Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Living With Your Body…For Life

“I hate my thighs – they’re too big!” 

Although it’s distressing to think of any person hating their body, it’s especially hard to hear statements like this coming from girls as young as six and seven years old. Of course, each era and fashion trend conceives an ideal body image, and women of all ages end up comparing their bodies to that type, but it seems that only in recent years have very young girls joined in on this unhealthy activity.  Sadly, most people who participate in comparing themselves find their bodies lacking, and although few go so far as to become obsessed, I think there are far too many women with a negative view of their bodies.

     Yesterday, my friend S and I ended up discussing the issues so many of us have with our body image.  We bemoaned the effects of the media, discussed young girls we know who are already comparing themselves to the "ideal," and even talked about the cultural differences that seem to support or deny these kind of comparisons.  S had recently attended a baby shower for an African-American couple we know, and spoke with awe about the gorgeous Black women she saw there. She was amazed at how comfortable they seemed in their own bodies and marveled that the women were unafraid to be seen eating in public.  (What kind of world do we live in where it’s unique to feel comfortable eating in front of others?)  I get what S was saying; I distinctly remember a time I went out with some female acquaintances and directly experienced the ways women pressure each other to feel ashamed of food and eating.

Is this a dinner?
      On that night, a group of women in a social group I’d joined got together for dinner after shopping together. There were about 10 of us, and when our waitress came up to take our orders, I was the first person she turned to.  I’d planned on eating dinner and was quite hungry, so I ordered an entrée (complete with protein, starch, and veggies) and added a trip to the restaurant's healthy and fabulous salad bar.  As the women to my left gave their requests to the waitress, I noticed that the amount of food each one ordered was smaller and smaller until we reached the last woman.  She ordered a cup of soup. For dinner. She gave us the beatific look of a saint among sinners, and many of the other women looked chagrined and even angry.  When the food arrived, there seemed to be a competition to see who was the least hungry (and, thus, most virtuous) as several of the women pushed nearly full plates away, saying they were "stuffed."  I was appalled, but I still had to fight hard to eat the amount of food my body actually wanted, because the urge to join them in starving was very intense.  Mind you, this was with a group of women I didn't know well nor particularly admired. Imagine if they'd been mentors or idols of mine! 

     I’ve fought with food and body issues for most of my life.  It’s scenes like the one above that drove me to eat tiny portions around others, then binge when I was alone and safe from judging stares.  I hate to think of what that environment is doing to the women I know, their daughters, and any future children I might have. 

     Yesterday afternoon, I came across the following quote in a comment Nancy A. made to a blog post by Claire:

I went to a Catholic school, nuns and all, and I had one crusty teacher who used to get on the girls' cases about body image. That wasn't the term used back then, but that's what she meant. Anyway, if she ever heard any of us complain about our bodies, you know, "I hate my elbows!" she used to march us up to the mirror on the back of the classroom door, make us look at our elbows, and apologize to them--because those were our elbows and we were going to have to live with them for life. Believe it or not, for a gawky 13-year-old, the idiotic words "I'm sorry, elbows" (and we had to say it out loud in front of her) is remarkably cathartic! It brings great inner peace. It lets go of the noun-clutter of objects and brings life back to just living.

I loved this idea!  Although I’m not sure that the logic used by Nancy’s teacher is the entire reason we need to make peace with the body we currently have, I do think that apologizing to your body is a great step towards learning to love it.  We all have different bodies, but there is something lovely about every single one. S mentioned that she wished she could do something to help women see that loveliness, and perhaps Nancy’s teacher’s technique is one of those ways.  Maybe, in addition to apologizing to our body, we need to have a conversation with it, view it with our own eyes without the “noun-clutter of objects” and see what we, personally, find beautiful about it.  

Although it’s more of a tactile than visual experience, I have to say that one part of my body I enjoy is my belly, which is much, much larger than I’d like it to be (because I’m comparing it with the way I’m “supposed” to look, mind you…otherwise, how would I know how large it’s meant to be?). Regardless of its size (or perhaps because of it?) my belly is extremely soft, not just because of the fat below the skin’s surface, but the skin itself: it's like a baby’s.  I have no idea why that is, but the contrast between the immensely appealing texture of my belly (and the calming sensation of having this “forbidden and ugly” part of my body touched in a loving way) causes great consternation in my soul.  I think it may be because an appreciative view is so at odds with the highly negative way I usually regard that part of my body. This experience makes me think it’s quite possible that one of the best ways to challenge our media-influenced views of beauty may be to honestly assess how we, ourselves, view our bodies.  What do we like, regardless of what society might say?

Beyonce and her incredible thighs...
Last night, after the conversation with S and reading this quote, I found myself flipping through channels and landing on the first installment of Oprah’s Surprise Special.  One of the performers was Beyoncé, who was wearing a modified tuxedo that ended at the top of her thighs.  Her toned and gorgeous legs were very much on display as she danced with incredibly energy and skill, while singing about the way women run the world.* In spite of the excitement and inspiration I felt as I listened to the words she was singing,  I realized that I was, subconsciously, comparing the width of her thighs to the size of the dancers’ thighs around her and to the ideal I, apparently, keep in my head for important times like this. What is that insanity and why is it in my head?  I had a crazy conversation with myself about Beyoncé’s thighs and whether they are too big.  How insane is that?  I worked hard on convincing myself that her legs are absolutely gorgeous and, obviously, very functional, but I can’t help the feeling I have that somewhere in my brain is the belief that she needs to be skinnier.

Sigh.  Obviously, it will take a lot of hard work to uncover and destroy the millions of messages I’ve taken in over the years about how women have to be in order to be beautiful and worthy.  I think the fight is worth it, though—if not for us, then for the girls who follow us: we all deserve to feel good about our bodies, even our thighs!

For more discussion of loving our bodies and the disturbing trend towards emaciation in our "role models," check out my post entitled "Sexy?".

*You can see Beyoncé’s performance in this video. It’s amazing!


  1. Great post! I agree that it takes a lot of time, and effort, to silence those thoughts that have infiltrated our minds regarding our bodies for so long. However, we owe it to ourselves, and to the young girls who look up to us, to continue to fight these tapes inside our heads. God did not want carbon copies walking this Earth. He wants all of us to be who we are meant to be in His image.

  2. Amen, Alli! Can't wait to see you next week! (((hugs)))