Changing the Body Image Narrative

“Mom, look how skinny I am.”

“Mom, look how thin I am.”

“Mom, these shorts are too big on me because I’m so thin.”

“Mom, her stomach is round and mine is flat.”

When my then 6-year-old daughter said these things, I mentally went into full-fledged panic mode.

On the inside, I was simultaneously screaming and crying at the thought that my young daughter was already falling to the emphasis our society and culture places on thinness while searching for the “right” way to respond to her comments.

I don’t remember when I learned that skinny was “good”. I think it’s a message that has been embedded in my culture for so long that it was just known. Kind of like how no one had to tell me that the sky was blue. I just knew. In grade school, I can remember looking at my best friend and seeing how skinny she was and feeling huge next to her. I can remember walking with a woman in my neighborhood when I was in 4th grade to try to lose weight so that I wouldn’t grow out of one of my favorite outfits. I can remember telling my mom that I didn’t want to go to Dairy Queen for ice cream because I didn’t want the extra calories when I was maybe 11 or 12.

Long story short, I battled through severe anorexia for about a year when I was a freshman in high school. The day that the scale showed I had gotten back under 100 pounds was exhilarating. The turning point for me was when I was standing with a young woman that was clearly bigger than me but she was the one getting compliments on how great she looked, I realized that the level of thinness I had achieved was not “pretty thin” and I did begin to eat more and gain some weight back. It was a very difficult, mentally painful process to see the numbers on the scale and the size of my clothes going back up. When I got to 110 pounds, it was my daily goal to keep it there. For the rest of my high school career, two things mattered the most to me: my grades and my weight. And I was only accepting A’s and 110 pounds, respectfully.

After high school, things got slightly better but not much. I still spent so much of my energy and focus on my weight, which I had allowed to go up to 120 pounds. It was part of my identity by then. I didn’t know how to live without my weight and size at the forefront of my thoughts. And it was completely normal. It was reinforced every day without me even having to look for it.

It wasn’t until I was pregnant with Josie that I ever went through an extended period of time where I honestly felt good about my body. Go figure it happened when I also hit my heaviest weight ever. However, that body positivity only lasted a short while because right after she was born, I felt that I needed to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight stat. And the well-intentioned comments about how I was losing the baby weight so quickly spurred me right along. The same thing happened when I was pregnant with Moses.

For so long, eating and exercising were not about health for me. It was all about trying to achieve that “perfect” body. The one that wasn’t too big or too small. The one that shape-hugging clothes looked good on. The one that elicited “positive” comments about how I looked. And all of this was encouraged by the world around me: commercials, magazines, movies, friends, etc. The message was clear: The size and shape of your body mattered. And the size and shape that mattered was small and thin. And I bought into that message hook-line-and-sinker for far too long.

In my experience, making critical statements about the size of our butt, belly, boobs, and thighs comes as naturally to women as breathing. There’s always at least 5 more pounds to lose. Food is both a friend and an enemy and the line that separates the two is thin (no pun intended). Exercise is about flat stomachs and thigh gaps and being swimsuit ready more than cardiovascular health and cholesterol levels.

I hate it. I hate the toll that it has taken on me for more than half my life, both physically and mentally. I hate the amount of time and energy I spent on making sure my weight fell at the low end of the “ideal” range for my height. I hate the tears I shed over not being able to fit into a smaller size of jeans or that I still didn’t have a perfectly flat stomach.

A couple of summers ago, I read an article featuring several women that had very positive body images. As I read the stories of these women who lovingly embraced their bodies, I had two different thoughts running through my mind. The first one was, “I wish I could have that kind of mindset about my body.” The second thought that closely followed the first was, “But do they really love their bodies the way they’re saying they do? Because I just don’t know how that’s possible.”

It struck me as very sad that I would question the genuineness of these women who, to me, were anomalies because they were able to not just look at themselves in the mirror but have themselves photographed showing more skin than clothing and be happy with their bodies. There was no mention of needing to lose weight, apologizing for or explaining where their “imperfections” came from, what foods they avoid eating, how many calories or points they’re allowed to consume each day. There was just love and appreciation for their bodies.

Even though I kinda thought they were lying, deep down I wanted to be like those women. I wanted to look in the mirror and not immediately examine my reflections for the flaws that were undoubtedly there. I wanted to be able to appreciate my body for being healthy and physically able to do pretty much anything I needed it to do. I wanted to be able to sit around with my girlfriends and not get caught up in nitpicking certain areas of my body that weren’t quite up-to-par or complaining that the delicious food I was enjoying would “go straight to my hips”.

How could I do that?

Also, how do I change the narrative for my daughter? How do I protect her against following the same storyline about body image I and countless women and men before me followed?

Because I am one of my children’s primary teachers, a lot of the change has to start with me. So in our house, my kids will never hear me criticize my body. My kids will never hear me speak the word “diet” to mean anything but the foods we put into our body. I make a very concerted effort to not refer to any foods as “good” or “bad”. I do point out which foods help our bodies to be strong and healthy and have the energy to do our work throughout the day. I have not and I will not ever celebrate or criticize the shape of either of my kids’ bodies. Food, weight, and body shape are not a focus in our house.

What I want to beg other people to do is to quit doing what I spent more than half of my life doing. Quit criticizing and shaming your body. Quit criticizing and shaming other people’s bodies. Our young kids are listening and watching and learning from all of us. My daughter hears you when you comment on how much weight someone has lost or how much weight you’re wanting to lose. She hears you talking about counting calories and macros and drinking the magic drink that’s going to help you go down two dress sizes. She sees you eating a salad and hears you talk about how it’s not what you really want to be eating but are doing it anyway for the sake of losing weight. She sees the judgmental, critical looks when someone who is overweight walks by, and she hears the comments that are spoken aloud. She notices that when you look at a picture of yourself you look at how your body looks before (or if) you notice how big your smile is and how happy you are to be where you’re at and who you’re with. And there will come a day when Moses will hear and understand all of these things, too.

Use your words and energy to build yourselves and others up by focusing on the attributes that truly matter and will make this world a better place.

On the mirror in my bathroom is a sticky note that says “My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. I will honor God by caring for my body. I will give thanks to God for this body He has given me to do His work.”

Believe it or not, reading and repeating that every day, appreciating my body for what it is able to do, fueling my body with foods that I enjoy and help me to be strong and healthy, and cutting out all negative-talk about my body has resulted in a new narrative for myself. One that has helped me finally find myself with the best physical and mental health of my life. A storyline that I never thought was possible for me.

My hope is that this will be the narrative my daughter and my son will adopt for themselves.

My hope is that you will, too, if you haven’t already. Because together we can change the narrative around body image for the future.

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