Saturday, February 14, 2009

Body Image Stuff

It’s taken a while for me to admit that I have some body image issues. Which is silly really – what woman doesn’t? Our culture is pretty much designed to give women body image issues – they make us better consumers. And keep us too distracted to focus on stuff like, say, equal pay.

For some reason I’ve always been reluctant to actually talk about my own personal body image issues, though, but lately I find that I want to. Why? Because I think that the veil of silence surrounding this stuff is part of the reason that the issues are so widespread in the first place. Because I think that the pressure not to talk about them is a form of sexism. Because women aren’t supposed to say this hurts me.

So, with a hat tip to Theriomorph for posting this wonderful essay that finally pushed me over the edge into actually being willing to talk about it, here’s my personal situation.

My entire life I’ve felt like I needed to lose weight. The funny thing about this is that this feeling seems to exist independently of what my weight is at any given time – I pretty much always feel like I need to lose 20-30 pounds. I felt like that at size 14, and I felt like that at size 5. Right now I seem to waver between a 6 and an 8, and yep, “I need to lose 20-30 pounds” is always there at the back of my mind.

The funny thing is that technically I’m not even overweight. According to ye olde BMI chart my weight is just fine. Even at the upper end of my personal scale – an 8 – I’m still thinner than most women my age (35). And yet I feel fat. I look in the mirror and see someone who needs to be thinner.

I suppose part of the reason I’m reluctant to talk about this is that I know that some people will read it and go “oh ffs quit whining, you’re not even fat, not like me!”. And they would in fact have a point. Like I said, I’m not unaware of the fact that the average American woman is bigger than me. The average woman in the media though…ah, now there’s the rub.

If you were to go by the media standards a woman my height (159 cms) should be a size 2 at most. Even that has been considered a bit hefty on some occasions (anyone remember when they were calling Jennifer Love Hewitt fat? She’s a size 2). Never in my adult life have I been that small. Not even when I went through what I can only 20 years later admit was a bout of borderline anorexia as a teenager and was eating less than 700 calories a day, less than 300 during the truly scary period. The smallest I ever got was a 5, and that was on the aforementioned nothing but rice cakes, chicken broth and bananas diet, with an extremely active lifestyle. Even when I’m thin enough that you can see my bones through the skin my hips are still 36 inches. I have D cup boobs. I’m just not blessed with that wispy ectomorph type of physique. Blame my stocky Celtic ancestors, with their muscly legs and their childbearing hips.

Why the persistent wish to be an ectomorph? I’m not even attracted to female ectomorphs. I’m most often attracted to women with builds a lot like my own, just a bit thinner. I am however extremely attracted to male ectomorphs, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe it’s a fear that if I don’t lose weight I won’t be as appealing to the men I’m attracted to as I would like. Maybe it’s just being aware of how the world treats fat women, and fearing the weight of all that loathing crashing down on my head. Maybe it’s just a desire for approval.

That’s the sick thing about dieting, that even when you’re displaying blatantly unhealthy behaviors it gets you tons of approval. When I went through my less than 700 calories a day phase not a single friend or family member went “ok, this is nuts”. Not when I obsessively tallied everything that I ate, not when I started refusing foods that I’d always loved, not when I felt like I was drowning and I was desperately waiting for someone to say "no, stop, you don't need to do this". For at least a year I was hungry all the time. Even in the summer I felt so cold that I needed a sweater. I shivered when everyone else was sunbathing. And no one said a damn thing other than gee, you look so much prettier lately, what’s your secret?

How do you deal with that, the rage that you feel towards the people who were supposed to love and protect you for watching you hurt yourself and praising you for it? It was my mother who bought me the diet book that recommended the appropriate serving of rice at each meal as being two tablespoons. My father still asks me how my weight is doing before any other question, and no amount of visible discomfort on my part or requests that he please not go there has ever dissuaded him from doing so. How do you process the fact that other people actually approve of your acting like a nutcase? That they like you better when you’re miserable but highly decorative?

I haven’t behaved like that for years now. I made a deliberate decision in my late teens never to count calories again, because it just wasn’t worth what it was doing to my mental health. I eat a healthy balanced diet that even includes sweets. And yet, the voice in my head persists, the one that says if people knew what you looked like under your clothes they’d be horrified. The one that says, no matter how hard you try it will never be enough. No amount of reassurance from adoring partners both male and female that my body is just fine has ever been able to make that voice go away.

What scares me is…is this even unusual? The wall of silence around women’s feelings about their bodies is so solid that most people just don’t talk about this stuff. Sure, we make the publicly required protestations like “oh my ass looks so big in these pants”, but we never talk about the real stuff, the stuff that hurts. And I’m finding more and more that I want to talk about it, because I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that not talking about it is part of what got us all into this situation in the first place.

So, hey, if you want to talk I’ll listen.


Octogalore said...

I agree it's a bad situation, and kudos for being so honest.

I went through an anorexic stage as well -- and mine, nobody thought looked good. I had people making calls to my parents and guys saying they'd never date me because I looked like a concentration camp victim. I was probably eating 1000 calories a day and exercising like a maniac. Looking back, I'm not sure what I was thinking.

And yet, my behavior today is still anal, although more healthy. I've always been afraid of aging, and middle aged spread is part of that fear. I can't even blame it on living in LA, since I felt this way in MA and MI. While I now eat about 1800-2200 calories a day, I exercise quite a bit -- 60 minutes a day of cardio and weights/abs 3 days a week for an hour. In a way it's like exercise bulimia. The only justification is that with a very sedentary life, it is hard to emulate the Okinawa program lifestyle without this kind of exercise. Should this be emulated here? I don't know. It's certainly obsessive.

I must admit that getting positive attention for physique/appearance that meets cultural approval is a really hard thing to give up. It would be hard to recognize my life without it. And yet, each year it goes away a little, and certain things that seemed tough now seem less tough -- like not wearing makeup except on the occasional Sat night, whereas I couldn't imagine doing this at an earlier point. Or accepting, and being happy about, a weight that is 15 pounds above what I ever thought I could accept. I don't expect I will be "healthy" or "normal" regarding body image soon, but I hope that small steps will happen so that when I have to give up this reliance, it will not be so difficult.

Zan said...

I've yet to meet a woman who didn't have some sort of body issues, regardless of their actual size, and I think it's important to talk about that, to get it out in the open because that's the only way we can really see just how messed up that is.

Due to numerous factors, I'm quite fat. I've always always felt pressure to change that, but the fact of the matter is, I simply can't. Oh, I could lose SOME weight but there is no way I can lose enough to be not fat. It's simply not in my genetic make up. No one in my family is not-fat. We're tall, fat people. We're also generally fairly healthy people. The women in particular are healthy and tend to live much longer than average.

But that has never mattered to most of the women in my family. There is always this obsession with losing weight. My mother is always on a diet. She always loses some weight, she always gains it back. She's on a diet now and is having to fight to lose even 10 lbs. And I want to say to her, Mom, you're 55. Aren't you tired of this? Aren't you tired of constantly fighting with your body? You eat healthily. You get lots of veggies and good meats. (Cause they butcher their own, they know what the animals have eaten and really, it's always much much tastier than store bought stuff.) My mom gets regular exercise. She's doing everything she can do. But she's always, always trying to lose no matter how hard it is.

She ignores the fact that she's on a lot of medication -- for anxiety and high blood pressure (which is inherited on her side of the family and something that doesn't change regardless of how much weight she loses) and that those meds makes it hard for her to lose weight. All the things I point out to her, she just doesn't see. It's all about figuring out the formula. But there is NO formula.

I keep thinking about that girl I used to be, who was quite happy with her body and what it could do, until OTHER people told me I shouldn't be. Until other people told me I was so pretty, but wouldn't I like to lose 20 lbs? Other people who mocked me because I hit puberty way earlier than the other girls in my class and was wearing a size 16 when I was 14. (The size I remained, btw, until I got sick and was imobilized by pain. I had D cup boobs, long legs and serious curves in junior high -- but I certainly wasn't unhealthy or overweight.)

I keep thinking -- aren't we all just so fucking tired of it all? Aren't we tired of worrying about how big we are or how small we are or what other people think about our bodies? All that energy going to waste when it could be used for....what? Changing the world? Making art? Being happy?

I've made peace with my body. I love my body. I love that it's big and round and soft and I love that I take up space. I love that you can't ignore me. I love that you can't pretend to not see me. I love that I can walk and dance and sing. I love how incredibly strong my body is -- three chronic illnesses, a fucked up immune system and I'm still here. I'm still here, I'm still strong and I'm not going anywhere. Because my body is amazing. Seriously, I think about what it's been through and I think -- how can I be mad at it for being big? Seriously? It's carried me through bouts of pain so intense I was praying to die, and I'm supposed to hate it because it's fat? What? It's fought off infections that were trying to kill me and I'm supposed to punish it because I don't like the number on a clothing tag? That's just stupid.

But it took a long time for me to get there. Time and some serious illnesses that radically altered the way I looked at my body. And that makes me mad, because why? Why shouldn't I be allowed to love my body normally? It just pisses me off. How much joy are we denying ourselves?

brie said...

Women definitely go through different stages of body consciousness at different times in their lives! Do check out my most recent post on related issues>>>>