I remember the first time I was aware of my own body.
I was in 5th grade living through what can be considered “the awkward phase,” when my body wasn’t quite so sure where it wanted to be, much like emotionally I wasn’t so sure where I wanted to be. Friend groups were changing, cliques were forming, and the opposite sex suddenly became relevant amongst my peers. It was then, as I became someone who could be called an “over-thinker,” that I became more aware of the vessel that contained all the essence of me.
A boy commented on my body. On my 5th grade body that was changing rapidly – before my peers – and named that the reason he didn’t like me was because of my body.
I was informed of this in the busy lunchroom at school by a friend who was hoping to convey his immaturity. I remember my first thought being, “Well, I can change that, then.”
This memory has stuck with me as it was my first introduction to body awareness. Before then, my body had simply been a body, this thing that sometimes got sick, sometimes grew, but for the most part was pretty irrelevant in my life. I was too busy thinking about friendship, family, school, Lego, television, and poetry. But suddenly, at that very tender time, I was awoken to the phenomenon that is body awareness, which leads to body-esteem and how I felt and thought about my body.
Today, negative body awareness is happening at an alarmingly young age. I think of kindergarten students who make comments like, “I can’t eat cookies or I’ll get fat”, or the three-year old I once witnessed picking up her shirt and pinching her fat stating, “bad.” We learn from those around us, from the media, and from overhearing conversations, that our bodies are a means of communication, of being judged. Somehow, our bodies transcend from being a complicated shell to overly dissected- not only by ourselves but by those around us.
There are messages swirling around us calling for body acceptance while also providing the “top ten ways to lose weight,” advertising that weight loss holds the key for better self-esteem. What these messages do not include, is the important distinction between self-esteem and body-esteem; that self-esteem, or how we think and feel about ourselves, propels us forward to grow and learn. Body-esteem, how we think and feel about bodies, is natural and normal – we should have relationships with our bodies.
Yet, there is an assumption that if we feel good about our bodies, we will feel good about who we are as humans. That is all it is, an assumption. In reality, individuals tend to care less about body esteem when self-esteem is given more care. The more we endorse the parts of our personality that make us who we are – our interests, character traits, passions, relationships – the less prominent our bodies and appearances will have.
Remembering our first memories of body awareness can allow for a deeper understanding of the relationships that we have with our bodies today. Aiding others in this awakening by focusing not on any one aspect, but on the human as a holistic being, can prevent the trap that so many women face, believing that appearances will propel our level of confidence.
There is power in body awareness. There is an opportunity to learn about all our bodies provide for us and to create discussion around the ways that by “working” on our bodies, we are able to avoid deeper feelings about ourselves and others, an avoidance that can lead to negligence of deeper values. The focus on the body and diet trends and working out creates a common language of judgment: I make an “effort” and therefore I am “good.” These dichotomous labels ignore who we are – our minds and souls – by focusing explicitly on our bodies.
In reality, we are all these things. Minds, bodies, souls, along with a plethora of values and ways that we define ourselves. To limit that definition to a body weight, shape or the behaviors used in an attempt to look a certain way, or to “belong,” limits our existences to a number on a scale. We are more than numbers.
I am not a number. I am not defined by that boy from 5th grade, nor am I defined by my history with an eating disorder, nor am I defined by my current body or my love of doughnuts. I am defined by my values, by my tears, by my relationships, my interests, my passions, and while I am blessed with a vessel to house my spirit – this vessel in no way should define who I am or what I stand for.