The University of Minnesota, my alma mater, has a study that's been mentioned in several papers (for some reason, I couldn't find it in our local Minneapolis paper - there was a link to it but it didn't work. Figures). According to this article in the Atlantic, the study focuses on how to talk to overweight kids about obesity. I was hoping for a more hard-hitting article with something that... well, something that I didn't already know. It seems fairly clear that talking about healthy foods and how to eat well rather than body image is more beneficial, especially after learning in Health Psychology that being overweight does not necessarily cause health problems (ie: you can be healthy and be overweight). But this became more complicated with the article's mention of dieting, especially as I'd just come across this article about how dieting can actually cause more problems (another topic we discussed in Health Psych). And all of this occurred after my friend Sarah and I had a conversation about weight and I kept finding this Facebook ad randomly popping up on the sidebar:
hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM for short), in which the muscles of the heart develop in such a way that they are thicker for no apparent reason and cause the heart to have to work harder for it to pump. I don't have the condition myself but I do have the slight possibility of developing it and certainly carry the gene for it, as my mother's side of the family is full of heart problems. And growing up in Indiana, where I grew up, has a strange conglomeration of Midwestern and Southern diet and high obesity levels. Moving to Minnesota, which I think just got labeled the most active state in the country, or at least Minneapolis the most active city, changed a lot of this. So I have quite a history and personal connection to issues of weight and diet.
Part of my problem is that I have had such negative experiences with weight - being so overweight so young with a sedentary life style and poor diet was not good for me. I do have a possible precondition towards heart ailments so eating well and exercising is really important, plus I happen to really enjoy it. For a girl who hated running when she first began, I've really grown to love it in a similar way that I love yoga, because when I'm doing it, I don't worry about how I look; it's about how I feel. I feel great when I run, like I am invincible and can do anything. I wish I could feel like that when I dress up to go to the theater or hang out with friends. It's not that I always feel this way, but it is a persistent, nagging strain of thought that is more present at some times than others. I also put a lot of value on compliments, perhaps too much, and I when I get them about my appearance, I'm always grateful and surprised. I try to buy clothes based on how the make me feel so that I can feel confident while in them. I have insecurities and they manifest themselves in how I feel about my appearance and weight. Given that I've always cared more about brains than beauty, there's the other issue of
Basically, it's all kind of a mess and a slow process towards any sort of acceptance. I definitely respect my body more than I used to, which is good, but I'm also concerned about moving towards respecting it too much, while also feeling that I do have to care about what I look like in order to make good impressions because that's unfortunately the society I'm a part of. I'm trying to accept that it doesn't matter what clothing size I buy as sizes vary depending on where I'm shopping, and that having sizes 4 through 12 in my closet doesn't make me some sort of bodily oddity. My Health Psychology class also helped with the assurances that food and exercise are more important than weight. And along with yoga, running, and (interestingly enough) getting tattoos, I'm growing to feel better about my body both inside and out. I try not to focus on these sorts of things too much because there's so much more to the world than just my mental and physical presence but it also frames how I see everything else, and I would prefer that framing to be a positive one.
Perhaps what's most saddening of all is that I'm not at all alone in feeling negative about my body, that few of my friends haven't had these sorts of issues, not exactly in the same way that I have but still being concerned with weight and appearance. Teenage girls are written off as shallow and ridiculous for caring so much about how they look, but think about the magazine covers and TV shows and ads they're surrounded by. How often do you see an ad where a guy cares about what he looks like? There's a few, but not as many as there are for women. Even while I might achieve some sort of balance about how I feel about my body, I may never be convinced that I am attractive to the opposite sex because women are shown as always having to work to look attractive while for men it's portrayed as effortless. In my spare time, I enjoy buying used copies of Cosmo in order to feel perpetually confused and worried about how women are represented in magazines. Here's what I saw in Cosmo's October 2011 issue that I came across at Half Price Books:
Huge photo, I know and not the best scan - I tried. Focus on the one in square that I made (although they all deserve a read because... really? Really, Cosmo?). Going by these guide lines, a woman is never supposed to get too comfortable with a man, never complain about how she feels or looks because that will break the mystique of her being the "hot new girlfriend." There are so many things wrong with this I don't think I can cram it all into one post (and I won't - I'm thinking about doing a series of posts on Cosmo anyway, because I have really complicated, nuanced feelings about this magazine). But I hope that it's pretty obvious that I hate this advice and think it's a terrible double standard that a girl can't complain about her body but a man sure can if he wants.
The thing is I wish I were in the minority of feeling like I do about my body. But I'm not. Reading Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher and Susan Bordo's books has made me terribly aware of how widespread these issues are. Eating disorders that were once only found in Western Cultures are now appearing elsewhere and these issues are only growing and changing, not disappearing. It worries me because if we can't feel comfortable in our own bodies, how can we possibly feel comfortable in the world around us? These issues are about health and wellness in more than one way - not just physical but mental health. And when the acceptable ways one can look gets whittled down to a more and more exclusive definition, and discussions on it are shoved aside as silly "girl talk," it makes me wonder how we're supposed to find a place to feel comfortable about ourselves when we reside in a society that doesn't seem to want us to take up space at all. Which is perhaps why I like this quote:
Maybe it would simply be easier if we stopped caring about it all together. Instead of trying to work to make everyone feel beautiful, we accept that beauty is too complicated to be pegged down into physical appearance and worry about much more important things, like courage and compassion and courtesy and apparently a bunch of things that start with the letter "c." Perhaps we should understand that beauty isn't just something that's seen but felt and is perceived in something more than visuals. You get the idea.
Once again, no neat answers here and nothing finished up. All of this is ongoing and a battle I fight with myself and the world around me. But writing about it helps get it off my chest and perhaps ease my fears that I alone feel like this. I often think about what makes being human so hard and it seems I'm not the only one to wonder that.