From Us to You: Some Volunteer Aunties Talk Body Image
I know it's only so much consolation to you right now, but the older I get, the more I notice how much easier having a positive body image becomes. I know that's clearly not the case for all older women: after all, plenty of women my age and older are getting sliced, diced and Botoxed to within an inch of their lives. However, it's also not just me. I often notice that women I'm friends with also seem to have a good handle and perspective on their body image, despite the diversity of our bodies. Usually a much better one then they had when they were your age.
But you know, what I wish I knew then that I do know now is that most of my body image is totally up to me. Just like it is now, so it was when I was in my teens: I have control over how positive or negative it is. And that's something you'll find many older women wish they had known back when. You don't have to wait until you're in your 30's, 40's or beyond to get to a better place with yours. You can start doing that right this second, and I'm hoping we can help you out with that some here.
When I was young, I rarely heard older women talking positively about their bodies. There were a few exceptions, but for the most part, what I watched and heard about from older women growing up was how fat they were, how they needed to lose this many pounds, how this thing or that one didn't fit them (and how they needed it to), how what they looked like was making them miserable; how what they ate, if anything, resulted in their misery. Of course, what was really making them miserable was what was coming OUT of their mouths, far more than what was going on.
I wasn't helped by all those negatives. But I was helped by the positive messages I did hear, and also by the messages I heard that were simply real and truthful, even if those older women weren't yet in the best space, but they at least made clear they were trying to get there by self-acceptance, rather than self-torture or conformity.
So, because so often here we hear from users struggling with body image, I wanted to pass on a little holiday gift to you. I asked a few of my friends in their late twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and up -- who are also a range of shapes and sizes -- if they'd pass on what they've learned and where they're at right now with body image to share with you. Here's what they wanted to say:
Alison: As a teen, watching my friends w/ eating disorders, I made a conscious decision to accept my body as it is. It hasn't always been easy, but making that commitment to myself is one of the best things I've ever done, and I continue to strive to live up to it.
Danya: The more time you spend thinking about how your body looks, or what you've eaten or haven't eaten, or any of that stuff, the less time and brainspace you have to think about and plan your creative work; notice inequalities and plot revolution; pay attention to what other people need and respond to that; feel your feelings; come up with big visions, schemes and plans; meditate, pray, or otherwise feed your spiritual side; or do any one of a million other things that can help you enact your potential in the world. When you catch yourself going there, think about what else you could be doing with that mental space, and USE IT.
Linda: I have always had the ability to look at my body in a mirror and see at least one good thing that I like, usually how narrow my waist was-instead of dawdling too much on having a wider behind than most. I have been every size there is, and it's always come down to how it feels to live in my body. Is it comfortable to move? AS a teenager, I always thought I had to be a specific size, and wasted too much time worrying over not being able to buy the "in" styles. Then I started being more creative about what I wore, or got pants tailored to fit my smaller waist etc, and wow did that help. I wish I could tell my teen self how beautiful I was. At 15 I actually said "I will probably never be prettier, and sadly, I am the least likely to recognize that fact". I had already noticed how women talk about their bodies as they grow older, and everyone said they were really perfectly themselves as a teenager but failed to stop and enjoy it. Dancing NIA is awesome for body self esteem. I highly recommend it!
Amanda: I had a pretty good body image in high school. I didn't understand why fashion magazines seemed to obsess over back fat and arm fat and FAT. Life seemed too short to worry about those sorts of things. Then I gained weight and it was a struggle to not obsess. And then I realized that the power I had as a teen had little to do with my size (I certainly wasn't thin) and more to do with how I felt and carried myself and I just try to recapture that feeling. When I hear women talking shit about their bodies, I just want to remind them that fat does not equal ugly. There are so many people that prove this on a daily basis. And then I try to show them Joy Nash's "Fat Rant."
Amy: As a fat woman (who has been fat my whole life!), I can say that every minute of every day is a struggle. A struggle to accept what I look like, a struggle to shout down and shut up the voices inside my head AND outside in the world AND in every piece of media I see that tell me I am ugly, bad, greedy, gluttonous, asexual, unloveable and less than human because of what I look like. It was a struggle when I was a teenager, and it's a struggle now, and so far, that's never changed -- and I'm sad that I don't have any better news than that. There are days when I AM able to shout louder than the negative voices, and I can dress in clothes that I like and go out into the world and feel powerful and capable and worthy and talented, regardless of my weight. There are other days (when I get "moo'ed" at walking down the street, or read personal ads that say "No fatties", "Please be thin -- sorry, but overweight girls gross me out") when I retreat into the house and can't face the world anymore.
The best I have come up with so far -- regarding how to live in the body I have, in this world as we know it -- is to appreciate my body not for what it looks like, but for what it can do. I'm grateful that it has supported me and remained functional through an amazing amount of stress and pain and crap. :) I'm grateful that despite my weight, I can MOVE - I can walk FAST, I can walk FAR, I can do yoga, I can stretch, I can lift weights...I am a fully-working person (and there ARE THIN PEOPLE who can't say that, dammit!). And the times when I feel best about myself -- when I really do feel connected to my external self in a positive, caring way -- are when I'm exercising. When I'm walking on a treadmill, or ellipting, or hiking...when I feel my muscles moving, and my own sweat and breath...I realize that THIS is what a body is.
It is ANATOMY, it is BIOLOGY, it is CHEMISTRY. It is not APPEARANCE -- or at least, it shouldn't be. The idea of beauty is so insanely subjective, so random and ineffable, that it's utterly f*cking ridiculous for our culture to label our three-dimensional flesh-and-blood "houses" that do so much for us as beautiful or not. So, I try to remember that. I try to care more that my body works than whether it's meeting a beauty standard.
But it is hard. It is never less very very hard.
Priscilla: I spent my teen years thinking I was fat and gross. I often wish I could tell my teenage self that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her. One thing that helped me to get to a better place, actually, was going to clothing optional events. I saw a lot of women's bodies and realized that my body was just fine, that beautiful bodies came in lots of shapes, and that I shouldn't compare myself to women in porn or in fashion magazines because they were not the average and they were airbrushed all to hell. For most women and girls today, the only naked bodies they ever see are in porn, so they compare themselves to an unrealistic standard.
Erika: It's much better NOW at 48. Main reason? I finally got fitted, and now have bras that FIT. 34 FF: delicious! And I adore my ass. Gawd, I sound narcissistic.
Samantha: I think it was some time in my 30s, when I heard the (source utterly forgotten at this point) quote "You're the only person you're going to wake up with every single morning of your life." That made me really think about whether or not I was un/happy with my appearance because of me, or due to outside influence. And since this is the only skin I'm gonna have this time around, I'd better damn well get to loving it and understanding it, no matter what else is going on.
So I tried to be more gentle and forgiving toward my body on days when it felt bloated or slow: there was a reason for that after all. And I've kept trying to do that, and remind myself that overall, this body has been awfully damned good to me through the years, it deserves more appreciation than I've been kind enough to give it at times.
Also, figuring out how to wear clothes that fit properly! Neither too large, nor too small.
Mary: I've had endometriosis since I was 13, with extremely painful periods, and always felt that my body was punishing me for being female. It wasn't until I was much older that I decided to treat it as a disease instead of as "just part of being a girl."
For me, hormonal treatments are the answer; for a lot of women, surgery to remove lesions is the answer. Finally being pain-free has made me start to really like my body and feel good about being a woman. The moral is: illnesses of the female body aren't curses or our special lot in life; they're just illnesses requiring medical treatment, and it's important to keep searching until you find a treatment that works for you. We deserve to be as healthy as anybody else does.
Nancy: Think about what your body can do, not what it looks like. Your body is designed to move through space and propel you through your life. Your legs and thighs hold you up, so you can dance and shake your tail feather. Having just seen "Fela," an amazing celebration of movement and body diversity, I'd recommend African dance, which embraces power, agility and all body forms - not skinny and weightless. Embrace the space that you take up in this world!
And here's my own two cents: when I was younger my mother would put these images on the fridge which were intended to inspire her not to eat. (Starvation diets were all the rage in the 70's and 80's: not like we've come that far since then.) The one I remember most was of a fat, mostly naked woman who had covered herself in cake and garishly colorful makeup. She was laughing and smiling, and appeared to be having an outrageously good time, seeming to have no idea or care that for some women like my mother, she was an object lesson of some kind, a warning to other women.
Comparing the image of that woman, and her relationship to food and her body, with the image of my mother -- who rarely, if ever, looked happy with herself, who felt that food was her enemy (she's since gotten over it, by the way), left me with a very different takeaway than it left my mother. My mother looked at that woman and herself and saw her nightmare. I, on the other hand, looked at that woman and saw a joyous, fleshy lady who made life, the body and food look like the best party ever. If I had to pick a body image role model of the two of them, I would have picked the woman in that photo, hands down. She was the one with a healthy body image and a healthy relationship to food. She was the one who was clearly happy and who clearly felt good about herself. I loved seeing that lady on the fridge: she always made me smile.
I've had some times in my life where I was so poor I had to skip meals, sometimes for more than one day. Not only did that wind up impacting my health (two of my internal organs eventually gave up the ghost and landed me in the hospital at death's door because of it), it's something I can never forget when I'm not in that position and I can eat. I love food, and it loves me back: it nourishes me and keeps me healthy and vital, plus, it's freaking delicious and an amazing sensual experience to eat. I'm always grateful to be able to put fresh, delicious food on my table and to have the time and the privilege to savor it. There were times in my teens that due to the words of an abusive stepparent about my body that I tried very hard to love food less, to get thinner, thin enough, I hoped, to stop the jeers. I'm lucky to have come out of that with the chutzpah and self-worth to reclaim a positive body image, but when I think about the times I did really let those nasty messages sink in, I feel pretty angry with myself. I want to go back in time and deliver a comeback a lot like one Carrie Fisher shouted out recently:
"What the @#*! do YOU look like?
I know I don’t really have the right to ask……I’m a public figure——Ive made an unspoken contract to keep that figure slim…….but still, I find myself wondering…….See, I think the folks that insult & mock celebrities who DARE to pack on ten pounds or—–God forbid——MORE than ten!…..I would think it only fair that they post a photo of themselves along with their poisonous observations! And you know what else would be SUPER cool??? Their IQ! ALL the numbers! An approximate count of Weight AND wisdom!"
In my adult life, at around 5'4, I've weighed everything from 120 to 185. At 120 I was skeletal, and I looked freaking scary. I only weighed that little because I could not afford to eat. I'm not a small-boned or small-muscled gal: I come from hearty stock from all sides of my genetic spectrum. 120 is NOT a healthy weight for me, not at all. At 185 I was depressed: not because of my weight, mind -- I weighed what I did because of my depression. I've felt best in my body when I weighed around 155, at the time that I was able to teach and train in a sport that I love for an hour and a half three times a week, and when I ate like I was fueling a small country. When I was at that weight, due to all that boxing and kickboxing, my body shape -- which is often the relatively rare hourglass shape we so often hear is THE timeless ideal when I don't train so hard -- was hardly the typical feminine ideal: I had forearms like Popeye, my breasts shrunk considerably, and my already substantial thighs got even bigger.
Go figure that the weight I felt best at happened to be the one when my personal body was at its healthiest and I was also doing all the things I loved to do with it the most: not the weight or shape where I was closest to popular beauty ideals. Not when I wasn't eating. Not when I was most focused on what it looked like rather than what it could do.
It might also be helpful to know that besides the time when I was so thin because of being sick, people I know seem to guess my weight wrong all the time, thinking I've lost weight when I've gained, or gained when I lost; thinking I weigh 140 when I'm 180, or 170 when I weigh 150. (When I hear women talking about needing to lose five or ten pounds, I can't help but wonder where they got the idea anyone could even see that kind of difference.) There are times I thought I looked like hell that I heard how sexy I was, and times I thought I looked amazing when no one else seemed to notice. Other people's perceptions of our body are always going to vary, be more about them than us, and often will have little to do with any kind of reality. If I tried to base my body image on what other people thought and said, I'd feel a lot like taffy being made; pushed and pulled in 57 different directions all the time with no solid center.
One thing I think can be really tough about body image when you're younger is that so many of the beauty ideals out there feature young people. It's a lot easier to look at those ideals and try and find how you measure up, because those folks are at least your age. When you get older, you get even further and further from those ideals, so it can become easier to care less and less about them as they clearly are just not about you. I can weigh whatever I do, look however great I look, but I'll be 40 next year: I cannot possibly look 18. And I don't want to: I want to look like me. I did the hard work of living past 18, so I've no shame in having an almost-40 self to show for it.
The truth is, those ideals aren't accurate for most of us no matter how old or young we are, no matter how tall or short, how fat or thin, how black or white. The fact that many models are around your age may be the only thing you have in common with them. Actually, that's not true: if you're eating disordered, feel totally controlled by what others think of how you look and are constantly at war with your body, you probably have that in common, too.
Here's the thing: when I accept and embrace my body -- no matter what I weigh, what shape I'm in, if I'm sick or I'm well -- I enjoy my body. When I put it down, pick on it, analyze every inch of it, consider my appearance as a combination of flaws and perfections, think about how it could look better in this way or that one, focus on my disabilities instead of my abilities, I stop enjoying it as much and being fully present in it and in my life. I start to other it when I do those things, which is a pretty crazy thing to do about something that isn't separate from me, but an integral part of all of who I am and all of what I do.
My body can't be my enemy, because my body IS me. If I forget that, I also tend to get my priorities skewed, and invest more energy in my appearance -- which even on the days when I think I am seriously hot stuff, offers me little of value -- and less in the whole of my life that really makes me feel good about myself; really benefits me and everyone else I interact with. Even the activities that are really mostly about my body tend to be less fun if what I'm focused on is what my body looks like instead of what it feels like and what I feel like in it.
My best advice is to do the best you can to make sure that anything about your body is really about your body: not about someone else's or your ideas or ideals about other bodies. If you're having any kind of sex, be sure it's sex about you and your body. If you find clothing that really catches your fancy, see how it feels to you on your body, rather than looking at how it looks on the person in the dressing room next to you or the mannequin at the front of a store. Pick things to do with your body that feel like the right things, that feel good -- physically and emotionally -- rather than focusing on if you think -- or think others will think - they look good. If you feel better, happier, more free, dancing in a way that makes you look like a floppy, wet noodle than you do when you look like you're giving a lap dance, pick the noodle-dance. Those happy feelings have more staying power than what you look like in a given moment.
And remember that there's nothing you can ever do to have the same body, look the same, or be the same weight or shape all of your life. Like every other part of our lives, our bodies are in a constant state of change, be that what we weigh, what our hormones are doing, if we have wrinkles and grey hair or not, if our boobs are up here or have moved down there, if we've been pregnant or not, if we've become disabled in a way we used to be abled. Body image issues you have at 15 may be something you get over with the passage of time alone by 40... just in time for some new issues you didn't see coming. If you don't take the time and use your energy to really deconstruct and discard all the crap that feed your young adult body image issues, you probably won't be able to handle the second or third round any better. So hopefully you'll work right now to acquire both some wisdom and profound impatience with putting so much into things that offer you so little. Doing that sooner rather than later will let you ditch a lot of these worries that will keep you from the best stuff in life and from fully experiencing how great the best stuff is (and yes, that includes sex: if you hate your body, no matter how good you think sex is now, wait until you see how righteous it is when you love the skin you're in).
I've met women who started their body negativity young and held unto it for years, some for decades. But one resounding thing I hear from women of all ages, when we finally do get past all of this -- and if we have lives we earnestly enjoy and fully participate in, we do -- is a big-time anger at how much time we wasted getting there.
If you have body image issues now, I beseech you: do what you can to get over them yesterday. In some ways, it's tougher when you're younger, but in other ways, it's easier: after all, while age tends to help women flip the world off more, we also live in a world where youth is considered beauty. If you're in your teens or early twenties, this is probably the closest you are ever getting to mainstream beauty ideals, no matter what you look like. If you invest energy now in trying to meet those ideals and cling to them, things probably won't get easier for you as you get older as they have for many of us: they'll get harder. And you'll waste more of your life, miss out on more of the good stuff while you're drowning in this crap that benefits you and others in no way whatsoever. We can't expect to feel anything but empty if we put our hearts, minds and energy in empty places.
As you can hopefully see just from the words of women on this page, it's not how well we do or don't meet beauty standards or ideals that best determines our happiness with and our love of our own bodies and selves: it's how little a hoot we can learn to give about them.