She paused before she asked me the question, her eyes mixed with a sense of curiosity and skepticism.

“Is there anything you don’t like about yourself? Or that you wish you could change?”

Two of my friends and I were sitting in our favorite coffee shop. The mission ahead of us was both fun and slightly mortifying, given the public nature of the setting: we were choosing our favorite pictures from a photo shoot I’d done earlier that month.

The small table was strewn with photos of me in different outfits as we sorted through them. There were pictures of me doing all sorts of things - running, jumping, working out.

But mostly they were pictures of me looking lean, muscular, and invincible.

So I think she was taken aback when I laughed and looked at her like she was nuts as I answered with a resounding, “YEAH, duh!”

I don’t think she was expecting that at all. She raised her eyebrows and scanned the table, wordlessly acknowledging the contrary evidence right in front of her face. Her eyes fell on one of our favorites, where I was hanging from an underpass. My arms bulged and my six-pack was on clear display as I silently looked into the distance, like hanging out under bridges in my sports bra was something I did on a regular basis.

“Really?” She asked.

“Really.” I responded.

See, here’s the thing. I do bodybuilding. The whole point of bodybuilding competitions is to get up on a stage in a bikini and get judged on your physique.

OF COURSE there are things that I’d like to change.

As I explained to my friend, I have insecurities too, just like every woman. I mean, what woman doesn’t want to change at least one tiny thing about herself? Maybe she thinks she’s too short. Or maybe her hair doesn’t fall a certain way. Perhaps she doesn’t like how her hips jiggle or how her thighs rub when she walks.

Every woman looks in the mirror and sees a flaw.

The purpose of this post isn’t some hippy-drippy “love yourself” drivel that gets posted all the time.

I’m all about self-love but I think it’s a real struggle for women.

I’ve talked to several women and seen it time and time again. I ask her a question about who she wants to become, and her face falls. She looks away for a minute as she contemplates her “ideal” self and mentally compares it to her current state. What usually follows is a sentence that starts with, “I really don’t like….” Or “I HATE….” Or “I wish I could get rid of….”

Do you really think if a woman unabashedly loved every single part of herself, she’d say things like that?

It’s so easy to get caught in what we want to change. We often assign negative feelings and thoughts toward the parts of ourselves we don’t like.

And sometimes, the things we say to ourselves about our imperfections are downright nasty.

I’m guilty of beating myself up. Of telling myself I’m not smart enough, pretty enough, small enough. I’ve called myself names and made myself cry.

So then how did I get to a point where I can not only readily acknowledge my shortcomings, but do it with a laugh?

When I was in the middle of a really tough spot in my life, I couldn’t get past the negative thoughts. AT ALL. They kept floating around in my head, circling like vultures and poisoning my thoughts. I knew if I didn’t find a way to get past it I’d just make myself more miserable. But I couldn’t bring myself to love myself.

It’s not that self-love is a foreign concept to me. I just didn’t feel like I could love myself.

I read a sentence somewhere that started a mental shift for me. I can’t remember the details, but it was something along the lines of if you wouldn’t say it about your best friend, you shouldn’t say it to yourself. In other words, you wouldn’t call your best friend ugly or lazy or worthless, would you? (If you answered yes, you might want to get a new best friend!) Therefore, you shouldn’t call yourself any of those names either.

You treat your best friend with respect when she does things you don’t like. So you should treat yourself with the same respect when you things you don’t like.

I dismissed it at the time but it slowly grew on me.

Instead of focusing on self-love, I began to focus on self-respect.

Whenever I had a nasty thought, I'd almost step out of myself and play referee.

“OOOhh did you hear that one?? She just sounded like someone who found out he’s not the father on Maury! A+ on the swearing, and what a colorful vocabulary! BUT: would she look Emily in the face and call her a blankety-blank-blank? No? Ok, gotta re-do that one to be more pleasant!”

As I trained myself to step out of my head, I began to notice something. My self-talk became less negative as I called myself out. And as I got better with this, my mood improved. I didn’t feel like a cloud was hanging over me all the time.

As I learned to stop the negative self-talk, I learned to really look at the deeper reason why I was dissatisfied with myself.

Since I wasn’t allowed to bash myself I had to put a name to my feelings: despair, irritation, anger, hurt, frustration, disdain.

Putting other names to these feelings allowed me to categorize them differently and figure out a constructive way to deal with them instead of taking it out on myself.  

By focusing on self-respect, I grew to be more confident in how I handled setbacks. I could deal with them more maturely. I could take a deep breath and learn to recognize when things were or were not my fault – and come up with a plan of action when I fell short.

I discovered that by focusing on self-respect first, I learned self-love.

Think of someone you love: you may not love them 100% of the time, but you usually respect them 100% of the time. And that respect allows you to communicate thoughtfully and courteously, even when you are being brutally honest with each other during tough talks.

So yeah, there are things about myself that I’d like to improve. But I don’t see them as failures or a reason to hate myself. That’s not constructive. I see things to improve as stepping stones toward my best self. I respect myself enough to know that I don’t have to love everything about myself all the time. I’m fine with that.

But I do have to respect myself enough to make the changes necessary to keep loving myself as much as I possibly can.

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