The reality is that except for the relatively few women who look like that "naturally," the rest of us come up short to some degree. And without spending inordinate amounts of time and money to achieve such a body, or without submitting to extensive cosmetic surgeries, we are never going to have what the world defines as an ideal body. Most of us would have to give up so much in other areas of our lives to achieve the ideal appearance that our lives would quite literally fall apart.
But that isn't to say we shouldn't spend time and effort to ensure a healthy lifestyle. There are aspects of our appearance that we can and should seek to change. Much of the information provided by knowledgeable sources can be helpful, but if we only pay attention to what the world says, we can easily get distracted by an impractical and futile quest. Focusing on worldly achievements and acceptance has never been the way to true happiness, and an obsessive discontent with our physical appearance can lead to unhappiness and despair.
One of life's most difficult marathons for women--young and not so young--is that of forming a healthy body image spiritually and intellectually and then physically achieving a body to match. As with actual marathons, this marathon can be demoralizing at times and exhilarating at others. For many of us, this marathon is all about making changes-- changes in outlook, attitude, and behavior.
"The truth is that loving oneself--and one's body--is a discipline all its own. It means challenging the images that the fashion industry has foisted on us. It means ignoring the voices that tell us that being healthy is a distant second to being thin" (Anne Ream, Chicago Tribune, 2007, chicagotribune.com/news/opinion).
Why We Do What We Do
Often the challenges in our path seem insurmountable. We don't like what we are facing. We don't like the time and effort required to make needed changes. Seeking to be comforted or perhaps somewhat "in control," we are often tempted to turn to whatever it is that makes us feel better. In times of desperation or anxiety, where do we turn? Especially when we want to feel better right now! Do we surrender to addictive behavior? Do we go overboard in our eating habits? Do we depend on prescription drugs? Do we write physical or emotional checks that our bodies simply can't cash? On the flip side, maybe we spend too much time and effort sculpting our bodies. Are these addictive behaviors ways of trying to capture an artificial happiness that consistently eludes us?
We must be willing to let go of whatever started us on our road of self-destruction before we can move on.
How much energy do we waste assuming others are thinking ill of us? But of everyone you run into, there are only two opinions that really matter. As we become more in tune with our Heavenly Father and our own personal standards, we come to understand what we need to do to change--on the outside as well as on the inside. Then that energy wasted on what others think of us can be channeled into something positive. Working toward letting go of the world's false image and fi nding a healthy, real you--physically and spiritually--can be an uplifting journey.
What It Takes
Preparation is a determining factor in what we are able to achieve. Daily we are faced with decisions, and although those decisions may seem trivial, they add up. We can prepare to meet challenges or temptations instead of waiting for the crisis to decide how we will react. For instance, how well do we think ahead to what we are going to eat during the day? How well do we plan a healthy menu for ourselves and our family? How often do we plan physical activity, instead of hoping to do it if we get the chance? We counsel our youth to make decisions before they are actually faced with the situation. Do we do the same? Do you say to yourself, "I'll be at the grocery store today; what am I going to do as I pass by the treats section? Can I not even go down there?"
During the time when President Gordon B. Hinckley was encouraging all of us to read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year, two things were at the top of his to-do list each day: read in the Book of Mormon and exercise. He felt the responsibility to care for himself so that he could care for members of the Church. And he made time to do it. Certainly if President Hinckley made time for scripture reading as well as exercise, we ought to as well!
There will always be stones, boulders, and at times brick walls to face on our road to well-being. If we are blindsided by some circumstance we haven't foreseen and get knocked down, our challenge is to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep going. As we persevere and achieve small victories, we can feel empowered and gain the strength to continue to make positive decisions. When I am sweating on the elliptical machine or sizing up the hill ahead of me on my morning walk, I sometimes ask myself, How badly do I want this? I've asked myself that over and over and over. When I persevere, I feel greater inner strength and a more robust sense of self-esteem, which has been described by Dr. Steven Hawks as "a sense of joy that is experienced when inherent potential is discovered and realized" (Making Peace with the Image in the Mirror, Bookcraft, 2001, 97).
The marathon task of forming and achieving a body image that is both spiritually sound and physically healthy may take a lifetime. But the pursuit of it has been so satisfying to me that I'm certain it is something I'll never abandon. I refuse to give up. I have found, and I know others who have also come to discover, that converting an attitude from one of indifference and hopelessness to honesty and anticipation will bring about a mighty change that has at its core a greater understanding of who we are and whose we are.
3. Providing Tender Self-Care
Providing tender care for ourselves is a simple concept that can be very difficult to do, and yet is so necessary. Often, many simply get so caught up in caring for others that they don't set aside the needed time to adequately care for themselves--physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Finding what works for us individually is one of the keys. Taking a walk can make us feel especially rejuvenated. So can stopping in the middle of the day to put our feet up for ten minutes. Pausing to plan and shop for a healthy menu may seem diffi cult at first, but it is greatly beneficial. Doing what we can to get plenty of rest or a bubble bath can also make a huge difference. Turning off the radio in the car is a way we can tune out at least some of the noise. Of course, if there is a van full of children along, nice soothing music may have a calming effect! Reading a good book is uplifting. So is quilting or painting or playing a musical instrument. Certainly immersing ourselves in the scriptures, personal prayer, and meditation can help us to spiritually care for ourselves. Does it Really Work?
How do we know when it's working? I've found that as it gets easier to make time to exercise, the more desirable it becomes to eat healthy and spend time reading the scriptures. The resulting peace is sweet to experience, and that reinforces our determination to continue to take care of ourselves.
When I quit making excuses and actually look forward to how I'll feel after a workout or a healthy meal, I not only feel better physically and emotionally, but I know that I am taking good care of this wonderful gift God has given me.
Pamela H. Hansen is the author of Running with Angels and Finding the Angel Within: Spirituality, Body Image, and Self-Worth, from which this article is excerpted.