Tag Archives: Body Image

Don’t hate your Thighs, Baby!

DSC00276


 

I almost rolled my eyes at the PC police. Granted, as a member of three at-one-time-or-another oppressed groups, I tend to applaud the PC police. When something is politically incorrect, that means it has the power to hurt someone. And why is it okay to hurt someone if only to get a laugh out of someone else who’s standing there going, “Lighten up already?”

But this time, I almost said, “Lighten up already.”

Until I thought the issue over for half a second. The issue is a onesie for babies, printed with the phrase: “I HATE MY THIGHS.”

It’s funny, okay? It’s funny because it’s so ludicrous. I mean, who doesn’t love fat thighs on a baby? And what baby has any opinion whatsoever about his or her thighs? What baby even knows he or she has thighs? I am sure that’s what the people at WryBaby were thinking when they created said onesie as part of their infant apparel line, marketed at new parents and their friends.  I am sure they did not expect the uproar that came.  Who, us? Fat-shaming babies?

Were people really getting up in arms about baby clothes? I wondered. Even if the baby did have body image issues (like that could seriously happen) babies can’t read!

But then, I remembered who else might be reading. The babies’ older siblings and cousins, for a few. My daughter could read by the time she was five. I used to stand in line at the A+P checkout with her, wishing I could cover up all the tabloid headlines waxing catastrophic about Jessica Simpson’s cellulite. Check out all the best and worst beach bodies! Guess who gained a hundred pounds? (Answer on page 27.) My daughter would study the pictures, read the headlines and then ask me questions I had to come up with answers for.

“Mommy, why does it say Kirstie Balloons?”

“She was blowing them up for a birthday party.” Thinking fast, Mom.

Remembering those days, I could only imagine what a newly reading four-year-old might think about seeing her baby brother suited up to declare loathing for his own little gams. Kids that age are concrete thinkers, yet absorb every piece of information around them. Wondering why Baby Ezra hates his thighs might lead a young child to wonder if he or she should start hating his or her own thighs.

Doesn’t seem like a big deal? Think I should lighten up? Take a joke? Well, maybe you’re right about that. Often, it takes much more than a little joke to set body image issues and disordered eating in motion. But, just as often, all it takes is a passing comment, a few misguided words.

Just saying.

P.S. Since the controversy, WryBaby has replaced the onesie with one that makes the healthy declaration: “I Love My Legrolls.”

Tears for Bridget Jones

Zellweger before

Zellweger before

Everybody’s talking about Renée’s face. Part of me—the self-righteous, PC part—is thinking, here we go again: women scapegoating other women. When will the madness end? Why don’t we live our lives and leave each other alone? But honestly there’s another part of me, clicking on the gossip link along with everyone else, comparing Bridget Jones to modern day Renée, thinking, okay, I can see it, eyes a little wider, forehead a little stiffer, speculating on what exactly she had done, hanging on every word as the Hollywood nip and tuck experts weigh in.*

Why is it so fascinating when one woman—a woman in the public eye—changes her appearance? From Jennifer Lawrence’s hair chop to Jennifer Hudson’s weight loss, we can’t get enough. On one hand, many of us are tempted to do something daring with our hair, our noses or our necks.  Many of us fantasize about dropping a load of weight or adding new boobs. Celebrities have the cash, the time, the clout, the personal chefs and trainers to pull these things off. But there’s more to this woman-on-woman voyeuristic judgment than living vicariously through the stars.

There is also a subconscious—or in many cases conscious—identification with these famous women, perpetually on display thanks to their publicists and the paparazzi. Recent studies suggest that women who spend time on line, bombarded with images of Hollywood stars, feel worse about their appearances than those who spend limited time on fan sites. It may be natural for women to compare themselves to other women, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be destructive. That automatic impulse, honed since adolescence, makes us look at a female peer, then check ourselves. Am I ok? Do I measure up? It that peer is a celebrity, chances are you don’t measure up. Why should you? It’s not your job!

As we age, it should get a little easier. Self-acceptance should come into play as we learn to value ourselves for the things we accomplish, the women we are inside as opposed to our outward presentations. But the checking still happens.  Women in their seventies have Jane Fonda to contend with; women in my age range have Jennifer Aniston and Halle Berry as guides to “what’s still possible.” Demi Moore looks pretty fabulous too, as does Helen Hunt. How are the rest of us holding up? Unfair question.

“Well, she must have had work done.” It’s a comforting way to explain another woman’s physical age defiance. It’s helps us feel okay about aging appropriately and, in many cases, it’s true. Plenty of women, famous and otherwise, go under the knife. For every woman out there who swears she would never consider such a thing, there is another secretly contemplating it, checking out celebrity “before-and-after” pictures, holding them up to the mirror, wondering what if?

It’s my guess that Renée Zellweger had her reasons for doing whatever she either did or did not do. Whatever those reasons were, it was her business. Some critics say, yes, but as a celebrity, she’s a role model like it or not. If she was dissatisfied with her naturally adorable face—how are the rest of us supposed to feel about our own?  I say, if Renée thought she had crows’ feet starting and sought to nip them in the bud, so be it.  To say that she abandoned me and other women with burgeoning wrinkles is like saying that Jennifer Hudson abandoned plus-sized women when she dropped her weight. We are talking about Renée’s eyes, not mine.

Other critics say, By removing her imperfections, Renée has lost her charm! Now she looks like everyone else in Hollywood. Again, they’re her eyes, to make as commonplace as she sees fit. Maybe Renée did have surgery because she couldn’t love the imperfections that gave her so much character. Or maybe she thought surgery would help her maintain what everyone loves about her. She can’t win. Her face and body—like those of all stars—are part of the public domain.

So, mourn if you will for hapless Bridget Jones, but leave Renee in her round-eyed peace. And swear off toxic comparisons to anyone you see online–Facebook friends included. Take comfort in the knowledge that the image you see in your mirror is beautiful because it is belongs to no one but you.

——————————————

*No post that touches on the topic of plastic surgery would be complete without homage to the late, great Joan Rivers, the brilliant, ground-breaking comedienne and tireless plastic surgery enthusiast. I am sure I am not alone in wishing Rivers were still alive—if only to weigh in on the burning topic of Renee’s new face.

Emotional Scar Tissue

??????????????????????????????????????I write a lot about body image and identity–the connection between the body—shape, weight, height, physical capacities—and the self.  The body you live in is a house for the self; from
your body you negotiate the world.   People make inferences about you based on what they see, and those inferences, whether you believe them, whether you know them or not, are part of your ascribed identity.

But today I’m thinking about the pieces of identity no one can see on the outside.  The Trials, losses, illnesses, upheavals.  Though people can’t necessarily see the tough stuff you’ve been through, it’s part of you.  Being bullied as a child by a “best friend,” losing a parent, enduring the aftermath of a house fire—these are pieces of my baggage, which I’ll carry to my grave.  They are not all of me, but are included in me, inextricable parts of my identity.

I’m thinking about loss a lot lately.  Last week, my husband lost his aunt, a brilliant, wise and sensitive woman.  I’m thinking about the way her illness and death have affected those who were closest to her, her children, her husband, her beloved sister, how the strength of her love and the beauty of her memory will one day heal them.

A week earlier, tragedy struck our town not once but twice, as a college-bound high school senior took his own life, as a terrible accident took the life of the parent of one of my daughter’s schoolmates.   Our town feels like a different place today.

You are forever changed by your experiences of suffering.   You may be far into the healing process by now.  Possibly you have finished healing and are happy despite your suffering.  But you are YOU because of it.

Sometimes the strongest layers of the self come from our emotional scar tissue.

For so many artists, poets and writers, this scar tissue is one of the richest sources of creativity.  Though I am not blogging much these days (my energy is focused on a “revise and resubmit” arrangement I have with a literary agent), over the next few weeks, I am going to devote some posts to fellow bloggers who have channeled their life-trials into creative works—books, blogs, blogs-that-will-be-books—that are sure to touch and enrich the lives of others.

Kim Kardashian’s Armpits, and other things My Daughter Doesn’t need to Read About

This is a short one—more of a vent than anything else.  Let me say for the record that I do not care about Kim Kardashian’s weight gain (See the In Touch article entitled something like: I’ll Never be Sexy again; Even my Armpits are Fat!), I don’t care which celeb’s beach butt cellulite it is under the cutesy “Guess Who?” label.

images[2] (3)

I am not interested in learning who the tabloids deem “scary skinny” or who’s had a recent plastic surgery debacle.  And since I don’t care—not even when these magazines are under my nose at the A&P check out—I don’t read them.  I scroll on my Blackberry if I have a long time to wait or else, check out the five hundred dollar nail clippers Oprah says I must have.   Easy for me.  But guess who is reading the tabloids?  Who is turning to page thirty to match the dimpled derrieres on the cover page to the celebs sporting them?  Who’s reading Kim K.’s lament about her pits? Getting the scoop on the new diet Kendra is swearing by?

My daughter, that’s who.  My daughter and everyone else’s daughter who happens to be shopping with us.  Despite our best efforts at raising them to think highly of themselves and their bodies—the way we avoid putting ourselves down, the way we choose accepting language if we must speak of different body types—our girls are bombarded with counterproductive, body-loathing messages all day long.  Here are the questions I get, standing in line at the supermarket:

Mom, what’s cellulite?

Mom, is it bad to gain weight when you’re pregnant?

Mom what’s a boob job? 

I answer everything simply and honestly:

Cellulite: the normal texture of your leg flesh when you get a little older.

Weight gain while pregnant = good thing.  It’s how your baby gets big and healthy enough to grow and live outside of you one day.

A Boob job is when people want their breasts to be bigger or smaller and they get an operation.  It hurts way, way more than a flu shot.  ’Nuff said.

But my daughter is twelve, and these days, unlike the happy days of elementary school where my answers were the only ones she sought, I know she’s getting information elsewhere, from friends, from friends’ big sisters and cousins, from the internet, and even from teachers who may share too much personal information in order to be cool and liked by students.   What I say—especially when I tell her that she is beautiful—is taken under advisement and often cast aside.   I can still give her guidance, but my daughter is at an age where she’ll weigh it all and come to her own conclusions.

I hope, I pray, that her body image and self-concept come out on top.

Sixty Year Old Girl on a Treadmill: Stress, Food and Body Issues at Any Age

There’s been a lot of press in the past few years about older women (meaning me and up) struggling with body image problems and eating disorders.   Headlines include: An Older Generation Falls Prey to Eating Disorders ,

Eating disorders are common in older women, study shows, and

Face Of Eating Disorders Changing: More Older Women Struggle With Disorders .

Though the articles are well-written, well-researched and in many ways validating, I couldn’t help thinking: this is no surprise.  I know women of all ages who are affected by how they view their own bodies–enough for things to cross the line into a full-blown eating disorder.   I’ve known women who have moved from their twenties into their thirties, who cannot release themselves from an adolescent standard of thinness, who struggle with infertility as a result.  I’ve known women who develop body image issues for the first time at the onset of menopause.

So … Why do Older Women Wind up with Eating Disorders? 

One reason is relapse.

Now, it’s common knowledge that teenage girls have body image problems. (Not all, and yes: we now know that boys do too, but when we think of eating disorders, we tend to think of teenage girls.  When we watch a TV show in which someone has an eating disorder, that someone is usually a teenage girl or a woman in her very early twenties.)   But you don’t just “get over” an eating disorder because you hit thirty.   Eating disorder specialists know that making the illness go away and stay away is a grueling, often lifelong process.  Therefore, it is not a surprise that many of these “older” women developing eating disorders had them when they were teens.

The psychic reverberations of eating disorders are likely to be felt when stress runs high.  I’ll use myself as an example.  While I never starve myself any more, while I never binge and purge, if I’m really struggling with my work or otherwise going through a rough patch, my positive body image is the first to go.  I can look at myself in the mirror and be perfectly content, then an hour later, after tossing outa whole chapter that just wasn’t working (though I’d been revising it for days), I can look in the same mirror again and see something completely different.  A distorted version of myself that in younger days I called huge.  I wasn’t anything like “huge” then.  I’m not now either, but it was my word for uncertainty.   I was convinced that “fixing” my weight (erasing my own hugeness) would make the rest of my life—if not perfect, manageable.

In the olden days (my tweens, teens and early twenties), it was almost as if calling myself something harsh would neutralize my anxiety.  My Punishing Self was in charge and would whip me—my body, my coursework, my dancing—into shape.  I wouldn’t feel so out of control.

At this point, I’ve been in recovery for so many years, I know what my triggers are: mostly worries about not being good enough in some area of my life.  I know how to get through the trigger situations without taking it out on my thighs, but it still happens.  Not the eating disorder itself, but the feelings of self-doubt that once evolved into one.  As a therapist, I’ve had enough training to know how to counter the negativity, to stop myself, to walk away from the mirror and get on with life.  But I can easily see why the recidivism rate is so high among eating disorder survivors.

Another Reason is Holding onto Who We Used to be.

Some of the articles describing this phenomenon mention the usual: unrealistic ideals of female beauty that become more elusive with each passing year.  One mentioned that older women should have more role models with realistic bodies.  I found that a little hard to swallow.  I don’t think at our age we’re looking at the big screen or the small screen for role models.  I also think many of us are surrounded by realistic, healthy. diverse images of female beauty: our best friends, our sisters, our neighbors—we come in all shapes and sizes and the “perfect-looking” girls we were intimidated by in high school are hard now fewer and farther between.

In any case, I just don’t think most women over forty are trying to look like (who’s hot now?) Megan Fox, or Zoe Saldana.  I don’t even think most of us are looking at Kelly Ripa or Gwyneth Paltrow,  and saying god I have to look like that.  I’d wager though, that for some of us, the image we aspire to, hold onto, compete with and, in many cases are tormented by, is that wedding photo sitting on the mantelpiece: our younger, pre-baby, pre-forty selves.  Regardless of how flawed or flawless we think we were, that image has probably evolved somewhat.  Were you known for looking a certain way?  Did you always get compliments for being tiny, buff, a voluptuous hour-glass?  That body-reputation is part of your identity.  As it ages, the changes can be unnerving.  Who am I now?  Accepting a different body image may be part of the life cycle—for some, a hard part.

Coping with Stress: Reaching for another Cookie, or—on the other hand—Refusing to Get off the Elliptical.

Being busy, holding ourselves to high standards in every area of our lives gets brutal sometimes.  Some women use food as a refuge (I’m treating myself, I don’t have time for a nap or a pedicure).  Others get carried away with dieting to “get healthy.”  Decreasing numbers on a scale can be addictive: evidence that we’re accomplishing something, getting results—no matter what else we may be struggling with.

We women seem to put on new hats with each passing year—between work, children, spouses and ex-spouses, caring for aging parents, commitments at our synagogues or churches, book group, cooking, laundry.  With our kids entering adolescence (or wrapping it up and fleeing the nest) we’ve got just as many variables as they do, just as many balls in the air, with menopause fast approaching (or having come, gone and left its mark).  Food is often the one area where we retain some control (who shops in your house?).

As mothers, we are responsible for feeding our families—making it taste good enough for kids and partners to gather ’round the table, but keeping it healthy enough for us all to enjoy each other for a long time to come.  As women, our bodies are changing (yet again), and like it or not, many of us feel responsible for controlling that.   Compulsive over- or undereating for stress relief is not uncommon.

Sometimes it’s Easier to Make a Teen go to the Doctor than to Seek Help Yourself.

I think teenagers are more likely to get help for disordered eating patterns primarily because they are still children and, to some degree, being looked after by parents.  Also, friends are talking about eating disorders, looking for symptoms in one another and seeking the help of adults (hopefully).  Adult women don’t necessarily have that support.  If it’s up to us, we may muddle through until something drastic happens, like collapsing on the treadmill.  That actually happened to a friend of a friend, who’d been feeling victorious about losing thirty pounds, much of which her doctor—and husband–wished she’d kept.  The important thing is for friends, sisters, cousins and partners to look out for one another, for women who suspect their own behaviors around food are changing in destructive ways to seek help: an individual therapist or a support group.

So, Your Body Changes; You’re still You.

Our bodies are inextricably connected to our identities, I don’t think there’s a way of getting around that, but it’s imperative to remember that the shape we’re in is only a small part of who we are.  As women we are all individually diverse, multi-talented, and beautiful in our own unique and ever-changing ways.

License to Write Outside Your Self

I have given myself a June 15th deadline for completing a draft of my young adult novel-in-progress (which I call the “WIP” because it has no working title).  Until that time, themes relevant to the WIP–body image, eating disorders, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, rejecting parents, and unrequited love, among others–will figure pretty heavily in this blog.   My two protagonists are seventeen-year-old, ballet-dancing twins, Oliver and Olivia, each facing great hurdles along the road to fulfilling their dreams.  

License to Write Outside Your Self

William Styron took on Nat Turner , made his version of the rebel slave real to readers.  Anne Rice did the same with the Vampire Lestat —an undead male of her own fabrication from 18th Century France.  In White Teeth, Zadie Smith did this with people of multiple ethnicities, only two of which she shared.  In She’s Come Undone,  Wally Lamb wrote so convincingly as Delores, a young, troubled girl—got inside her head, made you feel as if you were Delores—that I had to keep checking the front cover, incredulous that a man had written the book.

It happens all the time: a writer brings to life a character who is unlike himself or herself in many ways and manages to pull it off masterfully.  Without stereotyping (though unfortunately, that happens too).  Verisimilitude is so important in fiction, so in such cases lots of research is imperative.  But still, how does a writer justify taking on a character with whom he or she has little or nothing in common?  How does a writer feel entitled?

The twins in my WIP are both compilations of people I knew when I was dancing, with traces of some of my adolescent psychotherapy clients mixed in.  I made my character sketch over a year ago, but as I’ve been writing, the twins’ personalities and identity struggles have evolved and gained dimension.  But knowing them better actually highlights how different they are from me, especially Oliver.

Olivia is easier, she’s a female, pre-professional ballet dancer whose body is different from that of the ideal ballerina.  Though I am biracial and she is white (the twins are of Irish and Italian descent, which I’ll address in another post), though Olivia is plagued by other people’s criticisms while I suffered most from my own negative body image, I can speak as her with some authority.  I know what her toes feel like after a long day at rehearsal; I know what it’s like to get your period in the middle of pas de deux class when your partner is the guy you have a crush on.

Olivia’s twin brother, on the other hand, is removed from my personal experience in many ways.  Oliver is not only white, male, seventeen, and a math and physics whiz (who uses these skills to perfect his dancing), he also has the classic ballet physique (unlike his sister, unlike me).  And lastly, most importantly in this story, he is gay.

Being gay is not generally a strike against a guy in the ballet world itself; Oliver knows plenty of others like him as well as having strong role models who are out and proud of who they are.  But outside the ballet world—at his “regular” school, in his family, he’s faced what any LGBT or questioning teen might face, including bullying peers and a parent who can’t accept him.

Oliver has every advantage in ballet: turn-out, Feet (with a capital F, meaning gracefully high arches, a ballet dancer’s prize), musicality, extension, elevation—the list goes on.  He would seem to lead a charmed life.  But the twins’ homophobic father is determined to stop Oliver from pursuing the career he is clearly made for.  Dad, though supportive of Olivia’s ballet dreams, has other plans for Oliver: a career with great financial rewards, hopefully in finance or engineering.  It isn’t always clear whether Dad’s protests against ballet (for Oliver) are a smoke screen for his anti-gay sentiments.  In any event, Oliver’s biggest conflict is longing to be accepted and loved by his father, even as he claims and is claimed by Ballet—a world his father disdains.

When I was dancing I knew so many guys like Oliver: beautiful, talented, and bright, who seemed to have it all together now that they were a world that loved them for their gifts without judging their orientation.  Often these were the guys I had crushes on in my youth–both before and after I learned that my affection was unlikely to be returned.  Sometimes I was jealous of guys like this because I believed they held all the power.  (Which I will explain in yet another post).  But I only saw these real life “Olivers” in the context of the studio, not with their families, not in settings where they’d been discriminated against or attacked.  That side of the story I didn’t learn much about until I worked as an adolescent psychotherapist.

Of the kids I saw in my practice who were gay, bi or questioning, I am glad to say that a good percentage of their parents were supportive of their orientations.  (Peers tended to be more of a problem.)  Some parents were dismissive though, refusing to believe the child’s statement, others were in denial, believing that this was a “phase.”  I knew only one angrily unsupportive father of a boy who had come out.   This man made a point of not attending family sessions, though I tried to get him in.

What is compelling for me about Oliver is how he longs for his father’s love and approval, how not having it takes a terrible emotional toll no matter how supportive the ballet world is.  (Contrast that with Olivia’s situation: in Dad’s eyes she is perfect, but the ballet world cannot love her as she is.)  Oliver’s cross to bear will always be the condition of not being the son his father wanted.  I think this is something that many people can relate to.

Writing this book is a process–sometimes thrilling, sometimes kind of scary, but it’s less scary when I remind myself that this is only a first draft.  When it’s done I get to revise, which is the fun part.  In the meantime, I’ll do as much research as I can, let my characters speak—no matter how different they are from me—and grant myself license to tell their story.

Blog Vs. Book

One of the things I like best about blogging is the other bloggers I’ve met this way.   Wonderful writers, women and men, who live all over the globe, some of whom share my day-to-day routines of parenting, writing, house-maintenence (or house-neglect which is more apt these days), others whose schedules do not revolve around carpools, pick-ups and drop-offs.  I look forward to reading the blogs of the people I follow, many of whom follow me.  Through my followees (and followers) I am exposed to lives I’d never have discovered on my own.

There’s responsibility in blogging, though.  Your blog is more than an expression of yourself and your take on the world.  As it gains an audience, your blog becomes a thing of its own.  When I am asleep, someone on the other side of the planet might be reading, sharing, commenting on my blog.  When I check it again, it’s got new growth.   Like a garden, you have to care for your blog, feed it, nurture it, recognize when it’s stagnating and then do something about that.

When the bloggers I follow are silent for a while, I might miss them, but I won’t judge them.   I know we all have to live our lives and that often the blog is the piece we can leave unattended while we’re caring for a sick relative, working, hosting the in-laws or, what was that other one?–writing a novel.   For me it’s that last one I’m having trouble balancing with the blog, though it seems like everyone else online manages to do it.

(Yes I know, everyone chooses what they reveal of themselves online; some let it all hang out, others show only their most glowing selves.  Recently I read a great article about social-network envy–the perception that everyone on the internet is accomplishing more than you and having more fun doing it!)  I am sure everyone struggles balancing blog and life, or in my case, blog and book, but I find myself occasionally overwhelmed with guilt for choosing one over the other.  Not that I believe there’s a galaxy of fans who would be devastated if I took a hiatus to power through my novel.

The most regular of my followers and commenters happen to be kind and supportive and understanding (and yes, I feel like I know you and wish I could have coffee with you sometime!).   But I’m not worried about letting other people down.  Instead, I’m concerned about missing out, which I know is a piece of my character that stems directly from being an only child.  What was the sibling world doing while I was home with my parents?   With all their brothers and sisters around, would they forget about me?

If I took a month off from my blog, what would happen?  If I abandoned Twitter?  Would I have to start from scratch?  Would people remember me and still be my friends–I mean followers?  I don’t know, but I have decided not to find out, not yet.   I will slow down here, though.  I’ve actually slowed down already.   I’m giving myself until June to finish a draft of the new WIP, and will post here only about once a week for now.  (Don’t worry: I’ll still read your blogs because they are often so wonderful and mentally sustaining.)

But, as much as I don’t like to blog about blogging or write about writing, I’m going to temporarily let go of that to make this blog a better partner for my fiction.  Actually, that shouldn’t be hard, because my new WIP is all about body image and identity, which is the tagline for this blog.

I’m almost done for tonight, but first I’m going to share something about my WIP’s protagonists and why I think their struggles are relevant here.  They’re seventeen year old twins, both pre-professional ballet dancers, one male and one female.  Here I’ll just call them GT for girl twin and BT for boy twin.  Here are their conflicts:

  • BT is bullied by his homophobic father who suspects (correctly) that BT is gay.  BT’s father makes BT promise to give up dancing, but BT continues behind his back.
  • GT is bullied by the directors of their pre-professional ballet company because of her weight.  GT is a normal, healthy weight for a seventeen year old girl and the powers-that-be find this unacceptable.

I’m not going to share plot details because, though I’ve written over seventy pages, I haven’t yet finished the outline.  But these twins will face major obstacles to their dream of succeeding in ballet–all directly or indirectly related to the themes of body image and identity.  (See?  There’s my blog tie in.)

Anyway I hope to finish a draft, possibly a second draft, by the end of the school year, when I will lose a good chunk of writing time (as my angelic children will be home).  Please root for me!  Thanks!

Stay tuned …