Sunday, February 23, 2014

Let's Stop Comparing and Judging Bodies: Size Doesn't Matter

This year I turned 46. There’s nothing young about being 46, but there’s nothing particularly old about it either. The past 3 years I’ve been dealing with chronic health issues that have caused my weight to fluctuate down 30 pounds, only to rebound higher and then decrease again, followed by another swing to 40 pounds heavier than I was before I lost that initial 30 pounds. Right now I weigh what I weighed in the 9th month of my 3rd pregnancy, but there’s no celebration of the beginning of a new life at the end of this weight gain.

The ups and downs I’ve faced over the past years have caused me to spend time reflecting on my body, as well as the deluge of messages from society, friends and family about weight, health and acceptance.

Growing up, I internalized the message that if you are fat you aren’t good enough. This message was much louder about women than it was about men. Fat women weren’t attractive, fat women weren’t loveable or desirable. Thin people were righteously superior to people who were fat.

Now I’m 46 and have realize all of that was a lie. But I’ve also realized that over the years I made myself feel better about my body by comparing it to the bodies of other women, the same way that I could feel worse about my body by comparing it to other women’s bodies.
When I wasn’t very fat, but wasn’t exactly thin, the comfort could be found in comments like, “You’re the thinnest woman in the room.” Now that I’m fat it’s embarrassing to realize how much pride I took in being thin, or at least thinner than most of the women I knew.

Some how women have internalized that our value is relative to how we look, which is determined by how closely we match some mythical societal norm, and we spend an awful lot of time comparing our bodies to other women. We look at women who weigh more than we do and we feel smug. We look at women who weigh less than and we think, and some women come right out and say, “Wow, you’re so thin! I hate you.” And while women may say comments like this as if they are joking, there is way more truth that teasing in those words.

As a woman, I know that the “perfect” female body has measurements of 36-26-36. An hourglass. A curvy body, but not too curvy. The reality is that my body tends toward not having a waist. Even at my thinnest, I’m not going to attain an hourglass figure. In fact, I think my ever increasing hips give me a look closer to curves than I’ve ever had before. Add to that my increased breast size and derriere, and I can almost think that this weight gain makes me sexier. Except for the belly that has also increased, and the lumpy and saggy places that might not been seen as curves.

If I’m honest, I’ll admit that there have been very few times in my life when I’ve really felt attractive. I’ve had noticeable varicose veins since my 20’s. After three pregnancies, even with wearing compression hose for the latter two, my legs are a mess. Having relatives with varicose veins on both sides of the family tree, genetically I didn’t stand a chance. Now that I’ve reached my mid 40’s my ankles are splotched with purple and standing in one place for any length of time is painful.

My entire life I’ve had thin hair, and my illnesses and medications haven’t helped in that area, either. Straight thin hair is not sexy. It’s not attractive. It’s not fun. Have you watch shampoo commercials lately? My greatest contentment with my hair came when it was cut extremely short. However, in my mind, you have to be thin to have short hair. The voices in my head are very opinionated about things like that.

So here I am: fat, veiny, with thin hair, getting older every day.
And that, along with research, has helped me realize that much of what we have internalized about our bodies, how we look, and what’s normal or healthy, is bull-shit.

Over the past three years I’ve had people tell me I look amazing when I’ve been horribly ill. The voices in my head join in that chorus. Sometimes I’ve gained weight because I was getting healthier and my body was reacting to previous drastic weight loss. Other times, I’ve gained weight because my medication levels were off. And then there was the weight gain from medications that were slowing down my metabolism. Along the way I had the opportunity to see how the various shapes and conditions of my body affected how I felt about myself. This metacognition was complicated or convoluted by my mental state.

Because, along with the fluctuations of weight and physical wellness, I had fluctuating levels of mental wellness. There were times when anxiety prevented me from driving the car. Other times I’d get angry and fly into a rage, all the while watching myself and knowing that wasn’t how I wanted to respond. Depression would creep in and affect my ability to think rationally about my life. These mental variations were brought about by the same illnesses and medications that were affecting my body. As with my body’s changes, they weren’t something I could control.

And that’s what I want other people to understand. The media, our friends, our families, tell us we should look a certain way to be considered beautiful, healthy, or acceptable. We’ve internalized, at least I internalized, that I needed to look a certain way to be worthy of love. But to a very large degree we have much less control over how we look than the media, diet industry, and society would like us to believe.

If you are thin there are primarily three reasons for that: you were born genetically predisposed toward thinness, you are ill - including the possibility of an eating disorder or addiction , or you have the privilege of devoting a sizeable amount of time, energy and money toward being thin.

If you are fat there are primarily three reasons for that: you were born genetically predisposed toward carrying fat on your body, you are ill, or you do not have the privilege of having the time, energy or money to invest in being thin.

It’s the last point that people are most likely to argue about so let me clarify:

If you are poor, if you are in survival mode, if you have few resources of every kind, you do not have the time, energy, or money to go to the gym and workout. If you are poor and in survival mode you do not have the time, energy, or money to buy and fix meals that focus on fresh fruits and vegetables. If you are a caregiver who is taking care of other people, who does not have adequate support, your chances of having the time and energy necessary to invest in being thin are slim.

Here’s something I’ve learned along the way: thin people aren’t always healthy. Not only that, but being thin does not make you healthier than someone who is fat. And finally, your level of health and fitness are no one’s business but your own.

We need to stop judging other people’s levels of fitness the same way we need to stop judging other people’s, or our own, weight. You cannot look at someone and determine their level of health or fitness. When I was thin, had a rosy glow in my cheeks and could fit into every pair of pants I owned, I was living at risk of a heart attack or thyroid storm. I couldn’t walk up stairs without stopping to catch my breath. Strenuous exercise was absolutely out of the question. I looked fabulous, it was a lie.

If you are thin and you judge other people because they are fatter than you are you might need to check your privilege. If you are like me, your reason for comparing weight isn’t really based on how much you care about that other person’s health or wellness, but it’s based on your need to make yourself feel better about your own perceived flaws. Chances are you were born with thin genes. If you are predisposed toward carrying more weight but you choose to go to the gym, restrict your diet, and pound your body into the shape of your choosing, remember that’s your choice. It’s not a choice anyone else needs to make, it’s not necessarily a healthy choice for someone else, and it’s not required in order for someone to be healthy or beautiful. If you are thin and never quite feel like your body measures up to your expectations or society’s dications you might consider working on loving your body no matter how it looks.

If you are fat and you judge people because they spend time intensively exercising and planning their meals, you may want to consider if you do this because it helps you feel better about yourself. If you are fat and you are hating your body it can be hard to overcome that because of the voices all around us, and the voices in our head. I hear you can learn to love your body just the way it is, thin or fat, but I haven’t really managed to do it myself, yet. I can say that it’s worth working toward loving yourself more, even if you never manage to quiet the critical voices in your head completely.

We need to stop comparing ourselves to others and start loving ourselves more, just the way we are.

If you still believe that everyone should be or can be thin, or you believe that being thin is healthier than being fat I encourage you to read a couple books:

And if books aren’t your thing read a few blog posts at The Fat Nutritionist: Eating Normally is the New Black  

I've written some related blog posts as well: 

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