I learned that my body doesn't define my health. In fact, it shouldn't define me at all.

By By Jenna Jonaitis
Photo: Hero Images / Getty Images

I haul my bike off the crowded morning subway onto the platform and head toward the elevator. While I could carry my bike up the five sets of stairs, the elevator is easier-one of the things I learned when commuting on my bike. Once I get to street level, I'll pedal the rest of my route to Spanish class. (My husband and I were living in Madrid for a year while he taught English and I expanded my vocabulary beyond "queso" and "café.")

As I approach the elevator, I notice three women waiting for the lift. My eyes wander across their bodies. They seem a little overweight and out of shape to me. Maybe they should take the stairs, I think to myself. They could probably benefit from some cardio. Standing there, I formulate a fitness recommendation for these women in my head and become perturbed, thinking that I might have to wait for a second elevator just because these women are too lazy to take the stairs.

It's become almost natural to judge someone-especially a woman-based on how their body appears. Without any knowledge about the other person, you make determinations about their health, beauty, and even their value in society.

For as long as I can remember, a thin body has been considered a better body. Thin is ideal, and every other body type deserves a remark or judgment. (Although, if you think someone is too thin, you probably judge that, too.) There's a good chance that you inadvertently use terms like "fat" and "skinny" and "overweight" as identifiers for other human beings. Instantly labeling a woman's body has become a force of habit. Heck, you probably even label yourself: I'm flat. I'm curvy. I've got a big butt. My hips are so wide. Without meaning to, you reduce yourself and others to certain body-type boxes. You reduce yourself to a specific body part. You limit your perceptions of yourself, your sisters, your mother, your friends, and even random women in the subway station. You let the shape of a body dictate how you see someone.

The elevator reaches our floor and the ladies step in. Upon turning around, they notice I have a bike. The women instinctively know my bike won't fit with people already in the cabin, so they quickly shuffle out of the elevator. With warm smiles and friendly gestures, they invite me to roll my bike in first. I angle the frame diagonally and squeeze the tires to fit. Once I'm tucked in, the women step back on. Wow, that was so thoughtful of them, I think.

As we ride up three floors together, I couldn't help but feel ashamed for how I had judged and body-shamed them (even if it was just in my head). They were so kind and courteous to me. They took time to help me load my bike. They were beautiful women, and I knew nothing about their health habits.

We reach street level, and the women move off the elevator-but not without stopping to hold the doors for me as I wheel out my bike. They wish me a good day and head on their way.

How could I have thought something so mean about women I had never met? Why was I putting another woman down for how she looked without knowing anything about her lifestyle or personality?

I stumbled over those questions as I cycled up the hill to the language school campus. Maybe because I ride my bike to class or have a smaller-looking waistline, I felt I was somehow better or healthier than someone else. Maybe because their bodies were different from mine, I figured they must be unhealthy.

But all of that was wrong. Not only were these women beautiful for their kindness, but they were far more beautiful than I was in those moments. Just because I might look thinner or appear healthier doesn't mean I actually am. In fact, body weight isn't a good indicator of health-period.

Yeah, I may bike to class, but I also enjoy my fair share of sweets and lazy days when I don't exercise at all. Even when I try to be healthy, I'm not perfect. And my body sure isn't perfect, either. There are times I look down on my body and shame myself for looking the way I do. Sometimes I body-shame myself without even realizing it.

But that day in the elevator taught me to fight past those initial judgments. No matter your size or shape or fitness choices, judging yourself and other women is unnecessary and unfruitful. Labeling body types and confusing someone's identity with their shape becomes a barrier to seeing people for who they truly are. The physical appearance of your body doesn't define your health. In fact, it shouldn't define you at all. You are who you are because of what's inside your body-which is exactly why the way everyone talks about women's bodies needs to change.

Since my encounter with these women that day, I'm more aware of my thoughts when I notice a woman with a different body than my own. I try to remember that their body doesn't tell me anything about them. I remind myself that I know nothing about their lifestyle or health habits or genetic makeup, which lets me notice more of their real beauty. I also try to envision their good heart and all of the gifts they bring into this world. When I imagine all of this, I don't have time to worry about their body. I will never forget what those women showed me that day. Kindness and love will always outshine judgment and shame-both when you're looking at others and when you're looking at yourself.

Comments (1)

January 4, 2018
Thank you for sharing such an honest deeply personal experience. I hope it resonates with readers as strongly as it did with me.