creative joy, 2012, yellow flower

Every Monday features a tip, activity, inspiring quote or some other tidbit that helps boost your body image, whether directly or indirectly — and hopefully kick-starts the week on a positive note!

Got a tip for improving body image? Email me at mtartakovsky at gmail dot com, and I’ll be happy to feature it. I’d love to hear from you!

In our appearance-obsessed society, we learn at a fairly young age the importance of a flawless figure. We learn to nitpick at our body parts. We  grab at our inner thighs and bash the fat, wondering why we weren’t blessed with a space there. People get liposuction for that space.

We look in the mirror and suck in our stomachs, suck in our cheeks and flex our arms. We try out the latest workout trends to sculpt specific muscles, to minimize the tiny sliver of skin here and there, to shred the excess. And our need for supposed perfection builds and builds.

Perfectionism contributes greatly to a negative body image. It prevents us from noticing and appreciating all the amazing things our bodies do every day, and it persuades us to focus on our faults, and become consumed by them. (And it generously feeds the diet mentality.)

The need for perfection may spill over to other pursuits. We might fear making mistakes at school, work, home or with our relationships. But when we chip away at our messy selves, what’s left?

Jen from the blog MsMorphosis emailed me last month to share a powerful excerpt from Anna Quindlen’s commencement speech on perfection. (The full text is here; definitely check it out!) When she’s feeling less than confident, Jen turns to these quotes.

Trying to be perfect may be sort of inevitable for people like us, who are smart and ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion. But at one level it’s too hard, and at another, it’s too cheap and easy. Because it really requires you mainly to read the zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be, and to assume the masks necessary to be the best of whatever the zeitgeist dictates or requires. Those requirements shapeshift, sure, but when you’re clever you can read them and do the imitation required.

But nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great ever came out of imitations. The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.

The last line really struck me because being so-called perfect is the antithesis of being ourselves. It’s essentially letting outside forces dictate who you are, what you do, what you look like.

Perfection is not the same as striving for excellence. As Brené Brown writes in her excellent book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are:

Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame.

That was true for me. I assumed that if I were model-thin, I’d be popular, successful, happy and no one would ever want to hurt me or criticize me. Why would they? I’d be perfect.

But in reality, striving for perfection creates empty shells of ourselves. And what would the world look like if that were the case?

This quote from Quindlen also gives us great perspective on our inherent individuality:

Look at your fingers. Hold them in front of your face. Each one is crowned by an abstract design that is completely different than those of anyone in this crowd, in this country, in this world. They are a metaphor for you. Each of you is as different as your fingerprints. Why in the world should you march to any lockstep?

She talks about letting go of perfection when we’re parents, too. I’m not a mom yet, but I hope to be someday, and I wouldn’t want to pass down my insecurities and fear of mistakes and not being flawless to my poor kids. I’d feel terrible if they beat themselves up like I did myself. If they nitpicked at silly things like excess skin.

She said:

So that another reason that you must give up on being perfect and take hold of being yourself is because sometime, in the distant future, you may want to be parents, too. If you can bring to your children the self that you truly are, as opposed to some amalgam of manners and mannerisms, expectations and fears that you have acquired as a carapace along the way, you will give them, too, a great gift. You will teach them by example not to be terrorized by the narrow and parsimonious expectations of the world, a world that often likes to color within the lines when a spray of paint, a scrawl of crayon, is what is truly wanted.

So she encourages the graduates to give up their quest for perfection:

Most commencement speeches suggest you take up something or other: the challenge of the future, a vision of the twenty-first century. Instead I’d like you to give up. Give up the backpack. Give up the nonsensical and punishing quest for perfection that dogs too many of us through too much of our lives. It is a quest that causes us to doubt and denigrate ourselves, our true selves, our quirks and foibles and great leaps into the unknown, and that is bad enough.

Like I said before, when we focus on perfecting our physiques (and other parts of ourselves), which no doubt takes a lot of time (and money), we gloss over the more important things, the deeper things. Quindlen said:

…that someday, sometime, you will be somewhere, maybe on a day like today–a berm overlooking a pond in Vermont, the lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset. Maybe something bad will have happened: you will have lost someone you loved, or failed at something you wanted to succeed at very much.

And sitting there, you will fall into the center of yourself. You will look for that core to sustain you. If you have been perfect all your life, and have managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your community, your society, chances are excellent that there will be a black hole where your core ought to be.

You may be wondering, but what if I want to be the best that I can be? I’d like to leave you with Brown’s wise words from her blog:

For many years I believed that being my best self meant trying to be perfect. After studying shame, authenticity, and courage for ten years, I realized that I was wrong. Yes, it took that long. I’m hardheaded and I was very invested in being right. Here’s what I learned:

Being our best selves is about cultivating the courage to be vulnerable, authentic, and  imperfect…

How has perfectionism affected your body image? What has helped you in overcoming the need for perfection? 

P.S., Don’t forget to enter the giveaway and possibly win a body image book!