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Your body is not the enemy [Commentary]

It has taken me almost 50 years to realize a very basic concept: I should be grateful for my body and not despise it. Yet there are times like the beginning of summer and swimsuit season where I struggle for rationality.

My body has, after all, carried me around faithfully for almost half a century. It has fought off infections, borne me up through fatigue, stress and trials. It has brought four healthy boys into the world and nursed them with vital nutrition, and it has supported me as I faced the challenges of being a working mom.

Like most women, I understand that hating my body isn't right. This persistent tape plays over and over in my head, and it's hard to stop it. You're too fat. Your stomach looks like you're pregnant. Your fleshy arms are embarrassing. Is that a double chin?

As of May 17th, I'm officially stopping the tape. That was the day I read about a woman named Taryn Brumfitt. She is leading a "Body Image Movement" to get women to change how they see themselves. I watched a short video, and as I saw the women describing their bodies with such disgust and revulsion, I thought I'm not going to do that anymore. How sad that all these women, myself included, disparage their bodies.

After teen struggles with never being thin enough (weighing 72 pounds), I've decided to see my body as valuable and precious. It is a gift — even with an extra 15 pounds and age changing me more than I expected.

Recently, since this epiphany, I've thought more about being healthy versus weighing my dream weight. I've thought about exercising for stress reduction and a balanced life versus perfect body parts.

Another wake-up call came when I started having chest pains. I've always been fairly healthy, so it was disconcerting. I haven't gotten all the test results, but something really struck me when I was on the treadmill for the stress test. A small sign in front of me said one hour of exercise beats 24 hours underground. How can you argue with that?

When you face a health crisis, small (as mine is) or large, you don't think about whether you have a Hollywood body. You don't think about fitting into a bathing suit. You think about how incredibly important your organs and body systems are. All of a sudden, your body is not just a display case. It is a vital life-sustaining vessel that deserves to be revered, not despised.

Feeling my chest tighten and squeeze and the accompanying fear and discomfort put things into perspective. As the nurse said, "All anyone really needs is an hour of movement a day." I thought, I can do that! I don't have to be tiny. I don't have to look like a model. I can move my wondrous, miraculous body an hour a day.

And I got to put that into practice right away when the hotel I was staying at had an elevator that didn't work. Seven flights of stairs several times a day is a start.

For years, I've railed against Hollywood and Madison Avenue about the unbelievable, unhealthy women they portray as goddesses. I've applauded online campaigns and dutifully posted videos depicting the distorted and disturbing visions of female beauty.

But after years of these campaigns not stopping the madness, I think we have to take stronger actions. We have to take it to the streets. To every home, to every mirror. We have to make personal campaigns not to accept these lies, not to internalize the devastating messages.

If we are going to take back our bodies, take back our self-respect, it will require vigilance. It will require conscious effort. We will need to watch what we say to ourselves and others — that means refusing to join in when a female friend belittles her image.

From the moment a girl is born, she is bombarded with unrealistic images of what she should look like and how she should act. They are destructive, demeaning messages that cause her psychological and physical harm, and we shouldn't tolerate them.

Perhaps we can leave a better legacy to the next generation. We can teach them about health and movement. We can teach them to value their bodies. We can teach them about true beauty, which has nothing to do with size.

Em Powers Hunter is a writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, USA today and Christian Science Monitor. Her email is powershunter@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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