I grew up small. Never overweight, never painfully skinny. I can’t remember when I first learned I should hate my body. My mom was ever on the lookout for an eating disorder to develop in my future – I had the perfect cocktail of ingredients that would have loved to make anorexia or bulimia their home: perfectionist female, a few years as a competitive gymnast, and a deep need to control my environment. Not to spoil the rest of the story for you, but I never developed an eating disorder. What I did develop was a totally typical, completely unhealthy body image.
Only once in my life did I lose a significant amount of weight “without trying”. I was a junior in high school and extremely depressed after a break-up, and was unable to eat anything at all. It still, to this day, was one of the worst periods of my entire life. My family and doctor expressed concern over my ever-shrinking body and I was too depressed to care. In my never ending battle for “smaller”, I rarely stopped to remember how terrible “smaller” actually felt. It wasn’t until I was much, much older that I was able to reach the conclusion that thinner *definitely* does not automatically mean happier.
The rest of my life has been a stereotypical up and down battle with the number on the scale. I went on my first official diet at 24. But before that, I spent plenty of time intending to starve myself to reach the number I thought would make me happy. I just never could follow through for more than 12 hours. I spent hours at the gym, not for my mental health or physical well-being, but because I didn’t want an ounce of fat visible anywhere on my body. Because I was terrified of what that might mean.
By the time I went on my first diet, I had never been above a size 3. Ever. Yet I still have vivid memories of asking a friend if it looked like I had gained weight and her saying bluntly, “Yes.” Or of a group of my friends talking in college who thought I couldn’t hear, discussing how I had put on quite a bit of weight since high school. My senior year of college a few people had told me I looked just like a certain television star, so I visited her Myspace page to see if I could notice a resemblance. I started reading comments under her most recent picture, and the first one that caught my eye was “Maybe you could find a boyfriend if you lost some weight in your thunder thighs”. I looked at her and looked at myself and noticed our similar body types and was immediately ashamed. Even typing those memories many, many years later, I can vividly recall the sick sort of piercing disgust I had with myself. I think back to how thin I was then, and how horribly unhappy I was with my body. How deeply ashamed I was of my size 2 frame.
My first diet was hard and fast. A little too much weight dropped off a little too quickly and I assumed a quick weight loss would always be within my reach if I wanted it. I gained it all back, plus some, over the course of two years. Those years I spent gaining it back were some of the happiest of my life. I felt beautiful and loved and successful and secure. I was madly in love and was surrounded by people who weren’t all that interested in obsessing over body size, shape, and weight. I was snapped back to reality when I tried on my wedding dress three months before my wedding and could barely zip it.
This sudden humiliation of an almost un-zippable wedding dress spurred me on to a strict schedule of six day-per-week workouts. I obsessively counted calories and said no to cake, cocktails, and pizza with friends. I hated EVERY. DAMN. SECOND. I lost the weight. I went a little overboard and had to have my dress altered at the last minute because it was now too big.
The week before my wedding I found out I was pregnant. I was at a very low weight for me, one I knew I could not maintain without my almost daily workouts and strict calorie counting. My first trimester I didn’t gain a pound (hello, all-day-sickness!). But by the time I gave birth I had gained 40. The very first thing that I did when I walked in our house a day and a half after my daughter was born was step on the scale.
I lost 22 lbs in 36 hours. I fully expected the remaining 18 to fall off effortlessly over the course of the next few weeks.
Did. Not. Happen.
Let me tell you what did happen instead:
Frustration. Anger at my body for betraying me. Impatience. Being told I wasn’t healed enough at 8 weeks to resume exercise and needed to give it another couple weeks at least. Finally being cleared to exercise and finding I had ZERO desire to do so. Planning a diet and then fearing it would negatively impact my breastfeeding. Losing 7 pounds, gaining back 6. Losing 1, gaining 3. Staring at the mirror and wonder who the fuck was staring back at me.
Being so ashamed of my body that I refused to go swimming that summer. Being self-conscious at the weddings I attended, enjoying myself zero percent because I was so uncomfortable about how I looked.
One afternoon my husband and I had a day date while grandparents watched our daughter. At lunch I told him, “I don’t think I can diet again like I did before our wedding.” And he looked me right in the eye and said “Thank God.”
Dear last 14 lbs: I am told that I “succeed” if I lose you. I am told as a mom that once I reach my pre-pregnancy weight I can proclaim it loud and proud and people will crowd around and celebrate me for my determination, my perseverance. I am asked by fitness models what my excuse is for not losing you. I am told I am not making myself a priority if I allow you to stay.
Last 14 lbs, I have been thinking about this a lot over the past couple years. About how you are the roadblock standing between me and happiness, between me and skimpy bikinis and the jealousy of other women and the lusty looks of other men, between me and the way our culture says I should want to be.
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it, and I think its all bullshit. Its taken me nearly thirty long years to get here, but this is what I think:
I think I will keep you around. If keeping you around means I get to keep having a weekend cocktail with my husband. If it means letting myself absolutely enjoy a slice of birthday cake or a weeknight Baskin-Robbins run with my little family. If it means I can spend my free time growing my mind with a book, or pampering my body with a bubble bath instead of being bored and bitter at the gym because I feel like its what I am “supposed to” do. If keeping you means I get to keep this time in my life where I am so happy, so full, so overflowing to the brim with all the good stuff that I don’t have the energy to worry about getting rid of you, I will do it happily. If it means I am learning to look in the mirror and for once actually love what I see because I think I might be gaining some beauty on the inside and sometimes I think it is actually spilling out a little bit into the outsides. If it means I get to show my daughter that there is literally NO correlation between weight and happiness? I will gladly, enthusiastically, keep you with gusto.
Now I dance with my daughter every morning. I do yoga every weekday. I am working on my abs and arms – for the purposes of healing diastasis recti for a future baby and allowing me to continue carting around my 30+ lb daughter. It isn’t doing jack shit for the number on the scale. This is the number my body naturally rests at. And while on rare occasions people will comment that I am “so tiny”, certainly nobody is telling me I am anywhere close to “too skinny” anymore. And guess what? For once in my life, I can truly, honestly, with every ounce of my being promise you that I. don’t. care.
My body love hero Erin Brown wrote this recently:
“I have to admit that it is satisfyingly defiant to look at how huge my quads look in my obnoxiously printed spandex gym leggings and simply think, “oh hell yes.” There are a million great ways to be a woman. To be beautiful. To be strong. To be authentic. To be smart. To be powerful. All the things. I want more than anything for our culture to reflect more than a narrow idea of what any of those things looks like. In the mean time, the tiny celebratory fist pump I give myself in my head whenever I’m sincerely proud of my bigness and strength while I’m asked to be tiny and unimposing… feels like a revolution.”
Oh, hell yes. Let the revolution begin.