The other day, my nine year old spent 15 minutes sobbing in the car. For the sake of her privacy I won’t report her words verbatim, but suffice it to say, it was a meltdown over how she looked. I was heartbroken. On reflection, I was amazed that this didn’t happen sooner. She made it to nine, nearly ten, before this particular inner monologue started up in her. Far later than it took root in me, or in most women I suspect.
I attempted to coach her through the moment. The breakdown did not respond neatly to the previous trope I employed whenever conversations about the state of one’s body came up. “Does your body do what you want it to do? If so, great. That’s all that matters.” This had worked for many years, but now I had to switch up my tactics. As I mentally scrolled through articles on the topic, I simultaneously stomped out all of my own inner critics that longed to take the easy way out and join her in wallowing sorrow. Instead, I decided to write a series of essays on my own body image journey. (Thanks, therapy!!)
Before I begin, a disclaimer: My parents did a kick-ass job. Upon reading this, mom and, to a lesser extent, dad will start blaming themselves. Guys, this is so much bigger than either of you! You did an above average job with the five of us! Look how differently we all turned out! You clearly were encouraging each of us to be our own best selves! Quit thinking that this essay has anything to do with you. You are just minor, supporting characters. So just calm down. This is but one of the many ways you screwed me up and made me the complicated, therapy-supporting citizen that I am today. I hope to succeed as spectacularly.
Chapter 1. The unclear roots of the thing
I don’t feel like doing a bunch of research on how girls form their body images. I’m sure it’s terribly complex and there are entire journals devoted to the subject. I can only report what I know.
Around the house? I guess my mom and her sisters and girlfriends were concerned about their bodies and weights. I remember a lot of conversation about avoiding a cantaloupe belly, which was their euphemism for what has come to be know as FUPA. You know, the usual stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary. Mom didn’t have a lot of diet food around the house, no Diet Rite or Tab. But she was a bit of a whole grain freak for most of my childhood. Let’s just say she stocked carob and we ate tofu before it was cool. So I did develop a bit of a “feast or famine” attitude toward coveted sweets and soda. Sweet cereals were especially intoxicating, and I still have a fascination with the milk / cereal management dilemma that can lead to massive amounts of cereal consumption in one sitting. But, again, nothing overtly problematic. Just the usual background noise.
In the ether? I grew up in the 80’s. All the women seemed to be wearing leotards, including Jane Fonda on the cover of the LP that mom had to guide her home exercise routines. I remember Special K. This was the days of the tagline, “Thanks to the K you can’t pinch and inch, on me!” and a lady in a leotard or bathing suit would pinch her thumb and finger together along her waistline and –oops!—be unable to encounter even a tiny pinch of flesh. Haha! I always was able to pinch an inch, as are most humans. One time, a goofing-around uncle went to tickle my five year old tummy and teased, “Pinch a foot! Pinch a foot!” This had to be insignificant, right? I mean, it’s just a coincidence that I remember it. It was just more background noise, right?
Around this time I developed the habit of dealing with my anxiety with food. No matter the worry–school, friends, nuclear war with Russia, the fact that we will all die eventually, what’s that bump on my cheek?–food solved it. Food is very effective at temporarily numbing feelings. That’s why so many of us turn to it so religiously. It works so good! Because mom was health obsessed, (only for about the first three of us. For the last two, it was off to the races with sugar cereals and Little Debbies. I’m just saying.) there was no typical junk food in the house. So I would turn to less obvious choices. Baking supplies like sweetened coconut, handsful of raw nuts, and raw sugar. Of course, because this was all definitely weird and off limits, I scarfed it in secret. And then I felt worse about myself, got all anxious, and eventually…well, you get the idea.
So guess what? Eventually I was able to pinch an inch. And I clearly remember the first time that this bothered me. It was summertime, and we were running around in our bathing suits. I guess I was about eight or so, in my royal blue tank with pink and orange horizontal stripes. I walked into the family room, dutifully draped a beach towel over the coveted recliner and flopped down to watch some Price is Right. And a fold appeared in my belly. Had it ever been perfectly flat? Probably not. But I saw the fat, and I grabbed it, and I hated it. And I the Slim Fast commercial suddenly made sense. No one had to create a curriculum to teach me to hate my belly fat. Life was my curriculum, and I was a dedicated student.