I'm not sure where to really start writing this post.
You see... I was the skinny girl. Growing up I recall always being the tallest kid in class and getting teased with nicknames like 'bean pole'. I didn't mind it so much. Maybe it was because my mom frequently talked about being harassed for her buck teeth and the physically abusive elementary school teacher she'd had. Or perhaps it was seeing the physical and mental scars my stepdad had from years of bullying for his gigantic glasses and lanky frame. Compared to their situations, getting my feelings hurt for a physical state I had no control over didn't seem right.
The part that bothered me was how hyper-aware the actions of others made me feel about my body. My 'fat friends'—because somehow I was always friends with 'the fat girl'—would say things like 'oh you're so skinny' with longing in their voices. I felt guilty that through some genetic lottery I had a body type that was envied and coveted. Worse yet was the fact that I was asthmatic, slow, and very clumsy. I could eat whatever I wanted in copious amounts and never show a shred of evidence for it.
But the truth was, we didn't have junk food or sweets at home. My stepdad's idea of dessert was cold cereal—and not the yummy, sugary kinds either! I developed this really horrid habit when I'd visit my paternal grandparents and was allowed sweets... I hid the wrappers in the cushions of the sofa. Only recently have some of these weird food related quirks I developed begun to make sense to me. My relationship with food started off really emotionally. There was guilt associated with every bite.
In my teens we were very poor. My stepdad was... I'm trying to put this in a fair term but I can't quite do it... he was a shitty provider. His personality made any job where he was forced to work with other people and not following his OCD needs didn't last long. He had big dreams but no follow-through. Because we had very little money for extras I don't remember ever having things like chips or cookies in our home. I have vivid recollections of having severe cravings where I would go into our kitchen and just ransack our cupboards looking for something... something that was never there. I'm pretty sure I was having nearly manic episodes over it because the memories of those panic filled searches are so strongly emotional.
This was also during my parents' religious phase. I could expound on that for hours but for the sake of the post I'll refine it down to this—no tv, movies, music, very limited books/magazines allowed, very modest dress code, and I wasn't allowed to change with the other girls at school for gym class. I pretty much no longer had no awareness of my peers' bodies and the ideology that my body was a bad thing was stressed to me daily for those 6 years. I dare say such could not have happened at a worse time in a girl's life than during the teen years from 13-19.
Even when I dressed modestly my stepfather frequently harangued me for the choices in dress I did make. Since the majority of my clothing (literally, about 95%) was handed-down from my mother or someone we knew, dug out of a trash can, bought second hand, or something I sewed for myself, I stuck with mostly black on black because it matched. Pants were never long enough because I've been just under 5' 10" since I was 14. I had very small breasts and not much in the way of hips. And if I was dressed in head-to-toe black he would rag about it. I was covered up in the modest attire demanded of me and yet it was never good enough. Never.
When I was 17 a friend of mine commented that I looked like Kate Moss. At the time I didn't get it because I'd never really compared my body with anyone and our faces are nothing alike. But this was in the late 90's when heroin-chic was a thing. I'm pretty sure that's what body type I had but the truth is... I don't know because my parents' faith had such strong anti-body morals. I actually remember my stepdad—did I mention he was a preacher in their faith?—giving one of is lengthy lectures about how looking at your own body could cause you to be turned on by the same sex and cause homosexuality. So I stopped looking at my body* other than what it took to wash it.
(*To clarify, not because I believed what he said, but because quite literally NOTHING I ever did was right. If I looked at my own naked body behind closed doors I was brainwashed into thinking he would know and I would get punished—and most punishments involved being beaten with his belt, even at the age of 17).
Looking back I just drop my jaw at the bullshit I was being fed and that I kowtowed to out of fear. It's difficult to work through because of both the ridiculousness of thought processes that are still a bit ingrained in my subconscious and because, as a parent, I (sort of) understand that my parents were trying to protect me.
But for all their hard work to 'protect' me what they really did was far more damaging than the majority of the things they were trying to protect me from. By the time I hit adulthood I had very little self esteem, was desperate to find a 'hero', and didn't know my body. I'm sure you can imagine the consequences those 3 particular issues have on a barely-an-adult young woman.
Complicating matters was the fact that I was not allowed to attend sex education in school, had been taught that any and ALL forms of birth control were against God's will, and had seen a teenager (a girl from church in another congregation) shamed and treated like the worst of the worst for getting pregnant. Since I had been raised outside of their faith up until my teens I had a basic grasp of sex and had heard of condoms from kids at school, but I didn't know much. I didn't even know what an orgasm was until after having one for the first time and later reading about them in Cosmopolitan.
My desperation to feel loved and find a rescuer culminated in the starting of the relationship that's now my marriage of almost 14 years. My accidental pregnancy and the shame, fear, and resulting grief over it still kind of haunt me. Terrified of telling my parents, even though I was 19 and living on my own, had me considering abortion. But my only option there was a 90 minute drive and a $400 procedure. Basically, about a month's worth of pay. It wasn't what I really wanted, just the fear of being shunned making me desperate for an out. After a friend who was struggling with infertility and my boyfriend's mom—now my MIL whom I adore—talked to me about it I finally felt like I could have my baby no matter where it lead me.
It wasn't easy and there were times I thought I'd be doing it alone, but when I had my son in my arms that first time I finally understood just how amazing my body was. It had sheltered and fed that tiny little person with my dark hair and his daddy's crazy eyebrows. Giving life made me want to know my body, to finally look at it. But pregnancy had left my body in tatters.
The truth is... I don't remember what my body looked like before that pregnancy and I'm still really mad about it. I wish I'd spent time in front of the mirror looking at it and getting to know it. Appreciated its youth and firmness. The boyish waist. The boobs that could go without a bra and look good. That perfect example of a bellybutton. Everything that I'd been taught to avoid and be afraid of.
It's not that I hate what my pregnancies and age have done to my flesh. It's that I never allowed myself to know and appreciate it while it was still new. Kind of like people who immediately pour salt on something before they've tasted it. Or smashing an empty piñata. Okay... and maybe I just really hate that I never got to wear a bikini or a crop top or take some silly selfies in my undies and favorite flannel to give to my hubby for his birthday. I can still do those things, it's just not the same. I'm not perfect and I'm fighting with my body image just as much as any woman.
After our son it took me almost 2 years to drop down to within 5lbs of my pre-baby weight. But we were overseas and it was just me and the baby for weeks at a time. I walked everywhere and worked out when he napped. In spite of my hideous stretchmarks I did wear a bikini top with shorts a couple times. But I spent both those occasions paranoid that people were judging me about them. Which put me back into the body avoidance mindset again.
Eventually we came home to the states and went through a really bad time. The details aren't important but how I dealt with them is. I was very depressed and felt trapped and helpless... alone. Desperate and angry, I began having thoughts of self-harming. But I already had ugly stretchmarks so I didn't want to add on ugly scars and instead of becoming a cutter I turned to anorexia. (A lot of people misunderstand all anorexia as being weight related but it's actually about control for both those who do it for weight and those who do it as self harm like I did). For about 18 months I subsisted on toast and herbal tea. Occasionally when my MIL would be over groceries to help us get by I'd binge on the junk food because of the sugar high.
At my skinniest I dropped down to 111 lbs, maybe even smaller. It wasn't until I saw photos of myself that I realized how bad it had gotten. So I began confronting the problems we were having and began to eat again. Things got better. But when I tried to talk to my mother about it she said, "you can't be anorexic because you don't think you're fat". While I definitely didn't think I was fat, I was most definitely anorexic. The problem is, there aren't—or at least, there weren't 10 years ago when I was going through this—support groups for people like me. Anorexia recovery groups focus on people seeking to be skinny (the truth is they often do it for the same reasons I was... to control something in their out-of-control life) and self-harm groups are focused on cutters and burners. Which left me on my own.
But I had made up my mind that I was no longer going to hurt myself over something I could not control. Instead I was going to go out and grab hold of my happiness, with or without my husband. It was a life changing epiphany. Waiting around for him to make me happy and trying to make him happy wasn't working. We had to do it individually and when we were both happy in our separate selves our relationship improved.
The thing about happiness though, is that it will always be fleeting. I like to think of happiness like water. It's ever fluid and changeable. When we bring it into our bodies we use it and it passes through. Then we have to get some more. Happiness is a cycle.
I also feel like happiness is easier to appreciate and you will be more motivated to keep seeking it when you've been to the darkest valleys of sadness or anger.
My time as an anorexic left me with a heart murmur, a seizure disorder... and a mission.
Sometimes I get the urge to take up self harming behaviors again. I just have to remind myself that what I really want is control and real control is about taking those urges and telling them to go away.
Ten years and another pregnancy and child-birth later I'm still struggling with body image though.
With my son I didn't have the same worries I'm having now. There are just not the same stigmas about male bodies as there are for females. Our culture constantly inundates us with messages about how our bodies are flawed and need fixing, that unless you fit a specific mold you're not good enough, and that you have to present yourself as a harlot but not actually be one... and if you do act the harlot and get assaulted... it's YOUR fault.
The issues I've had and those I have now in relation to my body are ones I don't want my daughter to go through. She's already a skinny little thing but super healthy and yet, will she have people around her making her feel bad for her size whether intentionally or unintentionally? Will she misunderstand my insecurities and think she shouldn't love her body? Is our current cultural attitude toward female sexuality going to hyper sexualize her, give her confidence, or teach her that girls (and women) should not be sexual beings?
I wish I knew the answer. All I can do is hope that by setting an example of healthful habits for physical AND emotional well-being she can find a role model in me. The hard part is doing it. But maybe that's an essential key in it too... messing up and showing her how to get back on the horse and try again. That it's okay to not get it right all the time as long as you're still trying.
It's funny because this post started out with me wanting to sit down and talk about the difference between wanting to be skinny and wanting to be healthy. But it had a mind of it's own and has gone in many directions. Maybe because that topic is just the tip of an iceberg.
I recently made the decision that I was going to make some life changes specifically focused on my body. I've spent the past few months frowning every time I see my body. I kind of blamed it on not being able to go to Curves any more because I honestly loved it. But the truth is that with things like this you have to find an alternative and make it happen. So I've been making some goals and trying to keep them or work toward them.
None of these are easy overnight changes but I'm inspired and want to inspire others. I feel very lonely in these goals. I don't have a support system of local friends or family really. And as much as I love my husband it can be very difficult trying to be active and get healthy when someone sits next to you filling up on junk and saying they don't have time to be active. Are any of you out there guilty of the 'I don't have time to work out' excuse? If you are, don't feel called out... I was for a long time too.
But I really want to improve my physical well-being and that means that instead of making excuses, I'm making time. Something had to go so that I could fit in 5 hours of fitness a week.
It's something to put into perspective like this:
There are 168 hours in a week. If you get 8 hours of sleep a night you're already investing 56 hours into your health. Rest is really important! If you work a full time job that's another 40-60 hours you can't workout. That leaves about another 52 hours to fit in your workouts. Is it starting to look possible yet?
Less time fiddling around on Facebook or playing games on my iPad... and bam! I found my 5 hours a week.
My biggest hurdle to being active is not liking people watching me while I do it. I feel like anyone who can see me working out is judging my form or laughing at how silly I look. When I was considering joining a fitness club I had these visions of fit bodied men and women turning their noses up at me and finding my clumsiness annoying.
But when I attended Curves you know what I liked? I liked that there were women of ALL ages, sizes and shapes working out together. There was an elderly lady who I always admired for her commitment to keep taking care of her body even if she couldn't do more than walk in place and a few machines. A pair of morbidly obese women would come in sometimes and never stay for the whole 30 minutes but the fact was... they were there. They were trying. Are you seeing the theme?
I loved that there was no judging. Only encouraging words passed as we greeted one another or someone improved their results. Instead of feeling like the other ladies were looking down their noses at me, I felt like they were as encouraged by my presence as I was by theirs.
Unable to afford a membership to a gym anymore I was feeling discouraged at home. My husband bought a $1500 treadmill a few years ago that I begged him not to waste the money on. Told him I'd divorce him if he didn't use it. So he kept saying ('cause he only used it for a couple of months before getting bored) I should use it. But running hurts my knees and I worry our daughter will get hurt if I use it when she's around. So right now I'm just doing my DC3 fitness challenges—how cool is it that they post a new playlist and challenge every Thursday?—and looking for some videos I can do at home with her under toe.
What is your challenge? Maybe you have more than one. Maybe you're like me and have a hard time resisting food as comfort or companion. Maybe you hate water or the idea of eating broccoli instead of mac n' cheese is revolting. Choosing to make healthy changes in your life is like deciding to quit smoking (thank gawd I've never been a smoker). You have to want it bad enough to make it happen. Just like quitting smoking you also need to find out what is going to work best for you and not what works for someone else.
For my husband he finally gave it up for good after years of quitting and starting again after a while when someone he was acquainted with died of illnesses caused by smoking. It finally hit home how bad it was and he started to avoid the biggest problem he had with restarting... 'coffee breaks' at work. Instead of going outside with the smokers he started reading during his breaks.
Maybe you need to find your motivation and your alternatives just like that...
Making goals to workout and eat right can be much the same. When your friends always want to go out and get burgers and beers when you're trying to eat more veggies and lean meats it can be alienating. Do you find new friends or just stop going out? Do you find yourself mindlessly snacking during TV time with your spouse? Is it because you're hungry or bored?
Start paying attention to your challenges and find ways to work around them. Find a workout buddy. Make non-food related rewards for meeting goals. Make one big goal and several small ones to help you feel accomplished as you go.
This post is getting a little long winded and if you've made it this far I commend you. I really have needed to write this and get it out there. I needed it for some reason I can't quite name yet. Maybe I just want to feel like I'm not alone as I work through decades of issues with food and body image. I'm just as flawed and damaged as ever... and sometimes the way I work through something is by writing about it. Now, if you read this far I would love to have you comment. Stroke my ego or tell me I'm an idiot or tell me your story. I'm going to get this posted and then go eat some lunch so I'll be ready to get my workout in before the hubs gets home from work. ;)