I have a confession: I am another young woman with body image issues. There are parts of me of which I am pretty self-conscious. I think my face looks weird in profile. When I wear my hair up, I have a Widow’s Peak that, to me, looks like Eddie Munster’s hairline. Some days, I hate how round my face looks in pictures because of my German ancestry. At auditions, I always hate feeling like the lone Amazonian woman, believing that I can will my 5’10” frame into a 5’5” one. My feet look a bit worse for wear from years of being put through dance classes (including pointe for a few years). And don’t even get me started on my midsection. Actually, don’t get ANY woman started on her midsection, because you will never, and I mean NEVER, hear the end of it.
But guess what? The only person who sees these flaws is me. And the only person who sees your flaws is you. You may think society is telling you that you need flatter abs to attract a Bradley Cooper-esque man in your life, but it’s really just a bunch of magazines that are given money to help promote a bunch of people and products, which in turn, help them stay in publication and in your supermarket aisles. Basically, these magazines have to keep telling you that you aren’t perfect so you’ll keep buying them for their tips and tricks. That’s how they stay in business: by putting you, their consumers, down (albeit in a roundabout way like, “This diet is SO easy! Lose those 5 extra pounds fast and look pretty for summer!”) so they can build you back up again. It’s a never-ending cycle of self-loathing and self-love, and frankly, it has to stop.
Once, I mentioned to my best friend, Hassan, that I hated my profile. He just laughed and said, “What? You’re crazy. You have this cute, little button nose that makes people just want to touch it!” And then he did. “I love your little button nose!” Another time, I bemoaned what size I had to wear at a certain store and how fat that made me feel, and a girlfriend of mine gave me a pointed look and said, “Are you kidding me? When you turn to the side, you’re skinnier than me. I don’t believe that for a second. You’re ridiculous.” While best friends are always supposed to make you feel good about yourself, I also trust these people to be honest with me. When they look at me, they aren’t seeing what I’m seeing. They’re seeing the bigger picture; the sum of all parts.
I will admit that I am a perfectionist. I like things a certain way and can always find things which need improvement; I am never satisfied with the end result. But in this age of self-improvement and health, have we become too focused on the NEED for self-improvement instead of the acceptance of our flaws? Why do we let our minds have this power over us to tell us that we have to look or act a certain way in order to be accepted by the world? To look for acceptance in superficial things promises to be a fruitless search. By placing our happiness in our skewed perceptions of what others think about us, we are producing generation after generation of women (and men too) who are destined for lives of eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and general misery.
Certainly as an actor, I have even more pressure placed on my shoulders to look a specific way, and you’d be surprised how easy it becomes to rationalize not eating this or that or eating at all, working out to extremes, living on solely coffee, smoking cigarettes to curb your appetite, saving your calories for just a night of drinking all for the sake of “your art.” “Oh I’m going in for this role,” someone will say, “so I won’t be eating for the next 3 days!” Recently, I was at a friend’s apartment for a gathering, and someone joked that all they were eating was chips and salsa and drinking whiskey to stay skinny, but I knew it wasn’t a joke. I myself am guilty of making such jokes, when in fact, there’s always a kernel of truth in there. And when we laugh at such statements, we’re actually encouraging this warped kind of thinking; we’re encouraging each other’s body self-loathing.
I’d like to tell you actors spend more time discussing Shakespeare than protein shakes, Wasserstein than weigh-ins at the doctor, Ibsen instead of inches, but these days, I feel like all I hear is complaints about how our bodies are not good enough for our profession, how no one will hire us because we have a few extra pounds around our midsection or god forbid our inner thighs touch. We are obsessed with being “jacked” or “snatched” or having this “Broadway body” instead of being obsessed with text and subtext, story and character, truth, objectives, bringing a story to life. That’s why I got into acting, and yeah, I guess I’m supposed to subscribe to some antiquated standards of what actors “should look like,” but I’d like to believe that my skills and work ethic are what will ultimately keep me working rather than whether or not I let myself eat carbs or do a juice cleanse for two weeks (maybe that sounds naïve, but that’s how I feel).
This is the part where I say something about how inner-beauty is more important and that you need to love yourself and all your flaws. And yes, I believe all those things, but believing them and living them are two different things. I thought I loved myself, but truthfully, I didn’t for a very long time. At age 24 (25 in a just under three months), I am finally starting to accept my body, and that’s only because I’ve finally started to accept all the parts of myself and let go of a lot of the icky things I’ve held onto. It’s an ongoing mental and physical process every day, and some days it’s easier than others, but I can honestly say that I am happier now than I have ever been. I journal, I ride my bike, I take dance classes, I spend time with friends. These are things that keep my body and mind healthy, and I do them because they make me feel good about myself not because they might help me have a Scarlett O’Hara 17-inch waist. I’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know myself the last couple of years, and it’s been hard and scary but also amazing and beautiful. I’ve cleaned out a lot of cobwebs and really started liking this adult I’m growing into, and when you start taking care of yourself, you start to see incredible changes in your life. I wasn’t happy – like real, abundant happiness – for a long time, but then I started letting go of doubt and fear and instead started to just trust and have patience. As those things grew, so has my happiness. Yes, I will always want to change something about my body, but I don’t let those thoughts have power anymore because I know how much better it feels to let go and be happy; to be loved for my mind and heart and even my Widow’s Peak. You’re crazy if you think most people care whether or not your inner thighs touch, and if they actually do care, they’re not people worth having in your life. Trust me.
Yes, I’m asking you to love yourself, but not in the clichéd, hollow way so many of those magazines we buy ask you to. What I’m asking is that we all stop obsessing over things that add no real value to who we are: how much we weigh, whether or not we have six-pack abs, if our clavicle bones stick out enough. The minute we give these obsessions brain space is the minute they take over everything; they’re Dementors, sucking the joy out of the act of living our lives and doing the things we love. When ideas take root in the mind, they manifest themselves in our actions whether we realize it or not. And we let all these warped perceptions of our bodies influence us, we wind up in that endless cycle of self-loathing and self-love I mentioned earlier. Aren’t you tired of feeling like you’re not good enough for the world just because you don’t look like some Photoshopped magazine cover? Aren’t you tired of feeling like some slave to your bathroom scale, nerves always frayed because you’re wondering if the number that appears is the one you so desperately desire? There is always a choice, and you can choose to let yourself be crushed day after day by the weight of these impossible standards of perfection or you can choose to let go. You can choose to take the power back and put all your energy into your work and friends and family and life. On your tombstone, after all, the only numbers that are displayed are the years you lived, not the ones that clung to your body.
I know what it’s like to not be happy in your skin. I know how it feels to stress about whether or not you can fit into single-digit clothing. I understand looking in the mirror and only seeing what’s wrong and flawed. I have struggled (and sometimes still do) with whether or not it’s okay to eat certain things. But I also know that when someone puts their arm around me, they’re not checking my BMI (body mass index), they just want to show affection. I know that all the times I have laughed the hardest or loved the most, I wasn’t worrying about how I looked and neither was anyone else; what mattered was how I felt. That sheer, unbridled joy means more to me than any pants size ever could, and I don’t know about you, but I want more joy in my life…my closet is full enough.
I am another young woman with body image issues, but now my issues are with our images of our own bodies. Yes, you have flaws and so do I, but I want you to know that I don’t see them any more than you see mine. Start telling yourself “I love you,” and the rest of the world (including your mirror) will follow for love always begets love.
I fear these supposed realities are to melt from under your feet and hands,
Even now your features, joys, speech, house, trade, manners,
troubles, follies, costume, crimes, dissipate away from you,
Your true soul and body appear before me.
They stand forth out of affairs, out of commerce, shops, work,
farms, clothes, the house, buying, selling, eating, drinking,
suffering, dying.Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear.
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.”
—Excerpt from “To You” by Walt Whitman