By Amber Karnes
Two years ago, I went on a retreat with Mara Glatzel. Mara is one of my favorite teachers. She teaches about meeting our own needs and unlearning harmful messages that we are too needy and unworthy of care.
At the retreat, Mara gave us each a gift. The gift included fancy soap, with fancier words like “French” and “milled” printed on it. There was also a gorgeous bottle of handmade body oil. I immediately thought, “OMG these will make a PERFECT gift for someone.” Yeah, I am a re-gifter. Cringe if you must.
I set it aside with the plan to bring it home and add to my drawer of potential gifts. Pretty much immediately I felt a little pinprick of shame. I thought it was probably rude to regift something that was picked out specifically for me and I imagined that if Mara knew I was regifting it, her feelings would be hurt.
And then I realized something. I didn’t actually believe it was rude to regift something. I have plenty to say about how capitalism has influenced the concept of “gifts” in the first place, but that’s not the topic of this post!
What was messed up about this situation was... THE GIFT WAS FOR ME!
It already was a perfect gift for someone. That someone was me. But my automatic tendency was to give the things that were “fancy” or “nice” on to someone else.
I had made a promise to myself that I would lean into discomfort on this retreat and try to learn something about myself and my relationship to my body, so I decided to use the body oil over the weekend instead of regifting it. But I found myself using only a drop or two, like perfume.
My thought: I need to save it for a special occasion.
I noticed that, too, the need to have a “special occasion” to treat myself well. How I hesitated to use the gift in the way that I’d imagine another person using it.
When I give a gift, I often picture the person using the item, getting enjoyment or pleasure from the gift, remembering that I gave it to them, and our connection or friendship deepens as a result. I’m sure Mara had the same imagination about all of us using the things she so thoughtfully chose.
I realized that this was a special occasion. I had been given a gift. The special occasion was me being at the retreat.
This whole thing really captured my imagination once I noticed it. I thought about all the times that I've hesitated to use something fancy or expensive before because it wasn't "a special occasion." I started being in inquiry with this over the weekend and I noticed a LOT of unintentional, conditioned thoughts about my body. Thoughts like:
After all, I have a large body. It takes a lot of oil or lotion to cover all of me. As I was applying the body oil, I noticed consciously, for the first time, that I was only applying oil to the parts of my body that other people would see (my lower legs and feet, my forearms and hands, my chest).
I realized in that moment, that most of the time when I applied lotion or oil to my body, I would only apply it to the parts that show outside my clothing.
No one taught me to do it this way. It was just how I had always applied lotion. Especially when I was “in a hurry”, this was my method.
I’m just gonna call myself out here: I always am “in a hurry” when it comes to my own care. Maybe that resonates with you, too.
Dominant culture teaches us that there is a hierarchy assigned to bodies. Beauty standards (who is considered “beautiful” and who is considered “ugly”) are based on this foundational belief: that some bodies are inherently more valuable or worthy than others. Thin bodies are valued over fat bodies, white bodies are valued over black bodies, able bodies are valued over disabled bodies, young bodies over old bodies, and so on.
All this is predicated on an extrinsic lens or external gaze: other people’s perceptions of your body and where you fall into that hierarchy. Since these beauty standards say that having dry-appearing skin is undesirable (probably because dewy skin reflects youth, which is connected to worth or value in our culture), products exist to solve the problem of dry-appearing skin.
Look, I’m not saying not to moisturize. Definitely do that. But stick with me here so you get what was happening!
I was conditioned to make my body presentable for the people around me.
But the parts of my body that were private to only me, that couldn't be seen behind clothes, weren't deserving of that same love or attention.
The external gaze was what mattered.
I didn’t even consciously DECIDE to do this. Until I reckoned with these thoughts, I hadn't even examined that they were part of my consciousness. But these messages about worth, beauty, and value trickled down to the ways I care for myself (or don't).
It also doesn't escape my attention that the parts of my body I wasn't lotion-ing were the ones I've been conditioned to be ashamed of:
Every day, with this ritual, I was reinforcing to myself the harmful messages about body hierarchy I had been conditioned to believe: which type of bodies are worth care, who this body belongs to, whose gaze matters.
Noticing this was the end of my weird, self-deprecating lotion application technique. No more. Awareness precedes change.
All those thoughts and beliefs were floating around in there, unchecked. And those thoughts drove my behavior. From the regifting of special items, to the thoughts about not being fancy enough to be worth expensive products, to the way I took care of my body’s need for extra moisture: these actions were driven by these unconscious thoughts.
Systems of oppression function best when we internalize the things they teach us about our own inferiority, and then enforce those standards on ourselves. This was literally a daily ritual that served to reinforce the harmful messages from dominant culture.
I hate doing their dirty work for them! I refuse. My orientation toward my own body informs my thoughts, feelings, and beliefs toward all the bodies we are taught aren't "good enough" in culture.
And implicit bias about bodies, including our own, makes its way into our relationships, our work, the opportunities and possibilities we see for ourselves. The assumptions we make about "those type of people" with "those type of bodies" makes its way into policies and institutions and systems.
Diet culture trains us to view ourselves as a “before” picture, one that is failing to measure up to the fantasy "after" picture in our heads.
Diet culture convinces us that “inside every fat girl is a thin girl screaming to get out.”
Diet culture teaches us that our bodies are problems to be solved and projects to constantly be worked on.
Diet culture co-opts the language of body positivity to convince you that self-love really means working on the problem of your body.
Diet culture conditions us to view our bodies as temporary objects that need to be fixed.
This type of conditioning isn't simple to uproot. It’s not a one-and-done. I’d been working on body acceptance for upwards of 15 years by this point. I’d unlearned a ton of harmful messaging. But my work was not done. Shifting harmful body image is a lot like our yoga practice. It’s a practice.
Our body image is not easy to change. It is something that takes daily unlearning and relearning to decondition ourselves from the ways we've been socialized to strive for “perfection” at all costs. These messages are implicit and explicit, and they come from our teachers, families, churches, schools, advertisements, books, movies, yoga studios, magazines and so on. It is layered and complex.
No wonder we internalize our body inferiority so much that we have to perform it as this weird bonding ritual with other people.
No wonder we only lotion the parts of ourselves that others will see.
No wonder we suck in our stomachs to make ourselves appear smaller, which compromises our breath and thereby our relationship with our own heartbeat and nervous system.
No wonder we postpone living our real lives, booking a date, asking for a promotion, planning a vacation “until we lose the weight.”
No wonder when we go on 10, 20, 60 diets and gain the weight back every time, we blame ourselves. Even though science has proven again and again that intentional weight loss fails to stick 95 to 98% of the time, we still blame ourselves, and we try again.
We are conditioned to believe that these bodies are temporary, that these bodies are “before” pictures.
We are conditioned that these bodies are not good enough the way they are.
This is a lie.
I want to tell you a few things that are true, even if you don’t believe them yet.
This body is worth the time and expense of rubbing moisture into my skin, worth preparing meals that nourish it, worth moving it joyfully, worth seeking pleasure and peace. This body with all its stretch marks, dimples, scars, and weird veins is worth showing up for with attention and reverence.
Yoga taught me that bodies change from day to day, throughout the seasons of our lives, and honestly, from minute to minute. Anyone who’s ever done a body scan, done some simple movement, and then done another body scan will tell you how much can change in just a moment.
Change is the only constant. And so while these bodies are temporary in the sense that they are always changing, they are not temporary states of failure in some attempt to win Best At Assimilating Into Dominant Culture’s Cruel, Arbitrary Beauty Standards.
Please stop waiting for some magic moment to come around that signals you’re finally worthy of care. You are worthy of care. Your life is worth living now. In this body.
We have to stop postponing our lives because we’ve bought into the idea that we need to wait for a special occasion (or until we think we are special enough) to enjoy the life we actually have.
What have you been postponing? What have you put off until some magical day when you finally lose the weight, get your degree, have a relationship, have a baby, live in a nice house, have money saved in the bank, or whatever your milestone is that signals to you that you're worthy of care and respect?
What have you told yourself is not for you, not for this temporary “before” person you are now?
When will you use the fancy body oil, put on a swimsuit, dance in public, give that hot person your phone number, buy a pair of shorts, start practicing yoga, go back to school, ask for that promotion, book that trip?
Because I'm here to tell you that this body, the one you’re in today, is worth showing up for.
If you want a little support on this journey, come along with us. We are building a vibrant community around body acceptance, yoga, and social justice.
Making Peace With Your Body is an online course (and a community) where we are working toward accepting our bodies, building unshakable confidence, and living our lives out loud. This course is a roadmap to body acceptance through the lens of yoga philosophy, mindful awareness, and social justice principles. Registration starts October 19.
Amber Karnes, E-RYT-200, is a yoga teacher trainer, ruckus maker, the founder of Body Positive Yoga, and a lifelong student of her body. She trains yoga teachers and movement educators how to create accessible and equitable wellness spaces for liberation and belonging. She also creates community for folks who want to build unshakable confidence and learn to live without shame or apology in the bodies they have today.
Amber is the co-creator of Yoga For All Teacher Training and the Accessible Yoga Training School, an Accessible Yoga Association board member, and a sought-after contributor on the topics of accessibility, authentic marketing, culture-shifting, and community-building. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband Jimmy. You can find her at bodypositiveyoga.com.