Your Body: Love It or Leave It

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My e-mail auto-signature reads “Love your body. Love your life.” I think loving your body is a key for health. But in practice, bodies can be hard to love, especially when they’re sick, or disabled, or don’t fit media images of “beautiful.”

Our culture teaches us to think of our bodies as machines. As a result, many of us treat them like we would a used car. And when I say “used car,” I’m not talking about some late-model certified Mercedes-Benz either. More like some $300 junker from the back of the lot that’s not even worth a regular oil change.

We expect them to work and play and absorb whatever we throw at them without complaining, and when they break down, we take them to a mechanic (with a medical degree) and say, “Here, fix this.” We treat them, in fact, the way society treats us: as agents of production, valuable only for what we can do, not for who we are.

But our bodies are not machines, and when you get a chronic condition such as diabetes, you learn that doctors can’t “fix” them. They are living systems, and we need to take care of them ourselves. But if we’re angry with our bodies, or ashamed of them, that will make it much harder to give them the attention they need.

I find that, if I can feel love for my body, I will treat it better, more gently. Instead of driving myself to write one more piece or clean up one more room, I will take a break to lie down or do some stretches. If I get hungry, I’ll stop to eat, and I’ll carry water and snacks with me instead of treating myself like a camel who can plod through the desert without any refreshment.

On good days I’ll take loving care of myself. But on busy days or when I’m upset or depressed, I can kick my body around pretty good. It’s almost like a guy coming home from a bad day at work and taking it out on his wife or his dog. Why would he do that to a loved one? But I think we do it to our own bodies all the time.

How did people get such negative attitudes towards our bodies? Much of it comes from media images of what a “good body” should look like: thin, muscled, usually white, expensively dressed. If our bodies don’t reflect those images — and past the age of 30, how many do? — then we may become our bodies’ worst critics. We may attack them with rigorous exercise programs, unhealthy diets, lack of sleep. Then when life gets too hard, we may comfort ourselves with mega-doses of sugar, alcohol, or other substances without noticing how they affect our physical selves. If we get sick, we may feel our bodies have betrayed us and become angry with them, instead of loving.

Or we might give ourselves conditional love. “Body, I’ll like you at such and such a weight. I’ll love you if my morning blood sugar is under 110; otherwise it’s war!” Just as in any human relationship, neither party will feel secure or loved with all these conditions.

How do we start loving our bodies? I can use some help with this, but therapists and others have come up with some ideas.

One idea is to look at yourself in the mirror and find one thing about your body that you unconditionally love. Tell yourself about it (for example, “I love the way my neck looks.”) Then search out some other parts you like. When you have some practice with that, you can try taking off some clothes and telling yourself “I love this or that part,” and eventually, “I love my whole body.”

Eating disorders counselor Margo Maine, PhD suggests, “Each night when you go to bed, thank your body for all the things it has allowed you to do during the day.” She has nineteen other ideas here. You can try giving yourself a hug, or a long shower or bath. As you learn to appreciate your body more, it may pay you back by working better.

Massage therapist and Zen priest Darlene Cohen says we should “live from our bodies’ point of view.” “Your body doesn’t care how much money you make or what degrees you have,” she says. It doesn’t worry about the future or the past. It only cares about being healthy and comfortable right now. So if we can listen to our bodies and give them some love, we are likely to be happier and healthier too.

If you’re interested, I wrote much more about this in Chapter 7 of my book The Art of Getting Well. But I would really like to hear more from you. Do you think it’s important to love your body? And can you do it?

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