This excerpt from Courtney Martin’s new book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body (hat tip to Hugo), got me thinking about how I learned to stop worrying and love the bombe. Fortunately I have never had a full-blown eating disorder, but I wasted a lot of time between ages 11 and 33 feeling uselessly miserable at being a size 12 or 14 in a size 2 world. (I remember the exact day 24 years ago that I looked down from my Collected Dorothy Parker and thought with horror, “What’s this jiggly stuff on my thighs??”) That sort of thing occupies much less of my bandwidth now. Some advice that may set you free:
Practice a spiritual tradition that cures perfectionism.
As Martin’s book and many others like it demonstrate, women enact on their bodies the costs of living in a culture where they are constantly judged by strangers, and where failure to perfect one’s external achievements is the only moral taboo. In gospel terms, this is living under the Law. So is being captive to the expectations and status anxieties of your family. But humans are social beings. We can’t be complete rebels, building our identity without reference to anyone else’s values, no matter what the blue-jeans commercials say. And so it really helps to discover a worldview based on unconditional love and acceptance of human limitations, and find a spiritual community that supports it. Reality is a collective endeavor.
Among the many things that God’s grace in Christ did for me, the very first was to help me disengage from the internalized judgments of others, whether or not they were right. My essential worth as a human being is unshaken by the flaws that others discover in me, because I’ve given up the baseline assumption that I won’t have any. This radically lowers the stakes in self-examination, providing, for the first time, real freedom to change or to trust my (possibly wrong) belief that no change is needed.
Stop reading women’s magazines.
Every issue is the same: “Lose 10 pounds in 3 weeks!” “Yummy desserts your family will love!”
Watch less television.
Advertising-driven media has an interest in making people feel bad about themselves and then shop their way to glory. Many contemporary television dramas foster despair about the possibility of long-term relationships, while idolizing career success. This reinforces women’s fears that others’ acceptance of us is conditional, precarious, and based on externals.
My husband is a Buddhist, and from him I’ve learned that change is natural. Why should I fit into the pants I wore in high school? I had no fashion sense then anyway!
Examine your own prejudices.
What group are you trying to dissociate yourself from by targeting a weight that doesn’t come naturally to you? For some women, it’s their gender, which they may associate with weakness, or with vulnerability to sexual assault and stereotyping. Other women are shy and afraid to take up space. For me, the issue was classism. Fat equalled sloppy, the opposite of aristocratic poise and self-discipline. How does your environment reinforce these anxieties? If you’re the poorest one in your high school class, or the only woman in your workplace, can you find alternative communities where your differences are not so pronounced, as a counterweight if not a replacement? (The church was supposed to be just such a place: see Galatians 3:28.)
Marry someone who believes that self-confidence is more attractive than conformity to a media ideal.
My husband doesn’t watch television either.
Avoid “bonding through bitching”.
Women love to complain to each other about their appearance. Perhaps we maintain relationships by avoiding competition (or masking it), while men do the opposite. This pattern teaches us that it’s not all right to ask for support directly, and even less all right to admit that you’re actually satisfied with your big round butt. Next time your girlfriend says something negative about her weight, a topic she’d probably avoid if she were truly morbidly obese, try responding with something like, “I feel sad when you put yourself down.”
Be mindful of why you eat.
Do I really need Mounds miniatures at every meal? Yes! I do!
Find physical achievements that are based on performance, not appearance.
One can, of course, become obsessive about sports and fitness just as much as dieting, but I’ve found that weight-training has taught me to inhabit my body with power and pride. It’s also made all my shirts too tight (see “change” above).
For yourself, for your strength, for achieving every goal that comes from your authentic self, for having a body and the food to nourish it.