Letter 8: Instrument, Not Ornament

When you know she's watching

We are so happy to have Emily Fleming back with us today!

After we hit publish on Nabil’s letter last week, your messages and comments poured in with the same sentiment: her letter was “a poignant read.” Emily Fleming emailed us echoing that Nabil’s message was beautiful, mingled with disbelief that the letter she’d been drafting was on the same theme. Obviously, many of us are contemplating what it means to love our bodies, and we need to hear more about how to implement this concept into our daily lives.

In my life, this practice of loving my body looks different than in past years. My body is not my own anymore, and I mean it quite literally: I was pregnant last year and this year I am breastfeeding. When I see myself I hardly recognize my reflection. I am no longer my previous self, and the transition has felt both beautiful and difficult.

Natalie Borton, a jewelry designer, style blogger, and influencer, says our appearance is the least interesting thing about us. How absolutely true and freeing is that sentiment?! So here’s to embracing our ever-changing bodies and not worrying about what we look like in a swimsuit. Here’s to embracing our lives *right now* and loving ourselves in our current season.

Thank you, Emily, for continuing this theme of accepting and loving our bodies. — Emily S.

“Moon Song”

Kate Baer

You are not an evergreen, unchanged
by the pitiless snow. You are not a photo,
a brand, a character written for sex or 
house or show. You do not have to choose
one or the other: a dream or a dreamer, the
bird or the birder. You may be a woman of
commotion and quiet. Magic and brain.

You can be a mother and a poet. A wife and
a lover. You can dance on the graves you dug
on Tuesday, pulling out the bones of yourself
you began to miss. You can be the sun and the
moon. The dance a victory song.

Being in your thirties comes with a sense of legitimacy that is sweetly satisfactory. You no longer feel like you have nearly as much to prove, and many things feel like they finally make sense. Relationships, however, are in a constant state of flux, presenting new challenges all the time. No relationship feels more complicated than the one I have with my body. 

I don’t think any woman is exempt from this struggle. Every woman I know has cycled through various stages and degrees of self-love and loathing, and it feels never-ending. The changes that come with aging are often ones we are slow to embrace.

Carrying my babies amplified the mental gymnastics for me. Living in a body that is going through the transformation of pregnancy, then childbirth, then the ever-changing ever after is truly a mind trip. It can feel miraculous and transcendent, while incredibly foreign and uncomfortable all at once. 

Having a baby is one thing. Having a baby girl will really mess with you. Bringing a girl into the world carries with it an entirely different feeling of responsibility. My daughter turns seven this week, and I’m feeling it more and more with each passing year. Once I began to emerge from the haze of my daughter’s infancy, and once she began to be more aware of me, I became even more aware of how I was talking to myself. 

Out of habit, I would look in the mirror and catalog the things I was “working on” in my body. With a vague sense of superiority, I felt like I was in a healthy mental place for focusing on “progress, not perfection.” I remember one day in particular when she was maybe three years old, I could see her watching me. She was gazing, with a look of innocent adoration. I saw myself and my body through her loving eyes, in stark contrast to the highly critical view I was taking of myself.  

At that moment, I knew I wanted more for her. 

I wanted her to see herself, not as a thing to be fixed, but as a thing of beauty to be loved, just as she is. And I knew it had to begin with me. She was watching, taking her cues from me. The way I looked at myself and talked to myself would be the way she learned to look at herself and talk to herself, just as it had been with me and my mother, and countless numbers of daughters and mothers before us. 

“Your body is an instrument, not an ornament.”

The first time I came across this message on Lexie and Lindsay Kite’s Instagram account, @beauty_redefined, it stopped me in my tracks. It encapsulated the message I wanted my daughter to hear and has helped me break some of the societal patterns we fall into.

When talking to little girls, notice what she’s doing before you notice what she’s wearing. Praise her intelligence before you comment on her hairstyle. Communicate that her worth is based on so much more than her appearance. 

Moving to Montana has helped me to embody the Instrument, Not Ornament mindset. Our whole family has become so much more active as a result of our move. There is always something to do, no matter the weather. Downhill ski. Cross country ski.  Bike up Going-to-the-Sun road. Hike in rain, snow, or sunshine.

As healthy a mentality as this feels, it still focuses on performance. It is an incredible relief to shift from appearance to performance, but it still emphasizes that you have to do something in order to most fully be.

I credit barre3 for first introducing me to the concept that moving my body could be something I could do just for the pure joy it brought me. Movement didn’t have to be a means to an end. It could be the end itself.

Slowly, my mentality about exercise has shifted. Rather than being something that helped me ensure my jeans fit, it has become something that truly nourishes my soul. I have really internalized the idea that regularly moving my body is ultimately an exercise in self-care, in the truest sense of the word. I am caring for my whole self—mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually—all just by tuning in to what my body needs each day, allowing those needs to change, and giving myself permission to meet them, whatever they may be. 

In the end, I want my daughter to know that she is whole and loved and beautiful, just for being who she is. She can be whoever and do whatever she sets her mind to, but none of it will define her, because she is already her most consummate self. The great paradox is this: carrying and delivering her split me apart, both literally and figuratively, but modeling this truth for her is making me more whole.

My 5 Favorites

  • Summer is a time for sun, fun, and toxic messages about getting your body ready to participate in seasonal activities. I firmly reject these ideas, and love following body positivity Instagram accounts that help me reinforce the concepts I want to focus on during my daily SoMe scroll. In addition to Beauty Redefined, I also love The Birds Papaya and Danae Mercer

  • A dermatologist friend turned me on to EltaMD tinted moisturizer and it has become an essential part of my daily routine. It has physical sunscreen (with zinc oxide) rather than just a chemical sunscreen, in SPF 44, and blends in so smoothly without any chalky overtones. I use it as my foundation year-round.

  • Last month I shared a mocktail. This month, let’s add some tequila. I sort of made up this Spicy Paloma recipe during quarantine last summer, as necessity is the mother of invention. It’s so good it’s making a comeback this year. Loosely, it goes like this: 2-ish ounces of tequila, 2-ish ounces of grapefruit juice, squeeze in half a lime, top with ginger beer (just enough to give it some fizz), add 3-5 slices of serrano pepper (6 is too many. Trust me. I’ve done the research.). Stir in a little agave if you find it too tart. Stir it up and enjoy! 

  • I just finished the most beautiful memoir. Ariel Levy writes for The New Yorker, and her masterpiece, The Rules Do Not Apply was simply stunning. I love a good grief piece, and her writing about loss was heartbreaking and breathtaking. Several times I would finish a sentence, then put the book down and come back to it, just so I could experience it again. 

  • More often than not, I find that my musical taste is very closely aligned with that of a tween. Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo are my homegirls, and I too, have been known to come down with Bieber Fever. I cannot confirm or deny whether the kids are enjoying Phoebe Bridgers, but I can tell you that I sure as hell am. Her lyrics are haunting and thoughtful, even a bit quirky. Motion Sickness and Punisher are two of my favorites, and her cover of The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love” is exquisite. 

With gratitude,

Emily Fleming

P.S. What’s your favorite body positivity account or person to follow? Please share the love below so our readers can find them.

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