My daily routine begins and ends with mirrors. When I emerge from the shower, the bathroom mirror points out that I may have accidentally swallowed a basketball. When I dress for the day, the full-length mirror reflects a creature whose attempt to hide a couple of sausage thighs is unsuccessful yet again. When I brush my teeth before bed, the mirror reminds me that my neck is trying to swallow my chin. They’re like Fun House mirrors without the fun.
For as long as I can remember, these things have been true: I love cake, the kind with an inch of buttercream icing. I would trample you for a buffalo wing. I might threaten your family if you tried to keep me from a fried anything. Salads make me sad. Seriously, lettuce is barely food. Kale is a form of torture. But for most of my life, my food desires didn’t come with any consequences at all. I was a skinny little thing, happily eating whatever I wanted and easily fitting into clothes that could be described as “not tarps.” But as I have aged, my body has changed without all that much change in my eating habits. (Ok, a little. I drink slightly more beer than I did as a child.)
Mother Nature is cruel. I don’t know exactly why She turns on us as we get older, or after we have babies. (We make humans, for crying out loud, Mom Nature, give us a break!) I cannot recall the moment She decided that the way I have always lived should start biting me in the ass. I guess She decided that I should be punished for frolicking in bikinis without care in my 20s, for proudly going topless on the beaches of Spain, and for my belief that bacon was sent from Heaven to make my life complete.
In theory, I am a die-hard proponent of women (and men) accepting their bodies. I believe that we all should eschew absurd and narrow standards of beauty and that we are all beautiful. I rant and rage against shaming anyone for how they look. I want to throw a boot at television shows and burn every magazine that have made commenting on looks and bodies a spectator sport. I applaud every article/book/meme that tries to teach women to accept themselves as they are, fat or thin, tall or short, wrinkly or smooth, young or old. I marvel at (and envy) equally amazing weight loss stories, and stories about women who proudly proclaim they are happy just as they are. But then I step in front of a mirror and shame myself. Moments later I chide myself for being so damn superficial.
So I’ve found myself on a self-esteem see-saw. I look fine. I look terrible. I should be able to eat what I want. I really shouldn’t eat what I want. I am fabulous the way I am. I am not so fabulous. Who cares what I look like in a bathing suit? Run for your lives, I’m wearing a bathing suit! Turns out I am unable to internalize my own beliefs and I struggle mightily to practice what I preach. I feel great when I lose weight, I do. Who doesn’t want their pants to zip without lying on the floor? But I also feel great when I eat and live as I want. I resent when I diet, muttering profanities at the evil carbs that are suddenly everywhere when I try to avoid them. Damn you, bread basket. The see-saw goes up and down.
So I have done what nearly every woman in America has done: diet. Over and over. A few pounds come off and they come right back, like a boomerang of blubber. I will eat a sad salad. For a few moments I’m proud of myself for these healthy bites. And then I think to myself, You know what would be good with a salad? A side of beef and a cookie the size of my face.
I go to the gym on occasion and I walk almost every day. It doesn’t do much other than making me feel good for making the effort and show other gym goers that my cellulite can jiggle in perfect time to my playlist. I’ve walked almost 72 miles across northern Spain. I’ve climbed a mountain in the Andes. I’ve sweat my ass off in Africa. And after all that exertion and work, my thighs still snicker, “nice try.”
As a newly single person, this dissonance has kicked into high gear. I am loathe to admit publicly that my desire to look better is, perhaps, based more upon being appealing to the opposite sex than on being healthy. When I was dating the first time around I fit into that stupid box of hotness that society has defined for us (and perpetuated even by us women). I literally can’t fit into that tiny box anymore. Yea, I notice you not looking at me anymore, men. I’m not supposed to care, but I do…so much more than I’d like to admit or than is healthy.
Having been both thin and chubby, I can tell you that the heavier you are the less you are noticed. Every additional pound is paid for with increasing invisibility. The heavier I have gotten, the more I have noticed how people really feel about the overweight, too. I’ve heard women I love say to girls things like, “Don’t eat that, you’ll get fat!” And say to me, as if I’m impervious to how it might effect me, “Did you see how much weight so-and-so has put on? Yikes!” The message is clear: fat = bad. Of course, being overweight can cause health problems, but I have never heard anyone say, “You shouldn’t eat that, you’ll get high blood pressure!” or “Did you see how much cholesterol she put on?!” Nope, fat is worse than illness. When Sports Illustrated featured a “plus-size” model (um, size 12 is not “plus” you size-two nazis, but whatevs) that one time like a year ago, I thought it was perhaps a bit of a turning point. But a nano-second later the media was certain that Jennifer Aniston had a baby bump, when in reality she’d just maybe eaten a cheeseburger. How dare she eat actual food. Or look normal.
So am I a fraud and traitor to women for caring so much about how I look? Am I a shallow anti-feminist for wanting to be thinner? Or a victim of society? Both? My mind circles back to my we all are beautiful mantra. I get angry with myself for succumbing to societal and personal pressures and make a mental list of my desirable, positive qualities: smart, worldly, well-read, well-traveled, funny, fun loving, kind, warm, loyal. And then…not a one of them shows up in my damn mirror. Not one of them can be seen in photos (photos I might use on a dating site, for example). None of those qualities is evident as I walk down the street. My mirror image isn’t me, but it’s ME, dammit.
I do, with every cell of my being, want to be the kind of woman who is confident in who she is and how she looks no matter her size. Confidence is contagious and sexy, we all know this. I also want to feel that my intellect, humor, and talents have social currency. I want to feel that my body is as good as my brain.
But why is it so hard? Why is it so hard to accept ourselves as we are? Why is it so difficult to apply what we believe in to ourselves? And why, for the love of bacon, do I have to give up so much to attain the body society tells me I should have?
I want to look in a mirror and be happy with what I see. Maybe I need a different kind of mirror.