We Westerners can safely take for granted the body issues we've been doled out. By the media at large, by ourselves, by our inherited [but ever-changing] standards of beauty. Over the period of a long weekend, I just had two very different image-related experiences that, combined, have made themselves impossible to get out of the forefront of my mind.
Experience #1) Spending time lakeside with one of my best girlfriends. It's summer in Michigan so we all bare as much skin as possible, hoping to kickstart our Vitamin D stores and renew our faded tans. She and I wanted to take a picture looking out over the lake from her deck... and the resulting picture was immediately picked apart by both of us. Women are hard on themselves anyway, but it seems that in combination we multiply all of the things we've been trained to hate about ourselves and throw in a couple imaginary ones for good measure. It's as if we need to go around and around the table until every possible flaw has been accounted for.
Experience #2) Spending time lakeside with a large group of friends, some of whom I already knew, some of whom I had just met. More running around in bathing suits and the like. One of the guys on the trip made a comment to me, something about "all 98 pounds of you." At first comes the oh yeah right, look at all this beer I've been drinking and I haven't gone for a run in 5 days thoughts. Then the [hopefully] inevitable, wow, stop it, you look and more importantly feel great and healthy. Don't knock yourself.
Maybe I should have prefaced this all by saying that I'm very happy with myself and I think I have a pretty healthy body image. I'm active and I eat well, but I also love splitting a large pizza with a friend or indulging in late-night ice cream sundaes and the like. I consumed 3 pounds of Cheez-Its in January [thanks for the excellent Christmas gift, Dad!] I think it's completely possible to have it both ways and I've found a good balance in my life. I also read up on some delightful plastic surgery blogs and frown upon the excessively thin, pinched-looking women I see working out in my gym. They just can't be having that much fun, at the gym or in life.
That said, I see wiggling when I look in the mirror sometimes, and I know exactly where weight goes when I gain it. We're always our most unforgiving and merciless critic.
Especially having spent some time abroad, where eating is more about the experience of family, friends and flavors than it is about "refueling" as it is to many Americans, helps to keep me grounded. I gained weight on the inimitable Italian diet— olive oil with everything, bread, pasta, meat twice daily, desserts you can't turn down [and why would you want to?]. I've never felt so healthy and strong.
So, back to the "98 pounds" comment. First of all, a near slap-in-the-face reminder that my image of myself doesn't always jive with reality. I'm actually back down to the average female's much-coveted "high school weight," even below it. But lately for me it's been less about the scale and more about how I feel. I'm eating what I want. I can also run faster and farther than ever before. I recently ran my FIRST EVER 9-minute mile, something I'd never even considered as a possibility. In middle school gym class, being forced to run a timed mile was, each time, mortifying for me.
His comment also made me think about body image in general. He of course was exaggerating to make a funny point, but if I truly weighed 98 pounds I'd be skeletal [or dead]. According to BMI calculators I'm smack in the middle of a normal weight range. Another way to calculate your ideal weight, multiplying your height in inches over 5' by 5, then adding 100, yields... my weight. But do we really have any idea of what people weigh? What we see in magazines is so warped by Photoshop's invisible brush that even more realistically-sized women have been smoothed out so they don't look like us.
Those slim shadows my girlfriend and I hated in our deck picture are so easily painted out that I can fix them myself in a far-simpler photo editor. But one day we'll wake up and wonder what it was that we didn't like. Because we're young and healthy and fortunate to have legs that run and arms that kayak and backs that can survive a few days' sleep on a tiny couch. The best way to fight media's portrayal of men and women alike, with impossibly smooth skin and perfect hair and rippling muscles [but of course lean ones on the ladies, enormous ones on the guys] is probably just to love ourselves a little more. Cut a little more slack, get a little more fresh air, eat that box of Cheez-Its.
And next time you feel some self-hate coming on, remind yourself to hate that, not yourself.