Sunday, February 20, 2011

On aging, beauty, and the battle to love our bodies

I played basketball a couple of weeks ago. It was awesome. (I bet you didn't know that my dream as a youth was to play bball. When I filled out my little fill-in-the-blank journal in junior high, the "I spend most of my time thinking about" line was filled in with one word: basketball.)

But I am not sure playing basketball is in the regular cards for me. I thought I'd try it out. I got bruised and scratched, but that didn't matter much. But the reality that I could fall or get bumped hard and throw out my already-messed-neck did worry me.

I came home and wept. I mourned the loss of my young, vibrant, active, very athletic self.

Maybe I sound like a wimp, but given my chronic health issues, I feel like I have to be careful with this body that is already sort of on the edge. I have children. They need me. I don't need some random injury from Relief Society basketball to complicate my already complicated (and, it sometimes feels like delicate) life.

Having chronic health issues can present a real identity crisis to a do-er. But I'm realizing so can aging. We come here to eventually die, and the natural way to get to that place is through aging.

And it's hard not to fight that reality.

I'm reminded of this amazing talk by Elder Merrill J. Bateman. I've never forgotten the graph that he put up that showed the following:

Data from physiological studies illustrate the muscular strength of the human body from birth to old age. A horizontal axis marks off ages from birth until we die, and a vertical axis measures the muscular strength of the body. At birth a graph line begins near the bottom of the chart, showing how a baby’s strength is small relative to that of an adult. Strength then increases rapidly as the human body develops from childhood to adulthood. The strength of the physical body peaks near 30 years of age. It is well documented that muscular strength in both males and females begins a long descent after 30 as the body slowly deteriorates until death occurs.

(I should note that this talk was given to young adults, most of them single, which is another topic for another day -- re: the importance of the single adult years and critical decisions. For a teaser about what else is on my mind, see this article. Wowza.)

Anyway, this statement from Elder Bateman was recorded onto my soul.

As one looks at the chart, one might ask: Why the long, slow decline? Are there lessons to be learned? The answer is yes! ... As one experiences the downhill portion of later life, the inevitable aches and pains serve an important purpose. They help one put off King Benjamin’s “natural man [or woman]” as we learn to yield to the “enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19). The aches and pains of later life teach humility, the meaning of long-suffering, the importance of patience, and an appreciation for the qualities of kindness and love, and they help one learn moderation in all things. It’s interesting. These are the divine attributes. For the faithful, the slow deterioration of the body serves as a refining instrument for the spirit.

Alas, yet again, we see the message. We are here to learn, grow, and be refined. We are here to become, not just to do.

This ties in, I think, to other things that have been on my mind, like the culture that focuses on physical beauty at all costs. I had the opportunity to interview two women (twins, actually) who are doing doctoral research on media and body image issues for women. (Edited to add this direct link: See more about their Beauty Redefined project here.) The statistics they share are sobering. (Another woman wrote her senior paper on this topic and she also shares a boatload of sobering statistics.)

Other people are also feeling pressed to address this topic. BYU Women's Services had a whole semester focusing on Recapturing Beauty. Stephanie Nielson (NieNie) was their keynote speaker.
(If you have thoughts on this topic, BYU Women's Services is having an essay contest [edited to add direct link]... deadline is March 1. As mentioned in that NieNie video link on, the cash prize is only available to students, but anyone can submit an essay.)

It seems to me that if we are not very, very careful, we can buy into a culture that encourages the avoidance of the very things that Elder Bateman says are designed as part of this mortal existence to help us grow spiritually. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that taking care of our bodies isn't a good thing. But obsessing about not looking 20 anymore, or spending great amounts of time, energy, and money to try to pretend that aging isn't happening is, I think, a real problem. (Again, read the studies these women are sharing. See how it's affecting the rising generation, too. And if you don't read anything else, read this Newsweek article about how girls who are comfy in their own skin at a young age (even if obese) end up being healthier in the long run.)

Our answer is not to fight against the clock, but to work with it. Our strength lies in accepting our mortality and learning from it, not resenting it. Our power lies in having our identity grounded in who we are -- children of God -- rather than solely in what we do or how we look.

It's a battle, and we are bombarded on all sides, from within and without. Truth is power, but we have to really discipline ourselves against our natural tendencies to hold onto youth and ideals of perfection in unhealthy ways.

So, how's your battle going? Do you love your body or is it more your enemy? What helps you learn to accept your body and work with it, rather than fight and resent it?


  1. Here's the blurb from the Newsweek article that really blew me away.

    "overweight girls who were more comfortable with their bodies were less likely to gain weight as they entered young adulthood. The Minnesota research suggests that girls who felt good about themselves were more likely to be physically active and pay more attention to what they ate. They didn't lose much weight, but they made healthy lifestyle changes that at least prevented them from gaining more weight. Meanwhile, the researchers found that the girls who were the most dissatisfied with their size tended to become more sedentary over time and paid less attention to maintaining a healthy diet. Those who were unhappy with their bodies were, in fact, more likely to gain more weight. If the same holds true on a larger scale, then encouraging women to love and care for their bodies—even when they don't match the Hollywood ideal—may be one way to reverse or at least slow the progression of the obesity epidemic."

  2. University of Utah is also focusing on the topic of loving your body: