“Are you really going to wear that two piece swimsuit in front of him? Aren’t you embarrassed? If I were you, I would go put a t-shirt on. You need to work on your abs.”
I remember this dialogue being something I experienced when I was about thirteen years old while I was at a swim party with some friends. My body was changing, and I was starting to become a curvy young woman who felt awkward in her own skin. I feel as though tiny moments like this from adolescence all the way into adulthood planted seeds – very dangerous seeds that grew out of control.
Regardless of your gender, body type, size, shape, race, or heritage, we have all experienced body shaming in our lives. Some of us have been on the receiving side of this issue and many of us have taken part on the delivering end as well, whether it be with our thoughts, words, or actions.
In my teens, like most young American girls, my selection of role models was based almost strictly on appearance. I purchased fitness and teen magazines and watched MTV and immersed myself in pop culture. The theme was always the same: beauty/appearance is everything. Why weren’t my role models intriguingly intelligent and intellectual individuals or activists or authors or inventors or people who helped humanity or the planet or animals?
I remember when I was in high school, I really wanted a boyfriend, because all my peers (or so it seemed) were going on group dates with boys. I had some acquaintances and friends of the opposite gender, but no one in high school ever asked me out on a date out of their own doing. In one instance, I expressed this issue to a friend who told me, “Maybe if you lost some weight, that would help. Guys like thin girls.” Unfortunately, this was another seed that stuck with me.
When I look back at pictures of myself, I now clearly see that this could not have been any further from the truth; I really was a lovely young woman. Why is it that when we look back on pictures of ourselves, we are often so much wiser and self accepting? I now realize how beautiful I was inside and out (and still am).
I started to internally compare myself to all my thinner more beautiful friends and to the athletic girls too. I was active in sports and school clubs, always on the go, and I exercised, but in my mind I did not look like an athlete or a “beautiful” person. In my mind, I started to associate myself with the dreaded “f” word: fat. This paired with random comments from older, well-meaning people such as, “You have such a beautiful face, if you lost a few pounds you would be a knockout,” really lowered my self esteem.
So, I started dieting and worrying about my weight. This eventually spiraled into periods of binge dieting and binge exercising followed by periods of binge eating, closet eating, guilt and shame. My weight was like a yo-yo, and I don’t think I was ever satisfied. When I would lean out and drop a lot of weight in a short period of time, I would thrive on the compliments and comments. “Oh my God, you look great! What have you been doing?” “You lost some weight, haven’t you? You look beautiful!” Funny how so many of us associate weight loss with beauty. And even funnier how we point out that weight loss as the reason a person looks attractive or worthy of praise. Because of this, I try to be careful with my language when I comment on anyone’s appearance.
Toward the end of my senior year in high school, prom was coming up and I remember wanting so badly to be asked by one of my close guy friends or better yet by someone of romantic interest. That never happened. And last minute, I had to ask a friend a year younger than me if he wouldn’t mind attending. Ironically, that evening I won prom queen and had a really wonderful time with friends. But the sad thing is, I still felt that if I had been thinner and prettier that I would have had a boyfriend, like so many of my peers. I guess I felt as though I was missing out on something. If I could go back in time, I would smack myself.
Needless to say, for years I struggled with disordered eating and binge eating and negative body image. Maybe in college it would be different, I thought.
Somehow, and I don’t know what happened, but everything was different in college. I was the heaviest weight wise I had ever been in my life, and yet I had date after date after date and boyfriend after boyfriend (Note: I was always a very respectable young woman and my dating experiences were for the most part very innocent. That was important to me out of self respect.). What was going on? I remember a couple of times that leaner/thinner types of men or really muscular, athletic men would ask me out, and I would always think to myself, “Is this really happening? Did they really want to date me?” In my mind, so many of them were gorgeous looking, and I guess in a way everything I had learned in my former years of life pointed to self worth being measured by body size. How sad is that?
But at this point, I do want to say to the men out there who have felt that they need to look a certain way to impress the opposite gender. I feel that really depends on who you are trying to impress. When I was younger, I dated men of many different body types, but that was never my focus. My focus was really on them as people. Were they funny? Were they nice? Were they respectful? What did we have in common? What was different about them? How did they treat others? These were all very important to me. Yes, physical attraction is important, but I never had a “type.” So I just want to put that out there, because I feel that men struggle with unrealistic societal expectations just as much as women.
Over my college years, I did develop a great deal of self confidence that I never had before, but then I would regress sometimes too. And I still struggled with disordered eating on and off.
After college, I was freelance writing for a couple of fitness and bodybuilding websites. In many ways, I learned what a messed up industry that can really be. Most of the fitness professionals and competitors who I met were still not happy with their bodies and partaking in unsustainable diets and exercise routines in order to maintain their appearance when competition season ended. I started to ask myself: “Is anyone ever really satisfied with the way they look?”
One day at work, a customer asked me when I was due… as in EXPECTING A CHILD. I was not pregnant, and of course my face felt like mush. The woman then just said, “Oh, the same thing happened to my daughter recently when someone made the same mistake and she just told them, ‘I’m not pregnant. I’m just fat.'” I do not know if that was supposed to make me feel any better, but I ran off crying. This was a day another bad seed was planted. And in hindsight I know I could have handled myself much better.
The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting my now husband Cody, who is the most wonderful person I have ever met – honestly. He accepts me at any size and has shown me what real love is. He has helped me to learn how to love myself more, and I am lucky to have a partner who encourages me to be positive and healthy.
It took me a very long time to feel “healed” and to really embrace a truly healthy lifestyle free of disordered eating. I have had my road bumps, though, and I sometimes wonder if I will ever 100% heal the way I view myself and in turn have more positive internal dialogue. This is my goal, but as with any goal worth achieving, I know it will take time and effort.
So this brings me to present day. I feel the healthiest I have ever felt in my life, and as a person who lives a plant-based lifestyle, I am happy with my choices. However, recently my self love and self esteem was challenged again when at a health conference.
The first scenario: I was at lunch with a couple in their eighties and one of them asked me if I was vegan. I said, “Yes.” And she said, “What do you eat? Vegans are usually very trim.” I was a bit taken aback, but I did not become emotional. I realized the source and instead turned it into a positive, explaining how just because a person eats a certain way does not mean they should be typecast into fitting a certain body type. I also explained how healthy and full of life I am.
The second scenario at a fitness lecture: A fitness “professional” asked me in an auditorium of about 100 people in front of everyone if I struggled with my weight. This was so embarrassing and hurtful. And I know for a fact, if I had looked a certain way that in her mind fit the status quo of “fit, healthy people,” that she NEVER would have asked that question. I handled myself with as much grace as I could muster up. But to say that I wasn’t affected by this would be an outward lie. In fact, I haven’t really stopped thinking about it ever since it happened. Luckily, due to a series of circumstances, that woman did end up apologizing to me the next day. I accept her apology, but the fact of the matter is, the damage is done. I know it is up to me to release that negative experience, and I will.
So, yeah. These are some of my memories regarding negative body image, body shaming, and brain washing by the media and by society. So this all begs the question: Is there any hope?
YES! I believe there is. It is important for us to recognize this body shaming and correct it, change our choice of language, and change our thoughts. Every time we hear someone say, “Real women have curves” or “She is so thin. She probably starves herself,” this is also a form of BODY SHAMING. It is just awful and is not just something that happens to women or to larger women, it happens to people of all sizes. It is time we become aware of this.
The bottom line is, we should all practice positive self body image and also encourage this among our peers. There is not one size that will ever be perfect. We need to stop being so judgmental, so accusatory, so critical, and so assumptive. “Oh, she must not exercise.” “He must sit at home and eat junk all day.” “She must starve herself to look like that.” “He looks like a lazy slob.” These are all awful, awful things to think about others. What types of things do you think about when you see others? Sometimes positive and sometimes negative, right? This is just human nature; it’s normal. I think it would be a very interesting exercise to just be mindful of this and notice these thoughts and maybe challenge the way you think. I will do the same.
If I could go back in time to a week ago or to a year ago or to a decade ago, I would tell myself, “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL, DAMMIT! INSIDE AND OUT! 20 pounds heavier or 20 pounds lighter. With pimples or without. With makeup or not. YOU ARE AMAZING, TALENTED, SMART, FUNNY, COMPASSIONATE, HONEST, AND BEAUTIFUL. NOW STOP BEING SO SILLY!”
These are my memories. But I have so many others. So many positive, joyous memories and so many triumphant moments. I share these memories in particular because I want YOU to know that if you have ever experienced anything like this or have felt ashamed of your body or self conscious or worried or upset regarding your size, that you are not alone. Only we can change the way we feel about ourselves. Only we can take control of our emotions and handle ourselves with grace and self care.
Our bodies are the temples to our souls. I honor, trust, love, and appreciate my body for all the amazing things it does for me everyday. If someone does not like my body, that is their problem. Not mine. I choose to be part of the solution, not the problem. We need to perpetuate the planting of SOUL SEEDS – not bad seeds.
As a college professor, I often hear young men and women making body shaming comments about themselves or about their peers. Just like most of us, the majority of them have been brainwashed. When I witness students body shaming a celebrity or public figure, I will often ask them, “Do you believe that person is an individual with feelings?” And sometimes I will take it a step further and ask, “Do you feel that media is a problem for the way young people feel about themselves?” They will always say yes. So then I pose the question, “So then why do we spend our hard-earned money on media that perpetuates the problem?” This often leads to a lot of interesting discussion and self reflection.
If and when I have a daughter or son one day, I want them to know how important it is to love and take care of their bodies, their minds, and their spirits FOR THEIR HEALTH and the health of those around them – how true health and wellness is not about the ego-driven exterior aesthetic of “looking good.” I want them to know that we are all worthy of love and respect. I will encourage them to be confident and caring and to accept themselves no matter what they look like – accept themselves for all the wonderful qualities they have to offer the world. But most importantly, I will teach them that their self worth and the self worth of others is not and will never be based on their size or body type.