I usually like sticking to the frivolous and superficial on my blog but a post I encountered today really made me think about the way I see myself — and how women in general see themselves. I’m trying to make some health-related changes in my life and I’ve been looking for inspiration online. Yeah, I know, I should be looking within, but answers are more readily available online. Anyway, I was perusing blogs this morning when I found this blog written by an au pair living in France. Her blog deals mostly with food, explorations of body image and the tough societal expectations/standards women face when it comes to our bodies. A Kate Winslet quote she posted yesterday really made me step back and contemplate how my body image has affected my life.
The quote goes, “As a child, I never heard one woman say to me, ‘I love my body’. Not my mother, my elder sister, my best friend. No one woman has ever said, ‘I am so proud of my body.’ So I make sure to say it to Mia [her daughter], because a positive physical outlook has to start at an early age.”
Somehow, I’d never thought about the role we women play in perpetuating our body image issues. Truth be told, I blamed men for their unrealistic expectations, society for valueing thinness over curves and the media for making it all too clear that success only comes in sizes 0 to 4. But we women sometimes don’t help each other out either. We are so quick to judge and point out other women’s imperfections. Rather than combat these expectations and standards, we often play into them. We torture ourselves to achieve a “better body,” to rid ourselves of softness and supposedly imperfect curves so that we can be viewed as beautiful, attractive and successful.
Growing up, I remember my mom and aunt talking about the annoying flab on their bellies that never seemed to go away. I remember discussions over fat and sugar, foods that shouldn’t be eaten, being acutely aware of my size from the time I was five or six years old, my sister lamenting the length and shape of her legs (she felt they were too short for her body) and my grandmother monitoring my food intake because it was apparent from a very early age that thinness would never come naturally to me. The women in my life were constantly dieting and pointing out their flaws, and I clearly remember grapefruit diets, cabbage diets, Mayo Clinic diets…all kinds of diets to get rid of those pesky 10 pounds that stubbornly got in the way of a positive body image. I don’t remember my dad, or any man close to me, ever mentioning the need to drop a few pounds.
I will be 29 this year and I’ve yet to hear a woman — family member, friend or stranger — say she is proud of her body. It seems there are always a few extra pounds to lose, muscles that need toning and body parts that are hopelessly deficient. But despite the messages I got from my mom and other women in my life, I can’t blame my mom, my aunt or my grandma alone for my personal body image issues , because this narrative we’re fed is so widespread, so deeply engrained in our society that I think it’s impossible to blame one single person or entity. And honestly, even if my mom had told herself on a daily basis that she was proud of her body, that she loved and accepted even the most imperfect parts and that she loved and accepted my body in all its chubby glory, I don’t know that it would have made a difference. It’s not the message I would have heard at school, read about in magazines or seen in movies. How many love stories feature an overweight protagonist getting the guy? Unless you’re watching a raunchy romantic comedy, your typical protagonist is probably no more than 125 pounds and no bigger than a size 4. True, the male protagonist is rarely frumpy and fat, but I think that as viewers, we more readily forgive whatever flaws he may have.
I weighed 135 pounds throughout most of high school and remember feeling so awkward, so clumsy and large compared to my peers. I truly hated my body. A few months ago, my best friend pulled out a picture of me and my friends from junior year homecoming, and I couldn’t believe what I saw: A pretty, attractively curvy girl no better or worse than the other girls in the photo. I wish I had that picture so I could post it on here. When I saw it, I remember feeling sad and perplexed that I wasted so many years feeling like I didn’t measure up.
This quote really made me think and reassess. I’ve gone my entire life never feeling completely satisfied with my body. I’ve gotten close, so, so close, but I’ve never quite reached the point where I look in the mirror and can say to myself, I love this body, I’m proud of this body. And that’s so sad. I’ve gone nearly three decades perpetually disappointed with what I see in the mirror. I don’t consider myself to have low self-esteem — and in general, in most aspects of my life, I consider myself to be a happy, cheerful and confident woman. But when it comes to body image, I can’t help but compare myself to others. And yes, I’m guilty of thinking the only thing missing from my life (and unadulterated happiness) is fitting into size 6 jeans.
I always think of what my body isn’t and what it can’t do. I’m not thin, slender or skinny. And I probably never will be. I don’t feel comfortable in a miniskirt and I can’t even imagine wearing a bikini. I can’t run a marathon. I can’t do a pull-up and I’ve never excelled in sports. BUT I can bike 30 miles. I can hike five hours, walk at a quick pace and swim 75 laps. I have been a daughter, sister and friend in this body. I’ve traveled all over the world, gotten my college degree and become an adult in this body. And I have nice curves, if I do say so myself. No, they can’t be contained in size 6 jeans, but I hope to one day get to the point where I’m OK with that.
So why do I always think of my body in terms of what it isn’t and what it can’t do when I’ve lived such a rich, full and, yes — happy — life in this body?