“Mommy can you buy this?”
I looked up from the conveyer belt where I’d been stacking groceries, expecting to see a candy bar or small toy in my 5 year old’s hand. Instead, she holds a copy of “Cosmopolitan”, beaming up at me.
“You don’t need that,” I replied “It’s like junk food for your brain. It’s not good for you,” I replied.
She looked at me with confusion, then studied the cover before looking at me once more. “How?”
“How is it not good for me?”
I sighed, unsure how to respond. “Well,” I answered slowly. “Everything in there is fake. It’s just a bunch of junk designed to make you feel bad so you spend more money on stuff you don’t really need.”
She looked thoughtful for a moment and put it back on the rack. “Can I have some candy?”
I laughed and said yes, smiling as I carried on with the checkout process. I was proud of my answer and even more proud of myself for not giving in to my impulse to just toss it in the cart. If there’s one parenting goal I hold sacred, it’s making sure my daughters never experience the kind of loathing towards their bodies that I’ve battled my whole life. The kind, incidentally, that I’ve felt creeping in as I enter the final trimester of my pregnancy.
There was I time I would have bought the damn magazine. I would have poured over the pages, relentlessly assaulting myself with negative judgements as I compared my body to the beautiful women inside. I would have made notes about diets to try, make-up to buy, the latest lotions and potions to fix this problem and that problem. I would have read articles like “5 Tips To Have The Best Sex Ever” and decided that there was something wrong with my sex life…even if I had been thoroughly enjoying it up until that moment.
To be honest, those sly suggestions that I’m not good enough as is still sneak through on a regular basis and it still takes a ton of work to not let them affect me. In fact, as I watch my body morph into something unrecognizable, I’ve found it harder and harder to not tear myself down or worry about how I’ll “get my body back” after I have this child. I worry so much, in fact, that I’ve recently stepped up my self-care routine to combat these thoughts and stop myself from heading down a path I was determined to never walk again.
On my first blog, I had written a post about my body image issues and how they had come to be. I had toyed with the idea of re-posting it here, but this experience at the grocery store made me want to share something different. The why has been covered time and again in many different formats. But what we don’t look at as often is the reality of living with these unrealistic standards in our heads.
This is my reality.
I might not have thought so deeply about the exchange in the checkout aisle had body image not already been on my mind. That morning, I had found myself sobbing as I looked in the mirror, wishing I could love my pregnant body instead of feeling like a whale. After a few minutes of allowing the emotions to run their course, I decided to go through my computer and create a file full of pictures of myself that made me feel beautiful. I needed something to look at when I felt down and give me a little ego boost when the insecurities threatened to overtake me again. As I sorted through the photos–some taken well over 10 years ago–I was struck by how different I looked to my eyes now as compared to what I had seen when the snapshots had been taken. I was even more shocked that there was such a huge disparity between my perception and reality with photos that had only been taken a few months prior.
This is what I want to share with you today.
This photo was taken about 8 years ago. I remember the day well. I was 22 and I had read an article about taking photos of clothes before you get rid of them, so you have a memory to hold onto instead of an extra shirt in your closet that will never get worn. In the pictures taken directly before this one, I can be seen crying. I’d been waiting for years to wear this top, but had never once worn it out of the house. I didn’t want to let it go, but I decided I must. You see, I was crying in the previous photos because I “knew” I’d never be thin enough to wear such an outfit. Of course, my boyfriend (now husband) disagreed, persuaded me to fix my make-up, and got me to take another picture. I hated it. The top went to Goodwill that afternoon.
When I looked at the picture then, I saw what I saw in the mirror. I was too fat. I desperately needed a boob job and a butt lift. My arms were flabby, my thighs were too thick, my face was too masculine.
Are we looking at the same picture?
Looking at it now, I am disgusted by the knowledge that I truly felt that way about my body. What I wouldn’t give to look like that now! Clearly, my perceptions of myself were way, way off. But at the time, they were very real to me. Any time someone would say something to negate those thoughts, I brushed it off as them trying to make me feel better. I just knew, deep down in my soul, that they were lying to spare my feelings. I mean, I saw it plain as day, surely they did, too.
Those sort of deep-seated body image issues are about more than looks. When you are filled with hatred at the image in the mirror, in affects every other aspect of your life. You believe you aren’t worthy of love, or success, of happiness. You believe you are just as ugly on the inside as you see yourself on the outside, even if neither of these things are true.
There are plenty of other photos like this, most notably a few from high school when I had plenty of “evidence” that I was ugly. I didn’t get asked out on dates like the other girls did. I got bullied about my looks often. I didn’t look identical to the girls in magazines or on TV. The world saw this…
While I saw something hideous and shameful.
Looking at it from where I am now, and without sounding conceited, I’m pretty sure those boys stayed away because they were too scared to ask out a hottie, and I’m pretty sure those girls were mean because they were jealous. But you never would have convinced me of that at the time.
My body image improved a little at the age of 25 when I became pregnant with my first child. Suddenly, I was this life-giving goddess and I didn’t have to feel bad about having some extra weight on my body. This isn’t to say there weren’t moments when I feared what it would look like afterwards, or that I never had days when I felt disgusting and decidedly un-goddesslike, but it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. I slowly began to feel more comfortable in my own skin and celebrate my beauty.
And then, it all came back.
After my daughter was born I was determined to fix whatever it was that caused to me see such an incredibly distorted view of myself. I made a lot of progress, but I’d still have my slip-ups. At these times, body image took up every bit of space in my mind. It became my only focus and robbed me of moments that would have otherwise been full of joy.
Two years ago, in the midst of one of these slips, I took this as a “before” photo as I prepared to undertake a new exercise routine and accompanying diet.
Don’t let the smile fool you, I hated taking that photo. All I could see was a body that had been destroyed by motherhood. I was once again researching a variety of cosmetic surgeries and telling myself how terrible I looked.
As I look at that photo now, I can’t see why. And as I look at photos from shortly before I got pregnant this time around, I’m amazed at how much my body still looked like it did in that picture. The feeling that I can’t trust my own eyes is mind-blowing. It hurts. It hurts a lot. What hurts just as bad is knowing that I could be unwittingly passing this distorted view to my daughter.
With a second daughter on the way, it has become obvious that I have to change the way I talk about my body and the bodies of other women. I have to find a way to learn to love the skin I’m in 100%. I have to provide a buffer between not only my self-esteem and the unrealistic standards we are bombarded with, but between those standards and my girls’ self-perception.
So where does it start? How do we begin to heal from something like this?
It starts with watching our thoughts, our words, and our actions; with providing our daughters with a positive model of how to treat their bodies. It starts with focusing on health instead of beauty, on what our bodies can do instead of how it can look. It starts with focusing on all the other strengths we possess that will outlive physical beauty. It starts with putting more emphasis on who we are inside and allowing our confidence to shine from within. With believing your family, your friends, your partner, when they say you’re beautiful.
It starts, with challenging our perceptions about what beauty is and simply being the best version of ourselves, from the inside out.
It starts with saying no to that magazine.
I know I still have a long way to go, but I know I’m light years away from where I was and that I’m still growing.
And I know, you can too.