I’ve never told anyone these things. My parents, my sister, my friends – no one. So heads up. You’re the first to know.
For the last few years, I have grown, slowly but steadily, to despise the way my body looks.
When I was a kid, I was always told how skinny I was. I didn’t break fifty pounds until I was eight years old. In high school I was always the smallest – height and weight – of my friends. I grew up knowing, somehow, intuitively, that ‘being skinny’ was something good, that it was something I should maintain. In high school, that belief was confirmed and reinforced by magazines, friends who were constantly ‘dieting’, and my school’s insistence on athletic rigor and social ostracism of students who didn’t fit the body ideal. But I was always warned that, as a woman, ‘my time would come’, I would have kids or reach a certain age and it would be impossible to ‘keep the weight off’, that my ‘body will change’ and I, too, would become one of them – the women who were constantly on diets, sneaking candy when they could and irresponsibly forgetting to account for the cream in their coffee when they added up their daily calorie totals.
I dreaded that day.
I dreaded it, partly because I love to eat, because I never wanted to abandon my ability to eat wantonly and without fear of gaining weight, because I wanted to continue to jam as much food into my mouth as I pleased whenever and however I chose. But I also dreaded it because of the stigma, the association of being ‘weak’ or ‘losing the battle against your body’, because of the terrible association with them. Those people. And finally, I dreaded it because I knew that being young and svelte was ‘hot’, that it made me physically desirable, and that to not be that implied some kind of dowager or old maid status, that you were no longer in the prime of your youth, that the freedom of adolescence was gone forever. Being ‘not thin’, to me, also meant ‘being old.’
So when the scale started creeping up on me and last year I finally crossed into the 120-pounds territory (I know, I know, you’re reading this and saying: this girl is seriously worried about weighing one hundred and twenty pounds? Seriously? – – well that’s what negative body image will do for you), things got dire. I couldn’t fit into some of my clothes from college anymore and that scared the shit out of me. I’ve never been on a diet in my life, but I started counting calories, finding ways to cut down, skipping meals, or drinking instead of eating my food.
This is what I look like when I’m at that body weight. The scary body weight.
What do you see?
I see someone who thought that wasn’t good enough. I see someone who thought she needed to be skinnier in order to be attractive. I see someone who looked at herself in the mirror and thought “Ugh.” I see someone who bought into everything the media and American pop culture tells us about the way women’s bodies should look.
But that was months ago. In between then and now, I did something that changed the way I feel about myself: I trained for a half marathon. I ran every other day for two months and I ran long distances – seven, eight, nine miles – on weekends. I grew accustomed to a sense of strength that came from running hour after hour in the heat of the day. It was exhilarating. And you know what happened to my body?
I haven’t lost a single pound. The fat on my body hasn’t magically shifted into muscle, and I still have a hard time fitting into those jeans from college. I am the same girl in that photo, except that now I see that photo in a totally different light.
But something did happen to my perception. I went from seeing my body as a drag, a weight – literally – a stigma, a something-that-wasn’t-good-enough, to seeing it as a vessel of physical power. This body can carry me places. It can do amazing things. Yesterday, it ran 13 miles as the sun rose through a beautiful valley. It carried me across the finish line. It can do it again. And again.
And that’s all it needs to do.
At the half yesterday, I was astounded by the variety of body types, male and female, who ran strong and ran hard to the finish line. Yes, the elite marathoners were wiry and thin, but there were plenty of runners in my pace group who were not, at first glance, what you might consider “athletic”. But you know what? They crossed that fucking finish line the same as I did, the same as those skinny elite runners did. And there’s nothing better or worse about their bodies than those of the thin girls who grace the magazine covers at the checkout lane. (Then again, I wonder how many models could run thirteen miles.)
So I have this to say to tabloid magazines, fat-loss adverts, and ‘the thigh gap': Fuck off. I have this to say to every interviewer who’s ever asked a female (celebrity or not) how she stays thin: Fuck off. I have this to say to every photographer or photo editor who’s tucked in a subject’s stomach and smoothed the lines on her body to create impossible standards of beauty: Fuck. Off. I have this to say to the modeling industry, which encourages (and even promotes as socially beautiful) anorexia and other debilitating diseases: go right the fuck to hell, please, and take the vast majority of the fashion industry with you. Please and thank you.
Of course, this is a happy ending for one young woman, but not unilaterally so. Body image for young women (and men!) is a constant problem in our society, and it will be a swim against the current until the media begins to reimagine women’s bodies in plausible, real ways. Until then, the only way to fight back is individually, with small steps: with confidence in ourselves and in each other.