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Reconciling with our bodies

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - July 28, 2020 - 12:00am

There are few topics as enticing to people as relationship status. Whether it be celebrities, friends, fictional characters relationships make people talk. Hardly surprising, given the importance given to friendships, families, and romance in our society.

But one of the most important relationships we have is also one that few of us ever speak about. It is the very first relationship we form, and usually one of those most in need of repair. No, not our relationship with our parents (although that description could be apt for many) but an even more primordial one: our relationship with our bodies.

At first our relationship with our bodies is purely utilitarian. We learn how to crawl, to walk, to feed ourselves, to make the precise movements necessary for eating and writing on our own. But as we get older and begin to absorb the values of society, our relationship with our bodies changes. The value that our culture places on physical attractiveness plants itself in young minds and skews them. Many cultures link physical attractiveness with the likelihood of romantic relationships, and romantic relationships in turn with love and one’s worthiness to be loved. We are inundated with messages that only those with looks that match a certain ideal will receive their happily ever afters. And these ideals are more often than not constructed to be unachievable, whether these be hyper-sexualized artwork, or bodies recorded only after months of unhealthy training regimens (or even photoshopped). When we are constantly held up against an impossible ideal, when we are told it is that ideal that guarantees love and success, the negative effect on our self-esteem is catastrophic.

The recent movements toward self-love and body acceptance are radical because we are constantly bombarded by messages telling us that we are – as we are now – unworthy of love.

Philippine culture is unfortunately rife with these messages. We see that in the stories told in our books and movies, in the bodies portrayed in whitening commercials and clothing ads, and in the comments from our titas and titos: “Ang taba mo na!” “Umitim ka uli!” “May boyfriend ka na ba?” Social media has only expanded the reach of these messages, and no one is safe from body shaming internet – not a former Darna, not a former Miss Universe. One can only imagine how much harder it is for those with bodies farther from the supposed ideal, or those with disfiguring or debilitating illnesses. When it seems like our bodies are what is keeping us from happiness, it’s easy to hate our bodies.

But our relationship with our bodies is not like every other relationship. We are more than our bodies, but our bodies are an essential part of who we are, and when we hate our bodies, we hate ourselves.

This is a large reason why those who claim to shame other people’s bodies “for their own good” are, at best, being counterproductive. There are multiple reports that “fat shaming” – one of the most common forms of body shaming – does not actually move targets to engage in healthy behavior. In fact, quite the opposite. Makati Medical Center has a statement on fat shaming that points to a study that children exposed to fat shaming actually gain more weight, amongst other negative effects. Other literature points to an unhealthy body image leading to a variety of mental and eating disorders, from anorexia to bulimia, all of which are destructive to health. When your body is the enemy, it’s easy to give in to the temptation to punish it, even if that means that it is “you” that feels the pain.

But your body is not your enemy. Your body is not only a miracle of nature, it is also your first and most loyal ally. Our success is the success of our bodies, and caring for our bodies is one of the best ways we can care for ourselves. In that sense, the growing body positivity movement is not just a reactionary fad – it is a lifeline for those who have been told their lives are less valuable than others.

Yet for the body positivity movement to be truly empowering, it must resist the temptation of being co-opted into yet another hashtag for corporate brands to sell products to consumers. Marketing campaigns that hop on the idea of “loving yourself” can help raise awareness, but they seldom use models that the common customer would find truly ugly or deviant. Any movement that is aimed at the acceptance of bodies must take aim not just at individuals, but at the institutions that discriminate against bodies, that marginalize them, and that spread the message that only certain kinds of bodies are acceptable, healthy, lovable.

It is imperative that those in the media and advertising industries be made aware of their responsibility to more accurately represent the diversity of human forms, health, and beauty. Extra care should be taken to avoid harmful stereotypes or the portrayal of natural bodily changes – such as aging – as abnormal or problematic. Schools should be encouraged to teach media literacy from a very young age, to better allow children to correctly process and contextualize the problematic messages that they will be exposed to from media, their families, and their peers. Social media platforms should be pressured to have better and more coherent mechanisms for reporting and deleting harassment. We cannot expect individuals to love their bodies as they are when the world seems to be screaming at them to change.

Yet, at the end of the day, we are the ones who must take the final steps in repairing our relationship with our bodies. It won’t be easy. I have lived with lupus for 13 years and because of that, my own relationship with my body has been fraught. Like any relationship it will have its ups and downs. It will require commitment: not to fad diets or unsustainable workouts,  but a commitment to do right by one’s body, to give it what it needs, to listen to it when it communicates – even if the only way it can do so is through pain.

But I promise you this: our bodies are trying as hard as we are to survive, and to thrive. The better care we take of our bodies, the better allies they will be.

Our bodies, whatever their shape, color, size or ailments… are worthy of love.

And so are we.

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