Body Acceptance and Change: Are they mutually exclusive?
I’m lying on a softly padded table in a small, dimly lit room full of fresh flowers and the scent of jasmine. Vivaldi is swirling around me. The esthetician is gentle, speaking in a low voice as not to disturb the carefully constructed ambiance. And then, just as my heartbeat has slowed, RIPPPPPPP!!!!! She pulls the wax strip off of my eyebrow and with it comes hundreds of tiny hairs that were simply minding their own business, not really hurting anyone. “How does that look?” she asks me with mechanically whitened smile. “Perfect!” I tell her, hoping the bright red around my eyes fades before meeting up with friends.
Eyebrow waxing, facials, eyelash implantation, corsets, tanning beds, liposuction, breast augmentation…. just a few of the literally thousands of ways that humans have found to change their appearances. We pluck and we pull and we tuck and we stretch and we apply and we hide. We change our bodies, and in the process we change ourselves. And so certain questions emerge, like my tiny eyebrow hairs popping up to my chagrin:
Can we change our bodies while also accepting them? Are change and acceptance mutually exclusive?
Fortunately for cosmetic companies and laser hair removal facilities, I believe that change does not have to occur to the exclusion of acceptance. However this simple answer comes with some major caveats, so read on…
When most of us think about the notions of Acceptance and Change, we think of a dichotomy, which is defined as the splitting of a whole into two, non-overlapping parts. We grow or we stagnate. We publish or perish. We like our bodies or we hate them. The problem with this dichotomization is that it leaves no room for other possibilities – like the possibility that two truths can exist at the exact same time. This is where dialectics come in, so hang on to your hats!
Dialectics (à la Plato, Hegel, and even Marx) broadly refers to a manner of communication in which two individuals with opposing ideas are trying to persuade each other (“You’re fine just the way you are!” vs. “You could really stand to lose ten pounds!”). At its core, dialectical thinking involves holding two “opposing” ideas and understanding that more than one truth can exist. To take this further (and this is my favorite part), truth is always evolving. Too philosophical for you? Okay, let’s take it back to eyebrows…
The idea is that both acceptance and change can coexist. In fact, we need both of these stances present to live a more balanced life. It might go something like this: I accept that I have allowed my eyebrows to take over my face and now am starting to resemble a man. I accept that I have been busy with other things that are important to me and have not made it to get this issue resolved. I accept that I was born with thick, dark hair, which I love and am grateful for. I recognize in myself the desire to make a change by making an appointment with the nearest salon.
This is obviously a somewhat light-hearted example, and I do not want to minimize the challenge that lies within balancing acceptance and change. In fact, I would argue that that we cannot move toward real and sustainable change until we have come to acceptance. And acceptance is often the more challenging piece of the puzzle.
Take for example the woman who overeats and has become overweight, or is even suffering from obesity. It may seem ridiculous to think that this woman should work to find acceptance. She has high blood pressure! Diabetes! Cannot keep up with her children! How can she possibly sit back and accept what has happened?
It is important to remember that acceptance does not equal approval. The woman does not have to enjoy the fact that she feels unhealthy. She does not have to believe that hers is the best way to live. She simply has to accept where she is in this present moment. Because, in fact, not accepting where she is in this moment is likely to be precisely what got her to where she is now. Emotional eating, the usual cause of overeating, is all about non-acceptance. It’s a rejection of what I feel in favor of something else. It is the polar opposite of living in this moment. Now, there are hundreds of options for her to change. She could eat cabbage soup. She could elect bariatric surgery. She could get a personal trainer. But until she accepts herself in this very moment in which she is living and breathing, these “changes” are not likely to be sustainable.
The problem with focusing only on change and not on acceptance is that it gives us the illusion that we are in control. We feel powerful and capable because we are taking charge of our lives. But the reality is that we are not always in control. We have past traumas, broken relationships, environmental constraints, and that pesty little thing called genetics. And when the person who gets on the change train without taking the morning dose of acceptance bumps up against one of these issues, (s)he often wants to jump right off because the illusion of control is suddenly shattered. The accepter can work toward growth and development while being at peace with what is. And that is what leads to a little thing we call “happiness.”
So, will I stop tweezing and manicuring because I am supposed to love my body completely and totally as it is? In a word – no. And I feel okay about that because I accept that I was born with certain… traits… that I don’t have to adore. I accept that I will not love every aspect of myself as much as others (and don’t get me wrong, there are many I do think are pretty great), and I also accept that each aspect in some way adds to the mosaic that is me. And I also accept that my eyebrow waxer is pretty much my best friend and should be on speed dial.
So, I will leave you with a brief but powerful prayer (or affirmation, mediation, or however you would like to think of it) that speaks to the peace that can be found in striking this balance:
Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can, and
Wisdom to know the difference.