Lessons Learned in Parks Part 2: On Body Image and Body Diversity
If you read or listened to last week’s episode you probably heard all about the happy-go-lucky dog and the fountain kids that taught me a big lesson when it comes to going vegan. In today’s episode and post on lessons learned in parks this summer, I’m going to share what happened when I was surrounded by hundreds of people, within an enclosure, and everyone was wearing swimming attire and having fun in the sun. It of course has to do with body image, and so much of the content we’ve already talked about here, in series like our Bikini Revolution Series (part 1, part 2 and part 3), and our Body Image Series (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4).
One thing you need to know about me is that although I love the fun of a theme or amusement park, and especially the childlike vibes I get from being in a place like that, I also have a severe dislike of rollercoasters, seemingly scary or dangerous rides, or anything that is meant to trick me into believing I’m about to plummet to my death. Carlos on the other hand, loves this! He loves the adrenaline, he loves the paralyzing fear beforehand, he loves the seconds on the top of a rollercoaster and that 3 second linger before the fall. He’s a weirdo. I’m more like a dog, if I see a glass floor with a ravine underneath I ‘aint stepping on that thing!
As with most things between us, we have found a middle ground, and that is the wonder of a water park. It has pretty tall and scary rides, but it has lots of water slides, wave pools, streams with giant doughnuts to sit on, beach chairs, areas for getting some sun and snacks, that I’m perfectly on board with. One thing I discovered this year is I really enjoy those night-time water slides that are completely covered and dark in which you can’t see a thing. Maybe if I’m unaware a big fall is coming I can relax and enjoy it more… who knows. This year we went to one together to close off our last day of summer. We had a blast. I’m proud/terrified to say that I went down all the slides Carlos went down on (possibly because the scarier ones had too big a line), including one in which I cursed him all the way down for putting me through it, but alas, I survived. The biggest lesson was not in that type of bravery though, but in another: because of the fact that we were going to get wet everywhere we went, everyone was leaving their clothes and belongings in lockers, and walking around in their bikinis, swimsuits and swim trunks and nothing else. No cover ups, no beach bags to use as temporary armour, no towels to wrap around yourself, no t-shirts, no shorts or dresses, just hundreds of people, walking around the water park, with minimal clothing and the body they have, out there for all to see. In this day and age, for many people that means bravery.
What I discovered in this magical place I am bound to go back to, especially for the joy of having giant buckets of water dumped on your head AND because of this little social experiment, was nothing short of life changing. At least when it comes to our perception of bodies and body image, one of our favorite topics to talk about here in the blog and podcast.
We’ll get to those lessons learned in a second, but first, a very important exercise that will help us understand it all.
You, the astronaut
I want you to picture this for a second. Let’s imagine you are an adventurous astronaut heading out to explore other galaxies and you arrive at Planet X. It only happens that Planet X is bustling with life, creatures and different species. You’re literally walking around this new planet, filled with technology, its own way of life, and hundreds of beings, completely different to humans.
Some are purple and have three eyes, some are tall and slender and have 5 legs and one eye, some are blobs that crawl, others have really big heads and tiny bodies. If you’re a Star Wars fan, push play on any of the films and you’ll be able to picture this scene perfectly. You’re walking along the busy streets seeing completely different body types, sizes, colors, abilities, and I bet that not once would you place judgement on that fact. You wouldn’t wonder why the green, one-eyed, alien didn’t look more like the purple, three-armed, alien, or why the blob was soft in the middle when the gray ones had skin and muscles that were strong as steel. You wouldn’t ask yourself what the problem was with the gray ones and their big heads and why they couldn’t be more like the blue, perfectly symmetrical ones, with the little cute antennae. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t judge. You would just admire and take it all in.
In the make-believe land of Planet X, there is body diversity, size diversity, race diversity, species diversity, color diversity and ability diversity and you wouldn’t give it a second thought.
To the water park
That day in the water park, in which I was walking around in my new striped white and blue bikini, and I just had to accept the fact that any “imperfections” would be seen by all, I just had to give in. Suddenly I realized that all the women and men there were in the same situation, awkwardly walking out of the locker room, then slowly relaxing as they turned into children and started playing in the water. We were all playing, then all waiting in lines together with nothing to do but look around and at each other. Nothing to cover up with, and no need to either, when you started seeing that we were all on the same boat.
This is what I saw…
If there were hundreds of people there, I saw hundreds of different body types. There wasn’t a single person in that park without what is sold to us as “imperfections”. Every single woman had cellulite, every single man had a belly, slender women had stretch marks, women in large bodies had them too. The woman who had a smaller waist had larger thighs, women who had rounded stomachs sometimes had chiselled arms and vice versa, women with gorgeous rapunzel hair had the scars of a C-section, acne, or arms that jiggled when they waved to their kids in the pool. Men who were tall and muscular were sometimes balding, and men with a gorgeous head of hair were sometimes in larger bodies. There was not a single person there, other than the teenagers, that had what is sold to us. day in and day out, as the ideal. Trust me, we were surrounded by people of so many skin colors, races, genders, people of varied financial means, people that come from very different countries and genetic pools, people with kids, people without kids, people of all generations and ages, and throughout this array of differences, there was every body type you can imagine.
In a moment that felt as if it were moving in slow motion, I had this incredible insight that will stay with me forever:
The body “ideal” that we see, day in and day out, in magazines, TV and social media, the one that is sold to us as the only one that is acceptable, the one they say we should aspire to attain, is the exception. It is not the rule.
It is the EXCEPTION, it is not the rule.
It is the tiniest fraction of the population. It is not us who are the odd ones out, who need to strive to fit into a norm, those bodies are the very rare thing, it is those that stand out as unusual, not the other way around.
We have been told however, that it is people with what I now see are completely normal bodies, i.e. people in all sorts of different sizes and shapes, who need to conform, fix, trim, lose and perfect.
I have talked about body image, body acceptance and body diversity so many times in our podcast, but rarely do I get to actually see, with my own two eyes, everything I’ve read and studied on this topic these past few years.
We were not all meant to have one body, one size, one skin color, just as we weren’t all meant to have the same eye color or hair color, height or shoe size. Why then, are we torturing ourselves permanently, with a non-stop voice that tell us we’re not good enough as we are?
As that day in the water park progressed, Carlos and I got in those giant doughnuts that float down a stream that takes you all around the park (secretly my favorite part of a water park). We were slowly gliding away, with our bums in the doughnut, legs and arms over it, in a slightly awkward position, our tummy rolls squishing up together because of the strange position. I would see it in others and know that others were seeing it in me. I felt normal, I felt that we were all in this together. That there was space for all of us to play and have fun, and more importantly, that no one there was more or less deserving because of the shape or size of our bodies.
How would our lives change if we lived constantly in the frame of mind of accepting body diversity as the norm? Because newsflash, it is the norm.
How would our lives change if we were somehow able to let go of the cultural side of the body image equation, that doesn’t serve our happiness?
What if we lived here, with the mindset we had as make-believe astronauts a few minutes ago as we walked around Planet X admiring the purple aliens, the green ones, the blobby ones, the tall and slim ones, the three eyed ones?
What if we started taking shame out of the picture?
I bet this is what we’d find: more compassion, towards ourselves and others, people who found more joy in movement and a better relationship with food, people who found more moments of joy and less of a need to escape, better self care, and with it, better health.
It’s very hard to find a sense of self acceptance in a world that points us out as the ones that are different or unusual, when the reality is there are all sorts of “different”, and that is the norm.
I’ve lived every day since my adventures at the water park with that image in my mind, and the knowledge that what we are sold was nowhere to be seen, except in the bodies of pre-teens (which says a lot about he beauty “ideal”). There were all sorts of beautiful people having fun there, and everyone was different. None was what they show us in the media.
I think it’s a very important lesson to keep in mind. If we can’t change what is shown to us yet, let’s begin by recognizing it as misleading, demoralizing and alienating, let’s point our finger and say “that doesn’t tell us the true story”, and maybe then we can begin to look after ourselves and find joy and acceptance in the body we have now, knowing we are not the anomaly or something to be fixed, we are part of a world that is full of diversity, and that’s a good thing. We can teach this to our sons and daughters, and we can start taking these images that don’t portray the absolute truth or norm, as just one of the options, and maybe not the one that is right for us. Maybe then we can head out and play in the water, knowing we’re actually all in the same boat, even when some of us are big, small, or somewhere in between.