday’s best to go visit my family – they aren’t safe either. My adolescent daughter is at the highest risk for body dissatisfaction, and even my six year-old boys are likely to struggle with their bodies at some point.
So why now? Why would the holidays be the time to find ourselves agonizing over what we see in the mirror? Is it the “reunion effect,” where we evaluate ourselves in comparison to the likely expectations of folks we haven’t seen in a while? Could it just be part of the “holiday blues,” where the longings and disappointments from holidays past and present make us that much more vulnerable to an already stressful ritual? Is it just realism, as we anticipate the holiday weight gain many experience in the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years?
This doesn’t seem to quite cover it. See, for me, the holidays are a time to push deadlines aside and let myself just be with my partner and children. They are a time to come together with friends and family to celebrate the year’s accomplishments and grieve the year’s losses. They are a time to share old memories and make new ones. Why would a period of time in which so much good stands to be gained be marked with insecurity over something as insignificant as the body I happen to live inside?
Maybe it’s not really surprising that an old, familiar vulnerability would take hold at a time when meaningful things are at stake. In fact, maybe it’s the case that our self-doubts are most likely to show up around things we really care about. Maybe we see our perceived deficits most clearly when we have something at stake. I don’t fret about my body while I’m washing the dishes or mowing the lawn. It’s when I’m packing for a conference, planning a presentation, or preparing for Thanksgiving dinner.
And maybe that’s okay. The model of psychological well-being underlying Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT – said as the word, “act,” instead of the individual letters) suggests that it’s not so much what we think or feel that disrupts our lives, it’s the attempts we make to stop or change those feelings. So maybe our body concerns will only interfere with everything precious to us this holiday if we make it our job to manage them.
How do we manage (or try to manage) body image? Usually by managing the body. We search for the right diet or the perfect workout. We dye our hair. We pluck our eyebrows. We use age-defying cream. And what we can’t change, we hide. We wear a hat. We use concealer. We squeeze into underwear that holds half of us in while pushing half of us out. And when we still find ourselves sinking into wishing we had worn something else, or worked out one more time, or had different genes, we sacrifice little pieces of our life to make the thoughts stop. We exit the conversation politely. We shrink away from an embrace. Or maybe we just zone out, trying to pretend like everything’s fine, but missing the things in our life that are more than fine.
And maybe there’s another choice. What if we can let go of managing our bodies, (and everything our minds say about them), and instead take every opportunity to live the holidays fully from inside the body we’ve got. What if we make a little commitment right here and now to recognize when we are making our thoughts and feelings about our bodies more important than they need to be, and, in that moment, to breathe ourselves back into our skin where we can see what really matters to us.
So maybe, this holiday, the challenge I face is to feel my self-doubt while picking an outfit, and still be present to help my kids prepare for the day. Maybe it’s to notice my insecurity around my beautiful cousins, and also see in their eyes how much love and history we share. Maybe it’s to open up to my thoughts about carbs or calories while thoroughly enjoying every bite of my slice of mawmaw’s pecan pie.
Maybe my job this holiday is not to hide my body, or fix my body, or even to work my hardest to feel good about the body I’ve got. Maybe it’s to trust myself to bring my body (exactly as it is), and everything my mind says about it, home for the holidays.
Emily Sandoz is author of Living With Your Body and Other Things You Hate: How to Let Go of Your Struggle with Body Image Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.