If you can identify with this, let me ask you to seriously consider these questions. 1) How long have you been working on your Body Project? And 2) Has it ever really felt complete?
My guess is the answer to 1) is probably however old you are minus about 10-12 years, and the answer to 2) is likely “No.”
We had women of all ages at our workshop, and it was amazing to hear how many women in their 50s and 60s told us they have been trying to "fix" their body through dieting for somewhere in the neighborhood of oh, FORTY YEARS! And not one of them was satisfied with how she looked. I can't imagine any other project I would work on for forty years and continue to do so, even when it wasn't working. Yet for some reason so many of us do.
We continue to try to make our bodies into something they're not, rather than realize the inherent flaws in The Project itself. And when it inevitably fails, we tell ourselves that we are to blame for not doing it well enough. If only we had more willpower, or were less self-indulgent, we could finally have that body that we are really supposed to have, rather than the one we have lived in for decades. How easy it would be to continue this mind-set and keep “working” on this never-ending “project" for 40, 50, even 60 years.
Have you ever heard of the Myth of Sisyphus? In this Greek myth, Sisyphus, a king who was a liar and a trickster, was punished by the Gods by being forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again, roll it up again, and back down again, over and over, forever.
Sound familiar? How much time, money, and mental energy do we spend working on our own Sisyphisan "Project," only to be pretty much the same as we were when we started, except maybe a little older.
The problem with spending so much mental bandwidth devoted to The Project is that our thoughts and attention are finite and limited. We only have so much time, energy, and cognitive capacity to think, learn, focus, and be creative.
Think of your mind as a box filled with flower seeds. You are only given a certain amount. Every time you sit down to take a class, read a book, develop ideas with friends or business partners, play a game with your kids, etc.… you are taking some of those seeds and planting them in soil, where they may possibly germinate and grow into flowers that may yield more seeds. When others join with you to share ideas, learn from you, or spend time with you they are like bees taking the pollen from those flowers and spreading it around so that more can grow. Before you know it, you’ve created a beautiful garden, and you really didn’t do much but make sure to plant those seeds in good soil, water them, and give them sun. When we focus that energy on a “Project” that goes nowhere, it’s like we are taking those seeds and scattering them in the desert. They will dry up and be swept away by the wind, and they will die.
Of course, this sets off a whole chain of thoughts and feelings that I am sure many of you can identify with - a toxic mixture of shame and self-deprecation, which leads me back to thoughts about how I really need to get back on track with my "Project," because I've been "screwing it up" lately. In that moment however, I was somehow able to stop myself, see the fork in the road, and choose another path. I reminded myself, "Yeah that woman happens to be really thin. But take a look around: there are women of ALL ages and body types here. Some thin, some average, some above average, because that’s human to have diversity in body shapes."
My next thought was, "You can sit here and spend 10 minutes having negative thoughts about yourself that will make you feel ashamed and depressed, or you can choose to let them go, turn your face towards the sun, and focus instead on talking to your lovely friend who is sitting right next to you. So that’s what I did. And before I knew it, I had forgotten about the other bodies, I had forgotten to judge and shame myself, and I was caught up in a great conversation with one of my closest friends. Instead of taking those mental seeds and throwing them into the desert of depression, shame, and self-judgment, I took those seeds and planted them into our friendship. Not only was this a heck of a lot more pleasurable in that moment, it is much more likely to yield a positive return.
Step one is to make the decision, very consciously, to start a NEW body project, this one focused on ACCEPTANCE. So that no matter what you look like or how far away you feel from your imagined ideal, you commit to work on ACCEPTING your body here and now, in all its beautifully flawed human glory.
The next step is the hard part and may be lifelong project (but one that will help those flowers grow rather than depleting your energy). What you must do is every time you notice yourself having a thought that is related to the “old Body Project,” e.g., “I need to lose weight,” “I’m fatter than my friends,” “If only I can get my stomach to be flatter,” you have to STOP and shift direction. Imagine in your mind that you are walking down a path and you have now hit a fork in the road. You have complete power to choose to take the path of the old project and follow those thoughts to where they lead you (usually some version of, "I don’t like how I look," "It’s not good enough," "I need to make it better, I will (diet, punish or deprive myself, etc.)." OR you can change directions and decide to take the path of ACCEPTANCE.
The bad news is, it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take work and commitment, just like almost everything worthwhile you have probably ever tried to do, like training for a race, being a good parent, or getting a degree. All of these worthwhile pursuits require you to commit over and over again to do the hard thing.
You may need help along the way. You may need to tack sticky notes to your mirror that say things like "You are perfect the way you are." You may want to ask your close friends and family to stop engaging in "fat talk" around you. You may need to read a self-help book or go to therapy. I can't tell you what is going to work for you and how much effort you need to put in, as those are different for each person. What I can tell you is that if you make the commitment to plant your seeds in a garden rather than throwing them away, you will be rewarded in ways you may have never thought possible had you still been pushing that boulder up the hill.