Two things I’ve been thinking a lot about recently are body image and aspirations for life. Both are big topics which I could talk about and chew over for a long time, but I’m going to see if I can keep it brief.
I’ll start with body image. It seems as though the natural impulse of human beings is to judge others based on appearance. It’s not just the fault of the media, or our tendency to court attention on nights out, or digital technology. Generations upon generations who have gone before have offered opinions regarding looks from the day every baby enters the world: “Isn’t she gorgeous?” or “He looks so much like you” and other such remarks are casually bandied about. And so it begins – judgement, perception and having an impact on a person’s opinion of themselves.
Naturally, as time has progressed and people and technology have become more sophisticated, there has been an increase in the number of ways that someone can offer their opinion, and the speed with which they may do so. It can be mere seconds from an image being broadcast on TV for the Internet to respond these days, with social networking sites being the main culprit. Reactions can be instantaneous, and are often a combination between overwhelmingly positive and damningly negative.
I have first-hand experience of how a positive and negative reaction can impact somebody when comments are made in person – both to their face and behind their back – and, unsurprisingly, my reaction would usually be that a compliment makes me smile, whereas a criticism causes me to be upset. Comments are made whether you court them or not and, as the saying goes, this is the problem: opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one.
It’s difficult when getting messages from a multitude of sources to figure out which ones are correct. What it boils down to is this – making yourself happy matters far more than making the rest of the world happy. Not only is it more realistically achievable, but it’ll also be more satisfying. It’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile. Every time I read an interview with someone – male or female – bemoaning negative comments they receive on their looks, I want to shake them and relay this fantastic Nora Ephron quote to them:
“Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34.”
What you have today may still be there when you wake up tomorrow, but it won’t be there forever. Enjoy it whilst it lasts, cherish what you like and change what you cannot accept for the better.
The other piece of advice which I try to heed – and applies to both topics, allowing me to move on neatly now – is this: know when to stop. Some athletes might tell you that quitters never win and winners never quit. But the conclusion that I’ve come to recently is that the pursuit of happiness (or success, wealth, whatever it is you’re aiming at) could easily be endless. And that those who are truly satisfied must recognise there is a point at which they must settle. When they should say, “enough, that’s it, I’m pleased with what I have and where I am, I’m going to relax”.
It’s another thing that we as human beings find difficult. I wonder where the conditioning for dissatisfaction and the continual pursuit of greener grass comes from – whether it’s the economy, the fact that we live longer now and must support ourselves. Whether it’s again a matter of peer pressure and social networking, our acquaintances sexing up their lives in order to look better online. Or is it the human – particularly the British – condition, to never be satisfied with what we have, to be able to give ourselves a pat on the back for what we have managed to achieve, and bask in the glow of the humblest of achievements.
The point I’m trying to make will now be slightly more tenuously illustrated by a quote from JK Rowling:
“I am indebted to the British welfare state… When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall.”
Rowling’s point was more about politics and her reasons for paying millions back into a system which, in monetary terms, actually gave her very little, than it was about striving and achieving. And she, too, continues to pursue whatever it is that she is chasing – the thing which started her off, created her fame and fortune, has ended. Yet she is still working. She surely has no need to financially, but there is something pushing her forward, some need to satisfy. Perhaps it is pleasure, that she honestly enjoys what she does. I hope that is true.
What I took from Rowling’s story – and that of dozens of athletes, businesspeople, and many others in the world who are regarded as “successful” – is this: the struggle is real, and the road to the top may not be smooth. But there is reward at the end. And it’s also important to decide where the end is and what it looks like, otherwise that happiness, satisfaction and sense of achievement may never come.
My conclusion is this: my body and my goals are mine and mine alone. It’s time to stop looking around at what everyone else is doing and why, because the only person who honestly matters is myself.
So whilst I sit and figure out where that elusive happiness is, what it looks like and what I’ll need to do in order to achieve it, I’m going to put on my bikini and be grateful for everything I have and everything I’ve managed so far. Because it’s not just the big things which warrant celebration.