“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” -Leo Tolstoy
“Give us that grand word ‘woman’ once again, and let’s have done with ‘lady’; one’s a term full of fine force, strong, beautiful, and firm, fit for the noblest use of tongue or pen; and one’s a word for lackeys.” -Ella Wheeler Wilcox
I don’t have dainty arms. Let me rephrase. I don’t have beautifully elegant, thin, delicate arms, which I covet. Instead, these are my arms:
They’re muscular and shapely with a bit of roughness. Not exactly my idea of graceful or feminine. Bearing signs of all the hard work I put in over the last couple of years, my arms have become an important symbol for me. From the very first push up I struggled through to the kettle bells battering my wrist, each exercise and its results are a physical manifestation of my internal battle: to be strong versus being skinny. The constant effort I’m putting into each push and pull of the weight goes towards building a woman capable of so much more, both inside and out. I see this and love it, and yet, these arms challenge me. They’re not a part of the package I signed up for when I first started losing weight. I wanted dainty arms. I worked hard to get them, and instead, I have the very opposite.
What makes a woman beautiful? Is it the shape of her hips or a slim waist? Blue eyes and high cheekbones? Long silky hair or voluminous curls? Tall and willowy figure with graceful arms or short and curvy with an athletic build? I ask these questions every single day. I know what I believe; that all women, in every size, shape, and color, are beautiful. There is no one ideal and it’s shameful that we are all encouraged to be something other than ourselves. I get angry when I hear the statistics for eating disorders and how these issues have grown far worse with the advent of modern technology and social networking. Vicious bashing, both self-imposed and by readers, and the so-called “thinspiration” photos posted on various sites across the web are just one byproduct of the struggle to reach an impossible goal because the standard ‘one-size-fits-all’ image of beauty isn’t real. I am fiercely vocal of what body image disorders can do to a person’s psyche and how corrosive it is to self-esteem. And yet, I’m guilty of imposing those same impossible standards for myself because I still struggle to apply what I believe for everyone else, to myself. So, how can I say I really believe in something if I don’t allow it to hold true for me as well?
Here’s what I know. Beauty is all about perception. We each have our own ideas about what makes a person attractive based on our preferences and personal experiences. As much as I’d like to think that when I’m meeting someone for the first time they’re judging me based on my awesome personality, the reality is that we’re more often assessed on the physical. It’s just human nature. We gravitate towards what pleases the eye. But at what point do we say its okay to judge on physical appearances before we get so caught up in it that we end up trying to present an image that we think others want to see? Where do we draw the line between reality and perception?
When I took on fitness as more than just a vehicle to lose weight and made it part of my lifestyle, I started noticing other images of beauty to challenge my concept of physical ‘perfection.’ The rail-thin models awkwardly posed in haute couture were replaced with strong women in workout gear, their abs glistening as they were posed running or lifting weights. It makes sense when you consider I used to work in fashion and now I’m involved in nutrition and fitness. I’m not flipping through the pages of Vogue nearly as often as I am Women’s Health.
The fact is that there is a one to one exchange and neither one is better than the other. Both pictures above feature women, each beautiful in their own way, but representing two very different ideals that are equally challenging to achieve. Either you’re the glamorous yet distant waif or the sexy and playful warrior. Also, both are thin. I can argue over what’s more healthy or how these photos pick on certain stereotypes, but the fact remains that I see these two images and I see something I want and don’t have. It works for me by giving me a fitness goal but against me as well, since I’m admittedly obsessive and self-critical, especially when it comes to my body. The cons here far outweigh any bar I’m setting based on an image I’ve found on the health page on Pinterest. Whether its a fashion or fitness model, I still manage to force expectations on myself by making unhealthy comparisons. In the end, both images are equally destructive if I allow it to go that far.
And I do allow it to go that far. Even now, after all this time and with all the changes I’ve made to improve my health by becoming more physically active, I still find myself standing in front of my mirror looking critically at my muscly arms and thinking that it’s not ‘pretty.’ I’m haunted by these thoughts that I will never look like this idealized version of myself I have permanently etched on my brain. I’m focusing on arms here, but other times it’s my legs, or my stomach, or my nose. I fixate on a body part and tear it up because I always find faults. It doesn’t matter where I’m looking because I’ve torn my reflection apart to the point where it’s unrecognizable. And still I ask, what makes a woman beautiful?
I often talk with my trainer about how women shy away from strength training because they immediately think “scary bodybuilder” and that it’s not exactly sexy for a woman to have muscles. I realize now that it all boils down to the same thing. We all have our ideas about what an attractive woman looks like, and more often than not, muscles get left out of the frame. We can be sexy, alluring, coquettish, moody, joyful, and angry. But we can’t be seriously strong. At least not all at the same time.
I don’t know when it happened but at some point this year, I realized that I wanted to be strong more than skinny. Now, I’m beginning to embrace a new ideal. I make the distinction between the image of the faceless fitness model pictured with the workout and the way my body will look like after I try it myself. I flex my arms now and love the fact that they’re not delicate and thin. They show off strength and they’re a physical reminder of what I’ve accomplished. This alone is reason enough to keep at it, as I constantly forget what my achievements are in favor of hammering down on my failures.
Maybe these strong arms are attractive to the observer. Maybe they’re not. Either way, I can’t afford to get lost in these ideas because the person I have to worry about impressing most is myself. It takes a lot of mental will on my part to keep this from sliding in the wrong direction and I admit, some days are harder than others. When you’ve always doubted yourself as I have, this will take some time.
The upside here is that I’ve proven to myself that I can reshape my mind along with my body. I “tattoo” my wrist with positive quotes to keep me inspired, but really all I need to do is look again in the mirror and take note of my arms. There’s my inspiration. There’s beautiful.
Like looking at the silver lining? Share yours with Bonnie at Recipes Happen every Saturday. Enjoy your weekend and remember to keep paying it forward.