I quickly post pictures of me taken at the finish line of the Gulf Coast Triathlon without examining them too closely. I just completed my first triathlon, and these pictures need to get to the world wide web as soon as possible. The people need to know. Later, when I’ve had time to recover, I scroll through the photographs taken by family and friends. I pause on the one of me proudly holding up my finisher’s medal, and I am disgusted. My first thought isn’t, “Look at what you just accomplished after years of battling injury. You go girl!” No, sadly, my first thought is, “Who is that big girl? I look so fat.” What should be my most triumphant moment in a long time reduces me to tears of frustration as I pore over every flaw, picking apart each inch of my body with a negativity I wouldn’t reserve for my nemesis.The old critic, the one I thought I’d long buried, resurges with as much vigor as she had when I was struggling to make it as a model in my early twenties. Rather than see the athlete who survived, what I, perhaps dramatically, like to refer to as the near-death drowning experience on the 300 yard swim, finished third in her age group on a ten-mile bike ride, and hammered out two miles to come in fourth overall in my age group, I see a fat girl, and I’ve worked too damn hard on staying healthy to allow that girl back into my head.
To understand my story, we must travel back to my middle school days, the place where tall, awkward, nerdy kids like me thrive. This is where my body image issues began. As a junior high cheerleader, I was at least two inches taller than the next tallest girl. While my teammates’ tiny, athletic bodies tumbled and flew through the air, I more or less thudded. I recall on photo day, the photographer pointing to me and saying, “Big girl. You line up in the back.” I’m sure he meant tall, but “big girl” echoed through my head the rest of the day. (I was also the only person who forgot to bring white socks, so tan sock girl would have also been appropriate, but alas, big girl it was.) No matter what the occasion, I was always a giant among tiny, muscular athletic people.
As I entered high school, someone, perhaps noticing my discomfort with my Amazon-ish-ness, mentioned that models were tall, so I began to appreciate my height a little more. I had also been told that I looked better in pictures than I did in person, so I began to send my photos to agents, hoping to get noticed. I also knew models were ultra-thin, so I began dieting, and by dieting, I mean starving myself, and when the starvation become too much, binging and purging. I knew exactly where to place my finger in my throat to bring up any meal. Running water hid the sound of my retching, so no one was the wiser. My weight fluctuated based on my level of determination. Once I began pursuing modeling in earnest, though, I became so strict with my diet that I only allowed myself a few pretzel sticks each day. Anything more and I dealt with an inordinate amount of guilt. I also exercised for hours a day. I dropped from 145 to 130, but that still wasn’t good enough. Any professional I met insisted that I still needed to lose weight. I remember speaking with someone I had met in California and her first greeting was, “How’s your weight?”
So, I dropped another 22 pounds, weighing a paltry 108 when I left home and moved to Atlanta to pursue modeling full-time. I remember dancing in the fitting room the first time I buttoned a pair of size 3 Calvin Klein jeans. I was exhilarated! My dance was short-lived, though, when the exertion almost caused me to pass out. My family grew so concerned with my weight that my mom forced me to watch the Karen Carpenter story and explained how talented she was, yet how her life was cut short from anorexia, but for once, I felt powerful and in control. I couldn’t control the responses of agents or that sense of restlessness and uncertainty about my purpose, but I could control my weight, and I controlled it like a czar. I didn’t care that I was listless or losing hair by the handful; I ignored the anxious pleas of those who loved me. For once, I was skinny, and as a result, “beautiful.”
I continued this ridiculous lifestyle for months. I spent my time trying to book fashion shows or print jobs. No matter how small I became there was always someone there to remind me of any flaws. Then one day I woke up and simply decided to step off this crazy train. I was sick. I was tired. I was dying inside, and I needed something to bring me back to life. For years, food had been my enemy, not fuel for my body. It was my foe, and I needed to learn the delicate balance of friendship, so I moved home and began college. I also discovered a love of distance running, one that most likely saved my life. It’s impossible to starve yourself and run, so I began reading about nutrition. Slowly, through prayer and the love of those around me, I began to see my body as the miracle it was. My legs grew strong and muscular and propelled me through ten mile runs. I threw out my scale, and to this day, rarely weigh myself. I could be perfectly fine and at ease with my body, but one wrong number on the scale would send my day spiraling out of control, and a maelstrom of self-condemnation would suck me into a frenzy, ruining my day, so I tossed it and used the fit of my clothing as a gauge. Bit by bit, I began to make peace with my body.
By the time I married and began to have children, I felt healthy and whole. I arrived at the
place where I honestly didn’t think about my weight. For the first time in my life, I liked myself and my body. From time to time, I’d see a photograph and cringe, but I would quickly quiet the critic in my head and move on. Now, I focused on my marathon and half-marathon finishes, the twenty-six hours of labor that produced two beautiful children, the power it took to cycle 67 miles of a hilly course. So, my response to my photograph at the finish of my first triathlon shocked me. I thought I was finally over this body image nightmare, but I’m not. I still have moments where I long to be that 108 pound girl in the size 3 Calvin Kleins, and you know what, that matters more now than ever because I have a daughter.
I’ve fought so hard for her to maintain a healthy view of my body. I’ve never allowed fashion magazines into our home because I know how easily it is to fall into society’s trap
that shouts from every newsstand and grocery store aisle in the country: This is true beauty. We see it every time we walk into a store and find “skinny” jeans staring at us from every table. I’ve never used the word fat or referred to my body as anything but strong and healthy, but that doesn’t mean the self-loathing doesn’t sneak back into my mind when I step out of the shower and notice the paunch that greets me in the mirror or the dimply thighs peeking out from my swimsuit. I don’t want my daughter to feel that way about her body. I desperately want A and me to believe that we are beautifully and wonderfully made.
No matter how hard I fight, it’s so difficult to prevent my daughter from internalizing society’s idea of beauty. Recently, she came to me and asked why her legs got fat when she sat, and I wanted to scream at the stupid fashion industry and ask where she heard the word “fat”. Instead, I explained to her that it wasn’t fat she was seeing, it was muscle, and those muscles propel her through the water when she’s swimming her 50 yard breast stroke, they are powering her forward as she bikes up a hill, they are
providing her the strength she needs to cross the finish line of a 5K. I flexed my thighs and showed her my running/cycling muscles then we compared who had the biggest muscles. Because that’s what I want her to see when she looks at her body: power, promise, potential. I long for her to see a capable, beautiful body that has the ability to bear children, run marathons, and inspire others. But, it will be an uphill battle.
Right now, my girl doesn’t know, but she’s learning. She doesn’t quite fully understand that “thinner is better” or that she can only be accepted and loved if she’s perfect, and I’m fighting hard not to send her that message. Yet, the truth is she will listen more closely to my actions than my words. Moms, it’s time we stop spreading that message with the way we treat ourselves with the way we speak about ourselves. Every time we look in the mirror and scowl because we don’t measure up, regardless of what we speak, we say to our daughters, “I must look a certain way to be satisfied.” While we can’t protect our daughters from the messages that society sends, we can equip them with the truth that their value is not based on their body type. We can build within them a mindset that sees the impossible standards of beauty as a ridiculous myth that no longer needs to be perpetuated.
I’m realizing that as a mom and woman, I personally cannot transform what society values as the standard for perfection in beauty, so my child will grow up in a world that values women for our brains and contributions rather than our bodies, but I can transform my values. And you can control yours. What if, when we looked in the mirror, we practiced seeing what was beautiful? What if we start there? What if we list every day all the things our bodies are capable of accomplishing? What if we stop using the word fat or disgusting or hideous when talking to ourselves about our bodies? What if we focused on a healthy relationship with food? What if we exercised for strength and fitness rather than to sculpt an ideal that has been airbrushed beyond recognition and DOESN’T EVEN EXIST?
What if we learned to love ourselves and see our bodies as God sees them? What if we sent a message with our money and stopped shopping at Victoria’s Secret and Aerie and any other retailer that uses the sexualization of women and preteens’ bodies to sell something? What if we purchased from companies that revere women and use real women to advertise their products like Dove? What if we stopped buying the lies and started rewarding those who are honest? You and I individually might not make a difference but if we collectively shouted then maybe someone would start listening.
I don’t share my struggle with many people; in fact, outside of my family and close friends, I’ve never shared it with anyone because I fight to keep it buried in the past where I hope it will let me alone. I’m realizing, though, that I’m wasting my experience by keeping it to myself. I believe that God never allows us to walk through a difficulty without somehow using that experience to help, to inspire, or to heal someone else. My journey, though painful and frustrating, has value. All of our stories do. It’s through the sharing that we heal and grow stronger and understand that we often fight the same battles. I grow tired of hiding the flaws and fighting alone, so moms, let’s fight this one together for the sake of our daughters and our sons. Let’s encourage and remind each other that each of us is beautifully and wonderfully made.