“Sweat like a pig to look like a fox”- so my choice is barnyard or woodland animal?

Welcome to January! The month where the blues are not just a music genre, where everyone is extremely dissatisfied with how much they indulged themselves over Christmas and self-improvement is the word of the moment. It is always a very interesting month I find. Normal life resumes and New Year’s Resolutions are dug out from last year and recommitted to. Habits we would like to eradicate or hobbies we would like to take up are widely discussed and attended to. Our increasingly individualistic world no longer needs institutions such as the church to give us meaning and focus in life, now we have to find purpose in other things such as wealth, relationships and the cultivation of the self and our physical presence. There is no higher representation of who we are than what we look like on the outside, at least that is the belief by which most of the world lives now. Nobody can escape the scrutiny and obsession with body image in our culture or deny that they have felt more than encouraged by society to lose that bit of weight usually put on over Christmas.

Because it is January and a great many people I know are aiming to be more health conscious I thought I might write on how fitness has become a large part of our lives both in the literal way and in the social, online presence way. We have moved into a more self-aware, health-conscious world. One where organic eating is more popular than fast food and doing crazy exercise classes are the new way of socialising. We are the fitness generation. It is an extremely positive advancement and is teaching people to make wiser choices about their diet and health. However, like anything that causes us to change ourselves we need to be careful of how much we let the pursuit of fitness take over our life. Thinspiration was a very popular trend among young women for a time. This self-deprecating activity was one where you would look at images of extremely thin people and motivational quotes to ‘inspire’ you to eat less in order to be skinny. Now that this has been perceived for the dangerous and unhealthy standard that it is we have the ‘fitspiration’ wave rising like a muscular dragon in it’s place. This is where we motivate not to be skinny but fit and strong and I think in general the idea is quite a good one. We have woken up and realised that having women punish themselves to have their bones physically jutting out of their skin is not only very unattractive but also encouraging disorders that are destructive and cause them to lose themselves to obsession.  However, if we look deeper at ‘fitspo’ promotion on social platforms it’s easy to see why many people are divided on whether this fitness trend is any better than the obsession with being thin. There is a fine line between motivation for positive health versus the cultivation of a perfect body. I think we need to be careful and think about our reasons for engaging in the world of exercise. My Instagram feed at one point was filled with scrolling images of sexy, lean women wearing beautiful workout gear, often posing in provocative positions with a motivational statement superimposed on top of them. I thought this would make me want to exercise more. They are strong, determined and scream at me “Why do you not look like this? Don’t you want this? Push yourself harder”. They did not make me feel good but like a failure who wasn’t trying hard enough. It really made me think about what I am valuing as important and why I am chasing a body that is unrealistic for someone of my stature and fitness level.  There is nothing wrong with being into fitness and engaging in that lifestyle, I love it sometimes. My issue is when being dedicated to maintaining a good physical appearance becomes a prerequisite for being an acceptable human being and becomes the most important part of our identity.

Like many people I decided to get back into exercise this year to get myself into better health. So I began by following new inspiration pages on Twitter to motivate me to go to the gym. That is until about a week ago when I intentionally unfollowed them because I was shocked by how mean they were online. I don’t even know these people personally and they succeeded in hurting my feelings. I just don’t think the kind of brutal and abusive attitude they circulate inspires anyone to anything but shame and disappointment. Not only that but they were posting really stupid and potentially dangerous unhealthy diet suggestions and I think that if we sit idly by and allow this nonsense to infiltrate our thinking it’s going to make us think that this is the only way to live a healthy lifestyle. The right kind of positive motivational social pages and advertisements often include healthy recipes and workouts that promote fun ways of being active and allow us to enjoy eating. The bad kind of motivation is destructive, shaming and equates getting the perfect body with achieving total happiness and self-acceptance. Messages such as ‘Unless you puke, faint or die KEEP GOING!’, ‘So you’d rather have a bag of chips than look like this?’, ‘Do not reward yourself with food you are not a dog’ are harsh, dangerous, demeaning and allow us to think it’s acceptable to hate and admonish ourselves. My brother, a fairly muscular gym goer, advised me I should clarify that I am not criticising people who are passionate and dedicated to a life of pursuing fitness and turn to fitspiration to keep them inspired appropriately. There are people who live a high fitness life because they are athletes or they simply find great joy in working hard for success. This is an admirable place to be in, they have a self-satisfaction that is not reliant on how they look but on their inner strength and perseverance and they are grounded in their identity. For them aesthetics are not the reason they work out but the thrill and joy at being at the peak of their fitness. I am talking to the rest of us.

As a girl I know how overwhelming the pressure is on us to look a certain way. Even though thin is no longer in we are still told that our curves need to be smooth, our bum round and tight, our legs muscular and lean, our arms slender, our hipbones slightly protruding.  The pressure is still there despite the change in what we perceive as ‘sexy’, and self-destruction lurks around the corner when we ourselves emulate that which we cannot achieve. I know many strong, confident women with fantastic personalities and independent lives and yet few will say they are 100% happy in their own skin. We are constantly told that we are not good enough, that we have to be striving to improve ourselves and we can’t be satisfied with our appearance. This is what advertising and media does. It floods us with expectations that if we look a certain way everything in life will fall into place and all we have to do is eat right, exercise a lot and we will be fully satisfied and whole. I have been all over the body spectrum. Years of being a chubby teenager unnoticed by boys led to a lot of strange ideas about relationships and how they only work if you are a pretty and slim. Utter nonsense of course, at my thinnest I could have modelled on a catwalk and boys no more noticed me then than now when I’m in a curvier state of being. Women search for love and acceptance in men. A lot of our self-confidence is built on how lads view and respond to us physically and we spend ridiculous amounts of time dressing ourselves up and tucking ourselves in for them. Somehow we have learned that we won’t be desired and can’t be comfortable being ourselves unless we can exude sex appeal and attract men with our body. It’s crazy, I do not ooze sex appeal and if that was the only reason somebody would want to date me then that would be a sad, shallow thing. Even other women have the ability to make us feel naked and ashamed of our bodies. We constantly put ourselves down and talk about self-improvement without a thought for the impact it has on the women around us, particularly the younger generation who think that self-criticism and judgement is acceptable.

I know this is post is very much focused on women but men are equally, yet differently, affected by the same issues. Us girls often have a very oblivious attitude to men and how they struggle with their own body image. There is almost a double standard out there where we tend to criticise and judge a man for objectifying a woman and saying they like certain looks and yet it’s ok for women to turn around and deconstruct men into almost purely physical beings. Many a conversation I have had with other girls involves us talking about ‘hot’ features in men, lauding those with good physical bodies as ‘perfect men’ and setting those physical attributes as a standard we look for in a partner. Most girls do this without a second thought for the affect this has on the lads in our lives. We create the idea that a real man must be strong, large and powerful. Yet, just like women, men have all different body shapes and it is not right to expect them to have to look a certain way to be manly. Men can be buff or they can be thin, they can be fit and yet look fat or they can be unhealthy and bulging with artificially developed muscles. We need to learn to make allowances for men to not be that physical, godlike being we all want. It’s ok to say that the guys I find attractive are more round and soft than Ryan Gosling or that some girls like men who a bit on the thin side. Just like its alright if lads like us women despite the fact that we don’t have the pert bum of Beyoncé or the taut abs of Jessica Alba.  These are are not fair standards for us to measure each other up to and perpetuating pressure to look a certain way only leads to negative self-image and low self-esteem. We shouldn’t have to feel like we are alienated or incapable of being considered beautiful just because we look different to a socially acceptable form of beauty, men and women alike. I know lads who have strong characters and have come through emotional difficulty with positive and fun attitudes but may not be ripped with a six-pack and that’s more than fine by me. Creating expectation that men are not allowed be insecure about their bodies has such damaging consequences on the mental health of guys and it limits their confidence in opening up about these issues.

It is a good thing to have a good handle on your health but is it more worthy to be disciplined, controlling and bent on perfection than striving for goodness, kindness and being a fun person? When I was at my most obsessed with getting fit I was blinded to everything but the importance of exercising constantly. It was a self-absorbance that I did not even notice because to me I thought that achieving ‘fitness’ was a good thing and required me to give up my time usually spent loving and valuing others. I am not saying you can’t be both, that you can’t spend time on working on your inner qualities, on being a loving and supporting friend and also being fit and eating healthy but what gets more media support and online attention? Going to a coffee shop and talking through things with your friend or spending time in the gym sculpting your body into something pleasing? Nowadays if you are not a socially acceptable body shape you are seen as being less of a good person than those whose bodies are more controlled. We can’t help judging people based on their outside appearance and make assumptions on their character. Being ‘fat’ is synonymous with laziness in modern culture. Tv shows for a long time portrayed larger people as being greedy, selfish and unable to control themselves while those with a slimmer body type as more focused, intentional, hardworking and intelligent. We emulate beauty and aesthetic perfection as the pinnacle of being an acceptable functioning person. We have twisted and manufactured beauty into this position where you can never reach it no matter how much change yourself, it is an unattainable ideal. We will always feel not good enough in comparison to other people because the world tells us that unless we are attractive we won’t be happy and won’t find love and success. Thankfully this is now changing with role models emerging in the world who don’t fit into the perfect body mould, who are admired for their humour and character regardless of their size and use their position to generate positive communication on social and self-acceptance.

Respecting our bodies should not just be about what society wants us to do for our health but about appreciating that we have good health and the ability to look after ourselves. There are countless people who live with ill health and yet without a second thought we often treat our bodies as rubbish bins, eating terribly and living a sedentary lifestyle. God healed me from serious illnesses and for me part of showing my gratitude means valuing myself as a representative of Him on this earth. He has given me new life and I try to live a healthy lifestyle, choosing to eat well and exercise moderately because I want to do right by Him. But there is a fine line between treating our body with care and clean living and controlling and punishing your body into submission. Our physical body is not the ultimate representation of our identity, nor is it what we should measure the worth of a person by. Worshipping the body can become idolatry if we are not careful. No longer do we pursue good health for the glory of God or for the simple act of being healthy people, but we begin to live a mindset that can lead us into self-obsession, narrow-mindedness and shallow relationships. True beauty is seen when you can feel good about yourself even if you don’t have a tight, toned body or naturally pretty features but you know in your heart that your character is good and you live outwardly as you are inwardly, boldly saying “I like who I am and my weirdness and my uniqueness and I am going to show that to the world”.  Challenging what is acceptably considered beautiful and choosing not to engage in shaming those who struggle with self-image is vitally important to ending the increasing prevalence of mental health issues related to body image and in encouraging one another to be real. Let’s not make chasing fitness about fitting into some socially constructed ideal of the perfect body but about treating ourselves and others with respect, worth and value. If we engage in this world of fitness then that’s great as long as we are being smart and are content knowing that it’s a lifestyle of health we pursue and not a slim body and that we do it not for the world but ourselves.

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60 percent of the time I try be authentic all of the time

The whole topic of identity and self-acceptance is one overwhelmingly huge area. Look at it this way; the king of all animals on earth- the whale-has a cardiovascular system large enough for human beings to swim around in. That is what trying to discuss identity in depth feels like. Frightenly large, impressive and a challenge. Also yes I rather enjoy talking about whales and I have been waiting for the opportunity to brag about how deadly they are for sometime now. As I decided to write this I thought to myself where do I begin? I realised that I had to start with the development of self-awarenesss. How did I traipse upon this interesting and desirable quality? Well, truth-time here, it was sort of down to a boy. The thing about many of us girls is that when a person we fancy tells us they admire certain qualities we will go out of our way to live out those attributes. It’s silly but just something we do. During the summer I met a boy, who had the ability to make me feel both grounded and lightheaded at the same time, and he remarked to me that he found it extremely attractive when a girl is self-aware. Because I really wanted him to like me I decided to look into it. I want to stress this isn’t to say that he was the entire reason for me to start working on my inner self, but rather he made me stop and remember that there were parts of myself I was neglecting. I already would consider myself quite introspective. I spent years on the outer rims of the social loop as a ‘loner’ and so, from observing relationships around me, I know a bit about how people relate to one other and can generally discern to some extent behaviour patterns and habits in people and myself. However, I had spent the last year or so focusing purely on my physical self and I thought it was time to go back to working on my inner issues. This pursuit led me to the deeply layered world of authenticity, a buzz word that I would often hear thrown around by Christians and now is a quality that many of my generation are searching for. It is a growing trend that has arisen as a response to the pervasive consumerist lifestyles in our ‘global culture’. Being an authentic individual means to be genuine, to be lacking in falsehood and to go out of your way to take off your masks particularly in your relationships. Living authentically is being brave enough to be in a place to say “I am who I am, these are my limitations, these are my abilities and I am going to trust that with you” even when there is great potential for judgement, social rejection and withdrawal from those around us. It is a rawness, a realness and a type of living that creates connection with others that we all yearn for and eschews the sameness and striving for materialist satisfaction that has become our reality.

Introspection is the deliberate act of examining one’s own thought processes and behaviours in order to determine the origin of cognitive bias, defence mechanisms, and behavioural tendencies. Being an authentic person involves taking away these walls that separate the real us from others and also from God. To be truly authentic in life we must face up to the things we say and do, good and bad, in order to create barriers and protect ourselves from hurt and disappointment. Understanding why we behave and respond in certain ways will help us to be more aware of how we are with people, whether we are being fake with them or if we are feeding into a character they want us to be. Knowing ourselves is particularly necessary for girls because around lads we have a tendency to act silly, flirty and giggly often playing dumb in order to win their approval and attentions, and with other girls we get stuck in a cycle of comparison, always striving to be seen and measure up particularly in the realm of beauty. So many women are living as fractured versions of themselves because they can’t face living who they really are, exposed, in this world of self-improvement and fulfilment. Society very much dictates that in order to get far in life we have to step into certain roles and behave in certain ways. Discovering how to be who you are is hard enough without contending with the world around us telling us we are not beautiful enough, smart enough, good enough and that we have to feel ashamed if we have emotional baggage, if we let our insecurities overcome us or if we don’t hide the problems in our lives. We worry far too much and too deeply about other people, about making them uncomfortable and about their judgements of us. We don’t want to appear to be too happy with ourselves in case people think we are arrogant but also we don’t want to appear too insecure and needy for fear they will run away. All of these worries plague us and we start to layer up on falseness and trying to convince others that we are grand until the person we are presenting to the world is an edited, watered down self and any attempts to address our issues can’t really take place because we become convinced that this surface identity is all that is worth being.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am outspoken about being myself and try not to care about what people think of me. ‘Try’ being the operative word here. Not too long ago I decided that I was tired of all the comparing, the jealousy and the discontent with who I am. I realised that I was never going to be the same as everyone I admired, I was tired trying to be a character that people would accept and emulate and the more revisions to myself I made, the more I lost what makes me unique. I want to be in the world wholly happy that I am not like everyone else but I am like me and I want to understand what that means. Living by the standards of the world led me to hate who I was. Looking at my life objectively I fail at being a successful human being in several ways. I can’t count very well, I am an unorganised mess, I have no idea of my bank balance, I haven’t had a successful relationship with a guy, I hate the college course I am doing and I still live with my parents. I sound like a pretty pathetic adult and if I was to rely on the what the world says I should be for my self-worth I would still be in that place of constant frustration because I could never match up. Everywhere around me I see people constructing their identity out of what we see in the media and others. They spend so much time looking outwards and controlling themselves they forget to turn to their inner self and the insecurities within that lead them to be so dissatisfied. Their identities are subject to constant change and abandoned frequently depending on the importance they place in the opinions of the world. To an extent we choose to engage in whatever identity is thrust upon us. I was the invisible girl for years and in a way I maintained that identity. I isolated myself because it was safer than trusting people, I thought I would end up getting hurt and I embraced my role as reject. I blamed others for my failures and I pushed people away because I was so set in my perception that I was not wanted.  I was so insecure and desperate to be saved that I avoided contact with people altogether, I thought I was worthless and so treated myself as such. I accepted these beliefs and I engaged in alienating behaviours. We all do this, beat ourselves up and change ourselves as a response to the pressures of fitting in, being liked and getting ahead in life. When I feel overwhelmed and particularly lonely, I find myself frequently engaging in false patterns of conversation or presenting who I am in ways that I know people will like and accept to bolster myself. I hide the bad and try really hard to switch on the good. However, I am my good and bad points. I know I’m needy, clingy, yearning for love, I know that when I fall for people I give away my heart too easily but also I withhold it easily from others, particularly girls. However, there are good parts to me that I am aware of. I am good at conversation, I love really cheesy and stupid childish things, I have a lot of silly fun in life, I care deeply for people and I love fiercely. Behaviours such as spending time tailoring our Facebook statuses in order to get ‘Likes’ is one definite sign that we worry too much about being validated in our image whether it be as the quirky and comedic one , the wise and educated one or the wild and much loved party one. This is just one way I seek validation. Social networking is a major platform for creating our identities and also is an extremely powerful influence on our worth and belonging. Fear of missing out is the new destroyer of confidence. My sister recently remarked to me that the reason true, honest relationships are becoming so difficult is because on social media we can keep ourselves safe and be everything we wished we could be, easily leading someone to become attracted to this wondrous presentation of ourselves. Just look at the ‘selfie’ culture, the endless filtering and editing of photos that people do in order to appear beautiful to great numbers of friends. Surely we can all agree that who we are online is rigidly edited and controlled, is not a full picture of everything that we are and is creating a shallow culture and a weakening of relationship and understanding of others. Fortunately I can see in my friends around me a willingness to thwart this and people are being more real now.

It’s important to understand that being self-aware is not just about being outspoken about your flaws, self-degrading and publicly putting yourself down in order to appear humble. This is the great mistake we often make, particularly Christians who fret about appearing arrogant, and this also applies to the Irish. Continually self-shaming and brushing off compliments is something I regularly do and this habit is a revelation of how I still struggle and conform to culture. We put ourselves down because we don’t feel we can measure up to others and we crave to not have them judge us yet at the same time boost us up. It amuses me how afraid as a people we are, again particularly the Irish, to be honest not just about our inadequacies but our redeeming qualities, those parts of ourselves that are our best selves. In accepting God and His words I have become more accepting of my role as His daughter. I am much more willing to look at and analyse the best and worst parts of me and perhaps consider allowing people to do this in partnership with me. This is a place I am in a lot of the time, where I can truly accept myself, but still I struggle. Feeling more comfortable sharing my issues and insecurities with people is something that I admit I need to work on. I don’t feel like I am better than anyone, I understand I am equally as faulty and ridiculous as any girl next to me and I have no right to feel I am above them. However, I am grateful for the assurance of God that I am no lower than anyone else. No longer do I feel like I am ‘less than’ other girls because I am not as funny, pretty, popular or as desired. I can walk into a room of beautiful, confident people and not feel like wrapping myself in my blanket and sitting in the corner ashamed because I am unworthy. I always felt that it was me and them separated by a large empty space. In school I used to hide in the toilets, read my book and eat because I was so set in the narrow view that people would not like me or what I would have to say. How could I challenge other people’s acceptance of me when I couldn’t accept myself? Being brutally honest with yourself is hard but rewarding and inexorably draws you into a place of self-acceptance and acceptance of others. The self actually becomes less important as your eyes are opened to the others around you.

A culture of hiddenness is unfortunately very strong among Christians. I recently read some writings by a man named Tim Keller and he said if you take two Christian people sitting side by side they look identical to the naked eye. However, the foundations on which each person builds their identity can differ greatly depending on whether they find their meaning and saviour in themselves and maintaining an appearance of living good, moral lives or if they readily admit they fail but accept that their identity in Christ is unchanged, God will not leave them and they don’t feel obliged to meet impossible standards of moral living. We feel compelled to hide our pain and shame from the world because there is enormous pressure and expectations to show others that when you are right with God all your issues disappear. For a long time in Ireland, due to the control of the old Catholic Church, we were pushed to not seem ungrateful and struggling in our daily lives because this does not send a righteous message and how we lived was meant to highlight the importance of sacrificing and denying yourself for salvation. We had to be ‘right’ with God through our actions and works. Lads, this is a really hard standard to live by. I don’t want to project a false image that I live a perfect, religious lifestyle. Who I am is very much under the same influence of the world around me as any other. This perspective that Christian identity is firmly moral, good and upright leads people to the mindset of “well I have had sex so I can’t be a Christian” or “I swear and like living a party lifestyle so I can’t go to church on a Sunday” which is exclusive and contradictory to the heart of what Jesus says about us and who we are. A huge portion of society believe that once they engage in bad behaviour they can’t go back, they just dont meet our standards or they have to give up their identity and live a pious and penitential lifestyle to ‘join the club’. Us Christians can often find ourselves living in a safe subculture of ‘goodness’ that has alienated itself from society, one we perpetuate and can only change by letting go and living a lifestyle that is open, authentic and non-exclusive. I admit aloud I mess up regularly and I am blessed because I have God in my life helping me and carrying me through that and working through my issues slowly but patiently. To be truly authentic we should be tolerant and honest, reject pretence and more importantly condemn hypocrisy. We accept that we are a broken people but we also need to accept that we have gifts and good qualities too and be honest about that which God has graced us.

Making the effort to get to know people behind their masks is not only really fun and a great way to let people learn to love themselves but is a way to get us to show them who we really are, to foster epic conversation and an accountable lifestyle. I love showing people that with me they can be themselves without fear of rebuke. It’s a minor reflection of the love and acceptance that is in God but I have many people in my life who don’t know God and they still have that need to be accepted. I’m not saying that I’m wonderful and never judge people, I am only human, but I am saying that the freedom I have to be myself is because of my friend Jesus and I feel I can more readily accept others and I am open to trying because of how He has freed me from my fixed perspective on me and my issues. When you live assured in yourself it is wonderfully freeing, walking into a room and not worrying what everyone is thinking is nice. My focus is moving on from being obsessed with changing and making myself better to being enabled by God to share the wonder of His acceptance with everybody else. Living authentically is not only about thinking less of who you are and showing people how broken and wrong you are, and neither is it just about emulating yourself as someone who is self-actualised or setting yourself up as a standard for people to live by. It’s about being real with people, putting false ways of conducting ourselves to protect ourselves aside. When you are truly humbly living you are more able to feel love and joy at seeing people come to accept themselves as they are. No longer are we the centre of our own little world. A little warning here this may be cheesy but in the spirit of being authentic I am going end on a Disney movie reference because that’s who I am. At the end of the film Camp Rock the mighty Demi Lovato sings a song that enscapulates all the changes she has gone through in the summer. Helped somewhat by Joe Jonas she has rediscovered the joy of being at ease with herself and happily sings about stepping out from the darkness of her failures and into the light of realising who she is, challenging those who spurned her by accepting herself. Isn’t that a deadly concept to consider? To stand up to all the haters and say “I like me, I want to try like you and I want to show you that you can like you to for who you are. Let’s be friends”.