I’ve been avoiding writing this post for a while, for many reasons – the main one being, who wants to listen to a girl of reasonable weight discuss body issues? Well. If you don’t want to, this is your cue to step out because that’s the topic today.
So here’s the thing. I don’t think I’ve ever met a girl – not even the most confident one – who doesn’t have at least a little bit of a body image issue. It’s a spectrum for sure. Some are far more severe on themselves than others. But all girls and women have something they don’t like about their bodies. The funny thing is, it’s usually something that nobody else has ever even noticed, and in some cases, it is something a lot of other people actually like and find quite pleasing about that person. But none of that matters because all the girl can see is a huge flaw in herself.
We all know the reasons this issue exists: the male-driven mass media, male-driven society, male-driven porn industry, and female-driven comparison games. There is no need to tell you what you already know. I’d rather just talk about my own body image and how I’ve dealt with some of my personal struggles.
I was allowed to be mercifully ignorant for a very long time of how the particular shape of my body measured up against other girls. The only thing I noticed and which bothered me as an adolescent was that my breasts didn’t develop as quickly as some of the other girls’, and when they did eventually grow in, they never got even close to being as large as what seemed average (and they probably never will). My flat-chestedness was the only thing that bothered me about my body for a long time. Otherwise I really had nothing to complain about.
In my late teens I started noticing the…shall we say, athletic-ness, of my thighs. I noticed they weren’t as slim as other girls’ thighs, or as ramrod straight. I saw my thighs as thick, chunky, fat even. I stopped wearing shorts for the most part. If I went swimming I preferred to keep my bottom half under the water or just wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms. I did almost anything I could to cover up my thighs, to the point that people would say, “How can you be wearing jeans right now, it’s so hot out!”
I have no idea where I got it in my head that my thighs were fat, or that muscular thighs were unattractive. But the comparison game struck once again. All I saw was that other girls, with pretty faces and pretty hair, had smaller thighs than I had.
Because of a gift of good metabolism and (maybe?) good genes, I never battled a weight problem until very recently. I’m going to be straight with you here and provide numbers so that everything is on the up and up. All through high school and college I weighed between 110 and 120. Totally fine with that. In my 20s it crept up to 125, then 130. I started running, which maintained things around 130 except in the winter, when it would go up around 135. I accepted all of this as part of growing older but also kind of assumed that 130-135 would be my base weight from that point on.
Over the last couple of years, my body has gained more weight to accommodate a medical condition that was diagnosed four years ago but not cared about or monitored by a doctor until this year, and that condition is uterine fibroids. I won’t bore you with the details of what that means, but the long and short of it is that they are taking over my uterus in a way they are not supposed to, which has caused multiple side effects as a result (including becoming a threat to my fertility), but the one that has bothered my vanity the most is in the area of weight gain.
Currently I weigh the most I ever have in my entire life, tipping the scales at 145. This fact has puzzled the few people I’ve told up to now because, according to them, I don’t look like I weigh that much. I don’t look like I’m carrying an extra 15 pounds, and I’m “hiding it well,” as they say (which is an unfortunate reflection of what it’s clear our culture and society value – thinness). But, whether others can see it or they can’t, I know it’s there. My pants fit tighter. My stomach has a pooch it’s never had before. When I eat, because of how things are situated in my uterus, the pooch becomes a bulge until I have a bowel movement (sorry to be graphic). My running pace is slower because I have more weight to haul.
There are lots of ways that my body reminds me that all is not right inside at the moment. The sad part is that, because of the culture and society I live in, I’m usually more focused on my new weight, and how I look in certain clothes, than I am on the scary reality that this condition may very well prevent me from conceiving and giving birth to my own biological children. There is something very wrong with that. Very, very wrong.
Body image is being talked about a lot more these days, and I’m glad. Many celebrities and a few corporations are speaking out about the negative and untrue messages the media and our culture have hammered over women’s heads for years and years. (Unsurprisingly, these efforts are often also tied to the fight against sexism, since sexism is the biggest reason women have body image issues to begin with.) As I’ve watched my body age in ways unrelated to my weight, my perspective on beauty has changed significantly. I have begun to realize something I wish I’d seen long ago.
It began, for me, with teenagers. I do this church/Bible-related volunteer thing that puts me in the company of a bunch of teenagers for several hours on a Saturday once every month (sometimes twice, depending on the schedule). I’ve been doing this particular volunteer activity since my freshman year of college, and in the last couple of years, I started seeing the teens differently. Teenagers are wonderful creatures, if you didn’t know, especially the ones who don’t realize they are wonderful. They’re so fragile and yet so resilient. It’s amazing, really. But one thing everyone generally agrees on when discussing teenagers is their awkwardness.
Adults talk about the awkwardness of teenagers because we remember what it was like. We remember feeling like our legs were too long, our noses too big, our faces too pimpled, our breasts too small, our breasts too big, our biceps too undefined, our braces too obvious, our teeth too gapped, our legs too hairy, our legs not hairy enough, and on and on and on. I remember. You remember.
Several months ago, though, as I sat in a room with the eyes of eight teenagers all fixed on me, I looked at each of them and noticed how they varied in size, stature, and stages of physical development. And, remarkably, all I saw was beauty. These were developing persons, sitting right in front of me. I almost felt as if, if I just looked closely enough and watched for long enough, I would see them fill into their bodies. I could see the ways in which they probably felt insecure. One boy in particular didn’t seem to be able to control his limbs, which were quite long. The rest of his body didn’t fit with the length of his arms and legs yet. One girl in particular was several inches shorter than her peers, though I knew her to be in the same grade. Looking at them, I could see the beauty in what had developed, and what had yet to develop. I could see the beauty in what they would become, in what they currently struggled through.
Unfortunately, I could also see their insecurities. In the slumped shoulders, the eyes cast down to the floor, the shuffling feet, the crossed arms. So many actions that essentially added up to this: They were turned in upon themselves. They felt unbecoming, awkward, ugly, because society has told them that’s what they are. We – adults – have told them that’s what they are because that’s what we remember feeling when we were that age. I wanted to hug them, and tell them all how magnificently, and simply, beautiful they were. But I also wanted to keep being allowed to volunteer without being viewed as creepy, so I kept my thoughts to myself. But it brought tears right to the edges of my eyes to sit there and see them that way, and know that they didn’t see themselves that way.
On the other side of things – perhaps because I’m growing older myself, perhaps not – I’ve also noticed that my view on beauty has changed in regard to age. No longer do I see old people as unattractive. Wrinkles, hair color, and looser skin are all indications of life lived, and how can anyone not recognize the beauty in that? I look at the elderly people around me and marvel at the histories they’ve built. I look at the middle-age people around me and see how the continual maturation of their physical bodies does nothing to diminish the light that comes from within them.
Our bodies are shells, intended as a means to house the essence of who we are; a way to live out who we are; a shelter to grow and maintain who we are. And they are beautiful. My body has never been perfect, but it has always been mine, and it is the body I was given to hang out in while I formed the essence of Audra.
My best days are when I look into the mirror and get a momentary flash of what my fiancé must see when he tells me I’m beautiful. It’s brief, it lasts only an instant, and it usually begins in my eyes, but it ends up encompassing every single part of me. I see it more and more frequently when I let go of the American media’s shouted lies about what beauty is, and listen to the whispered truths that come from God, and from my fiancé.