How do I look? Am I beautiful? Am I attractive? — Common questions that usually run through everyone’s minds. These questions can become so essential in our lives that we begin to define ourselves through our appearance and let it determine who we are. For a long time in my life I questioned my beauty and attractiveness. I was never sure if I was beautiful or attractive enough and with time this thought became so strong that I started to define my self-worth through my looks. I was always told that I was too fat and that I should control my body weight. School mates pointed out that my eyes were too big and my hair too curly. When I was pregnant with my teenage son, I got a lot of stretch marks which added up to my poor self-image, although I really enjoyed being pregnant. But apart from my hair or eyes which I have learned to really love in my late teenage years, I continued feeling very ashamed for my belly. For around 10 years I did not even go swimming, nor did I wear any clothes that even showed a slight bit of my body. But now you can see pictures of me showing my belly on Instagram and until a month ago, even at the photo exhibition Emody Yourself at the Café Central of the University of Göttingen. It took a lot of time and courage to change my body image. So how did this happen?
My story began last year. I was always scared that I was not enough for my partners. Sometimes, I even wondered if anyone could ever accept me for how I look and I felt as if my appearance was the reason for each rejection I had ever faced in my life. Last year then my fear came true – I was with a guy who could not accept my body the way it is. At that point in my life I hated my body. Thoughts like: „If I did not look that way he would have loved me,“ were running through my mind and I struggled with my self-confidence and my self-esteem. The worst part was that I understood him and his feelings, until I realized that by understanding him, I was superficial myself because I believed more in his negative perception of me instead of figuiring out my personal opinion about myself and my appearance. And instead of looking at myself with love and compassion, I projected all his negative emotions on me. That was the moment in my life where I knew that I had to change my attitude toward my appearance. I did not want to define myself through that anymore, neither I wanted others to define me through my looks anymore. I realized that change on the outside was only possible if I changed from the inside. I was determined to change but I was not really sure how to start. That is when the Body Positivity movement crossed my mind, so I decided to get more knowledge about it.
The term Body Positivity first came into existence in 1996 in relation to eating disorders, especially with focus on the treatment of anorexia patients. Its approach was to take away the focus from excessive control over body weight caused by eating disorders. Since then the Body Positivity movement became a voice and a medium for many people – in particular for women – to show that beauty is not dependent on how much we weigh but on accepting ourselves, no matter what size we fit in. Nowadays, we can see that several fashion companies took up on this movement and decided to book and involve more plus size models. The demand for the depiction of women the way they really look is rising which encourages the companies to use less airbrushing for the photos. Today though, it is not very clear what Body Positivity really stands for as many interpret it differently. For instance, fitness models post before and after pictures of themselves, to show how much weight they have lost and label it as Body Positivity. This gains a lot of critique, as to many it does not represent the core meaning of being positive about ones body. Besides, although Body Positivity stands for including any person, no matter what they look like, especially trans-women, disabled women and women of color feel excluded as they feel that mostly plus size, white, and pretty women are depicted under the label of Body Positivity. Furthermore, many felt that the focus of the Body Positivity movement laid on loving ones body unconditionally which they could not identify with either as to them they rather felt neutral about their body and neither loved nor hated it. Therefore, they found Body Neutrality more suitable for themselves. The Body Neutrality movement stands more for accepting ones body the way it is. It aims to encourage women to spend less time on concentrating on their bodies and freeing up their minds to also think about other things than just their weight.
When I started the journey to myself, I had not heard about Body Neutrality. I liked the core thought of Body Positivity but there were a few aspects which I could not identify with either. Firstly, I found the thought of unconditionally loving myself very overwhelming since, I was just at the beginning and wanted to reach acceptance first. Secondly, I could not identify with many plus size women as my main problem were my stretch marks that are all over my belly. No matter if I was fat or thin, these stretch marks would always remain and my skin would never recover. So I thought of my own feeling toward my body and I was ready to feel whatever emotion would occur when looking at it. All kinds of feelings occurred: hate, disgust, shame, self-pity. After I felt all of that, I was asking myself if my body really deserved that I felt this way about it and how I could change that. I started thinking about why my body even looked this way and about my life. When I looked at my son, I thought that I carried him in this body which was wonderful and beautiful. I remembered that I did not even for a second think about what my body looked like during my pregnancy and how it was changing. I thought about all the torture my body had to go through after the pregnancy because I was trying one diet after another and gaining and loosing weight all the time to try to fit into some beauty standard. It was exhausting and devastating because no matter what I tried my belly just always looked the same to me: So I let my body tell me its story and step by step I felt more and more empathy for myself.
During my journey I decided to share my feelings and my process of acceptance. At the same time I also wanted to give others a chance to share their story and to express themselves. I initiated the photo project Embody Yourself which aimed to depict people the way they really are, without altering their alleged flaws and without targeting any beauty standard. All in all 16 people took part in it, among them, myself. To me it was also important to make it available for everyone, regardless of gender or origin, as I felt that not merely women struggled with self-acceptance but everyone did. I handed out flyers to find participants. I told them that they can show whatever they would like to show: Something they might like about themselves or something they did not like but have learned to accept. The project got its very own dynamic and the result was beautiful. I imagined that most participants would predominantly focus on their looks and bodies but all of them expressed their very own interpretation of Embody Yourself: They expressed their passion for guitar playing, acting and yoga, one couple addressed the sexualization of the female body by showing themselves shirtless. The great thing about the photo project was that it approached different kinds of things and that it was showing the inside to the outside.
I believe that we all think too much about what we look like or should look like. We seek perfection not merely in us but also in others. Natural changes of the body often interfere with our imagination of perfection. But we cannot deny nature. We should reach acceptance of these changes. Just imagine a person you really love, whoever it is: your partner, your parent, your child, or a friend. Have you ever even thought for a second that they are not beautiful? Don’t you even sometimes think that especially their imperfections make them beautiful? We look at them with love and compassion and we should learn to look at ourselves exactly the same way.
Of course there will still be days when nothing feels good or right. You will not feel beautiful or strong and the whole journey of acceptance will seem useless and that is okay. Like with many other things in life, there are good and bad days. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I feel like the most beautiful woman in the world and at times I wake up and do not even want to look at myself. But deep inside I know that I am fine and loved the way I am. We determine who we are and who we want to be, no one else does and we should never give anyone the power to do so.
Through my photo project it was my aim to depict people the way they really are without labeling them in any way. I hope that people will reflect themselves and their attitude toward the looks of others. I hope that others, who believe that they do not match some alleged beauty standard, will realize that they are just fine the way they are. Acceptance is all about knowing that we are great and beautiful, even with all our imperfections. In the end it is not about how we look, but what we love, what we are passionate about, and our attitudes. We are all unique in our own way and this is truly beautiful.