Friday, August 20, 2010

Change the way you see, not the way you look

If you watch Oprah or Good Morning America, you may have already heard about Operation Beautiful this summer. I heard about it because the author, Caitlin Boyle, also writes one of my favorite blogs: Healthy Tipping Point. In honor of her book being published, she dedicated a week of blogging to discussing how women need to change the way they see themselves, instead of focusing so much on hating the way they look.
Spring Break 2006
It's almost embarrassing to talk about this, because I'm 25 and married. I have a good job and a good life. Yet put me in front of the mirror for too long and I'll go crazy. Most days, I don't wear makeup. Some people would mistakenly think I make that choice because I'm so comfortable in my own skin. In fact, it's because when I really try to do my makeup and hair for a special occasion, it never turns out the way I had hoped. I get discouraged and end up feeling less attractive than I did before putting effort into my appearance.

I am slowly learning to see the merit in dressing up and feeling better about myself (a 'fake it 'til you make it' approach). But most days you'll either find me in my scrubs, workout clothes, or sweats with no makeup, and my hair in a ponytail.

Amarillo 2007
I'm big on negative self-talk. It's a habit I've been trying to break ever since I started reading positive blogs like Caitlin's, but it's a long process. It doesn't help when I work with all women. As a group, we are catty. We gossip. Not only are we not supportive of each other as often as we should be, but we're often not supportive of ourselves.  It breaks my heart when I see a friend struggling, yet I think nothing of beating myself up for my supposed flaws. I'm an intelligent woman. I know this doesn't make sense. But how can it stop?

Part of my answer is seeing that other women have moved beyond it. Many of the blogs I list as my favorites are more than just food blogs. These are women my age writing about being healthy in the real world-- physically and MENTALLY. They are not diet blogs. These bloggers bake amazing cookies with real butter. They train for and run ultra-marathons in addition to working full-time jobs. They publish books at the age of 26. It's amazing what you can accomplish when your mind and body work together instead of against each other.
Colorado 2009
I took a picture of my own Operation Beautiful note this morning and actually thought, "maybe I should put makeup on to cover this huge pimple on my forehead and the circles under my eyes. I look gross." But then I caught myself in the middle of negative self-talk! Ashamed, I took the picture and walked away.
Ross didn't know this was my handwriting. Boys.
Afterward, I went to my friend Tiffany's apartment to do a ballet DVD. She's the one who got me into ballet back in 3rd grade! We talked and worked out for 30 minutes. Good for the body and the heart.

Early in the afternoon, I took cupcakes to work to say goodbye to my primary and my associate patient. (They both went home on the same day. Work will be sad for a little while.)  I bought a treat for myself, too, and enjoyed it with relish!
Chocolate! Picture courtesy of Dolce Baking Company's website.
Then I went to Lawrence with Ross and hung out at a coffee shop while he went to his first grad school class of the semester. We went to dinner at The Local Burger and grocery shopping at The Merc. It was the most time we'd spent together in a long time, between me traveling and our opposite work schedules. We had fun talking about nothing and everything.

This evening, I was running on the treadmill and it faces a mirror. I could have been thinking, "eww that jiggles" or, "maybe I shouldn't wear spandex this tight." Instead, I only 'allowed' myself to think positive things like, "it's awesome that you actually went running after putting it off all day!" And "look how strong your legs have gotten." Corny as that is, it actually did cheer me up!

There are a few posts from "Change the Way You See, Not the Way You Look" week that really resonated with me.  One was by a mom named Sarah who is raising two little girls. She says she actually wanted to have girls in hopes of raising "confident, strong, and secure girls since I never was myself." She has a few ideas about how to do this, and I recognize these as things my own mom did as well: Value girls for who they are instead of what the look like. Don't talk about other people's bodies. Lead by example. Sarah says,
Somewhere along the way in my first few years of parenting girls, my own confidence grew and my acting became believing.  I thought about how I would feel if my girls scrutinized themselves they way I had.  I looked at their rounded bellies, their full cheeks and chins and their dimply thighs and imagined what I would tell them if they agonized over these “flaws.”  Most of all though, I worried about how I could teach them about valuing themselves and valuing others beyond what they saw in the mirror, if I wasn’t willing to give that gift to myself.
She ends her amazing post by asking, if you could write an Operation Beautiful note to your teenage self, what would you say?  I thought about it, and there are thousands of things I'd like to warn myself about. But considering that most of high school I was very preoccupied with my body, I think the message that would stick the most is, "being skinny won't make you happy. But being happy will make you feel beautiful!"

High school friends the summer we graduated
Looking back, the pictures I love most are those in which I'm happy, regardless of where I was in my body struggles at the time.  I've been relatively the same size for about 7 years now, but that can look very different (to me at least) from one picture to the next. The genuine smiles and glowing cheeks are what make the pictures look good or bad.  With this in mind, I actually like the pictures of me from my recent trip to Texas. I was having fun and I was in a comfortable environment. BLISS. (I'm convinced this is why kids can't take bad pictures. They're always so happy!)

Avery and me at Central Market
On the other hand, it's really hard to like what you see in the mirror when you know you haven't been nice to your body. Most recently, I hated how I looked on night shift. I was always puffy and tired. I ate anything and everything at work just to stay awake. Junk food at 3am makes you feel better briefly, but it makes you feel so much worse in the long run. Especially when it becomes a regular occurrence. Yes, I was working out during this time, but I was unhappy, unhealthy overall, and overtired.

A blogger named Emilie also recognizes this connection.  In her post, she says,
It's wonderful to be positive and to tell women:  "You are beautiful just they way you are."  And I love the sentiment behind Operation Beautiful, but Caitlin's mission, I think, is even more rich than that.  Some women look at themselves in the mirror and don't like what they see no matter what they see, and Caitlin is striving to teach women not to be so hard on themselves.  But for a lot of women, and this was true for me, the negative self image is connected to the knowledge that there needed to be some lifestyle changes.  I didn't like how I looked at all a few years ago, when I also knew that I needed to get myself in shape and start making healthier choices.  Now I'm pretty satisfied because what I see in the mirror, while by no means perfect, is coupled with my knowledge that I'm eating healthy and exercising regularly. 
This definitely clicked with me. I feel better about myself now that I'm running than I did 8 months ago, even though I haven't really lost weight. There have been several points in my life when my negative self image is connected to the knowledge that I need to make some lifestyle changes. It was impossible (and it almost felt hypocritical) for me to look in the mirror this last winter and think, you're perfect the way you are. I knew things needed to change. In junior high, my mom gave me a Christian book about inner beauty and one of the things that has stuck with me is that God can say, I love you just the way you are, and I love you too much to let you stay the way you are. We need to learn to tell ourselves the same thing sometimes.

Florida Keys 2009
The third post that really stood out to me was by an awesome girl named Angela. Her blog is positive, uplifting, and real. She's so good at putting things into words. I read her writing and think it's like she read my mind! She's a few steps ahead of me on the self-acceptance thing, though. Her post was on the idea of a 'happy weight.'  She says,
I always told myself in 10 pounds, I would finally be happy. All I had to do was lose 10 pounds and achieve ‘x’ weight and my life would fall into place. In 10 pounds, I could eat normally, binges would stop, and I could stop hating myself. All I had to do was lose 10 pounds and my problems would be solved. I would love myself in 10 pounds….but not yet.
Sound familiar? I recognize a lot of myself in this attitude, and I'm slowly coming to terms with it. When you think about it, isn't it obvious that when you allow an extrinsic factor to determine your happiness, you will never be happy?! In the end, Angela knows she's at her 'happy weight' now, but she doesn't know what that actual number is. And that's okay.

Here's her Operation Beautiful note:

There's a quote from the book Eat, Pray, Love that I highlighted a while ago (I'd also like to say I fell in love with the book when the movie was just a twinkle in Elizabeth Gilbert's eye). Gilbert is journaling as her life falls apart around her and says,
This is what I find myself writing to myself on the page: I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long. I will stay with you…There is nothing you can ever do to lose my love. I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.
Tonight, this strange interior gesture of friendship- the lending of a hand from me to myself- reminds me of something that happened to me in New York City. I walked into an office building and dashed into the elevator. As I rushed in, I caught an unexpected glimpse of myself in the mirror. In that moment my brain did an odd thing- it fired off this split-second message: ‘Hey! You know her! That’s a friend of yours!' And I actually ran forward toward my own reflection with a smile, ready to welcome that girl whose name I had lost but whose face was so familiar. In a flash instant, of course, I realized my mistake and laughed in embarrassment at my almost doglike confusion over how a mirror works. But for some reason that incident comes to mind again tonight during my sadness in Rome and I find myself writing this comforting reminder at the bottom of the page: Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend.”
Amarillo 2007
Some of the things I say to myself, I would never dream of saying out loud to a friend I loved. It would hurt their feelings and damage our friendship. (More to the point, I have never even thought these things about my friends because physical appearance is not what makes me love them.) So why on earth do I continue to say these things to myself? When it comes to broken hearts, I have no one to blame but myself. Treating myself with kindness should be the rule, not the exception.

Canada 2008
Finally, about my own Operation Beautiful note. The Serenity Prayer is wonderful because it's so applicable to so many situations:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference. 
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

Friends at my bachelorette party in 2008
I CAN do my part to reach out and make friends. I can train for a marathon and fuel my body with real food. I cannot change my weak chin or crooked nose. But with time and practice (and certainly a generous amount of gentle forgiveness) I can learn to accept those things the way they are. I can't change the way I look, but I can change the way I see.

Wedding day 2008


  1. Hi Therese, I found your blog through Brittnye's and I've been reading it. I just wanted to say that even though I don't know you, your words have been very encouraging! Thanks for your honesty and sharing with the world!

  2. I love it. Weight issues are never comfortable to talk candidly about. I don't know how much I weigh because when I did know I obsessed about it. I finally convinced myself to stop trying to show people all the flaws I myself see. If my boyfriend tells me I'm beautiful I try to take him at face value and accept it instead of expounding on all of my own perceived flaws. It doesn't make all of the moments (or days) when I just feel terrible about my body or looks, but it helps cut down on them.