What If the Unrealistic Body Image I’m Chasing Is Mine?
Those women in the magazines did a job on my head — after all, I was one of them
The media has changed its tune. First they told me I had to be beautiful and fit. Now they tell me I need to build my self-confidence, regain my self-esteem, and separate my self-image from how my body looks. They insist I need to put aside my own self-loathing not only for my own happiness, but also for the sake of my daughters. And here’s the thing: They’re telling people who have terrible self-image it’s their own fault for not feeling good about themselves. They’re not body-shaming, but brain-shaming. It’s the same message, but in a different package. And I’ve struggled with both my body and my brain as long as I can remember.
Let me tell you about me.
I am small and pale and red-haired. Four foot ten and not a curve in sight. In my family, nobody praised me for being pretty. Was that because my parents didn’t think I was, or because they sincerely thought looks didn’t — or shouldn’t — matter? I was expected to do very well in school (I did) and try my hardest at sports (I did). If those were the important things, I guess it was a good lesson; after all, it’s better than thinking I just wasn’t pretty.
Besides, I was a tomboy. I was one of the smart ones.
They’re not body-shaming, but brain-shaming. It’s the same message, but in a different package.
But I wanted people to think I was pretty. I wanted to be pretty. By high school, I didn’t know how to control my still-impossible poofy red hair. I didn’t know about eyebrow tweezing. I knew absolutely nothing about fashion (’80s fashion, no less) and how to make it work on my childlike body. I didn’t know what looked good on me and what just looked, well, weird. Aside from looking and dressing weird, I was too smart to be cool, although I was always surprised when I got a 95 on a test or a paper because compared to my sister (who got 98s), that meant I wasn’t smart enough.
Nobody ever called me pretty.
In our final year of high school, a friend wanted to get a membership to the school’s weight room, so I tagged along and discovered how much I liked to lift weights. A week later, I bought an issue of Shape magazine, but I quickly understood all the training in the world wouldn’t lengthen my legs or give me a tiny waist, that I would never look like the ballerina-esque models in the pages. (This was well before magazines started featuring what they call “normal” physiques.) I was smart enough to see through the media’s portrayal of genetically tall, thin women as the physical ideal.
When I went to college, I continued to work out. I studied human kinetics and nutrition, and applied whatever I learned to my own eating and training. I subscribed to Oxygen magazine, which was the women’s muscle/fitness competitor publication in the 2000s, and was inspired by the beautiful, strong, defined physiques. Here was an ideal I could aspire to.
I believed these magazines. I believed if I worked hard enough, I could look like that too.
Members of the varsity cheerleading team were required to strength train three times a week. I was also literally a starving student, so I didn’t have money to spend on junk food. I got a job at the gym and earned my certification as a personal trainer, teaching my clients all the super cool science behind what they were doing. I was still smart, and I was a good fit for my job. I looked the part. I was small but now muscular, with tiny joints and round muscle bellies. During a staff meeting in which the trainers were criticizing the company-prescribed 20-minute one-set workout, my boss complimented me.
“It works,” he said. “Karen’s body was built with it.” I had never before felt proud of how I looked.
Once I graduated, I upped my training and tweaked my eating patterns to add more protein, and there I was: fit. So fit I signed up for fitness competitions with high heels and bikinis and one-armed pushups and high kicks. I won locally and provincially, and finished in the top three at nationals — twice. I privately scoffed at skinny-fat people and their goals of toning up or just wanting a flat stomach. Why stop there? Who wouldn’t want a full six-pack? I had put in the work at the gym and in the kitchen, and even though I was still small and pale, I looked like someone from a magazine.
I am now 43. I am still smart. I am still very fit. But I’ve had four babies, and I am not the same shape I was when I was 20.
So, yes, I was clearly overcompensating, but I was proud, and finally somewhat self-confident about my (still poofy-haired) appearance. I had achieved my goal and become the woman I wanted to be. Whenever I saw photos of myself onstage, I was impressed, and I was happy with how clothes looked on my always-hard-to-fit body. Off-season, I was still fitter, leaner, and more defined than regular people, but I stayed covered up; at the gym I wore sleeveless shirts, or sometimes a sports bra if I was feeling super defined. I held onto a tummy suck for eight years straight. I knew I looked fit, and I liked how I looked.
I am now 43. I am still smart. I am still very fit. But I’ve had four babies, and I am not the same shape I was when I was 20. Duh, you say. But for me, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was supposed to be different.
About five years ago, I went to my gym and saw a new display of Before and After photos. Someone had found an old picture of me from Oxygen magazine and added it to the display. The photo had been taken the day of a show. I was painted dark brown to help show my muscle definition, I was dehydrated to make sure my skin was shrink-wrapped over my virtually fat-free body, and I was holding an uncomfortable pose that made my waist look microscopic and my shoulders appear broad.
So there I stood, 10 years older, with three small children, looking at a Before picture of me at 27 with lean, defined muscles, a visible six-pack, and a vein on my abs (God, I loved that vein). And I started to cry. What’s the point, I wondered, if that’s supposed to be my Before? And even if I didn’t really look like that — even that day — I certainly didn’t 10 years later. And I don’t now. That was my unrealistic body portrayed by the media. So now what?
Clothes still don’t fit me well, but now I see it as my own (aging) fault, and no longer that manufacturers don’t understand the shape of fit women.
On the beach during our recent trip to Spain, I was covered head to toe (the ginger in me does not do sun). Even underneath my coverup, I was uncomfortable in my size Small, shirred-and-ruched-and-structured old-lady tankini. There were women all around me wearing bikinis, some topless: old women, fat women, normal fortysomething women. They were standing and running and splashing. I sat or stood, covered up. Even though I honestly (and somewhat obnoxiously) know I’m in better shape than almost all of them (including some of the 20-year-olds directly in front of us), I was — and am — mentally unable to wear a bikini, to show my not-a-six-pack and skin that’s been stretched out by too many ginormous baby bellies. Despite the inspiration all around me of women of all ages and sizes and sagginess and floppiness (with love!) feeling comfortable in their own bodies, I cannot do it, and I feel, well, even worse about myself.
I had to be drunk to buy, then wear, my first bikini at age 22. I was on a cheerleading road trip to Myrtle Beach, and at breakfast I said, “Um, did I buy a bikini last night?” My friend handed me a tiny bag, and I opened another beer. The photos of me in it, developed a week later, were stunning. I looked fit and happy. But I didn’t have the photos at the time. Even back then, young and lean, I was self-conscious. I felt that unless (or until) I had the perfect body, I shouldn’t wear a bikini.
The current media outcry exhorting me to “smash negative self-talk” feels almost harmful. I see now that my overall self-esteem is not just tied to the tightness of my waist. I’m still very smart, funny, strong, and kind. My body has done — and still does — amazing things. I am a role model for my kids: I do balanced strength, endurance, and intensity workouts frequently but not excessively; I eat well (and include chocolate and wine); and I don’t disparage myself out loud. I am healthy. But this body is not what it used to be, and frankly, I’m getting tired of being told I should feel happy with it no matter what. I already feel uncomfortable in a full-coverage bathing suit. I don’t want to feel bad about feeling uncomfortable because the media says I should.
Really? I should feel even worse because I feel bad?
I have a problem, I realize. But I’d rather accept my discomfort with myself than accept my flaws or settle for the body I currently have. I’m going to keep trying to fix it, even though I know I’m not likely to ever get back into a fitness magazine again. I don’t want to look good for my age, or good for someone who’s had four babies. I want to just look good. I don’t want to hear anyone tell me it’s just my vanity and to get over myself, that I’m the only one who cares, because my body matters to me — and it always has.
I have two beautiful daughters. I want them to grow up feeling valued for more than their appearance. They already know their worth comes from their brains and their spirit, their kind hearts, their strength and their bravery. They know I want them to be strong like me, and I make sure they know that fit doesn’t mean thin. I want them to eat well because it makes them feel good.
But I also want them to feel pretty, and I don’t think that’s wrong. I want them to have the confidence I’ve never had. I want them to think Mommy just burns easily, and that’s why she dresses that way on the beach. And the sunscreen stinging her eyes is why she cries.