Subtitle: Finding Beauty In Yourself by Finding Beauty in Others

A really common, valuable piece of advice that is given to women is, “Stop comparing your body to other women’s bodies!” I think this is really important advice. Constantly comparing ourselves to other women in order to find our what’s wrong with us? That’s dangerous, dehumanizing behavior. Whether we’re comparing ourselves to the women in our real lives that we perceive as perfect, or to magazine ads and movie stars, that can be really bad for our mental health.

However, I’d like to suggest that comparison can be a good thing, if we approach it a little bit differently. Let me explain why.

First, think about this. So often, when people talk about the perception of fatness, the language includes things like this:

  • I felt so fat, even though I knew I wasn’t.
  • No, no! You’re not fat! Don’t think like that.
  • It didn’t matter what I really looked like–when I looked in the mirror, I saw a really fat person staring back at me.
  • I can’t believe I’ve gained ___ pounds. I’m getting so fat.

You know what one of the big problems is with these? It’s not just that women who think like this have a misunderstanding of what they look like. It’s that we are trained to perceive being fat as a terrible, terrible thing that must be avoided at all costs.

Being really sad about gaining weight only makes sense if we equate being fat with being unattractive, being undesirable, or any number of other negatives. Let’s say you gain some weight unexpectedly. Assuming that it isn’t interfering with your ability to do the things you want to do, what is the problem with that? Are you really upset because you’ll have to buy some new clothes? Or that your body is shaped slightly differently than it was before?

My guess is that while those things factor in, most women fear gaining weight because we have been taught that fat is ugly, fat is bad.

Let’s reject that notion! Say what you want about potential health risks (which are certainly debatable!), let’s at least reject the idea that fat is ugly. Perhaps if we took away the terrible stigma associated with being fat, we could eliminate some of the fear and anxiety women feel about gaining weight or being fat.

What does this have to do with what I’m calling “beneficial comparison”?

It’s simple: We need to retrain ourselves to see all bodies as beautiful–even the ones that society tells us are not. We spend so many hours of our lives being exposed to “perfect” bodies in advertising, movies, TV, and real life–what if we purposefully started exposing ourselves to other bodies? If we intentionally thought about the beauty of other women’s bodies in an attempt to be more generous about our own?

There are a lot of ways to do this.

First, try to reduce your exposure to images of “perfect” women.

Avoid gossip websites and magazines that ridicule women’s bodies. If it makes you feel bad about yourself to read fashion magazines, don’t read them. If some “perfect” body is naked (or nearly naked) on your theater screen, find something else to look at for a minute. Another tip: if you used to look different–and in your mind, better–at a different time in your life, try not to dwell on photos from that time and wish you were back there. Back then, you had not lived any number of experiences that you have now gone through. Your body carries a story, and the story has gone on since those photos were taken. Don’t wish you could go back in time. Live now.

Second, look for women in your life that you view as beautiful, even though they don’t fit traditional beauty standards.

Watch for them at work, at school, and in your family. Take note of them. Instead of thinking of the women on TV as perfect, begin to see the perfection in the real bodies around you. Bodies that are fat, thin, curvy, straight up and down. Bodies with big butts and tiny boobs and hips. Bellies paunched from carrying babies. Is there a picture of your mother or grandmother, or perhaps someone else in your life whose body isn’t “perfect” but is beautiful to you? Find whatever real-life sources you need to find in order to start recognizing that yes, bodies are beautiful.

I love this photo of my Grandma Millie at the beach. She does not have the "perfect" body, and yet I love what I see here. She is beautiful.

I love this photo of my Grandma Millie at the beach. She does not have the “perfect” body, and yet I love what I see here. She is beautiful.

Third, use the internet to your benefit!

Find your “real body” at sites like My Body Gallery, and look at those images. Look for what is beautiful in them. If you don’t see beauty yet, ask yourself why. Chances are, while there are some differences in aesthetic preferences between all people, your perception of some bodies as beautiful and some as not is based mostly on what you have been told since childhood is acceptable and unacceptable. Challenge that while you look at the bodies of women like yourself.

Fourth, own the fact that you are beautiful.

You may not look like a model. (Or you might, and that’s okay, too!) You may have big hips or flabby arms or thick thighs. You might have loose skin leftover from weight loss. You might have a double chin, or

These aren’t things that you are beautiful in spite of. They are part of you, and you are beautiful. Think to yourself, “I may not look like [insert your idea of perfection here], but I am beautiful anyway.” Because you are, damn it. YOU ARE. When you begin to reject the notion that only “perfect” bodies are beautiful, and you begin to recognize beauty in bodies that are “imperfect,” you will learn to be more kind to yourself. We can all benefit from being kind to ourselves.

Some important disclaimers:

This is NOT about finding people that make you go, “Oh, I’m glad I don’t look like that!” If you find yourself doing that, you’re doing it wrong. That’s negative self-comparison. That is trying to make yourself feel better at the expense of others, which is hurtful and only serves to bring down everyone.
This is also not about finding bodies that make you think, “I wish I looked more like that person.” If you are still doing that, then this might not be a good exercise for you. This is about celebrating the diversity of bodies, not idealizing one type over another.
This post is not written specifically for people who struggle with eating disorders. While some of these strategies might end up being useful for you, I encourage you to work with a professional counselor or therapist to help you address the way body image and food affect your life. I can imagine that this approach of beneficial comparison, which is really helpful to me, could be damaging to someone suffering from the complexities of an eating disorder. Thank you for understanding.