"So you used to look terrible, right?"
No one has actually said this to me, but I hear it over and over when well-intentioned friends, family members, former co-workers say things such as . . .
"Wow, you look good. What did you do?"
"I'm sure you have had to buy a whole new wardrobe!"
"Look at how tiny you got!"
My parents taught me to be gracious, to smile, to assume people mean well, but I feel compelled to come clean about how horrible comments like these make me feel. There are so many more important things to notice about me than the fifteen pounds I lost over the last four years. I have given birth to two amazing children. I have built beautiful relationships with new friends. I have read at least 100 books. I can run 13.1 miles without stopping. I try to be kind and generous and thoughtful. Please notice these things instead.
This is a hard post to write. I certainly don't want to make anyone feel badly, but I can't continue to feed the damaging narrative our society tells about women -- specifically about women's bodies and how they should look. Not only does this contribute to so much negative self-talk, but it shifts our focus away from what actually matters. And now that I'm blogging for Fit4Mom Boise, I feel like it's especially important that I am very clear about why I am passionate about exercise and nutrition. It's not because I want to rock a bikini. It's not to fit into my college jeans. It's not because my self-worth is determined by my weight.
But this is where it gets complicated. The shape of my body is different now. Of course people will notice. Pretending not to seems problematic in a similar way as pretending not to see skin color. And I do feel more confident in a swimsuit and am excited to wear smaller jeans. I think part of the issue, though, is that we live in culture where physical appearance has somehow become intertwined with morality. Am I better person because the scale shows a lower number? Am I a more valuable member of the community because I wear a smaller size? Of course not. The size of my body has nothing to do with my willpower, intelligence, or work ethic.
And while I am healthier now than I was four years ago, it would be entirely possible for me to be smaller and less healthy. When I was fifteen years old I went away to a nearby college for ten days to participate in an intense writing program. Instead of learning about developing my voice or strategically using figurative language, my biggest takeaway from living with twenty other insecure teenagers was that I wasn't good enough. My body was gross and needed to change. So for the last week of the camp and about a month afterwards, I deprived my 95-pound self of nutrients. I didn't tell anyone what I was doing, but I became obsessed with the number on the scale. Fortunately, school started again, and I realized that I had friends and family who loved me. Me -- just the way that I was. Thank goodness I was able to stop before making myself seriously sick, but the struggle to be ok with my body has never completely gone away.
Now I find myself in a difficult position. I want to celebrate my growing strength and dedication to making healthy choices and encourage others to join me on this empowering journey. But I fear people mistaking my enthusiasm for burpees and green smoothies as tickets to a size zero when the real rewards are confidence, energy, and vitality. And I also want to make sure that I stay true to my purpose because it's easy to get caught up in the buzz I am bombarded with each time I turn on the television, open up a magazine, or walk through a department store.
So what can I do? I have been reflecting on this question ever since I saw Taryn Brumfitt's documentary Embrace several months ago. There is one line of the film that I cannot stop thinking about. In a letter to her young daughter, Taryn writes, "Darling girl, don't waste a single day of your life being at war with your body. Just embrace it." How can I truly embrace my body? How can I support and encourage others on their journeys? How can I make sure that my sweet Annabelle understands that her body is capable and strong and beautiful and perfect exactly the way that it is?
I have generated a few action items, but I'd also love to hear your ideas about how we can embrace our bodies. Here is my list to get the conversation started:
1) Be a part of life-affirming communities. I've had the good fortune to stumble upon several of these positive, productive, and uplifting communities in the last few years. The first was when I was really struggling with how to be the kind of teacher I knew I wanted to be within the confines of a often-limiting educational system. The Boise State Writing Project allowed me to connect with like-minded teachers who supported and challenged me in all of the best ways. And whereas this community is not focused on physical bodies, I found the encouragement I desperately needed to embrace my ideas. Then not long after taking a hiatus from teaching to focus on my new role as a mother, I found the Fit4Mom village. The ladies I work out with in Stroller Strides, Body Back, and Boost classes support each other as we grow stronger together. I have never heard an unkind word or felt like anyone thought there was something wrong with my body or anyone else's.
2) Be thoughtful and intentional with my words. I am surrounded by many women who who are focused on strength, endurance, and overall health. Occasionally, we share criticisms of our own bodies, but it is actually quite rare. I want to make a renewed effort to be mindful about the way I talk about my body so I can positively contribute to our community. Last summer I got a little obsessed about the way the bridesmaid dress I had to wear for my sister's wedding squeezed some skin in what I thought to be an unflattering manner. I went on and on about my "back fat" and the exercises I was doing to address it. Not only was this completely ridiculous on multiple levels (I mean, who I was I to think that anyone would even be paying attention to a small area on my back in the first place?), but fixating on this insecurity was a waste of time and assigned value to something that actually doesn't matter at all.
3) Take advantage of opportunities to change the conversation. When people comment on my physical size or shape, I want to try and be brave enough to be honest. Perhaps I can respond with something like, "Yes, my body has changed. I'm really focused on getting stronger. I'm trying to pay attention to how much better I feel rather than how I look."
4) Notice others. One of the reasons comments about my size hurt is because I leave these encounters feeling (ironically?) unseen. It's easy to compliment a person's haircut or weight loss, but I want to go deeper than that. I want to be more generous with my attention. So I am going to put more effort into paying attention to my friends, family, and new people I meet. I want to find out what they care about, the questions they are pursuing, the risks they are taking.
I hope these actions will help me to finally end the war with my body and truly be a model of body positivity for my daughter and friends. Because the truth is that no one looks terrible. We have all been blessed beyond measure with incredible bodies. These bodies grow and shrink, stretch and contract over time, but they will always be our homes. So today, let's choose to see just how beautiful we are -- inside and out.