A couple of years ago when I worked at Cumberland Falls State Park, a young boy and his dad came to a program I was hosting - a craft program that involved making picture frames out of sticks, leaves, pinecones, and other materials found on the forest floor.
The three of us went on a hike and the boy picked out all the materials he needed. As he was building his frame he picked up a pinecone that was quite battered and broken. Next to it laid a whole pinecone. It was, for all intents and purposes, perfect. So, I picked that one up and asked the boy if he would rather use the perfect pinecone.
He looked up at me and said very matter-of-factually, “No, I like the broken ones.”
Tears instantly welled up in my eyes.
A lifetime's worth of wisdom was spoken from the mouth of a child.
A Love/Hate Relationship
We do not always see our bodies for the miracles they truly are. In fact, many of us treat our bodies as something separate, something apart from us, something we have to fight against. I, personally, have fought my body for years. As a teenager, I struggled with an eating disorder while I tried to navigate society's definitions of beauty and wellness alongside what was true for myself.
As an adult, I have had to endure the pain and discomfort of endometriosis - a disease that affects the reproductive system of women and is only “curable” with a full hysterectomy. There are treatments and medications that help with pain management, but those can be harmful in other ways. Overall, not much is known about this disease and there is not a lot of research going into it at this point (funding for research was actually cut under the current administration if you can imagine).
Dealing with pain that, at worst leaves me crumpled in a heap on the floor and, at best, trying to smile through the grimaces, has caused a great amount of distrust and disconnect between me and my body. I have often caught myself cursing particular areas, wishing I could trade old parts in for new ones that work better, and ultimately being angry at my body for it’s apparent brokenness.
Culture & Body Image
The idea of the so-called “perfect” body is ingrained in our culture; intertwined with every message about health, beauty and worth. We have done ourselves a great injustice by accepting one body type as the universal ideal. In doing so, we have disregarded what is unique and miraculous about an individual and tried to fit everyone into the same cookie-cutter mold.
This has created harmful misconceptions surrounding body image. As many of us try and then fail to fit into our culture's idea of beauty and wellness, we blame our bodies. We cause harm to our bodies through starvation, unhealthy fitness regimes, and the yo-yo effect of diet fads we can never seem to stick with.
When we have chronic pain or other ailments, we blame our bodies. Rather than learning the miraculous mechanisms that protect us, heal us, and makeup who we are, we instead learn to separate the parts of ourselves we do not like and try to change them. Society and the media we consume perpetuates this cycle with their limited and skewed definitions.
It has not always been this way, though. We do not come into the world believing we are broken.
Oh, To Be Young Again
When I was young, let’s say under the age of eight, I had the utmost confidence in my body. I did not compare what I could or could not do to what others could do. I did not think about beauty as having a definition or standard. I did not feel separate from my body. My body was not the enemy.
Most children are this way.
I do not have children of my own, but I spend a good amount of time around kiddos. My three-year-old niece greets every moment as if it is full of possibility. In my time with this wildling I have found myself pondering a thought – children have an incredible ability to be present, to be in their bodies, to be in awe of their bodies. She dances and sings off-key, splashes in puddles wearing a new dress, and picks out clothes an adult would label a fashion faux pas.
She is free of shame. Free of societal definitions of beauty, health, and worth. Somewhere along the way, though, something happens to such audacity. Our childhood wonder is not allowed to grow with us into adulthood. Somewhere along the way it is stripped from us as we come to understand that perhaps we do not fit our society's mold, as we come to see our pain and our changing, aging bodies as broken.
I shudder to think of this happening to my niece.
Changing the Narrative
The beliefs and assumptions that cause us to treat our bodies as the enemy are grossly entangled in the world we live in. But this does not have to remain true. We can flip the narrative. We have to flip the narrative, so that shame will no longer be the driving force of how we live and, especially, how our children live.
One of my personal heroes, therapist and author Dr. Hillary McBride, has put her life's work into challenging and changing this mindset. In her book (which I highly recommend), Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image, McBribe poses a powerful possibility -
Perhaps it might seem more far off than possible at this point, but I believe that when we tell the next generation of women (and ourselves at the same time) that all the changes they are going to go through are not awful but actually normal, important and even beautiful, we might be able to eradicate from the next generation of girls and women the shame that we have learned to feel about ourselves in our bodies.
Read that again.
How impactful would it be if you came to understand the utter magic of your body - in all of life’s stages. If you could be present in and feel safe in your body. A lot of the distrust and disconnect I felt within my own was due to fear. To me, it seemed my body had betrayed me by not fitting the proverbial mold and by causing me pain. My body was not safe.
Understanding, however, that pain, fear, and anxiety are all mechanisms my body uses to protect and not fight me, has brought on renewed respect and appreciation for the vessel that is me. I am coming to understand that my body is not separate, it is not like yours and there is no single standard of beauty or wholeness. All bodies are miraculous.
Lessons From Children & Pinecones
When that little boy told me he liked the broken pinecones, I realized brokenness and perceived perfection are relative. Society glorifies the young, thin, and able, but that puts people in an impossibly small box. Our bodies age and fluctuate in size, they experience pain and even trauma. What if rather than feeling shame for these things, you thanked your body for healing and protecting you, for carrying you through this life.
This is how we change the narrative for ourselves and for our children.
Your body is not your enemy - the narratives that have turned you against your body are. You are not broken - the system that made you believe you are is broken. Your body is good. Beautiful. And telling a unique story.