Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My Big Fat Body Image Post

I woke up this morning to find that world affairs looked a little something like this:
Then again, maybe world affairs are always like this, but it seemed more pronounced today. So, I would like to acknowledge the fact that there's a whole lot of things going on out there in the big wide world and that today's post is rather muted in comparison. But it is linked to something I just saw in the news and I'd like to start there.

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:

Before we delve any deeper, I need to mention that this post is going to be highly personal. Though I'd rather not disclose too much to the internet, I feel this post really won't work as well without this background. As I've briefly mentioned on here before, I've been overweight for most of my life. Technically, according to BMI measurements, I'm still overweight. Yet when I go to visit my family in Indiana, my grandmother talks about how skinny I am. Yet I don't feel skinny - I don't really know how I feel. It changes depending on the day and my attitude and what I'm doing. Sometimes I don't think about my size and other times it's all I can focus on. When I moved to Minnesota, I was somewhere around 170lbs and around five feet tall, which is considered obese by our medical system. Once I started being more active (taking required physical education classes, which I loathed due to having to run miles as I'd never run before) and decided to cut out soda from my diet, I lost weight. I started eating better and cared a little more about how I looked and started feeling better about myself. I lost even more weight when I started college and had the reverse of the freshman 15, but I would never recommend losing weight as I did then - I didn't eat enough, felt perpetually run down, and started developing a bit of an obsession with food, always wondering when and what I would eat next. Last spring (and by last spring I mean 2012, not this year), my mother had a heart attack and we learned that she has a condition known as 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.
The main idea with all of this is that I have absolutely no idea how to feel about studies on weight and diet when I have a terrible conception of these things myself. I still feel much larger than I am and have no idea of how others see me. Every time I am weighed at a doctor's office, I'm worried it will be like the time my first doctor in Minnesota gave me a sad, condescending look and said, "You really need to lose weight." I can't buy clothes without worrying about whether or not I'm gaining weight because I had to buy a larger size or whether the clothes fit my body type. Despite all the body positivity about plus-sizes I see, such as the Facebook ad up there, it makes me uncomfortable because I don't think of myself as plus-sized - so why does this ad come up? I'm utterly for body positivity, yet I was never happy with myself when I was heavier - not only because I felt the pressure of a society obsessed with being skinny, but also because I truly didn't feel well being overweight. Now I feel healthier but I still don't feel completely comfortable with my body. I admire people, no matter what their size, who feel confident and comfortable with their bodies and not constantly care about how others see them. I described the sense that I think I'm heavier than I actually am, not just when I look in the mirror but when I just sit or walk and Sarah had the great phrase of an "irreconcilable sense of mass" to describe this feeling. No matter what size I am, I feel bad about it and feel like I take up this lumbering, ungainly sort of space. My fascination with yoga and running has evolved greatly in an attempt to change this perception, to be more positive about my body and be happy with it. It's helping but I still have a lot to deal with - especially given the fact that I can't watch TV or look at a magazine without seeing something about dieting and weight loss.
Being a cultural studies major who happens to have a lot of focus on feminism, I've talked about women and weight a lot. From Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight to the film Killing Us Softly, I'm well aware of how the media portrays women and their bodies. Sometimes, I feel a little too aware. I can't tell when I'm being concerned about my health and when I'm just being concerned about my appearance. I blur the line between healthy eating and forced dieting. I try not to care about what others think but find that I can't help but ruminate on it. Though I am fairly healthy, I really want to lose another ten or fifteen pounds. Susan Bordo talks about double binds, of being pulled between two unequal things, and I feel like I am trying to be body positive for others while not have a very strong sense of it for myself. I'm trying to love myself as I am while constantly trying to change myself. I want others to love people for who they are while being supremely aware that I am still attracted to thinner people, not larger. I can't tell if I'm making these decisions because I personally believe in them or if it's what society has trained me to think. And then I feel entirely like I'm talking the talk of body positivity or health but not walking the walk of either.

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
worrying about shallowness. While I am generally not critical of others' appearances, I am a harsh mental critic of myself. Furthermore, having a love-hate relationship and fascination with Hollywood is unhelpful. I always wonder how I would feel at a red carpet event or walking through the streets of L.A. Los Angeles is a city like any other, but given it's stereotypes of caring about intense fitness and fad diets, I wonder what it would be like. But like other cities and states, I think it depends on what part of L.A. you're in.

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.


  1. Sarah informed me that at one point I spelled "weight loss" as "waitloss" and hypothesized that I was making a very deep pun. I quite liked her theory but unfortunately that was just a typo (and a rather glaring one... how did I do that?) The error's been corrected and my apologies. Pity I'm not actually that clever to make such a pun.

  2. Hi, I don't know if you've ever seen this video: but I think Mr. Hoffman points out very clearly the predicament women live in, have always lived in and will probably live in for a long while yet to come. Of course men are more and more judged by their appearances as well, but still this doesn't come close to the way female worth is linked to her looks. And I think this is why it is so hard to come to terms with our body - because we can tell ourselves again and again that it's our intelligence, our kindness, our sense of humour, everything inside of us that really counts, we won't get rid of the nagging feeling that we're fooling ourselves, that in the end, it is always about wether we conform to male ideas of beauty or not. And, as is pointed out in the video, this doesn't only import "success" in sexual relationships, but in every aspect of our lives. It so often seems that a woman's appearence decides about if she's worth being known at all. And than there's this: As women, we're taught that we shouldn't take up space. We shouldn't be tall, nor loud, nor big. Of course this isn't every man's view of things, but it is what the media and the "cultural subconscious" (I don't know how to express this better, I study medecine, so I have no idea about the right technical terms in this case ;) ) tell us. And it grieves me to think that no matter how much I reflect on this, I still want to lose weight although I'm not overweight. I know all this, but still I long to be leaner, lighter, not as tall (I'm 1,78m. No idea what this is in your strange american measurements ;) ), because I want to find love and I can't get rid of the notion that all of this would make it easier. Which of course is quite a paradoxon since I would rebuff a guy who wanted me primarily for my looks... anyway, it's late and I'm starting to ramble and I actually just wanted to say (at some point before I started writing ;) ) that I came here for Mr. Cumberbatch (I commented on the Cumberbatch-hate-post. I don't usually comment on anything on the web, but you make me want to communicate ;) ) and stayed because your thoughts are very interesting and entertaining and you often pronounce things I only write long essays about in my head when I lie awake at night ;)
    I hope you're enjoying yourself and Tom Hiddleston in London :)

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this and glad you commented again! Both of these videos are excellent and I agree with you entirely about cultural and media influences, and the "cultural subconscious" as you call it - a really good term for it, I think. So glad Mr. Cumberbatch brought you here and, thank you, I had a lovely time in London :D