The short answer is yes, but as per usual, there is a heavy dose of nuance when it comes to determining whether one is ready to pursue aesthetic goals. I fully acknowledge and believe that every woman has the right to choose what she wants to do with her own body, but I do think we need to be really honest with ourselves when embarking on this endeavor.
If you’re like the majority if Western women, chances are you’ve been trying to manipulate and mold your body for years, or it was a significant pursuit at some point in your life.
Many of the women in my life and those I work with can’t remember a time when they weren’t actively trying to change their bodies via diet and exercise, and I was in the same boat up until a few years ago.
At that time, I decided that my mental and emotional well-being trumped my physical appearance, and I accepted that I had to fully give up aesthetic goals. I wasn’t sure if this would be a permanent or temporary separation, but I did know that a sufficient amount of space was required to heal.
This space meant:
- Eating according to body signals, not rules set by someone else.
- Eating for enjoyment while remaining present in the moment.
- Sitting with my urges to revert back to controlling my food intake and getting curious about them.
- Accepting the notion that I may gain a few pounds and asking myself how this would really affect my life. Spoiler: I did, and it didn’t.
- Surrounding myself with a supportive social circle and spending time alone in an effort to sift through the layers of my disordered eating, body obsession, and inner turmoil.
- Consciously choosing to not weigh myself or spend too much time in the mirror.
- Exercising out of enjoyment or in pursuit of performance-based goals, not out of a desire to change the appearance of my body.
- Spending my now-free-time learning about and doing things that interested me. In all honesty, the list was really short in the beginning, and this tends to happen when our lives are completely wrapped up in our diets and fitness.
It can be extremely difficult to normalize our thoughts and behaviors around food and to view our bodies through a different lens when we’re in pursuit of the same goal we’ve had for years: manipulating our bodies.
Our brains are going to have a difficult time separating the pursuit for aesthetic changes from our previous habits.
As such, I typically recommend the complete removal of aesthetic goals from the equation for a period of time (which varies for each person). This makes most clients extremely uncomfortable in the beginning, as changes often do.
But if you stop and think about it, the way you’ve been doing it for the last several months, years, or decades likely hasn’t been working for you. So why not try a different approach?
While this concept may provide a great deal of angst initially, the emotional and mental freedom experienced shortly after diving into this approach is often life-changing. Time, energy, and precious resources are now able to be utilized elsewhere, and it can seem like a second lease on life.
This initial high typically wears off after the first few days or weeks, as the diet rules we’ve previously relied on so heavily are gone, and we haven’t learned to trust ourselves or our bodies. The fear of weight gain and the need for control creep back in.
I can’t reiterate this enough: the process of unlearning diet rules, connecting with our bodies, and establishing a trusting and stress-free relationship with food and our bodies takes time. This often means several months, if not years. Still worth it? Absolutely.
I bring up the emotional rollercoaster and the time commitment required for the healing process to illustrate why aesthetic goals are usually not appropriate during those stages. Ups and downs are plentiful, and superficial goals only muddy the waters.
We often think that we can accomplish both at the same time, but the length of time it takes to achieve food freedom is much shorter if we release the aesthetics from the equation.
The ebbs and flows will eventually even out after a sufficient amount of introspection, dedication, patience, self-compassion, and time.
Am I Ready?
Once healed from the tumultuous relationship with food and body, many find the pursuit of aesthetic goals completely unappealing, while others decide to dip their toe back in to the pond of aesthetic goals. At this time, I recommend asking oneself the following questions and being really honest with the answers.
What is the reason I want to change my body?
If pursuing the goal to garner the attention, validation, or approval of others, I’d caution against it.
What do I expect to gain from the physical change?
If you’re expecting to gain newfound happiness from a smaller or leaner body, I’d caution against it.
How will I respond if my body doesn’t change in the way I would like?
If you’re anticipating a reaction of self-loathing and disappointment if your body doesn’t change in the way you expect, I’d caution against it.
Is this desire rooted in how others perceive me? Or others’ definitions of beauty or attractiveness (i.e. if other humans weren’t around me, would I still want to pursue this goal)?
If your goal is rooted in the definitions of beauty/attractiveness of others rather than your own, then I’d caution against it. **This is difficult to unpack, as most of our perceptions of beauty are deeply rooted in society’s ideals. Asking yourself if you would still want X appearance (such as more muscle or a bigger bum) if trends moved away from this ideal is a good place to start.
Do I spend any time or energy feeling guilty about my food choices?
If you’re still attaching negative emotions to food choices, then I’d caution against it.
Do I eat to cope with emotions?
If you’re eating to cope with emotions often, especially unconsciously, then I’d caution against it.
Do I honor my hunger and satiety signals most of the time?
If you’re frequently overriding hunger and satiety cues, I’d caution against it.
Do I feel energetic, both physically and mentally, as a result of the foods I eat? (i.e. am I adequately fueling myself)?
If you’re feeling like shit due to insufficient quality or quantity of food, then there may be a health concern at play, you may still be undereating in calories, or your diet primarily consists of processed foods. In any of these scenarios, I’d caution against it.
Am I able to step on the scale or use another objective measurement with emotional detachment to the numbers?
If you’re feeling emotional responses to the number on the scale or still very fearful of the number, I’d caution against it.
What are the sacrifices this goal will require? Am I willing to accept these trade-offs?
If you’re not willing to accept the sacrifices required to make these changes, that’s completely fair and understandable. The freedom feels so goodJ I’d caution against it.
If my mind starts to revert back to old patterns, do I have an exit strategy?
If you don’t have an exit strategy, safety net, or support system if you start to revert back to old patterns, I’d caution against it. **We can’t predict the future, and old thought patterns can resurface when embarking on goals based on appearance. Acknowledging this possibility is important, as is having a plan in place to manage this potential outcome.
Am I planning to pursue this goal thoughtfully? Am I planning to leverage a coach to guide me through the process?
If you don’t know how to make changes in a slow, balanced, and controlled manner and/or don’t want to hire someone to help? I’d caution against it.
Do I judge the bodies of other women? Or feel badly about myself if another woman is leaner, thinner, more muscular, etc. than me?
If the answer is yes, there is still more to unpack in regards to how you define your worth, in addition to that of other women. I’d caution against it.
Do I exercise in an effort to “undo” my food or drink choices from the previous day(s)? Am I exercising to control the appearance of my body?
If the answer is yes to either of these questions, then I’d caution against it.
The preferred answers to some of these questions are obvious, while others are more nuanced. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to many of them either, but it’s clear when intentions are rooted in negative emotions or external validation. That’s what we want to avoid.
You can see that there are several facets of a solid relationship with food and our body, and the list above could certainly be extended. But these questions serve as a solid starting point for honest introspection about your desire to change your body.
In the end, if you feel comfortable with your responses to these questions and decide to embark on aesthetic changes, then that’s great! Each woman is entitled to making that decision for herself.
My hope is that you allow yourself the time and space to truly heal before jumping into this endeavor. You may begin and quickly discover that it’s actually not what you’re seeking, or you may find that you’re able to keep your aesthetics in perspective.
Please remember that they still don’t define you. They’re just superficial play.