You’ve been with me for as long as I can remember. When I was little I remember how much I loved to swing with you towards the sky and run with you across the baseball field at school. You carried me down ski slopes and to the depths of the lake in the summer. You miraculously held my children and brought them into the world. You have quietly borne the pain of my pre-dawn spinning classes and insane runs through snow.
Sometimes I mistake you for myself, but then I remember: You are temporary. You are a tool.
The world around me seems to believe that you are everything. And that is one of the greatest challenges I face each day: taking care of you but living for my soul. I can’t see my soul. It doesn’t demand my attention the way you do. You’re always needing something. Food. Water. Rest. Exercise. Clothes. If I’m not careful, you become the focus. You become the goal. That’s why I am writing to you. So that I can remind myself what your purpose is and what I’m here for.
There have been colorful posters recently in the subways and on the buses in New York City. There are little girls pictured on the posters, playing musical instruments, kicking a soccer ball, smiling in the sun. In huge letters across the photographs are these words: “I’m a girl. I’m a leader, adventurous, outgoing, sporty, unique, smart and strong. I’m beautiful the way that I am.” These signs are part of the new NYC Girls Project,* which is a campaign created to deal with the issue of self- esteem and body image. Judaism teaches us that we are created in God’s image. We have beauty within us. You, my body, are a gift; a way that I can channel that infinite beauty into a finite world.
I’m grateful to you. But I am not you.
Forgetting your purpose leads to a distorted body image which, in turn, creates a cascade of serious problems. Just take a look, my dear body, at some of the damage:
On average, most women have 13 negative thoughts about their bodies every day.
A recent survey by Glamour magazine found that 97 percent of women have the thought "I hate my body" at least once a day. Ninety seven percent! And on average, most women have 13 negative thoughts about their bodies every day. In a University of Central Florida study of three to six year old girls, nearly half were already worried about being fat and approximately a third said they wanted to change something about their bodies.
There are only so many times that we can be exposed to the abundance of distorted messages from the media without being affected. No matter how confident we are, we subconsciously absorb the idea that there is something not right about our bodies. According to a study in Pediatrics about two thirds of girls in the 5th to 12th grades said that magazine images influence their vision of an ideal body and about half of the girls said that the images made them want to lose weight.
In 1975 most models weighed 8 percent less than the average woman; today they weigh 23 percent less. The media today is a far more powerful influence than ever before, more important to most women than the influence of our friends and family.
Dr. Brene Brown, who has researched how this negative body image affects other areas of our lives, writes:
"When our very own bodies fill us with disgust and feelings of worthlessness, shame can fundamentally change who we are and how we approach the world...We often conceptualize ‘body image’ too narrowly – it's about more than wanting to be thin and attractive. When we begin to blame and hate our bodies for failing to live up to our expectations, we start splitting ourselves into parts and move away from our whole ness- our authentic selves."
Body image naturally affects the quality of our relationships. The less confident we are about our bodies, the more dissatisfied we feel about our relationships with others. Often women don’t even realize when they are projecting their negative feelings about their bodies onto their marriages. And women are also heavily influenced by the way that their friends speak about their bodies. If we are around people who are constantly complaining about their own flaws, we start to focus on what is wrong with our own bodies. Because of the emphasis on body image in our culture, we also will begin to notice physical flaws even if we're struggling with something completely unrelated to it. If we’re having a tough day at the office, that will be the time we start noticing that our arms aren’t as toned as they used to be.
Negative body image seeps into every area of life, and this makes my connection to you, my body, far more complex than it used to be. I don’t want to have a love/hate relationship with you. There are ways to appreciate you and treat you with more respect. One way is to write an “I like myself because” list and think of ten qualities not related to physical appearance. That way I can remember that my life doesn’t revolve around you; I have a soul.
Another way is to rethink who we admire; we can consciously look up to people because of their values, not their images and appearances.
Another great way to feel better – and ironically less focused on you, the body – is to exercise. Exercise increases our confidence not only in our bodies but also in our ability to be strong and proactive. It also shifts our focus from appearance to action. One last way that we can increase our confidence in you, my body, is to set spiritual and personal goals that are not related to our appearance.
It’s time to end my letter to you, my dear body. It’s time to write a letter to my soul. Although you may get a lot of the attention, it is the soul that truly makes us beautiful. Just the way we are.
*Thanks to Rachel Cohen Lerner for presenting this campaign and the topic of body image in Judaism at the Food for Thought program in Manhattan.