Reclaiming My Body

In a past conversation with a friend about junk food, I expressed a concern that I eat too much of it. Not because I\’m worried about gaining weight, but because of the harmful effects of the empty calories, saturated fat, sugar, and excessive salt. He commented, \”Don\’t worry about eating too much, you look great.\” He had no idea how that comment irritated me. I got to thinking about the way a woman\’s body is viewed, both by herself and others. Too often, if a woman is talking about food, it\’s in the context of the way it will look on her outside, not what it\’s doing for her inside. \”Oh, I may as well just apply this ice cream straight to my thighs,\” says the guilty dieter. For most of my life, that\’s the way I felt about food, guilty for eating it & worrying about how it was going to make me look.

I learned to diet from all of the women around me; my mother, my aunts, my older sister. Even my grandma was always apologizing for indulging in something \”too fattening\”. This wasn\’t so unusual, considering that a quarter of American adults are on diets and two thirds of all American women, including many who are average-sized or thin, believe they\’re overweight. I have a very clear memory of the official start of my diet career. My older sister\’s meals were all of a sudden being modified. The skin was being taken off her chicken. She wasn\’t eating potatoes & bread. Salads had become her mainstay. I was told she was \”on a diet\”. Why, I wondered? She looked fine to me. As a matter of fact, I was bigger than she was. That must mean I should be on a diet, too. From that moment on I was filled with a nagging self-doubt every time I put something in my mouth.

I was being primed for that moment early on. Studies have shown that by the 4th grade, 60% of all girls want to be thinner. From kindergarten on, if you show kids drawings of children with different body types & ask them what kind of people they are, they\’ll say that the thin children are cuter, more popular, nicer, neater & smarter than those with an average or chubby body.

I had never considered that the \”thin is good\” paradigm may be wrong. Rather, I thought there was something wrong with me, for I had tried for so many years to be thin, without success. In my early 20\’s I turned to \”professional\” help, I went to a diet clinic. They started by taking my check in exchange for an extremely limited list of foods I could eat and how many servings of each I could have per day. I became obsessed with food. I could only think of it in terms of whether or not I was allowed to eat it. Finally, one night, after cheating on my diet with a candy bar, I snapped. I gorged myself with everything I could find in the house that wasn\’t on my list, then ate a raw egg to make myself throw up. It wasn\’t long before I was able to make myself throw up at will. My bulimia lasted for 3 years, which I overcame when I became a vegetarian and developed a much healthier attitude toward food.

I became a vegetarian in college, when I learned how our food consumption was tied into environmental degradation. I read everything I could get my hands on about being a vegetarian & began to realize how good it was for my health, as well as the health of the planet. As I became more familiar with the health effects of the food I was eating, I began to worry less about weight loss. My decisions about what to eat were based on the nutritional value of the food, not what it was going to do for my body. When I became a vegetarian, I developed a new attitude towards food & began to think of it in terms of what was good for me. I no longer felt guilty for engaging in the basic necessity of eating.

I also decided I was going to buy a bike instead of a car, again for environmental reasons. Up until then, the only physical activity I engaged in was the time my misguided boyfriend talked me into a joining a gym because he thought I would feel better about myself if I were thinner. Fumbling around in aerobics class, a step off from everybody, and trying to hear instructions from an aerobics instructor who pumped the students up for class with ear splitting music did more to erode my self-esteem than build it up.

I began to bike because it was a clean form of transportation, but soon the physical activity began to feel more rewarding than stepping on the scale at the gym everyday with the dread that the needle hadn\’t moved down. When I began to bike, I developed an entirely new relationship with my body. I started thinking about how I could use my body to get from point A to point B. I began to look at it in a new way. It was the first time I appreciated what I could do with it instead of feeling ashamed of it.

In giving up eating meat and giving up driving, I realized how both of those acts were questioning huge paradigms. One night, watching TV during a very popular string of shows on prime time, I started really looking at the commercials. It was eery how one was for meat, then one was for a car, then another for some other kind of meat, than another car commercial. No wonder the people around me couldn\’t imagine how I could live my life without either. They were constantly bombarded with messages about how they needed both to survive, when in reality factory farms and auto-dependancy are two of the most destructive forces on our planet. When I realized that not only was I surviving without meat and a car, but I was healthier in both body and mind without them, a shift occurred in me. I began to question other so called \”truths.\”

I started by looking critically at what I was being told I should look like. This naturally lead me to a critique of women\’s magazines. Surprisingly, 150 years ago, women\’s magazines contained insightful, relevant articles about women & what was happening in the world. It was during the late 1800\’s that publishers realized they would make more money if they catered to the advertisers rather than the subscribers, so the next logical step was to begin to groom women as consumers. By the end of the 1800\’s, being a consumer was becoming an essential part of a woman\’s identity and advertisers learned that they could sell more products if they offered women an unattainable dream of beauty & thinness. Up until then, women were allowed to come in all sorts of shapes and sizes , as long as their waists were cinched in with corsets. Corsets were sold in varying sizes. It wasn\’t as important for a woman to be made up and make-up wasn\’t a concern for women in the 1800\’s. Feminity was defined by their soft curviness.

As women gained more freedoms during the turn of the last century, their looks became more important. Ads were no longer just for corsets, now they needed to worry about having healthy hair, eliminating embarrassing body odor, having a very made-up face. The list of beauty concerns grew as they became more independent. These concerns not only distracted women from important issues of equal rights, it also allowed advertisers to make tons of money of their new insecurities.

Currently, women\’s magazines contain 70% advertising & 30% text, much of which is complementary copy encouraging women to buy the products being advertised. That\’s a long way from the early issues of Cosmopolitan that contained only one ad! Gloria Steinam once said the goal of women\’s magazines was \”to create a desire for products, instruct in the use of products, & make products a crucial part of gaining social approval.\” In our consumer society, this philosophy is not just limited to women\’s magazines. Economists have realized that behavior that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into a social virtue, so, even if I avoid the women\’s magazines, I still am subjected to images everywhere confirming that I\’m not skinny enough, I have the wrong hair, & I still haven\’t learned how to wear the right shade of lipstick for my coloring. At the age of 32 my self-esteem is only now beginning to recover.

I look back at pictures of myself as a child & think \”I thought I was fat?\” I wasn\’t fat at all. I was just a little girl who was completely uncomfortable in her body because she watched too much TV, wasn\’t encouraged to exercise, & didn\’t have enough vegetables in her diet. I\’m amazed at how skewed my perception of \”fat\” was. Well, maybe not amazed when I think about it. My warped perception is a reflection of a culture that defines fatness based on height/weight charts developed 100 years ago for a very small segment of the population (wealthy, white men who could afford insurance), then vilifies anyone who does not fit into that formula. Women, in particular, since our culture also teaches girls from day one that our main job is to look good for Prince Charming. And she can\’t look good if she\’s fat. End of story.

This dream we\’re fed that we\’ll be happy if we look like supermodels is erroneous since only about 5% of the population have bodies the size & shape of supermodels. As a matter of fact, the average size for women is size 14, which is considered a plus size. (Plus what?) This unattainable dream of thinness is great for the diet industry. They get to make about 50 billion dollars a year off of our destructive, self-loathing desire to lose a few pounds. It\’s to their benefit that our society worships thinness, when most diets have a 95% failure rate. They keep telling us that we\’ll be fitter if we\’re thinner. They don\’t tell us how diets keep us fatter by wrecking our metabolism, putting our bodies into starvation mode so they hang onto the fat, & screwing up our natural tendencies to eat when we\’re hungry. You\’ll never hear them say that weight is not a true indicator of good health, that as long as you\’re exercising regularly & you have good blood pressure, good cholesterol levels, & good blood sugar levels, you\’re in pretty darn good shape. I\’m willing to bet that the fat, vegetarian bicycle messenger I know is healthier than any emaciated model I\’ve seen on a billboard.

I regretfully think of all of those lost hours I spent in the mall, beating myself up for eating too much, dreaming of the new commitment I was going to make to my diet so I can be the person Victoria\’s Secrets told me I should be. I\’m brought to tears by a Glamour poll that reported over 80% of the women surveyed listed \”losing weight\” as their main goal in life. I can only begin to imagine a world in which women were allowed to live up to their full creative potential instead of having so much of their energy directed into finding the right diet, hairdo, outfit, shoes, plastic surgeon, eyeliner, and on and on and on. I\’m not sure that it\’s such a coincidence that the first Miss American Pageant was in 1920, the same year women got the vote. Some feminists believe this was the beginning of the recurring checks & balances that are still preventing women from attaining equality as human beings. The beauty ideal became a way to distract women from their newfound emancipation by emphasizing the importance of looking thin & beautiful, and it continues to do that. Women now have 3 jobs; to look good, to take care of the home, and their real job. They undercut their already lower salaries by spending billions of dollars on beauty supplies, clothes, & diets.

Most recently, I was practicing some martial arts techniques with a friend of mine in the park. She was letting me practice on her & showing me a few new things, like judo rolls & other stuff that seemed scary for me to do, at first. She kept encouraging me & saying things like, \”You\’re a natural, Tracey. You\’ve got it in you.\” I suddenly felt a spark of self-confidence. Yeah, I do have this in me. I\’ve always had this in me. It\’s just been covered up with piles & piles of body image crap that goes way back before I even knew what the word \”diet\” meant. It\’s been taken away by the diet industry, the beauty industry, & everyone else who benefits from keeping women in a constant state of self-hatred. As I did more judo rolls I once again felt the confidence in my inner beauty grow, like a shoot of grass that\’s sprouted through the cracks in a sidewalk.