I want to encourage women to embrace their own uniqueness. Because just like a rose is beautiful, so is a sunflower, so is a peony. I mean, all flowers are beautiful in their own way, and that’s like women too.
~ Miranda Kerr
Body positive. Body negative. For women, body image is an extension of self-identity. More likely than not, our body images are distorted. It’s important to relentlessly question our ideas and perceptions about our bodies. We need to challenge the messages we receive about our bodies. Remember that from the 12th century until the mid-19th century, women’s legal and property rights belonged to her father or husband, according to the concept of couverture. Despite years of effort to gain equality, women continue to be viewed as the property of men. To this day, women are fighting for full control of their own bodies without government interference.
It’s no wonder, then, that in the microcosm of my life and, like every woman I know, I have a complicated relationship with my body. The first time I remember anyone commenting unfavorably about my body was when I was in Kindergarten. Girls giggled about my big legs. Five years old and my legs were not ok?
Throughout childhood, PE was always dreadful because my body was so uncoordinated. My mother told me, “You’re just slow because you were born in the south.” I believed it when I was a child but WTF kind of reasoning is that?
In third grade I beat Phillip in a relay race. It was a highlight of my young life. Johnny put training wheels on his bike and let me ride it. That was cool, too. These are my two positive memories about being in my body as a young girl.
At age fifteen, when I was 5’5” and weighed 125, I thought I was too fat. I was still growing. My mother and I went on a diet together, my first one. I went out on a date with Robbie, my dreamboat, and he made fun of my legs being bigger than his. Of course, I felt bad about my legs, again. Now I wonder why I didn’t just tell him he had some lame ass skinny legs. Retorts like that weren’t in my vocabulary then.
When I graduated from high school at eighteen, I was my adult height at 5’7” and weighed 133. I still thought I was fat, I guess because I had those huge damn legs. I had a boyfriend who looked at a photo of me when I was five and said, “You always had those great legs.” I didn’t believe him. By then my negative body image was well established.
Then came the “freshman fifteen.” I “ballooned” to 150. My mother, ever obsessed about the size of my body, took me to a doctor who gave me HGC injections and put me on a five hundred calories a day diet. I stuck to it until I was down to 130. It’s no surprise that I gained it all back. Thus started years of yoyo dieting accompanied with years of body dysmorphia. To this day, I can’t tell if I’m bigger or smaller than someone else. I look at them and wonder, “Could I fit in their pants? Are they bigger than me? Smaller?”
Why do I even think this way? Precluding all the social and political issues, this obsession with appearance began with my parents. Both of them always talked about weight, theirs and mine, frequently commented on others and their appearance, and were constantly concerned with looking good.
Shortly before he died at 93, my dad told me, “I don’t like Oprah any more.”
I asked, “Why not?”
He said, “She got fat.”
This was before her latest iteration when she bought into Weight Watchers and disappointed many fans. How can one of the world’s most successful women on the planet still obsess about her weight? Because women are judged more on appearance than we are by intelligence, skills, wealth, accomplishments or the way we treat others.
In my family there was nothing worse than being fat. It mattered less if you were selfish or mean. Fat was the bottom of the barrel. Manners were almost as important, though. We had to have manners and behave at all times. Feelings were not ever expressed or talked about. Not ever.
After commenting about my own eating issues in an online discussion about the #Whole30 diet, I wondered, “When did I start eating emotionally?” I don’t remember the very first time I ate because I felt anxious, depressed, nervous or upset. I do know that when I got sober in 1995, I gained twenty pounds. It was cross-addictive behavior. I stopped numbing my feelings with alcohol which meant I could FEEL them. I couldn’t escape them any more. If I “used” food, I could obsess about my weight problem rather than experience my feelings.
Now I allow myself to feel what I’m feeling more often than not. I’m also aware at times of feeling upset and choosing to reach for food anyway, especially chocolate. It acts like a drug, it’s soothes me for a minute. I can’t diet any more. I know how to do it; however, after so many years of insanity around food and feelings, I can’t stay psychologically healthy on a diet. I become overly obsessive about what I’m eating and how much. I start to feel crazy.
For the most part, in spite of the occasional struggle with food to manage feelings, I accept my body the way it is today. Negative feelings that arise are not so much about my physical size as much as it is about my aging body – sagging skin, wrinkles, and age spots. The prevailing negative attitude about female aging is another insidious form of societal contempt towards women.
Even beautiful, famous women struggle with body issues. Marilyn Monroe, still considered one of the sexiest women ever, wrestled with her weight and self-image. When Jane Fonda was Barbarella, she was totally hot and bulimic. Her eating was disordered when she was making work out videos. In 2016, she stated in an interview that she started dieting in adolescence to please men, and in particular, her father. Misty Copeland, the first African American to become the principal ballerina for the American Ballet, admits to managing emotions with food. She said in an interview that she ate a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts in one sitting to mange her painful feelings of being the only woman of color in the troupe.
Conservative backlash against women has increased pressure on appearance in many ways. For example, the effort to control the shape of women’s bodies is reflected in changing standards. The average height of a Playboy bunny, a stellar example of the perfect surgically enhanced female body, has increased while the average weight has decreased. This is true for Miss America as well. Photoshop manipulates female bodies and distorts what’s normal. Models are slimmed down. Pores, wrinkles and blemishes are eliminated.
There is so much dissatisfaction. Bring up dieting or body image and women will tell similar stories. When I consider the big picture, how women have been mistreated and abused, their basic human rights denied for centuries, I understand that my struggles are a tiny piece of an enormous puzzle. It’s an act of rebellion to see ourselves as beautiful, inside and out. We resist by embracing and celebrating our own uniqueness. All of us, in our infinite forms and colors, are beyond compare.
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This essay is the tip of the iceberg. I could write a book on it. Oh, wait, I AM writing a book. I have so many thoughts and feelings about being a woman in our society, stories to tell about growing up and getting wiser, ideas about spirituality, nature and much more. Sign up for the newsletter if you want to stay in the loop. Or, tell me your thoughts in the comments. Or, use the Contact button at the top to shoot me an email. I’d love to hear from you.