Do We Have to Make Body Love the Goal?

When the National Organization of Women contacted me about today’s Love Your Body Day blog carnival, my first thought was to feel honored that an esteemed organization that has been a part of my life for literally as long as I can remember—my mother was one of the founders of a local NOW chapter in North Dakota when I was a wee one—had put me on their radar. Of course I’d be happy to participate (and I am).

My second thought was: What? I continue to be surprised whenever someone refers to me as a body image blogger. I’m pleased by it, of course, and it’s certainly not inaccurate; I suppose whenever a feminist writes about beauty, the tyranny of the body beautiful organically comes under critique. And while I do have a body-positive spin in the sense that I don’t think any of us should suffer in the name of our bodies—and I made a conscious decision early on to never bash any bodies on here, including my own—less than 10% of my posts here deal with body image, or even bodies at all.

More to the point of Love Your Body Day: I do not love my body, and I don’t particularly want to, and not once on this blog have I said any of us should.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t love our bodies, or at least sound an alarm when we find ourselves treating our body the way we’d treat something hated. But in my experience, the way to experience a relief from bodily scrutiny isn’t love, but not thinking about it so damn much. We’re at our best when we’re in a state of flow, wholly immersed in whatever we’re doing, whether that be our professional work, creative expression, or merely being fully present in the moment and sharing it with whomever is in our company. We’re at our best when we’re engaged—oftentimes engaged with others. Certainly many women treat their bodies shabbily because they’re focusing their energies on others and neglecting themselves; others, like me, start to treat our bodies shabbily when we become too focused on ourselves, allowing the roar of body dissatisfaction to dim out the world around us. And while conscious body love is a better response to that roar than continuing to punish my body in various ways, when I am focused on body love, my focus is both inward and separate from myself. When I file acts of self-care under that of love, it makes my body feel even more separate from my very self, instead of more unified.

Bumper-sticker wisdom aside, love is not only an action word: It is a feeling. I don’t want to have feelings about my body any more than I want to have feelings about my intellect or my voice; I want it to be one part of the entirety of who I am, not something I have to have all these emotions about. To do that I need to care for my body—and I also need to consciously devote my love to things greater than my body, my self. If I keep my body into the category of Things That Should Be Loved, I’m continuing to sever my self—the self that can love—from my body. As with many people who have struggled with an eating disorder, the disconnect between the self and the body is part of what has allowed me to treat my body poorly at times. The times when I’m truly treating my body right are not times when I’ve decided to love my body for all it’s worth, but times when I’m authentically engaged in the world around me.

If that bit of bumper-sticker wisdom is correct and “love is an action word,” that leaves me with little to work on. Care, on the other hand, is also an action word, and one that leaves me with a goal, not an elusive sense that I’ve either succeeded or failed in “love.” Care is a step we can take to make sure that, as Rosie Molinary writes, we are doing “the work we are meant to be doing and [giving] the gifts we are meant to be giving to this world.” At its beginning self-care may even be a way for us to even identify what that work is, something I struggled with for a long time. Care prepares us for our lives’—and our bodies’—greater journeys. My journey does not necessarily exclude loving my body. Neither is body love my goal.

I don’t want to diminish the wonderful work of people who explicitly work to activate body love—women I consider my allies in trying to help all of us not be so damn obsessed with this stuff. Golda Poretsky’s Body Love Wellness, Medicinal Marzipan’s Body Lovin’ Projects—this is good work from smart women, and they’re but two examples of the plethora of body love work out there. Participating in these programs can bring a sense of flow in their own right, and I imagine the power of being wholly engaged with body love is mighty indeed. I know many people have been helped by programs specifically targeted toward body love, and that aid is vital and real—and in many ways, what body love experts are saying isn’t that different from what I’m saying here. As Golda says, “You can’t just arrive at [body] acceptance. If you’re coming from a place of not accepting your body, you first have to swing the pendulum the other way to love.” But the active path to body love isn’t the only path toward a similar end goal, even as it’s alluring when you’re in a place of tumult with your body.

That place of tumult—of war—can be damning, silencing, and most frightening when you don’t even realize how much it can hold you back. I’ve been in that war at times. I know how hard it can be. I know. And looking at body love from afar seems more comfortable than the prickly, unbearable spot of shame that we inhabit when we wage war on our bodies. It is more comfortable. But body love is not the only way to find that space of comfort; love needn’t be the goal you’re working toward. For some of us, striving for body love as our personal pinnacle serves to reinforce the very self-consciousness that prevents us from doing our work in the world. Self-consciousness needn’t be negative in order to be damaging; caring for ourselves can be an act in its own right, not a pit stop on the path toward body love. For if the problem is that we wage war on our bodies, consider that the opposite of war is not love, but peace.

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival.