How old were you when you went on your first diet?
For me, I was around 9 years old and would be entering 5th grade at the end of the summer. At the time, I’d been repeatedly told that I was “chubby,” but my main association with being slightly overweight was that I wasn’t as athletic as some of the other kids in my elementary school class. I wasn’t particularly popular in elementary school and was often picked last for team sports in PE, causing me to make an early connection between being unpopular with my body weight.
At a routine doctor’s appointment, I recall my mom having a concerned conversation with my pediatrician about my weight. His advice had been to “cut down on the potato chips and junk food” for me and to allow my anticipated upcoming growth spurts to take care of the issue. My pediatrician’s advice wasn’t proactive enough for my mother. She decided that a better approach would be to put me on a modified version of the Weight Watchers diet. (Keep in mind that this was back in 1984, before the Points system or any widespread understanding of how protein, carbohydrates, and fat worked together nutritionally.) We measured out all of my food and tried to keep my calorie intake to under 900 calories per day, consuming as little fat as possible. I became well-acquainted with rice cakes, melba toast, and grapefruit. Of course, I lost weight, and I entered 5th grade at a “normal” weight for my height. Was I any more popular among my peers? Of course not. Was this the point in my life where I started to blame my unhappiness on my body’s appearance? Yup.
To be fair, my family’s obsession with weight and appearance didn’t start with my mom. My (thin) maternal grandmother had plenty of body image issues, and for all I know, so did her mother. My grandmother constantly made comments judging other women’s bodies. See that actress on tv? She’s wearing a dress too short for her chunky legs. See that woman walking to her car? That skirt makes her look “hippy”. I can’t blame my own mother for perpetuating messages that had been put in her head for her entire life.
While I maintained a “normal” weight for my height after that initial diet until I was 16, I hit puberty somewhat early and had noticeable, womanly curves by the time that I was in seventh grade. I was still young enough that my mom would take me clothes shopping, and the clothes that she’d help me select all adhered to rules of what was “flattering.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard that I couldn’t wear horizontal stripes, that I should choose dark colors because they were “slimming”, or that I shouldn’t wear capris because they’d make my short legs look even chunkier. I don’t think that I’ve owned a swimsuit that wasn’t black since I was in sixth grade.
Not surprisingly, I carried my hatred of my own body into adulthood, affecting my relationships and my professional confidence. I finally started to truly pack on weight after I graduated from university and started working at desk jobs and going out to happy hours way too frequently with my coworkers. By the time that I was 27 years old, I weighed nearly 200 lbs. The occasional dating opportunities that I had completely dried up, and it felt like the world was confirming the message that I’d received from my mother my entire life: If you’re fat, you’re unloveable. I came to accept the fact that I would always hate my body and stopped trying to even fight those thoughts.
As women, I suspect that many of you reading this can probably relate to my experiences. We’ve all been told at some point that we weren’t worthy of some opportunity–romantic, professional, or otherwise–because our bodies didn’t measure up to society’s standard. I see the fallout from this every day in our Curvy Sewing Community Facebook group: women stating that they “can’t wear” a certain type of garment because of their body size/shape, women asking if a garment they made is “flattering” or not (if you like it, who cares?), women making self-deprecating comments about the size of their hips/thighs/waist. We’ve all been programmed for so long to think that the most acceptable way to look is as thin as possible that that type of thinking is second nature for many of us.
My attitude slowly began to change when I met my now-husband. He was the first romantic partner that I had who I knew loved me unconditionally, regardless of whether I was gaining or losing weight. He actually found it frustrating that I’d constantly make cracks about being a “blob” and that no matter what he said to me, I just couldn’t see myself as beautiful. Even if I couldn’t see myself as beautiful, at least my husband did.
The big change came, however, when I found out that I was pregnant with my daughter. Under no circumstances did I want her to grow up with the sense of body hatred that had hung over my life. I wanted her to have a healthy sense of self-confidence and understand that her appearance is certainly not the most important thing about her. The long history of body-shaming in my family needed to stop with me.
My daughter is almost 5 years old now. As parents, we’ve learned just how many conscious decisions we have to make on a daily basis to try to de-emphasize the importance of a person’s physical appearance. To me, she’s the most adorable, sweetest, funniest kid that I’ve ever met. Sometimes, I can’t help but blurt out how cute I think she is, but I always try to counter that with telling her how smart or funny she is as a balance. I don’t crack jokes about my size, shape, or general appearance. If I’m going to be a body-positive role model, she doesn’t need to hear that type of negativity and self-loathing coming out of my mouth.
Obviously, at some point, outside influences will come into play, and we’ll need to be able to counter those. We already worry somewhat about the influence of my mother. One day when my mother came over for dinner, my daughter wasn’t much. She hadn’t eaten lunch particularly well, either, and my husband and I were trying to coax “just a few more bites” out of her. My mother’s reaction to this was to say, “Let her stop eating if she wants. You don’t want her to get fat.” Did I mention that my daughter is only 4 years old???
She’ll be bombarded by messages from the media at some point, too. As much as we try to screen any tv shows or movies that she watches now, at some point, she be exposed to content that doesn’t have the positive messages that we want her to hear. We won’t have any control over that. What we will have control over are the messages that we send through our own words and actions in our own home.
Words have impact on those around us. They impact our families most immediately, but they can also impact nearly anyone who hears or reads those words. When you lament to an online Facebook group that you “can’t find any flattering clothes” because of your post-baby belly, what message does that send to everyone reading your comment? Hint: It’s not “my body rocks because it carried a child.” Trust me, there is always going to be someone larger than you who reads your comment and thinks, “If she thinks that her body is unacceptable, then what does that say about my body?” As individuals, we’re responsible for the words and messages that we put out into the world. If we can’t stop our body negativity for ourselves, perhaps we can stop it for our daughters, nieces, and the other women around us?