Let’s stop talking about women’s bodies.
THING ONE: ME
My job is bodies.
I am a yoga teacher and I also work in the weight room at a gym. I’m not a personal trainer, but a “wellness coach.” I’m your pal at the gym. Your cheerleader. A friendly face when you can’t figure out how to dislodge yourself from the leg press. I like to think I keep things relatively clean and free of chaos, plus I know a little bit about muscles and sweat.
Tall and blonde and personable, she strode into the fitness office to fill me in on the latest exam she’s studying for. She often stops in to chat with me and bemoan her harried life as an older student and mom of two young kids. An important part of my job is connecting with our members, so I’m always happy to talk. This day she tells me how worried she is about her daughter. “She needs to start working out.”
Her daughter is six years old.
She goes on to tell me about her own body image issues and assures me it’s all about “being healthy” for her daughter. I ask the woman if her daughter’s pediatrician is concerned. “Well, no. But I see problems. She needs to work on her core. And off-court conditioning for basketball. I’m worried because all she wants to do is read.”
Her daughter is six years old.
It was early spring and I was ten years old when Mrs. Frater called my mom into my fourth grade classroom for an after-school meeting. “I’m worried about her weight,” Mrs. Frater told her, as if my mom had never noticed me. My fourth-grade teacher, with her ashy-blonde hair piled high into a stylish bouffant on top of her head and her collection of impeccable floral shift dresses with matching low pumps was likely intimidating. Her polished, feminine image was the very antithesis of my mom’s artsy smocks and slacks. I watched as my mother sat across from my fourth grade teacher and nodded silently in agreement. I couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed or relieved. Probably both. I was now Mrs. Frater’s project and I was mortified.
My body was a problem.
It wasn’t the diet I was immediately put on that was the biggest issue. It was the weekly weigh-ins. Each Friday, right before lunch, the school nurse would call me into her office to record my weight. There was nothing subtle about it. “Where do you go?” my classmates asked. I lied and made up some sad story about having an important job helping out the school nurse.
The diet worked. And then it didn’t, as all diets do. Summer came and I was set free from the humiliating weigh-ins and Mrs. Frater’s constant monitoring. In the fall, my fifth-grade teacher didn’t care about my weight, or at least didn’t seem to. She was a large, boisterous woman who raved about my writing and encouraged my imagination.
I wound up losing a great deal of weight during the summer before ninth grade. Not because anyone wanted me to–I just did. I was the queen of transformation. The accolades I received going back to school in the fall were intoxicating. The attention I got fueled my fire and I lost more and more and more weight over the years and into my twenties. My ribs and hipbones protruded. I had sores on my body from repetitive, compulsive exercise that didn’t heal. I ate spoonfuls of mustard in lieu of meals. I hated myself. And all the other girls wanted to be me.
My body was a problem.
I’ve lost more weight than you. While I was at it, I managed to disconnect from all hunger impulses better than anyone else. It was my superpower. It’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done, nor am I especially proud of myself. Because at my most socially acceptable body size, I was the most fucked up on the inside.
Back in the fitness office, I listened to the mother as she continued to tell me all the reasons why her six-year-old daughter needed to start working out.
“Maybe she should just go out and play for awhile,” I suggested with a weak, forced smile. Inside, the ten-year-old in me crumpled.
You’re so skinny! Look at your stomach! I wish I had her legs. What do you eat all day? I’m so proud of you. You’re so pretty, I didn’t even recognize you. Look at her arms. OMG, she’s a stick. OMG, she’s gained so much weight, she must have issues.
THING TWO: MINE
When I had kids of my own, I vowed they would never hear me say “Oh my god, I look so fat! I feel so fat today!”
I kept my promise. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of as a parent.
Bodies were not a topic of discussion in my home while my kids were growing up. Or even now. I made sure of that. Both were athletes and during their childhood their weights went up and went down, and then up and down again as body weights naturally do throughout the course of growing up and beyond. Because I insisted on not making food an issue of good versus bad, they often ate a startlingly unbalanced diet comprised mostly of yogurt and fruit and spaghetti and cheese. Despite this, they both managed to be strong and healthy.
Their bodies–in all their incarnations–were never a problem.
My daughter was a competitive gymnast and played recreational club soccer. On her soccer team, she often played goalie and enjoyed it. I overheard a conversation on the sidelines where a few of the moms refused to let their daughters play goalie because they wouldn’t be running enough. The mothers were worried their daughters might get fat.
Don’t let your body become a problem.
My daughter learned through team sports that her body is strong and able and capable of many things. I am thankful that she learned that her body is not just for other peoples’ consumption and commentary. But I am most proud of the fact that she never heard her mother apologize for and hate her body. And a funny thing happened along the way of not berating my body out loud to my family: I stopped berating my body to myself.
My mother’s body was a problem until the day she died. She dieted, she drank laxatives, she covered up, she apologized. Left unchecked, mothers tend to pass down these issues like unwanted heirlooms.
Don’t eat too much. Order the salad. Count your calories. What a cute figure! Leave a little something on your plate. Shouldn’t you be exercising? Take up less space. Who’s getting chunky? Suck in that gut. Don’t let him see you eat that.
THING THREE: YOURS
After years of taking yoga workshops and teacher trainings (where my body was always an issue) I was excited to attend a writing workshop. The teacher of the workshop–an author of some acclaim and a staunch and vocal feminist–spoke about the marginalization of women. She was known to be a champion of women’s voices, an empowering writing mentor. I was ready to stretch my muscles in a brave and bold way.
As she introduced herself, she went on to talk about her past as a college athlete and how it informed her writing. And then, just like that, she apologized for her body. I could sense the self-deprecation happening before she even began. Inside my head I screamed at her to stop, but she went on, as most women do. “You’d never know I had been a competitive athlete by how thick and fat I am now.” The group of women chuckled uncomfortably. My heart sank. Suddenly, I was no longer brave and bold but self-conscious, comparing my body to hers. In my eyes, she wasn’t remotely fat. If she felt the need to apologize for her body, where does that leave mine?
Your body is a problem. You should probably apologize for it before anyone else notices.
Later that evening, she noticed a former student who had lost a significant amount weight since she had last seen her. The bold feminist writer pointed it out several times, incredulous that this student looked different. Part of me grew envious of the accolades as I felt myself disappearing into my 17-year-old anorexic brain. The other part of me just wanted to hear what this woman wrote, and for our leader to stop praising her shrinking body. How are we supposed to stand up and use our voices when we are shown that taking up less space is to be applauded? Even here, I couldn’t escape the message that our bodies are a problem.
This was her issue. This was my issue. This is our issue.
The fitness instructor who uses her social media page to publicly apologize to her classes for her weight gain and then thanks them for “sticking with her” until she managed to lose it again. (Her body is a problem.)
The coach of a high-school volleyball team who made all the teenage girls document each piece of Halloween candy they ate and then made them work it off, piece by piece, calorie by calorie. It was their penance, meant to teach them a lesson. (Their bodies are a problem.)
The young woman, experimenting with her sexuality and fashion, slut-shamed because her dress was short and tight. (Your body is a problem.)
The celebrity who doesn’t lose her baby weight fast enough. Or, ever. (Her body is a problem.)
The television viewers who tune in every week to watch overweight people sweat and weep in exhaustion and public humiliation on a TV show competition. (All their bodies are a problem. And our entertainment.)
My job is bodies.
Every day, I look closely at bodies. My yoga classes are filled with every body type imaginable. And although I don’t fixate on which one is larger and which one is smaller, I often look out and see a roomful of disembodied beings. Disconnected from their physical self because to be connected would be far too painful. A reminder of the problem.
If I listen to my body, it will betray me. If I give it what it wants, I’ll eat candy all day. Resting is a waste of time. I don’t deserve to eat. I need to push through every pose, jaw clenched, trying harder and harder and harder.
Stop. Just stop.
My body is not a problem. Your body is not a problem. They are glorious, miraculous variations on a theme.
Move and nourish and rest and live fully and confidently in your body, as it is, right here and now. Your body can be trusted, if you just give it a chance.
Let’s stop talking about women’s bodies. And see what happens.