Let’s talk about body image. It’s come up a lot, lately, and I went to the beach yesterday wearing my yellow polka dot bikini and could not help but bask in my own enjoyment of my body. I won’t lie–I did compare my body to the very thin body of the friend next to me and long for smaller thighs. But I smashed that thought like an ant at a picnic. I wouldn’t trade this hour glass for anything! And any kids I end up having will benefit from that hard-won attitude.
Take a look at few things I’ve come across just this morning (I did not google “body image”–this all showed up in my Facebook news feed):
Moms pass on body hatred to daughters: Your kids are listening.
Moms buy a children’s book about going on a diet for their daughters. No, I haven’t come across this in any of the homes I work in. If I do, I’ll be having a conversation with the parents, ASAP.
Photoshopping Phoniness: Beauty altered out of reality and, often, out of beauty.
Fighting Childhood Obesity: The fight to improve childhood nutrition.
First, one unusually great thing about my childhood: my parents served really healthy food, and I’m now glad that I never won my campaign for white instead of brown rice and/or bread. Partly for financial reasons, we never had soda, sugary cereal or salty snacks just lying around the house. Treats were treats. You know what? I don’t want to spend my money on junk, either. So my body is thin and my skin healthy in part because I have always eaten healthy foods.
I didn’t manage to have a great body image, though. Not even a good one. I didn’t believe that I was pretty, not really, until I was about 19 years old. I was convinced that I was probably fat from the moment my body started changing; growing from a lanky, athletic, into a curvy woman was miserable for me. I didn’t know that there would be an awkward phase. I thought it was all supposed to happen so gracefully. Wearing the clothes that I thought I should fit into instead of clothes that actually fit me meant that I wore a B cup bra when I was already a D–in the eighth grade. To be perfectly honest, I still haven’t forgiven the boy who said, “Anne-Marie? Is she the one with the huge boobs?” I’d really rather never see him again. The point is that I didn’t look in the mirror to see how I looked, I looked at Seventeen magazine to see how I should look. I had days when I felt pretty, and I did not have any type of eating disorder or disordered eating. But I was most definitely hiding.
I directly my compulsive energy towards school. I did homework the way other kids played sports. I talked about colleges like other girls talked about boys; no really, I started researching colleges at age fourteen. Once I chose Barnard College in New York City, I wore my sweatshirt almost every day. It was too big and very comfy. I may have also stopped washing my hair… not entirely, just not every day or even every other day. To put it simply, I was unhappy. With myself, my body, my surroundings, my family, boys–you name it, I was angry at it. I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone, so I hid.
I was still hiding when I got to college, but I made friends. The best friends. They saved me. They helped me knock down some of the walls I had built around my real self. And they pretty much forced me to buy clothes that fit my actual body. Not the one I thought I had–not the overweight body that didn’t actually exist or the tiny, skinny body I had so wanted–but the body that I really had. I also became pretty active and ate less ice cream because, well, I got happy. So I lost a lot of weight. I bought a whole new wardrobe. And please, if you meet my friends from college, don’t mention “polo shirts” or “khakis” because they still enjoy laughing (with me, of course, not at me) about the over-sized polos and khakis I was wearing when I met them.
Here’s the big bad body image trap I sidestepped–I did not ignore my body enough to have sex too young or take too many crazy risks. I knew that there would be emotional fall-out from sex, so I waited. (It helped that, like I said, I hid under a hoodie during high school.) I made mistakes, but I knew they were mistakes while I was making them.
Here’s why I think it’s related to body image and therefore to self-esteem: if young people don’t like themselves, they don’t like their bodies and they don’t think that it matters if they take these risks. I suspect that this is true because when my self-esteem was at its lowest (oh, say, around the time I went to the psych ward), I stopped taking good care of my body. I ate sporadically because I just didn’t care. I stopped doing laundry because I just wore my pajamas. I know it’s gross. I didn’t shower often enough. I really just didn’t feel that it mattered. And my future? That seemed really, impossibly far away.
So, this morning, I saw a discussion on the Pigtail Pals Facebook page about young women’s attitudes about casual sex and unplanned pregnancy, and I read that Melissa Wardy finds it “Shocking in how cavalier they are towards their bodies, health, and futures.” I felt like I was zooming back through my own sexual experiences and my friends’ stories about their sexual experiences.
Let’s pause for a minute: I have always been shocked at a cavalier attitude toward body, health and future, in my peers, in younger women, in older women, in men of all ages, but the reason for this is odd. You see, I was raised by a puritanical father to believe I could control any and every sexual impulse. He liked to lecture. “What would people think of me if I wore a short skirt! What would people think of me if they knew that I had spent time alone with a boy!” He actually made sure that I knew he would be sleeping on the couch for the few weeks we lived with my stepmother before he married her. I was eighteen at the time. I believe that my reaction to that was “Daaaaaaaddddd! I don’t want to know!” In my house, before I left for college, any conversation about sex was pretty over-the-top. I swallowed, hook, line and sinker, my dad’s line about sex being this peripheral, almost unnecessary thing we don’t really need to talk about. I thought as a teenager that I would become a Self-Realization Fellowship nun so I talked to quite a few. (SRF doesn’t have much in common with the Catholic church, but our nuns do practice celibacy.) For the record, my dad’s craziness is not even similar to anything you would ever come across in any official SRF text or in any conversation with a monk or nun. Fortunately, I did finally realize that all of my dad’s nonsense was, well, nonsense, to put it mildly, partly through talking to actual nuns about why they practice celibacy and why “householders” deserve equal respect to “monastics.” But. Back to the real topic.
Let’s just say that eventually, I got around to exploring my sexuality. The sheer force of sex and my own desire knocked the wind out of me. By that time, though, I was mature enough to handle all those emotions and to take care of my body. I had the bad habit of thinking of my body as something that I couldn’t really trust, but I didn’t have the bad habit of using sex to feel beautiful or valuable. As you might imagine, I am still working through some serious Daddy Issues, and I looked for Daddy’s approval via proxy in plenty of my past relationships. For many reasons, though, I did not go out and look for casual sex in order to feel good about myself. I’m lucky, because the risks I did take never resulted in a sexually transmitted infection or an unplanned pregnancy.
Fast forward: my high school and college classmates and I are going to turn 27 in the course of the next year. More of us are getting married. More of us have kids, or like me, are preparing to have kids. And I can’t help but wonder. So many of us took such poor care of our bodies. So many of us did not really believe that our futures would really, truly, catch up to us. We punished our bodies with alcohol, cigarettes (my vice of choice), unprotected sex, eating disorders. For most of us, it was just for a few years. I quit smoking. I don’t know many friends who still binge drink. For most of the people I’m close to, unprotected sex was not ok, even when casual sex was fun and frequent. But it really is just anecdotal knowledge taken from a small sample of just the people I know well enough to hear such intimate details. Do I know someone whose body is haunted by a mistake she made? Do I know a woman who got an STI when we were young, still has it and must factor that in to current relationships and future plans? Do I know someone who will not be able to become pregnant because she contracted an infection or suffered complications after aborting an unplanned pregnancy? Do I know a man who has become infertile as a result of an early encounter? I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know. It’s painful to think about consequences actually having stayed with anyone this long after one of our parties or nights out.
It still doesn’t seem real that the cigarettes I smoked could mean cancer later in life. And if I’m honest, that knowledge is not what got me to quit. I quit because I could not be around babies and small children if I smelled like smoke. I don’t just mean that no one would hire me; they wouldn’t. But I couldn’t bring myself to carry that into their worlds. Why could I do it for them, but not for me? The really bad choices–the ones we can only make after silencing the voice that says “Use a condom!” or “You’ll get cancer!”–would anything short of a snapshot of the future stop us from making those mistakes?