I have always wondered whether or not I would go through a mid life crisis. As I approached and then passed age 40, I thought “what could possibly happen?” Then whamo! I was hit square in the stomach with a major personal crisis in November. When I was explaining this experience to a friend at Starbucks one day, she likened it to being clanged on both sides of the head with large cymbals. She said it was a wake up call and she was right.
Since then I have done a lot of thinking about who I am and how I see myself.
I have had a negative body image for most of my life and this started at a young age. My sister is two years older than me but I have been larger than her the majority of my life (until recently since she is into body building!). I would get her hand-me down clothes because she was older so logically they should have fit me; that was not necessarily the case. I have fair sized bunions on both of my feet from years of wearing shoes that were too short for me. I can remember feeling my hot bunions pulsating while crossing through the field on my way to public school.
I reached puberty at a young age and one day when I was coming down the stairs my mom made a comment about my ass. She told me that it was a weird shape and stuck out too far. I believe that the term “bubble butt” was being used in the house at some point. Another time she saw me with my shirt off and said: “I have never seen breasts like that; they are a weird shape.” I still remember the look on her face as she stared down at them with bewilderment. These comments stung and I used to wear my hair long in an attempt to drape it over my body.
Just yesterday I was admiring my ass in the mirror. I have only been running for a few weeks but I can already see the improvement. Never once has a man told me that my body looks weird. In fact when I was 16, I remember not understanding why the boy next door used to stare at me every time I went for a swim. It was both creepy and confusing.
My daughter is currently 8 and when I was close to that age my mom would make my sister sit on the stairs that led down to our unfinished basement with a stop watch. Her job was to time me as I jumped rope or used the lemon twist next to my older brother’s red hockey net. I remember being thankful that I had a choice between the skipping rope and the lemon twist and I concentrated on the sound that it made as it spun rhythmically around my ankle.
This enforced situation was unfair to both me and my sister and I know that she feels sorry for this when it wasn’t even her fault. But it was harmful in many ways and affected my relationship with her. I am grateful that one day when I was about 20 years old, we made a conscious decision to change the dynamics of our relationship and she has been one of my best friends ever since. She has also been very inspiring to me. She has gone ahead and created a career and is a great role model for many women.
When I was approximately 16 years old, my mom decided that I should eat only diet pudding. I would go into the cellar at our second house where I hid my stash on the shelf behind the door and I would shamefully shove it into my mouth while the rest of my family ate dinner upstairs. I would then go into the dusty furnace room beside the cellar and ride the exercise bike for as long as I could manage. It was years before I enjoyed the taste of vanilla pudding again.
I am very careful about what I say and how I act around my daughter. She saw me naked one time and made a comment about my stomach sticking out. I said: “I think I look great. Also, remember that I had two babies in there.” I quickly changed the subject and we started our day. I have never commented on her weight or appearance except to compliment her. She once revealed that she thinks she is fat and I told her that she is just right and beautiful. I want to be a positive role model for her. She sees me eating well and exercising. I love her and I know that she is listening to me.
Thanks for writing this post Lorrie. It is upsetting to learn that my niece thinks she is fat. Where on earth did she get that idea? It shows the sheer power of popular culture. I remember when we discussed mom’s behaviour, especially the way in which she would pinch the fat on our waists to assess us during a hello hug. Then we had an intervention during which we told her that she was never allowed to do that again, to compare us, or to comment on our weight. That worked. I used to refuse to “diet” (ie to eat reasonably and with a certain amount of self-control) as a political act of resistance to her monitoring. But now I see that in our culture, so-called normal eating is actually over-consumption, fuelled by the corporate demands of excessive consumerism. Eating whatever you like, whenever you like is hardly an act of rebellion. Deciding not to over-eat high fat junk food is a reasonable act of self care and not a punishing form of submission.
I went through the same thing with my parents. Huge pressure to be thin, which I was not. I was told I was hated as I was a fat little toad, ridiculed as I was not perfect, and withheld food/love to I make me behave. It has taken years of therapy to feel better but I have to acknowledge the scared little girl in me and reassure her that who I am is enough. I am strong, happy and lovely just the way I am.
Thanks for another thoughtful post. I’ve worried a lot about how my particular body issues play out around my three children. My sister and I are both on the slimmer side, but that apparently never occurred to our father who joked with us constantly about “getting fat.” We didn’t have to work hard to stay thin, but the relentless message from our family clearly valued thinness and created a constant low grade worry over food and body image. Of course we never “dieted” because that was the sort of thing people did who couldn’t maintain control. (Is there literature on obnoxious people who see the idea of a diet, in and of itself, as a personal failure?) . Because, of course, when my mother spent a month eating plain toast for breakfast that wasn’t a diet. She was just eating sensibly. Um…
I have a particular body type that has made it easier for me to fit in and escape the social derision of our fat-phobic society, but it seems like the pressure to remain at a particular standard came early and never let up. I feel like addressing the issues head on is important. I think being aware of my comments about my own body and those of other women is important. I think my daughter needs to know that strength and capability is more important than the other body-shaming BS… and yet, I feel like I also have to acknowledge to my kids that food and weight and body image, etc. is loaded and complex. I still struggle with lots of issues. I want to present a totally together front, I want to things to be one way, but I believe somewhere in my heart that they are actually another way… (citation paraphrase to The Wire). So part of my conversation with my daughter is to admit that I don’t always feel strong and beautiful. My body contours sometimes border on obsessive…and I don’t think that is what I should do and I certainly don’t want her to self image tied to her waist size … but I hope acknowledging that all of this becoming a person is a struggle helps her feel free to name the issues and work them out as they arise rather than just shoving it down. But nearly every woman I know is still, in some way, obsessed with her body size. I’ve no idea what to do about that other than to acknowledge the pressure still exists and it comes from every quarter.
I tell my daughter I’m doing my best but I’m not going to get it right. I still have “issues.”
It sounds like you are indeed facing the ambivalence of gendered body issues head on. I admire the way that you address the common condition of believing contradictory messages. It is indeed possible to be fat phobic and to fight fat phobia at the same time.