Friday, January 13, 2023

On Body Image

This may be one of the most vulnerable posts I have ever made. It would be easy for me to say nothing. To keep this to myself. I have so much fear in exposing this part of myself. So much shame.
And yet…
What if I’m not the only one? What if somebody else needs to know they are not alone?
So here goes…
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions but on New Year’s Day, without even thinking about it, I told my husband a handful of things that I would like to see happen by this time next year. These words flowed off my tongue like they were part of me, deep inside, and had been waiting for the right opportunity to come tumbling out.
This may sound silly to some of you but one of those goals is to be able to look at myself in the mirror… to look at my naked, changing body… and not recoil in shame. And I want to be able to go to a medical appointment and not dread having to stand on a scale. I want it not to matter.
Perhaps I run the risk of sounding either petty, vain, or deeply pathological. Please understand. I cannot remember a time in my life, from a tiny person on, when the size of a female’s body was not the most important thing about her. Having fat thighs was a fate worse than death. My mother was a perpetual dieter and I was privileged to follow in her footsteps. Some of you know that story. My teenage eating disorder dominates the landscape of my adolescent life.
Fast forward through my 20s, 30s, 40s. I recovered. I had babies. I learned to listen to my body and eat when I was hungry. I was given the gift of a small body whose metabolism responded well to whatever I wanted to eat (which has always been mostly healthy) and a reasonable, but not obsessive, amount of exercise.
But life does not allow you to cruise from start to finish without change. And that’s a good thing. We welcome that change when it comes with gain: of life experience and accrued wisdom and sometimes wealth. We are less enthusiastic when the changes of life come with loss: of beauty, of youth, of fitness.
I have struggled for a good many years in watching my body change. At first it was nothing short of alarm and despair. I remember looking down at my body a few years ago and I heard a voice in my head say, “But what else do I have to offer?” My value was still hogtied to my size. I was appalled that it still mattered so much.
But over time and with work I could find myself rolling with the punches. I would have periods of embracing my changing body. But most of the time I bounced back and forth between acceptance and suffocating shame. This past summer the shame got the best of me.
While at a family reunion, my children and I swam one mile (likely more with all of the zigging and zagging of swimming in a strong current) across a lake in Wisconsin. It was an absolute blast and a memory I will cherish forever. And yet all of the joy, the thrill of having accomplished something hard and doing it with the people I love the most, was sucked from me the minute I saw the photos and watched the video. The before and after: cheerful and dry and ready for adventure, each of us taking a running dive, and then our exhausted smiles on the dock on the other side. All of the good, all of the joy, it evaporated when I saw my body. This wasn’t the body I remembered having. This wasn’t what I bargained for. Not that there was anything wrong with my body. It just wasn’t me. Those weren’t my hips, my thighs, my arms. Still, after all those years, my identity was tied up in what I looked like. I felt like I had lost myself
Later that month I had an annual physical where I discovered I was indeed almost 10 pounds heavier than a few years before. The despair deepened. And I feared the change would never stop.
About the same time my daughter added me to her Y membership so that I can take our granddaughter. There I witnessed a steady parade of women obsessively, frantically working out. Many of these women appeared to be considerably older than I am and I found it impossible for me not to compare my body to theirs. And I knew that in order to have a body like theirs.. in order to be able to maintain a body that I would feel safe in, I would have to adopt a lifestyle and a mindset that would not be healthy for me. I know too many women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s who constantly worry about their weight or spend their days pursuing a degree of fitness that just seems exhausting. That is not a life I want to live.
Perhaps it was time to go back and open up the can of worms I had tried to slam shut so many years before.
I began listening to podcasts addressing eating disorders and I saw myself everywhere. Not in the eating behavior, as I have not dealt with food restriction or disordered eating for decades, but in the inner landscape. The shame so deep that it swallows you whole.The feelings of failure and never being enough. So I made a decision. I made it without even consulting my husband, which is unusual for me, especially when it is a decision concerning a major financial layout. I decided that perhaps it was time to see a therapist who specializes in body image work.
Back when I had an eating disorder in 1980 and 1981 nobody was a specialist on eating disorders and nobody knew what to do with them. In my adult life when I would see a therapist to deal with various issues, I was always working with somebody in order to address something else. I decided it was time to stare those demons in the face. And that is what I am doing now. And it is very good.
If you’re still reading this, I want you to know that this is about as vulnerable as it gets for me. I don’t want to admit that body image is still a struggle. Nobody in my generation talks about this (my therapist says that younger generations do). I don’t want to appear weak or pathetic. I don’t want those who knew me when I was starving myself to death and the weird kid in high school to think that I am still as lame as I was back then. I have a lot of shame in sharing this. But the reality is I don’t think I’m alone and struggling with this stage of life.
Some of you may be tempted to tell me I should be thankful for the body I have and I realize on an objective level that I am indeed very, very blessed with a small frame and a pretty decent metabolism.
Some people may fear that I don’t take the need to safeguard my health while aging seriously, Do not worry about that. I do.
For some of you the issue of body image and weight may seem incredibly vain and frivolous because you are dealing with life-threatening issues. I do not want to come across as vain or frivolous or shallow.
A woman’s relationship with her body is a very complex thing and some of us were taught from the time we drew our first breath that our size and our appearance was what mattered most. Some of us grew up with our brains developing with these messages as the very baseline of our being. Some of us knew that being small and pleasant to look at meant connection and approval. Sometimes those messages are so deep inside us that it can take six decades to get down to the bottom of it all.
Some of us have never been able to see ourselves as having value outside of our appearance. It is a tragedy of epic proportions.
I would like to ask two things:
1. If you are, like me, struggling to embrace who you are and to affirm your own dignity because your body does not meet a standard, please reach out to me or someone else. Shame grows, multiplies, explodes in secrecy and silence.
2. If you are someone who is driven to work out and eat only certain things in order to make your body what you want it to be even if it is in the name of “health,“ be very careful of the message you send. Teenage girls are not the only ones who struggle. Eating disorder relapse in midlife is very common. Everywhere we turn we are told to fight our bodies, to fight age, to hang on with every cell the little bit of youth we have left. We need less lecturing, not more.
It takes hard work to find out who you are apart from who you've always known yourself to be. It takes hard work to fight back the messages that define your value in your appearance or performance. It takes hard work to dig deep inside and find things of great worth that you can share with others.
Life itself is hard work. This stage of life can feel like a free fall. I’m working hard to find a soft place to land, one full of gentleness, kindness, and self-acceptance.