Friday, October 24, 2008

Not exactly the entry I meant to write about body image

We hear on the news that this is an "obese nation", but consider these statistics:

25% of American men and 45% of American women are on a diet on any given day.

81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat.

The average American woman is 5’4” tall and weighs 140 pounds. The average American model is 5’11” tall and weighs 117 pounds.

"In the United States, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. . .many individuals struggle with body dissatisfaction and sub-clinical disordered eating attitudes and behaviors. . . it has been shown that 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance".

This past weekend, when I was at a meditation retreat, I noticed something that I've experienced before: I did not feel "fat". Now, on Friday morning I felt fat. But after two hours of meditation, I noticed I felt perfectly fine in my body, and about my body. Sure, I could use more exercise. I'm out of shape. I am overweight, but it's not life-threatening. Most people would not call me obese (though those weight charts say that I am). They'd say I'm plump, if they said anything at all. If I lived in New York City, maybe I'd be considered significantly overweight, but where I live, I'm probably about average.

So, I've got some some conflicting external standards. Weight charts that say I'm very fat, a local culture that says I'm okay, a beauty culture that says I'm too short (and Oprah magazine says a person of my height should always wear heels, like I'm going to do that here in the countryside), magazines that show me that I should consider all sorts of surgery, expensive underwear that'll mold my flesh into the right forms, and myself, who completely rejects judging people by their exterior but looks in the mirror and says "ugh".

The ever-shifting nature of how I feel about myself is the piece that interests me. When I feel good about myself, I feel fine about how I look. Having it the other way around, feeling good about how I look determining how I feel about myself, well, that's the road to ruin. Silly concepts like "having a bad hair day" actually do make people unhappy. Sure, it may feel nice having a great hair style and some good clothes on over a thin body, but this is not who we really are. Someone must have told you when you were young, "It's who you are on the inside that counts". Well, I have heard that, but I never believed it. But I do believe that you're as pretty as you feel. This is indeed true.

I once was anorexic. It started out benignly. I went to Weight Watchers, a most sensible program, where I set out to lose 31 pounds. At first I thought the goal weight they gave me was absurdly low, but when I hit it, I didn't feel thin. I stopped going to meetings and started eating less and less until I was down to living on one cup of ramen noodles a day and lots of diet Coke. My refrigerator and cupboards were totally empty. Here I was, a person who once loved to cook and truly loves food, not junk food, but good food, and I felt like I had conquered appetite. I became terribly skinny and I loved how I looked. I could finally stand naked in front of a mirror and say "you're gorgeous". I finally let friends and family take photos of me. And in them, this short woman was so thin, I looked like a model.

What I didn't know is that my doctor was worried. She suggested that I gain seven pounds. It was an odd number and I have no idea where she got it from. I couldn't believe that anyone thought I might be too skinny. I was always overweight. I was teased in elementary school; called "fatso" by some boys every day at the bus stop. Now, people were asking me to eat more! How absurd.

I found out years later that if I hadn't put on seven pounds, my doctor was going to do an intervention and put me in the hospital.

I could never see what I looked like. I thought I was ugly when I was young and I had no reason to think otherwise. I got messages from a lot of important people in my life that I was not good looking. I was told to develop an "interesting personality" to make up for my lack of good looks. What a message to tell a kid! But even if I hadn't gotten these bad messages, I would have picked them up just by turning on the TV or opening a magazine. But, unfortunately, I had noone to counter the BS that this society lays on us about how we look on the outside.

So, that's me, about me, which is totally different than me, when it's about you. I don't care what size others are. If someone weighs 500 pounds, I would worry about their health, but other than that, I really don't notice much what size anyone is.

I have noticed that I see very nice people as beautiful, and beautiful people who are not very nice as not so nice looking. I've found it fascinating how much this seems to be true. What's inside shines through, if that's what we look for in others.

So, it makes a lot of sense that when I'm not centered, that I fall back into self-judging. For whatever reason, I gave up judging others in such harsh ways a pretty long time ago. It's like being really good at giving advice but not applying it to oneself.

I need some jeans. Going into the dressing room is painful. Why should I loathe this body so much? And the disconnect between what I believe and what I feel is just absurd.

This wasn't what I was planning on writing. It wasn't going to be mostly about me. I expected to write an impassioned short tome on loving oneself and the subjective nature of body image. Well, that's in here, buried somewhere. But in the end, it's all personal, to some extent. What's your story?

I vow to reconsider the self-loathing of my body, this wonderful body, this aging and sagging body, and to continue to reject that which my society tells me.

And I'm sure there's more to come.

Painting note:Fernando Botero (b. 1932)
Mademoiselle Riviere, after Ingres, 2002


La Schandre said...

I agree with you that one needs to believe in oneself in order to block out the noise which leads us all to judge ourselves all the time. Check out my opinion piece on our obsession for perfection, amongst university girls on Stilettos, Sex and Shooters

TMC said...

I have been fat all of my adult life, sometimes more, sometimes less. I have twice lost a good amount of weight and been shocked (scared really) by feeling good. I felt powerful, like I was limitless, and that freaked me out. Now I'm trying again, and more prepared.

Julie H. Rose said...

Twice for me, too. And I think I know the feeling you write of. For me, an extreme: at my thinnest, both times, I shaved my head. I felt like a warrior.

Sometimes, round and soft like a woman, I feel weak.

Where's the middle way?

jmcleod76 said...

I put on maybe 20 pounds over the summer - a weird time to gain, weight, I know. It crept up on me, scarcely noticeable until about two months ago I realized I could no longer button most of my pants. For many people, 20 pounds would be Earth-shattering, but when you're already two times your recommended BMI, it's a drop in the bucket. Even so, going up a clothing size after gaining and losing the same 20 pounds for the last five years or so was hard. Harder because so few stores even carried my old size. Things like that - having to go to special stores ... invariably more expensive ones - bother me more than what I see when I look into the mirror.

And, while I do worry about my health - especially lately, because I know I haven't been as active as I want to be, and I feel the effects on my strength and stamina - I think the "dangers" of "obesity" are overstated or, rather, misunderstood. To my thinking, it's a corollary realationship, rather than a causal one. That is: I think eating poorly and not moving can lead to poor health, being overweight, or both. There are lots of thin people out there who don't eat well and don't move enough. And there are lots of "overweight" people who care about what they put into their bodies and lead active, even athletic, lives. I try to just focus on taking care of my body - eating things that are good for me and getting outdoors and moving - and try not to worry so much about what effect that has on how much junk I've got in my trunk. Easier said than done, some days, though.