Sunday, August 19, 2012

Negative Body Image

Now that summer is almost over and the bathing suits can go back in hiding for another year, I'm always amazed at the fact that even though I workout six times a week for an hour or more, I just can't feel comfortable wearing a bikini in public.   There was even some silly poll last year that said that women over the age of 48 should NEVER wear a bikini in public.   Really?  So Cindy Crawford should just pack it up in the sexy department in two years because she's over the hill.   The media of course plays a huge part in how women feel about themselves.   We see photoshopped images of women with perfect skin splashing around with ridiculous measurements like 36-24-34 and somehow the rest of the female population who are not supermodel mutants are supposed to compete.   For the record, maybe 1% of the US female population meets those standards and a recent story by ABC News noted that the supermodels of the 1980's like Cindy Crawford and Christie Brinkley would probably be considered plus sized models.   In the 80's models were just 8% smaller than the average women - now they are 23% less.   So as women get larger, supermodels get thinner.  It's a dangerous message that our daughters are getting about what is healthy and what is emaciated. 
I grew up in the 1960's and 70's when Twiggy was one of the biggest models in the world.  The waif look was in - short hair, big eyes and over the top skinny in large dresses.   It was an impossible body image that ushered more insecurity about your body - especially for a kid like me that was chunky in elementary and part way through Jr. High.   I used to come home from school everyday and if my mother was substitute teaching and my dad was out of town in a business trip - I would scarf down a big bowl of ice cream while no one was around.  Food and especially chocolate was my escape.   I was terribly out of shape and it showed in recess and PE.   I couldn't run worth a damn and I was always picked last when it came time for the athletic kids to pick teams.   For the record, I really hate that practice - being judged by the thinner and more buff kids and being that one person that was going to lose the game if they let me play for any amount of time.   When I was a substitute teacher in PE, I would have the kids count off and then the even numbered kids would go on one team and the odd numbered kids would go on the other team.  No one got the make anyone feel like they were not worthy to play.   The popular jock kids got really pissed at me for doing that - but I could tell the less popular kids were happy to not go through that humiliating ritual.   The great thing about Facebook is that now I can see that those super competitive jock types have gotten fat and out of shape and I'm stilling running and dancing.  So kids - life does go on after high school and irony can be your friend.  

Once I hit junior high, I started to be more obsessive about my weight.  You had a very thin Brooke Shields tell you that nothing came between her and her Calvins (which I guess meant she was not wearing any underwear - yuck!)  Now, I was not a full blown anorexic.  I didn't use laxatives or toss my cookies after each meal - but I was very, very conscious of calories - for instance a small banana is 100 calories, an oreo cookie is 52, etc.  I figured if I took in between 500 to 700 calories but exercised for an hour or more - there was no way I could gain weight and I would probably lose it.   I went to the bathroom immediately after eating dinner and I weighed myself constantly.   I had a very bony chest which looked worse after I lost weight.   In the ninth grade, I was 5'3" and just 93 pounds - I was not looking very healthy and you could see the bones popping through my shoulders.   Still, I would stand in front of the mirror and do a scathing review of my body and if I could pinch flesh anywhere - then I was just too fat.   Many people wonder how anorexic girls who look like people who just walked out of concentration camps can still think they are still fat, but your perception gets so warped that all you can see are the flaws and the bones sticking out just don't look that bad.   Finally, my older sister sat me down and told me how unhealthy I looked and it was like I could finally see how thin I really was.   I looked terrible - thin and pale.  Probably, the hardest thing about being an anorexic is realizing that you can control very few things in your life but what you put in your body and how you exercise.   For control freaks like me (I generally am more controlling about my personal body issues) giving up a rigorous physical schedule and a very controlled diet was probably one of the hardest things I ever had to do - but it saved my life.   

In college, I did relapse a bit.  I was on my own, dealing with the stress of college and having to plan my own meals and exercising.  I lost some of the weight I had gained in high school while working part-time and taking my SATs.   I got so obsessed with my weight at that point that I would donate blood just to lose a pound in a few minutes.   Now, I know that once I drank a big glass of water, the fluid that I just lost through a tube in my arm would be back as far as the scale was concerned.  That didn't matter - for that moment in time - I was a pound lighter without having to sweat it off.   After realizing that giving blood to lose weight was putting me back in harm's way, I got counseling in college and it helped me get my body image and weight back on track.  In fact, I would see another girl on my way to class that looked like a walking bag of bones and think - "Good God, that could have been me."   
So why are we so obsessed with thin women in our culture when our obesity rate has skyrocketed since the 1980's?    The bigger women become, the thinner models become.  In the 1980's the average model wore a size 6 which does not sound ridiculously petite, but now most models are between size 0 and size 4 (you're actually a heifer if you're close to a size 4) and half of all American woman are size 14 or higher.   Now, the anorexic side I get - you see impossibly thin models and you try to become one but could that impossible body image also be making us fatter?   According to one SizeUSA study, seeing ultra thin models and celebrities is pushing girls and women to binge behaviors that might actually cause weight gain and not weight loss.   While those models might be 5'10" and weight between 110 and 120 pounds, the advertisers and fashion editors are asking their graphic artists to make the skin smoother, the thighs thinner and the waists smaller so that the image you see is not even what that ultra thin woman looks like.  We're trying to live up to an image that doesn't really exist.   The use of photoshopping has even gotten some magazines in trouble - take a look at this cover with Faith Hill before and after photoshopping.   She's a beautiful woman to begin with - why make her more than she is?  But the need to take out the dark circles, thin down the already slender arms and the skin near the back was just too much and we have a Faith Hill that just doesn't exist beyond the magazine cover. 

Men are not under the same pressure to look the same uniformly.  You can have the cast of Ocean's 13 who have a wide range of looks and  most women would agree that they all are hot.  Johnny Depp could gain 20 pounds just because he wanted to and not for a part and still be hired - no so for Scarlett Johannson.  It's such a maddening double standard!  The most iconic sex symbol of all time - Marilyn Monroe at size 10 probably could not even get a reading for a movie about blonds in the 1950's because she would be considered too fat.   Ironically, back then with all the processed foods and "TV Dinners" folks were still thinner then we are right now.   For all it's sexism, body wise, women still better off in the 50's then they are now.  

One positive trend has been the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty which uses women of all sizes and complexions to sell their products to other women.  It's a refreshing piece of advertising that was started in 2004 to show women of all ages and sizes that there are many ways to be beautiful and not just the way that Victoria's Secret sees it.   I love their soaps and body wash and feel like my daughter and I can look at their ads and not flinch in comparison because like the women in these ads, we are not supermodels but we need to be proud and strong in our own skins.  

And so, while the end of summer is still just a few weeks away, will I finally put on a bikini rather than a tankini and be brave enough to walk out the door?   I've gotten over the fact that I'm not 25 anymore and those days of being super thin are over - thank God because I was never really happy that way.  I guess working at a charity that helps adults with developmental disabilities puts things in perspective.  Worrying about your looks especially when you are around folks with whom just walking a few feet takes a massive amount of effort - seems so damn shallow.  I have a body that works and does what I want it to do - that's a blessing.  Is it a perfect 10?  Hell no, but I am thankful for what I have and at 49 I think I look pretty good.    So the next time we go swimming - I'm actually going to wear a bikini.  I'll try not to feel self conscious because in the end it's more important to feel good then to look good and that realization is just marvelous.   

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