Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine. She had posted a picture of herself on Instagram, and I made a comment on how great she looked. However, I wasn’t prepared for her response to what I had said. She told me that she looked disgusting, that this picture was the only good one (and only because it was a good angle), and that she felt absolutely terrible in it because her skinnier friend had been with her.
Mind you, I think that every body is a good body – regardless of shape, size, age, and any other parameter that society puts upon us. However, if we were to judge this girl by society’s rubric of how a woman should look, she would come out with a perfect score. She was young, fit, thin and objectively gorgeous – yet she felt ‘disgusting’ – and it wasn’t from false modesty; you could tell that was her truth.
Unfortunately, that was hardly the first time that week alone I’d heard a woman mention her body in a derogatory manner. In fact, I’m not sure a day has gone by since I turned ten where I have not have not had a discussion with another woman about some ‘necessary’ change that she felt she needed in her body. It was like a real-life Bechdel test that we as a society were constantly failing – except that instead of women talking about men, we would talk about our bodies – and in nothing but the most negative of terms.
Personally, I’m exhausted by the body talk. It’s not that I don’t want to be there for my friends or hear their concerns, rather it’s that the assurances are only a temporary fix. The real problem of how we are choosing to love – or not love – ourselves still looms large.
What is most disturbing about this trend is not simply the toxicity of the language that we are using to talk about ourselves – rather it’s the limits we arbitrarily impose upon our lives due to these perceived obstacles. The girl I mentioned above told me that she didn’t feel comfortable wearing shorts anymore – a small thing to be sure, but a limiting and uncomfortable factor in the sweltering Ohio summer. Another friend told me that she needed to lose twenty pounds before her job interviews, which were only a month away. One more refused to go on dates until she lost weight.
I am not calling them out – I understand them completely – too much, in fact. Personally, I have done each of these things – I have avoided certain pieces of clothing, cancelled plans, and even put off major life decisions until I felt I was worthy of them.
What was the singular judge of that worth? Was it how much I liked a dress that would determine if I wore it? Was it the friendliness of my companions that would decide if I would go out for the evening? Was it my readiness to move forward in my life that would cause me to undertake a major change? No. No. No. It was – much too often – how much I liked the way I looked – and how I thought that others would perceive me.
How much time do we lose by doing this? How much of life are we giving up – am I giving up?
Too damn much.
I have a considerable amount of personal experience with the battle of body image as I’ve lived my life at many different shapes and sizes. There are so many factors that go into my weight gain and subsequent weight loss that it will have to be a story for another time. Besides, this is not a story about transformation – not of the body anyway. However, for context, suffice it to say that two years ago I weighed nearly 100 pounds more than I do now.
Now I need to pause. I can hear – even here in my words – embarrassment, fear, and shame. I don’t want to continue. But I’m tired of being embarrassed – and afraid – and ashamed. There is not now – and never was – any reason to feel humiliation, fear or shame. So I will continue.
It would be one thing if this battle over body image was one that was only fought internally. That would be enough. However, what makes it such a pervasive problem is the enthusiastic willingness of outsiders to ‘weigh’ in on our bodies. I’m not simply talking about society as a whole – that’s too big to get into here – and, unfortunately, the more harmful chatter usually comes from those we know best – our family, friends and acquaintances.
I need to speak briefly to those of you that feel it is acceptable to comment negatively on the bodies of others. Don’t. Not ever. Don’t make fun of people’s bodies. Don’t talk about it with your friends. Don’t make jokes. Don’t say things out of concern for their health (you are not a doctor – and if you are, you are not their doctor – and if you are, then it better damn well only be during an appointment about a relevant health issue). Don’t say it because you love them and are concerned for them – it will not be perceived that way.
These comments are never helpful. They don’t cause people to make the change you want them to (and why is it your business anyway? Ask yourself this). They are simply a way of hurting someone else. These remarks cut – and deeply. Something that takes you five seconds to say could remain in someone’s psyche for a lifetime. Choose your words carefully – or, better yet, keep you mouth shut.
And get a new fucking hobby.
As an example, I’ll share a handful of things that have been said to me. Some have been said when I was fat, others when I was thin. All are negative – some extremely so, while others are insults dressed as compliments (my very favorite). The vast majority were said by people I was very close to.
Some of the things I’ve been told in my life as a fat woman:
- You’re getting so wide.
- You need to lose weight or you won’t make any new friends.
- Have you looked at yourself?
- You are going to get diabetes and that will be it for you.
- If you’re going to wear it, don’t fidget with it.
- I’ve been yelled at for eating pasta, or ice cream, (or really anything) or too large portions.
Some of the things I’ve been told in my life as a thin woman:
- You are too thin now, you should stop losing weight.
- Your face looks drawn and old.
- You look very tired.
- You can fit there now – when you were bigger, you couldn’t.
- Now you look good in dresses.
- I’ve been yelled at for eating too little.
This list makes me laugh now, seeing that I can never win in the eyes of others – though this wasn’t always the case. A lot of the things that were said while I was fat made me fell anxious, ashamed, sad to the point of depression and overwhelmingly small. They changed my relationship with food and exercise to an extent that I’m still repairing. When I was thin, the comments would make me self-conscious, insecure, and question myself and the choices I made for my body. It made loving myself difficult. None of these comments made me feel good – or made me change anything I was doing. They only made me withdraw from those who said them, while creating innumerable little craters in my self-esteem.
I have also been on the receiving end of comments about other’s bodies. I’ve heard a man describe his very accomplished adult daughter as a bomb and told me that she would have difficulty being taken seriously professionally at her weight. I’ve watched teenage boys trail a girl down the hallway at school, snickering and joking to her great distress. I had a friend’s date try to pull me into his joke about another woman’s attire being inappropriate for her body type (I didn’t take the bait). This list could go on literally forever.
I will repeat myself again: do not make comments (especially negative ones) about other people’s bodies. If you hear them about yourself or others, speak up. Make this not socially acceptable.
My body will never be society’s idea of perfect. There is a certain peace in that for which I am truly thankful. I will never have a flat stomach (apparently a golden standard, no offense to those ladies with flat stomachs – I’m just arguing against standards, not bodies), no matter how much I run or how many crunches I do. There will always be a bit of skin that was just too stretched out to pull back in. Surgery is an option – but the idea of having my skin cut open around the entire circumference of my lower waist – like an old magician’s box trick – stretched tight, my navel re-positioned, and a reliable chance of permanent nerve damage – well, I think I’ll keep the paunch. Again, no offense meant to those who do choose surgery. It is a personal choice and I need to choose to love my body as it is, not remove the pieces I don’t want to see anymore.
I’ve been fortunate to discover a few very important things about myself through my own struggle with this process. First, I’m glad I’ve lived my life as both a fat and a thin woman as it’s given me the perception of both of those body types – and allowed me to see how others perceive them as well. Second, I now care a hell of a lot less about what others think and more about what makes me happiest in my body. Finally, although I’m still learning to love my body at every stage, I now make the changes I desire with love and patience – not disgust and haste.
I will tell you one thing – hating your body may help you lose weight, but it will not make you stop hating your body – even after the pounds are gone, you will find a new flaw, and then another, and another. Loving your body may not help you to lose weight, but it will allow you to make better choices for yourself – whatever those may be.
There is nothing wrong with being fat, or thin, or curvy, or athletic or literally anything else. Nothing. Don’t let anyone ever tell you any different. Learn to love your body – and be kind to yourself on the days when you don’t. Make the changes that are best for you – not for anyone else. If you want to lose weight – that’s fine! Gain it? Fine too. Be muscular and athletic. Be thick and curvy. Be whoever you want to be. Just make sure you love yourself along the way.
One more thing – let’s do our best to end the negative chatter about our bodies – especially amongst ourselves. It’s never helpful, but nearly always harmful. It’s keeps us running in circles around the same draining topic. More importantly, there are so many better things to discuss with one another.
So don’t tell me you butt is too big and I won’t tell you that I feel fat today. Instead, tell me about the last book you read, how you finally mastered a side crow in yoga or about an unexpected conversation with a stranger. I’ll tell you about how farmer’s markets make me smile or why I love oak tress. Tell me about the trip you are desperate to go on or about how creative your niece is. I’ll tell you about that time I inadvertently ate nearly three pizzas in Italy, how I love walking up Grove Hill at night or why Newfoundlands are my favorite breed of dog. We can talk about anything. We can do anything. The options are quite literally limitless. Let’s choose to speak of better things and do better things for our ourselves and others.
(P.S. If you still wish to talk about your body, please do it with as much love as you can muster. Your body does so much for you – treat it with the care it deserves, even with your words).
It’s a process, this body image battle – and a lifelong one at that. Everyday is different for me. Sometimes I love what I see in the mirror, other times I’m not so impressed, but I’m working on it. I’m no longer willing to wait on the ‘perfect body’ before I can live my life. That perfect body is either never coming or I had it all along – both perspectives work just fine for me. Besides, it turns out that (surprise!) I’ve been living my life this entire time and I damn well plan to continue doing so – but with more bravery, more self-love, more acceptance and, most importantly, as much compassion as I can hold for myself and all those around me fighting their own battles. I hope you decide to join me.
Since food is good for the body and soul, I’m sharing a recipe for banana chocolate chip pancakes with a few updates and tweaks to make them just the kind of food I love to eat – a meal that is both nutritious and absolutely indulgent. You can find the recipe here: Buckwheat Pancakes with Bananas & Chocolate Chips.