simplyjan

A Simple Look at a Not-So-Simple Life

Archive for the category “Body Image”

Reading with a Pen: Wearing Skin

I do my best reading with a pen in hand. When I stumble across beautiful sentences, or wise quotes, or unforgettable scenes, I feel like I need to put down a flag of discovery so that one day (hopefully) I can return. Sometimes I underlines phrases, sentences, or entire paragraphs. Sometimes I draw smiley faces or exclamation marks in the margin. Sometimes I initiate my own conversation with the text by writing in questions or comments. (I am so thankful that Amazon built these capabilities into their Kindle!) Sometimes I move the entire conversation – quotes and all – into my journal so I will have room to explore. Too often, however, my marks just sit on the page – forgotten until or unless I pick the book back up again at some point in the future. I thought it might be fun to go searching for the flags I’ve planted around words in some of my favorite books.  

For instance, I can say that I think it is important to pray naked in front of a full-length mirror sometimes, especially when you are full of loathing for your body. Maybe you think you are too heavy. Maybe you have never liked the way your hipbones stick out. Do your breasts sag? Are you too hairy? It is always something. . .You have gotten glimpses of your body as you have bathed or changed clothes, but so far maintaining your equilibrium has depended upon staying covered up as much as you can. You have even discovered how to shower in the dark so that you may have to feel what you presently loathe about yourself but you do not have to look at it.

This can only go on so long, especially for someone who officially believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.

These words from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, reduced me to tears. It was a deep but unexpected emotional reaction that left me confused. What is it about those words that touched so deeply, and what exactly is it in me that they touched?

Like the majority of women (and many men), I have a love/hate relationship with my body. In my mind, I am still the skinny girl that I used to be. In reality, I haven’t been skinny for years. And speaking of skinny, I look back now at pictures of me in my teens and early 20’s and realize that the skinny I was so proud of was anything but a healthy-looking skinny. I looked like a skeleton. I looked anorexic. In retrospect, I believe I was.

As a junior in high school, I was my current height – 5’5″. My weight dropped to 89 pounds at one point. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to eat. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t keep most food down. For almost a year my diet consisted primarily of Ensure, milkshakes, and mashed potatoes. I wasn’t worried about my weight. I was worried about not being perfect. I had to make A’s. When I auditioned in band or orchestra, I wanted to make first chair. The problems started when I discovered that an A in chemistry under Mr. Phail (yes, pronounced ‘fail’) wasn’t likely to happen and first chair belonged solidly to my best friend. It was stupid. Earning a B (or even a C) in Mr. Phail’s class was nothing to be ashamed of and second chair was still an honor. But I felt like I was failing. As the 3rd child in my family, I followed my sister who was a whiz kid and my brother who is musically gifted. I didn’t feel like I was measuring up.

I remained skinny into early adulthood. I weighed about 105 pounds when I got pregnant with Anna. I gained more weight than I was supposed to during pregnancy. Still, I have pictures from a beach trip when Anna was 7 months old and I was skinny again, back down to 107 pounds. I didn’t lose that weight because I was disciplined or determined or dieting. I lost it because of stress. My husband left me when Anna was just 10 weeks old. Before he left, he firmly imprinted in my mind that I was ugly and undesirable. I believed him. After all, I heard it from him so often and so long how could it not be true?

It took about 4 years of failed efforts to reconcile before the divorce was finalized. By that time, I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t love me. I didn’t believe that anybody else would love me. I threw myself into motherhood and seminary and work. For 2 years I lived in a little rental house in my hometown while I worked and finished my seminary degree. Try as I might, I cannot remember eating a single meal in that house sitting down at the dining room table. I usually ate standing up in the kitchen, or behind the driver’s wheel, or at my desk. Slowly, my weight crept upward. I was too distracted to notice.

In my mind, nothing had changed. Imagine my shock when I finally woke up and saw myself in the mirror looking far different than I expected. You know that feeling you get when you first hear a recording of your voice? You think, “That’s not me! I don’t sound anything like that!” But you do. It’s you. That’s what this epiphany felt like. “That’s not me! I don’t look anything like that!” But I do. It was me. It is me.

It is a constant battle for me – a major mind game. I flip flop between self-loathing and self-acceptance. I exercise regularly, or try to. I try not to focus on numbers on a scale or on tags in clothing. Instead I seek to be healthy and strong. I try to accept my body, to love it, to believe that someone else could love it too.

Then the images and mixed messages from the media try to convince me how off-base I am. There are all the skinny, fit, pretty stars who set the bar hopelessly high. And then there are countless TV shows dealing with weight loss. I’m hooked on The Biggest Loser. Over the years, I’ve watched bits and pieces of other shows like Ruby, Diet Tribe, Bulging Brides, and Last 10 Pound Boot Camp. Some of them make me feel okay about where I am. Others, well, not so much so. When a bride-to-be who weighs 35 pounds less than I do breaks down over her weight, I have to admit I slip back into the self-loathing.

And then I read these words:

After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning.

When I do this, I generally decide that it is time to do a better job of wearing my skin with gratitude instead of loathing. No matter what I think of my body, I can still offer it to God to go on being useful to the world in ways both sublime and ridiculous. At the very least, I can practice a little reverence right there in front of the mirror, taking some small credit for standing there unguarded for once.

Thank you, BBT. I needed that.

“Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.”

body image
NOTE: This is a lightly edited version of a post I wrote back in 2009. I received powerful feedback from it in the form of comments and emails. I chose to repost it because  I believe this is a struggle that many of us continue to have. Also, my readership has changed over the years and there may be someone who needs some encouragement who would have missed it years ago. As for me, I still have my good days and my bad days, but the good days tend to outnumber the bad. Oh, and I’m still hooked on The Biggest Loser. 🙂
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Six Questions

My very good friend over at Cathy’s Voice Now recently answered six questions about body image and diet. Since this is an ongoing struggle for so many of us, myself included, I thought would answer them, too.

mirror

1. When you were a young child, were you generally too skinny, too heavy or just right?

I was very skinny as a child. In fact, I was very skinny until I hit my early 30’s. When I say very skinny, I don’t mean simply thin. I mean skeletal thin. My junior year in high school, I was my current height (5’4”) and at one point in the year weighed 89 pounds. In retrospect, I do believe I was anorexic. I didn’t consciously think “I can’t eat because I’m fat.” I really wasn’t that aware of my body size. I did have a difficult experience (that I won’t go into here) that affected how I felt about my body and I’m sure I was reflecting that unconsciously. And as I indicated in yesterday’s post, I struggle with perfectionism. Like everything else in adolescence, that struggle was magnified 100 times in my teens. As a result, I couldn’t keep food down. I survived for a long time primarily on a soft/liquid diet: mashed or baked potatoes, Ensure, chocolate milk, and milkshakes. I eventually improved and weighed a hefty 95-105 throughout my later teens and twenties.

In my early 30’s, I was a single working mother in seminary. I was so busy and so stressed out. In one of the houses where Anna and I lived, I don’t ever remember eating sitting down. There was never time. I ate too quickly. I didn’t cook as much. I started eating out far too often – a bad habit that has continued into the present. Whereas food was repulsive to me in high school when I felt anxious, in my 30’s it became a comfort. My metabolism changed. So did my body. I still have a hard time accepting my body some days when I look in the mirror. Inside, I’m still a very skinny girl. Outside, not so much so. I continue to work toward a spirit of self-acceptance. I try to strive for a healthy body now, not necessarily a skinny body. Some days I am more successful than others.

2. What’s the most weight you’ve lost during any one diet? (Or have you never had to be on one?)

The most weight I’ve ever lost at one time on a diet was in 2001 when I was doing Weight Watchers with my best  friend, Susan. I lost 12 pounds. Susan lost about 40. Shortly after reaching her goal weight, Susan died very suddenly. I look back now and remember how very excited and proud she was of herself, her body, and her accomplishments. I gained my 12 pounds back, plus a few. I’ve been gaining and losing the same 5 or so pounds for the past two years now. Sigh.

3. Of your favorite foods, which do you think is the healthiest?

I love fresh summertime vegetables: corn, all kinds of beans and peas, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, cantaloupe, watermelon, potatoes, okra. . . I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!

4. Of your favorite foods, which do you think is the least healthiest?

My least healthy favorite food would have to be Merita’s Sweet Sixteen Powdered Sugar donuts. I love, love, love them. They were a staple comfort food back in the days when Anna had to spend weekends with her dad. She wasn’t always happy about having to go and I hated for her to be away from me. I used to stop on my way home and pick up a bag. They would be gone before she came home on Sunday evening.

5. When did you last have some of each of those two foods?

The summer vegetables are beginning to come in. I’ve already had fresh corn twice this season. A church member brought July-yummy watermelon to our covered dish lunch just yesterday. It was heavenly!

I don’t remember when I last has my powdered sugar donuts. I look longingly at them every time I go grocery shopping, but I don’t buy them anymore. The last time I actually did buy them, my stomach hurt after eating them. I think my body is telling my something, don’t you? The temptation to eat them is alive and well, though, especially when I’m under stress.

6. You go to a coffee shop to meet a friend for conversation. How likely are you to buy a pastry or some kind of snack to go along with that coffee?

First of all, I don’t drink coffee. If I want to pretend I’m a grown-up, I’ll get hot chocolate. I figure no one who sees me with a coffee cup will know what’s really in it. Because I’m already getting my sweet fix, I rarely buy a pastry. (Although all bets are off at Panera when they have their frosted shortbread cookies!)

So how about you?  Do you struggle with body image, healthy eating, or weight loss?  I look forward to hearing some of your comments. If you play over at your blog, please post a link below so that I will know.

Everyone Is Beautiful

from the closing lines of Katherine Center’s novel, Everyone Is Beautiful

And here, after all that, is what I have come to believe about beauty: Laughter is beautiful. Kindness is beautiful. Cellulite is beautiful. Softness and plumpness and roundness are beautiful. It’s more important to be interesting, to be vivid, to be adventurous, than to sit pretty for pictures. A woman’s soft tummy is a miracle of nature. Beauty comes from tenderness. Beauty comes from variety, from specificity, from the fact that no person in the world looks exactly like anyone else. Beauty comes from the tragedy that each person’s life is destined to be lost to time. I believe women are too hard on themselves. I believe that when you love someone, she becomes beautiful to you. I believe the eyes see everything through the heart – and nothing in the world feels as good as resting them on someone you love. I have trained my eyes to look for beauty, and I’ve gotten very good at finding it. You can argue and tell me it’s not true, but I really don’t care what anyone says. I have come, at last, to believe . . . Everyone Is Beautiful.

Compare/Contrast

Those used to be the words at the beginning of writing assignments I gave to my high school students. Compare/contrast the settings of these two short stories; the motivations of these two characters; the way these two different genres approach a particular topic. It’s a great way to organize your thoughts in writing.

It’s a horrible way to view your self and your self worth.

Sometimes it seems harmless enough. When Anna and I go to the beach, there will be at least a few “Am I that white?” questions from my fair child. There will be at least a few “Am I that big?” questions from me.

I’m a skinny girl in a no longer skinny body. That still comes as a shock to me on some days. I was so skinny – painfully skinny – for so long. Then came 30, a divorce, and the stress of juggling parenthood, work, and seminary. My metabolism changed but my eating habits didn’t. Then one day I looked in the mirror and it was like seeing myself for the first time. I didn’t like what I saw. (If you’ve ever watched Drop-Dead Diva, then you get a picture of how I feel most days.) In an effort to reconcile my skinny-girl memories with my not-so-skinny girl reality, I compare. I truly have a hard time seeing myself accurately.

It’s not just my body, of course. I compare my parenting to other parents. I compare my ministry to other pastors. I compare my writing to other writers and bloggers. I compare my strength and stamina at the gym with other gym rats. I compare my house and belongings to other people’s houses and belongings.

I am not fair in my comparisons. It’s not fair to judge my body against my younger self or any other woman’s body. It’s not fair to tell myself that if I was a good parent then my kids would have the same extra-curricular opportunities that other (two parent) kids have. It’s not fair to expect my church’s attendance/missions/programs/budget to measure up to churches that are larger and/or are multi-staffed. I can admire other writers’ work, but I know I’m not supposed to sound like them. I’m supposed to sound like me. I am 46 years old. I should be proud to be at the gym, not criticizing my body for not keeping up with the 20-something-year-old in the cute little bare-midriff outfit two treadmills down. And I know, even though I often allow myself to forget, that while my furniture is second-hand and my house is rented, this is what my kids call home. What more should I want? I am my own worst, most cruel critic. Always.

I’ve written about my struggles with body image and self image several times.The one thing that always strikes me when I write about body image and self image is the number of comments and emails I usually receive. I normally don’t generate a lot of comments on my blog, but obviously these topics touch a nerve for a lot of us.

I am trying to learn my triggers. I am trying to heal old wounds. I am trying to silence the inner critic. I am trying to learn the difference between wanting to improve myself and telling myself that I’m not good enough.

I know that others are walking that same path. Some are further along the path than I am. Others, bless their souls, haven’t made it as far as I have yet. We can learn from each other. We can encourage each other.

I’m curious. What is it that sets off your self doubts? Where do your words of self-criticism come from? Are they words you learned from others or have you set impossibly high expectations for yourself? Is it the media that you are hearing? What things give you strength and encouragement? What lessons have you learned? What struggles do you still have?

I would love to compare/contrast our journeys. If you have a story to tell, please do – in the comments below or by email. I promise to share what I learn from others with you. Thanks!

Monday’s Child: Color Blind? Part 1

There’s been a lot of talk on this topicin adoptions circles after the NPR story that aired last week. I have to admit that it’s a bit of an “owie” topic for me. With two Latino children, this is a part of our life, our reality. I am still working through what being a multi-ethnic family means and what being a good mother to my Latino children looks like. This week I am going to share one way this has manifest itself in my family by reposting a piece I wrote in September of last year. While I wrote the post as a body image piece and not an adoption piece, it is definitely a reflection of how skin color and self-perception affect my youngest daughter.

Beautiful

Not long ago I asked my 7-year-old daughter what she would wish for if she could have anything in the world. My beautiful Latina daughter broke my heart when she answered, “To be white.”

I think that everything about her is gorgeous – her radiant brown skin, her coal-black eyes and hair, her precious smile. Where on earth did she get the idea that she isn’t perfect just as she is?

Even more summer 2010 066

Maybe from her mother, who can point out every imperfection, every blemish, every bump and roll and too-round place on her own body. Now mind you, I don’t go around vocalizing my distaste for my imperfections all the time, but children watch and this one especially watches very closely. She doesn’t miss a thing, including this.

So when I stumbled across the song below,I’ll admit to you that I cried. The words are powerful and I want so much for her to believe them. I want to believe them myself. I’ll keep listening. I’ll keep trying. Maybe one day the words of the small voice will overpower the words of the mirror.

Here are the lyrics if you’d like to follow along:

Every girl young and old has to face her own reflection
Twirl around, stare it down
What’s the mirror gonna say
With some luck, you’ll measure up
But you might not hold a candle to the rest
“Is that your best?” says the mirror to the mess

But there’s a whisper in the noise
Can you hear a little voice
and he says

Has anybody told you you’re beautiful?
You might agree if you could see what I see
Oh
‘Cuz everything about you is incredible
You should have seen me smile the day that I made you beautiful for me

If it’s true beauty lies in the eye of the beholder
What my life and what’s inside to give him something to behold
I want a heart that’s captivating
I wanna hear my Father say


Has anybody told you you’re beautiful?
You might agree if you could see what I see
Oh
‘Cuz everything about you is incredible
You should have seen me smile the day that I made you beautiful for me

Close your eyes
Look inside
Let me see the you that you’ve been trying to hide
Long ago, I made you so very beautiful
So I ought to know you’re beautiful


Has anybody told you you’re beautiful?
You might agree if you could see what I see
Yeah
‘Cuz everything about you is incredible
You should have seen me smile the day that I made you beautiful
You’re so beautiful
Beautiful for me
So beautiful for me
Has anybody told you?

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