I grew up a tomboy in a small Southern California beach town in the days before home computers and VCRs, the ’60’s and ’70’s. I climbed trees, ran, rode my bike, climbed monkey bars, and played softball. The only thought I ever gave to my body was go faster. That idyll changed in puberty.
Suddenly, my body’s appearance was compared to those around me, due in large part to the girls’ locker room in middle school. Boys noticed and commented on my body, and not kindly. I went from carefree and strong to self-conscious and hunched in 7th grade.
By high school I had put on quite a bit of weight. I was chubby, but not obese. Since I lived in a beach community, being chubby made me feel like a pariah. I never, under any circumstances, wore a bathing suit, went swimming, or even stepped foot onto the sand. I trapped myself in my own head, convinced that everyone stared at me as I walked down the school halls, and talked about how fat I was behind my back. I was out of place in my own skin. I was about 20 pounds overweight.
I dieted constantly, then berated myself for not sticking to the fad diet of the moment. I began taking over-the-counter diet pills and when those didn’t make me “thin enough,” I started smoking cigarettes. Yes, I took up what would be a 20-year habit to lose weight.
Finally, finally, high school ended and I went to college. There I stopped taking diet pills and began to come into my own power. I did finally lose the weight, but I never felt quite as carefree and strong as I had in childhood. For the next 20 years, I learned to appreciate my body. It could carry, birth, and nourish a baby, which was a miraculous experience. After bearing three children, I was more forgiving of my body. It had, in fact, done everything I’d asked of it and more. But I still kept a mental tally of calories consumed and thought of various foods as “good” or “bad.” That thinking resulted in thinking of myself as good or bad for having eaten or abstained.
By my mid-40’s I was again overweight. I was also beginning to experience perimenopause, the beginning stages of menopause. I realized that if I went into menopause overweight and unfit, it would be a (far more) miserable experience. I embarked on an odyssey to truly care for my body with good nutrition and exercise so that I could be strong and healthy.
I lost 25 pounds over the course of a year and for the first time since childhood, I have defined muscles in my arms, legs, and torso. I still struggle with emotional eating, especially during stressful times, but I focus on my health and strength, not whether I measure up to some imaginary standard or number on a scale. I don’t weigh myself very often, but use the fit of my clothes as a guide to cut back on food and exercise more.
My daughters have grown up in the world of computers, internet, and 500 tv channels. Their childhood was filled with Disney princesses and ridiculously proportioned tv stars. One is convinced she’s too thin and eats constantly to gain weight. This is especially poignant for me since she is the exact height and weight I strove for at her age (5’7″ and 117 pounds). The other has been convinced she’s overweight since she was 8 years old. (She’s not.) Working toward a healthy body image with them has given me insight into a healthy body image for me.
It’s incredibly hard to overcome all those messages about what our bodies should look like. I’m not sure there is even one modern American woman who doesn’t have a denigrating thought about her body at least once a day. We judge ourselves harshly against impossible, externally imposed standards, spending millions every year on diet books, pills, exercise equipment, and Spanx. I suspect some of us buckle under the pressure and give up, becoming obese.
I really liked Queen Latifah’s Weight Watcher’s commercials about the health benefits of losing a small amount of weight. And doing it solely for the health benefit. She’s a beautiful woman, a real woman. Michelle Obama is another beautiful, real woman with a positive message about health and fitness. These are the images and messages that I want my daughters to internalize. When my girls look in the mirror, I want them to see their vitality, their strength, and know they are beautiful, worthy, loving, and lovable. I want that for myself, too.
Our Bodies, Ourselves (body image)
This Cuckoo’s Nest (self esteem)
Big Little Wolf’s Daily Plate of Crazy (Body politic)
Just Me With (no one can say she got fat)
William Quincy Belle (older women’s bodies)
UK Guardian (body image & fashion industry)
Huffington Post (women and positive body image)
In Bed With Married Women (my wife’s body) Caution: Mature language