Over the past year, I’ve done a whole lot of soul-searching on the topic of my body. Within a week or two of giving birth, I was shocked and amazed at how my tummy had gone from ginormous to not-ginormous. Yeah, I still had a very prominent belly, but it seemed unbelievable to me that there had been a WHOLE BABY in there plus an entire organ I’d grown especially to support that baby, and now neither one were in there and I looked like a regular human again. I was so proud of my body. Maybe I was being blinded by my huge, engorged, porno tits, but I would look at my naked body in the mirror and think, “This is beautiful.”
Then that other voice would creep in, the one that I have listened to bray loudly my whole life, and it would say, “But look at your belly! Look at your love handles! Look how much your thighs touch! Look how flat and saggy your butt is now! Not a single item of clothing you own fits you!” For a short, magical, time I was able to tell that voice to shut the hell up because I just had a baby.
It wasn’t long, though, before I didn’t just have a baby. The weeks and months were adding up behind me, and I felt like I should be able to fit into all my old clothes, because all my other mom friends could. They were skinnier than ever and rocking bikinis, but I was buying pull-on jeans and muu muu tops. This is going to sound ridiculous, but I had a mini identity crisis because I had to accept the fact that I was now… gasp… a size MEDIUM instead of a Small.
In the dressing room at Nordstrom Rack, there were so many times when I thought, “Well, the Medium fits better now, but I’ll be a Small again soon.” But soon still hasn’t come. It was confirmed when a woman at my chiropractor’s office was fitting me for a back brace, and she ventured a guess at my size: “What are you, a Medium?” So matter-of-fact, so no-big-deal, so inoffensive.
At that moment, about ten months after giving birth, I realized, “Oh my gosh. I am. I am a Medium.” I had a moment of silence for the old picture of myself that I’d been carrying around in my head. The girl who was a Small. The girl who fit into size 2 or 4 jeans. The girl who knew how to feel like a bombshell when she walked down the street.
Over the past few months, though, I’ve slowly started to realize something else. That girl, the one who actually WAS a size 2? The one who sometimes could manage to feel like a bombshell? She didn’t appreciate her body.
Thinking back five years ago to when I got married, I was the skinniest I’ve ever been since puberty. I was following a Paleo diet and doing Crossfit bootcamp workouts six or seven days a week. I had gotten down to 112 pounds, which is less than I weighed when I graduated high school at the age of 17 (now 18 years ago).
If you put my weight and height (5’6″) into a BMI calculator, it would tell you that I was technically underweight. I had a pair of size 2 pants that I could pull off without undoing the button. At the time, though, I saw a small, soft curve to my belly and thought I wasn’t perfect yet and that I needed to try harder. Now? I look at photos from my wedding…
…and I think, “Oh man, that was fun. But dear GOD, woman. Eat a damn sandwich! With extra cheese! And mayo! And triple the gluten!” I can’t imagine why I thought I needed to be so thin, or that being that thin still wasn’t perfect enough.
A few months ago, I read this post from a local Austin mom blogger, and I got so mad at her.
How could she possibly think her body isn’t perfect??!? She’s a freaking model even after having two kids! If she isn’t perfect, what the hell is a mortal like me supposed to feel about herself!?! But after some reflection I realized I wasn’t actually mad at her. I was mad at myself because I recognized myself in her insecurities. I thought, “If she doesn’t see how OBVIOUSLY beautiful and amazing and PERFECT her body is, maybe I’m being too hard on myself, too. Maybe perfect doesn’t exist.”
And I had another thought. “I bet if we were all shown pictures of our naked bodies but we didn’t know they were ours, we would think they were beautiful. Because we’d be looking for the beauty and not the flaws.”
Isn’t it true? When you see your friend in a bikini, or a photo of some celebrity, or just a random stranger on Instagram, don’t your eyes zero in on the things that are amazing? But when you see yourself in the mirror, what do you look at first? The cellulite? The tummy that’s softer and more prominent than it used to be? The wobbly bits under your arms? Your breasts that have started to sag? But you know what? No one else is looking for that. They’re looking for the beautiful bits on you. Why can’t we do the same for ourselves?
136 ACK actually 139 pounds. (I don’t know why I felt like I needed you to think I’m 3 pounds lighter than I really am. Do you see how silly this obsession with being thinner is?? Three pounds! Who even cares!) I’m 8-12 pounds heavier than I was when I got pregnant and about 25 pounds heavier than I was when I got married. If you had told five-years-ago me that this would happen, I would have been appalled. The horror! The horror of being a perfectly healthy weight! Of buying size 8 pants!
I’ve decided that I don’t want to look at pictures of my 34-year-old self when I’m 52 and think, “What the hell! Why didn’t I appreciate that beautiful body!” So I’m making an effort to love the body I have now. And if I’m really, truly honest with myself, and if I ignore that ugly voice that’s screaming at me to find something wrong, I look at these photos and think, “Yeah. I don’t look half bad. In fact… I look freaking beautiful!” So even though there is a constant argument in my head between that mean, critical, current voice and the wise, wistful voice of my future self, I am making my best effort to look at my body with kind eyes.
From our trip to Hawaii in late January.
Photo from my amazing friend Sarah Schiffman, taken in Fredericksburg, TX this past weekend. (I’m the one on the right.)
Now more than ever it feels important to be kind to myself because I know my own gorgeous daughter’s self-esteem is going to be tied to my own. If her perfectly healthy, perfectly normal-sized mother can’t stop talking about how fat and unattractive she is, what type of standard does that set for my little girl? She’ll probably feel like she needs to follow some extreme diet and exercise away every ounce of fat to get her body to a “perfect” size and shape. It won’t matter if I tell her that she’s perfect just the way she is if I can’t tell myself the same thing. She’s only 1 and already she’s imitating everything I do.
The same is true for how we talk about ourselves to our adult girlfriends, as it turns out. I recently read this NYT article by psychologist Renee Engeln — “The Problem with ‘Fat Talk'” — and found myself nodding and “amen”-ing heartily. Based on several studies and social experiments she’s done, her conclusion is that when women say things like, “Ugh, my belly is too squishy, my thighs are so big” it not only brings about feelings of shame in the woman making the comment, it encourages other women to disparage themselves, too.
We might think we’re being helpful and supportive when we chime in with our own body issues — “Me too! My love handles are out of control!” — but we’re actually hurting each other when we do that. She found that when we focus on our flaws, we are more dissatisfied with ourselves, and we’re bringing our friends down with us. It kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?
But you know what else I think? Even when we say nice things about each other’s bodies it can still be harmful. This past weekend I went away on a girls trip and the typical weight- and body-focused comments came up. I had been trying really hard to keep from talking about my own body insecurities, or “fat talking.” And then one sweet friend said to me, “You look like you’ve lost weight!”
It was a well-intentioned comment meant to make me feel good, and for a second it did. But then it made me think, “Wow, people really are paying attention to my weight. I guess I do need to worry about how big I am and whether or not I’m getting skinnier. Also, I haven’t lost weight, so maybe she is making things up because she feels bad for me…” Total self-doubt spiral, which I know she didn’t intend! And I know it is probably just my own insecurity talking.
I do think that when we comment on each other’s bodies, and especially weight, we give the shape and size of our bodies more importance than they really deserve. I’m not opposed to giving each other compliments (I love giving compliments! And getting them!), but maybe just “You look great” or “You look so healthy” or “You’re looking strong” is all we need to say. And then respond with a simple “thanks!” instead of deflecting the compliment and delving into a bulleted list of our perceived flaws.
Another recent article that sent my body-image red flags up was this story about a mom whose bikini selfie went viral.
Now, I am all for anything that is inspiring to women and encourages us to feel comfortable in our own skin. It even gave me the thought that I should stop being so nervous about wearing my bikini in public. But things must be REALLY bad when a completely normal-looking woman with a lovely figure posts a picture of herself in a bikini on Instagram and it creates a social media firestorm.
By focusing on this woman’s body and saying, “Wow! How brave of her to show her body and not be embarrassed!” does it send the message that there was something she should rightfully be embarrassed about? How might that make women who are even more “flabby” feel, to quote the article? Is this type of attention helpful for women who are insecure about their bodies? Or does it make us even more self-critical?
I can’t control the type of stories and images that the media focus on. But I can influence the conversations that my girlfriends and I are having every day. My question now is, how?
What do you think? What can I say to my friends to dissuade body and weight comments, even seemingly positive ones? How do we all get each other to stop talking about our bodies so much? I would really love your thoughts on this topic.