Body image lessons by way of my children

I learned in 3rd grade that I was ugly. I may have suspected it before then, but it was confirmed in the sing-song tones of childish torment that told me I was fat. And I needed no one to tell me that fat=ugly.

Humans come in so many different shapes and sizes. Some people are angular; some people are curved; some people are a mixture.

I am round. I have round arms and legs, round belly, round butt cheeks. No matter what I weigh overall, my body is curved. From very, very early on I learned that I didn’t fit, that I spilled over in ways that should rightfully embarrass me, that my body was shameful and something I should not inflict on other people any more than I had to.

And not too long after that, I learned that it was my fault. I was greedy. I ate too much. I was morally inferior, and it was showed plainly in the shape of the body I inhabited. By the time I was in 7th grade I had come to hate my body. Anyone who told me different was obviously lying, either from spite or in a misguided attempt to make me feel better about myself.

A high school relationship not grounded in consent or good communication did further damage, and by the time I got to college I literally could not feel touch or receive love or appreciation. Stomach churning with my terror of intimacy, I vomited during or after more than one date.

Now, at the ripe old age of 48, I have, by dint of ongoing work, come light-years from that place. I can look in the mirror at myself, and not only not recoil in disgust at the sight of all that fat (as I did for long, long decades), I can see beauty, vitality, evidence of the way I love and move and act in the world. I can see thick wavy hair, dark eyes, strong legs, capable hands, a bountiful chest, and even, sometimes, a belly that stretched and increased in capacity to nurture three human beings in two pregnancies, and whose skin is a map of those gifts.

My two youngest are twins. They are very different from each other, though when we brought them home from the hospital we put fingernail polish on J’s nail so we could be sure that we didn’t get them mixed up. At that time they were alike in their tiny-old-man wrinkled hairlessness, very similar in weight. Now, they are growing into very different bodies and temperaments.

J is taller, slender, lighter-haired, elfin. E is shorter, rounder, darker, powerful.

Looking at E this morning, I realized that her arms are a smaller replica of mine. Her limbs are sturdy, like mine. J’s arms and legs are longer and not just thinner, but a different shape altogether. She has lines where her sisters have curves.

There is a part of me which has really struggled, seeing H, my older daughter, develop a body like mine, too. That self-hating, fat-phobic piece of me which is desperate to see thin rather than thick legs, a flat belly rather than one which is round. I must have compassion for that piece of me, wounded so early and so deeply.

They all eat the same thing, a pretty healthy diet which prioritizes vegetables and protein over carbs.

They look different. They have different bodies. This has nothing to do with failure or weakness. They are different. I was the plump person in a family of thin people. I was not worse. I was just different.

This morning I had an orchestra rehearsal. Walking back to my car carrying my cello in the sunshine, I could access gratitude for my body, with which I make music, hug my friends and family, cuddle my children, make love with my partner, see blue sky, hear birdsong, feel the textures of my clothing, make and taste food. My body, which tells me when I need food or rest, which carries me and nurtures me. My body, which I can decorate. My body, which houses my heart and mind and spirit. My body, which is beautiful with life and vitality, tenderness and expression. I need to keep listening to my body, caring for my body, appreciating my body rather than taking it for granted.

I owe myself just as much love as I wish to offer my children. And while my children do not owe me love, they offer me loving lessons every day. I am grateful for their presence and their authenticity.

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Self-affirmations as a path to self-love

At my latest hair appointment, I was feeling sad and overwhelmed for various reasons. I’ve been going to that stylist for a number of years, and we’ve had a number of reasonably substantive conversations. I can’t remember what the segue was for this question, but I asked her how she approaches self-image and not being thin in our society where that is so prized, so perceived as necessary by so many people.

I have written about this before, but one thing that has been a source of sadness and frustration for me is my reaction when my boyfriend (or anyone else, for that matter) tells me I am beautiful: that is, I simply cannot relate myself to the word, and it slides off of me as though just under my skin there is a paper-thin but impenetrable shield. I wish to feel pleased by the compliment. I have felt that to be impossible. Sheer effort of will is not enough to flip the switch that has been cemented in place since I was very little, the switch in my self-identity set to fat/ugly/repulsive/loser.

On the other hand, of course, a negative comment or expression directed my way has a thousand channels into my psyche, where it can enter freely and pick at the wounds from previous encounters. Over the years I have worked hard on healing those wounds, and I have made a lot of progress. I used to feel repulsed by my body; now, most of the time, I do not. I have even made progress in softening and walking away from the identification with the self-hatred described above.

But believing that I am beautiful? That has really felt impossible. The best I could hope for, I believed, was a lack of self-hatred, an alliance with my body based on mutual positive intent, respect, appreciation for function, teamwork. My mental calculus has been, beauty = x, and I am y, so it is impossible for me to be beautiful. It doesn’t feel like self-hatred: just a logical acceptance of reality.

But really, a denial of love is at the least neglect, if not really hatred in another form. And, whether I would like to be or not, I am not indifferent to my body.

So, after that conversation with my stylist I decided to try the self-affirmation tack that has been recommended to me before, but which I have felt resistance to. That is, I look at myself in the mirror every day and say, out loud, “I am beautiful.” I also list details about my face or my hair, or my body. And lo and behold, it is working! I am shifting how I feel about myself, and now beauty is not something which seems to belong entirely to other people. I have also added, “I play cello beautifully” (though I want to change the wording of that), and, “I can be angry and still be a good mother,” because those two items are often equally problematic for me.

Of note, however, is how insidious our thin=beautiful societal definition is. I noticed that when I feel better about myself, I look different to myself, and what that actually means is that I look THINNER to myself. I see the shape of my body differently. When I am feeling bad about myself, I see myself as fatter. So, my goal now is to look at myself, at all of me, at what I really look like, and state that my body, as it is, is beautiful. And that is an act of rebellion. But for the first time, I believe that it is possible.

Food and willpower, and judgement

I have had a complicated relationship with food since I was a kid. I grew up in a family in which healthy eating was a high priority. We very rarely ate out, ate a lot of veggies, and had few nutritionally deficient foods in the house. So certainly eating healthily was modeled for me. However, food & fat & character are tied together in really destructive ways in our culture, and being labeled fat as an elementary school kid really didn’t help. And there were ways in which food & hierarchy & character assessment were intertwined in our family which made me eating food a bit of a loaded thing.

As an adult I have gained weight. I am definitely not the same size I was when I was an 18-year-old college freshman. Given that for so long I bought the fat=unhealthy&ugly/healthy=thin&beautiful messaging that is so prevalent, it has been really hard to make clean choices about my food and about my health; underlying all of them was a passionate desire to become thin and therefore acceptable. As I have written about before, I have been working on gradually jettisoning some of that baggage from my mind and heart, especially since having children.

One of the things that I’ve done that has worked for me has been the Whole30 program, where for 30 days I eat principally meat proteins and veggies. Staying off sugar and most grains helps me have a clearer head, a happier gut, and more energy. However, I have found that though I can successfully eat no sugar while doing a Whole30, once I’m off it, the just-this-once mentality quickly kicks in, and I start quite frequently eating all sorts of crap I really don’t want. And when I do that, it is so easy to fall back into being hard on myself. And then, given societal pressures and childhood programming, I can find myself teetering on the brink of a punishment/indulgence pattern that is so destructive.

In the quest to find a balance that feeds all parts of me while creating a structure that helps me achieve my health goals, I have discovered that what works for me is to have assigned treat days at reasonable intervals (every two or three weeks seems to work). That way, when I’m tempted to eat that pizza/ice cream/bag of chips I can delay the fulfillment of that gratification rather than telling myself a flat no. Knowing that in a week or two I can have X, Y, or Z, (or some reasonable and delicious substitute) helps. It also helps me focus on which “treats” I really want, so I’m eating higher quality sugar when I do have it, for example.

Mostly, my goal is to move away from the model of punishing myself for a failure of will-power (“I was bad: I deserve to suffer!”) to one in which I can offer myself compassion, understanding, support, and a deeper connection to what I really want (“How do I want to feel, and how will this food support or work against me feeling good?”).

And then, if I can do that with myself, maybe I can do it with my kids.