This is My Body.

So here we are, a full two months after I graduated from Beauty U. And while my life is largely back to “normal,” last week’s fat talk made me realize that I’m walking around feeling very not normal in one key way: My personal body image. And it’s time to own up to this. Which means talking about size — but hopefully in a way that changes the conversation a little bit. I’d love to hear what you think, even if you think I’m being not very nice and maybe a giant hypocrite. Because I might agree with you there.

Here’s the thing: I gained twenty pounds during my ten months in beauty school.

Eating McDonalds, Subway, KFC and Dunkin Donuts three or four nights a week was not normal for me in my pre-Beauty U life. I want to explain this without judgment, but it’s very tricky to keep judgment at bay when you’re talking about food, so I’m just going to say it: I’m an organic-eating, farmer’s market-shopping girl who will cook pretty much anything Mark Bittman suggests in his Wednesday New York Times column.

I’m not a rabid calorie counter or a gym geek (though I’ve dabbled in gymming and calorie counting over the years) and I love, love, love to consume plenty of delicious things like red wine, chocolate, ice cream, completely decadent and not at all whole grain pasta dishes.  I really have worked hard to separate myself from the weight beauty standard enough that I would hands down rather be a size 8-10 who eats pasta and enjoys life than a size 4-6 who doesn’t eat pasta.

So, I love food. In a rather particular, have-you-tried-this-artisanal-goat-cheese and ooh-what-about-these-heirloom-tomatoes way. Then I went to beauty school and realized: I eat like a very specific type of upper middle class liberal white person. Who is, very often, pretentious as hell about food.

And Beauty U? Not so much an artisanal-goat-cheese-having kind of place. The majority of teachers and students come from lower-to-middle-class backgrounds and that tends to translate to a very different food culture. One where you don’t can your own tomatoes because you want to avoid the BPA lining in the store-bought kind. You go to the Price Chopper Can-Can Sale and stock the heck up.

I wanted to fit in.

I didn’t want to seem pretentious as hell.

I belong to a CSA in the summer (I mean, of course I do) and the farm tries to do outreach to low-income neighborhoods. This means that people on food stamps can use them to get the farm’s vegetables, which I think is just swell. Except that whenever one of the low-income members (read: one of the very few members of color, or members not driving a Prius) showed up at the weekly distribution, I would watch some of the volunteers fall all over themselves explaining how to braise dinosaur kale or why wheat berries are just so good for you. And talk really loud and slow, like maybe these members weren’t just poor, but also deaf. Sample quote: “Do you have a grill where you live? Because these turnips will be divine on the grill if you brush them with a little EXTRA VIRGIN olive oil.”

I did not want to be one of those people.

Also, hi: McDonald’s Snack Wraps are pretty delicious, especially if you’re eating one for the first time ever. So I got over myself even if there was a little bit of the patronizing in my “when in Rome” attitude. In fact, it was maybe more “what happens in Vegas…” I knew I didn’t really eat like that when I was being Normal Virginia. So I decided that Beauty School Virginia could do it and it would be no big thing. So what if I gained a few pounds, or my skin broke out? It was in the name of journalism, dammit! And not looking like a dbag preachy liberal!

So flawed.

Because here’s the other thing: Towards the end of Beauty U, I started getting fed up with the diet. I’m not saying Snack Wraps aren’t delicious, but they stopped being quite so delicious after I’d eaten around thirty. Then, they started to taste like plastic. Plus, I was really feeling the difference of twenty extra pounds on my body (plus months of inactivity): I was getting winded walking up a hill and none of my clothes fit.

And so I started saying: “I can’t wait to get back to normal.” And also: “I can’t wait to get my body back.” By which I meant my 145-pound body that could hike up hills without a problem and do headstands and backbends in yoga or even, my 135-pound body that once ran two half-marathons.

It was like I thought someone had come along and zipped a fat suit up over my real body, leaving me with this 165-pound version that I couldn’t — or didn’t want to — recognize.

And as I’ve been getting back to “normal,” over the past two months — revisiting the farmer’s market, getting back to yoga and walking, thinking up new ways to cook quinoa, not eating Snack Wraps because I’m actually at my house for dinner — I’ve also been waiting for someone to come along and unzip the fat suit so I can have my body back.

Everyone kept saying, “Oh don’t even worry! Once you stop eating all that junk, you’ll be back to normal!” And yes, there was a quick, five-pound shift that might have been a little bit of that. But mostly, I was just focused on how uncomfortable and not normal I’d become.

But then last week, in yoga (because, of course I do yoga), I did a completely kick-ass back bend. I mean, five-year-olds and tall dogs could have run under the arch shape that was me without having to duck. Everyone oohed.

I was confused.

I still weigh 160 pounds. I thought only my “real body” could do that. And my clothes keep telling me that I don’t have my “real body” back yet.

And then I remembered: This is my body, too.

There is no fat suit. This is me. In fact, I’ve weighed this before, when I worked super long hours in a magazine office. I didn’t eat McDonalds then, but I did eat a lot of late night takeout and never had time to go the gym.

So much of my Beauty U life felt like I was playing a part. I don’t mean I wasn’t myself — I very much was. I’m a chatty person and so my Beauty U friends got to know all sorts of personal facts about me like how I do yoga and am obsessed with my cats and “Veronica Mars.” But wearing the uniform apron and doing things like Brazilian waxing and glycolic peels did not feel very “me” as I had previously known myself. And from a socioeconomic perspective, sure, I was a fish out of water. So somehow, I translated those “not me” things to what I ate and how I felt about my body too.

And that is where I lost the plot. Because even if my 145-pound body didn’t perfectly adhere to say, Hollywood’s beauty standards, it was a much closer fit than where I am now. So when I said “I want my body back,” what I was really saying was, “I want the Beauty Myth’s body back.”

Even while I spend all this time writing and talking about being body positive and picking and choosing among our cultural beauty standards— I was buying into one of the biggest, most oppressive beauty standards and not even admitting it to myself.

So, okay. This is my body. It is bigger than it used to be. That might change or it might not. Sometimes it eats Subway sandwiches loaded with cold cuts and Chipotle Southwest Sauce. Other times, it braises dinosaur kale in extra virgin olive oil. Either way, it can do a crazy cool back bend. And it is always me.



Filed under Beauty Labor, beauty standards

29 responses to “This is My Body.

  1. Marian sole

    You are right that much of this is the Beauty body myth but there is another piece that is just about good health. Now at 58 having mostly let my body be what it wanted to be (140 in happy days, 112 in divorce sad days and 160 after gaining 5 lbs a year in middle age days) I have to admit I don’t want the next thirty years to experience the wear and tear of having let my body be in control. I can eat sensibly without being pretentious about it, I do need more calcium and yes, less fats will be healthier for my arteries.

    • Complete agreement with: “I can eat sensibly without being pretentious about it, I do need more calcium and yes, less fats will be healthier for my arteries.”

      My point is that because of our culture’s obsession with thin, we equate weight and health, when they are really two separate issues. By assuming that I couldn’t do a hard yoga pose just because I’m heavier than I was last year, I had them all tangled up. In fact, this twenty pound weight gain has had practically no bearing on my health — as the numbers from my last physical show — other than the fact that it coincided with me doing less exercise, so I’ve lost stamina, energy, strength and some flexibility. But I can get that back by moving more. Whether that leads to me losing weight is incidental to my level of physical fitness.

      It’s the beauty myth, not science or medicine or even common sense about health that gets us to assume that every woman who weighs 160 pounds (or 175, or 200, or 250…) MUST be unhealthy in a no physical stamina/probably has diabetes/eats junk food all day way. And it’s this same beauty standard, not science, that causes us to assume that every 100 pound woman must be anorexic.

      In fact, healthy people come in a huge range of shapes and sizes — it’s the beauty standard that says we have to fall within that perfect 110-135 pound window.

      So of course, eat less saturated fat and more calcium, move more, make healthy choices. Just don’t use the number on your scale as your only (or even main) criteria of whether you’re “healthy enough.”

  2. I’ve been worried about my weight at least since I was twenty and realized I’d gained 20lbs within six months of getting out of the service. I’ve gained and lost and gained again in the intervening years, but never got back down to a healthy weight.

    I woke up one day this month and realized I’m thirty-one and been trying to lose for a decade, so why not just make a few healthy decisions and see what happens. So I’ve cut out fast food and soda and started walking. I was surprised I could hike as far as I can and I’m losing weight at healthy rate. Plus I have so much more energy.

    I’ll never be skinny. I’m the wrong body type for that, and I’m okay with that. Even at the best shape of my life [healthy, fit, teenager] I was never smaller then a size 8, and usually closer to a 10. For me, this weight loss is about taking care of me, and that’s the best reason of all.

    Sorry this got long, just been on my mind.

  3. I definitely think it’s true that our culture often equates weight and health when there’s no scientific reason to. And I think it’s great that you’re getting back to doing things that you love — like yoga — and discovering the way your own body can surprise you in positive ways.

    But I also struggle with the idea of privileging health over all other factors — that a healthy body is intrinsically good while an unhealthy body is intrinsically bad. I find it frustrating how often body image activists, etc., argue that a heavy body can be just as healthy as a thin body, not because I think they’re wrong (I don’t), but because I don’t think that’s really the point. Heavy people, skinny people, active people, lazy people, out of shape people, super buff people are all worthy of respect not because they’re healthy but because they’re *people* — and their personal choices are really none of our business. If you gained 20 pounds eating fast food and discovered you *couldn’t* do yoga anymore, or that your cholesterol had spiked, or whatever, I think that this would only be a problem if it were a problem for you. If you were okay with it, I don’t think anyone else would have a right to say a word about it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disagreeing with anything you say in this post (and as someone who wants you around for a long time, I’m selfishly glad that you eat right and exercise). But I guess I feel like “health” has become a socially acceptable way for some people to judge others’ bodies — a way to feel concerned rather than catty, even when offering unsolicited advice. Your body is still your real body even when it’s curled up on the couch. It’s yours to do with whatever you want.

  4. kate

    I remember an ad campaign from not too long ago for some kind of cholesterol medication in which stereotypically “beautiful” older people would walk in slow motion in bathing suits or whatever, and we’d admire how silver foxy they were (slim bodies, etc.). And then their health information would appear on the screen indicating that their cholesterol levels were dangerously high — all to show basically what you’re saying here but in reverse: “perfectly beautiful” people are not necessarily healthy. It was interesting, and effective enough at least to stick in my memory, and it would be cool to see something similar but in support of what you’re saying here (that not-skinny doesn’t automatically mean unhealthy).

  5. I love this post! I’m really similar to the way you’ve described yourself. I’m very much a yoga-and-organic-food-loving food snob, and so are my friends and my in-laws. When my husband lost his job and hasn’t found another good one over the past year, we’ve had to move in with my mom, sister, and young niece to save some money. My fmaily isn’t very concerned with what’s organic or natural, what has HFCS or BPA in it, etc. It’s been really tough to set aside $50 or so from each paycheck to buy the brown, organic eggs that I miss so much, and sometimes we just can’t, and eat what my mom buys. It’s great that we’re able to have the family safety net, and we are definitely not short on food; it just feels like such a moral failure that I can’t prioritize high-quality food and have a household to share my enthusiasm about amazingly healthy, organic meals anymore, like I had with my prior roomie situation. And I don’t want to feel like a moral failure, and I shouldn’t. It’s a tough line. I, too, hate the liberal preachiness that comes with that kind of eating, and know that’s where most of my food-shame feelings come from.

    Anyway, thanks for the post, it was great!

  6. Um, not that brown, organic eggs cost $50… I mean to say, of course, those and other fresh, organic things. 🙂

  7. *shakes pompoms* Go you! This is a wonderful story, and I think a lot of people can relate to it (I know I can). It’s so very hard to come to that place where you realize that your new shape is still your “real body”, and it’s even harder to accept it. It makes me so happy that you’ve done that.

  8. Kate

    I think it’s marvelous and admirable to be comfortable in your skin, at any size, if you’re happy doing what you’re doing and you’re being healthy about it. But I wonder, when I read these sentiments: What’s wrong with wanting your pre-Beauty School body back? Or for that matter, what was wrong with me wanting my pre-baby body back? I’ve read a lot of criticism of women who work really hard to lose the post-baby pounds, and while I frown at the idea of trying to lose it all in two months, I don’t understand the general disapproval of wanting to do it, period. What’s wrong with wanting to get back into the jeans I paid so much money for? Or wanting to feel like myself again after so many months of not feeling like myself?

    There’s a certain power in feeling strong and healthy and comfortable in your skin, and yes, some of that is tied up in the beauty industry, but where should we draw the line? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fit back into your old clothes.

    Please note: I’m not saying that you *should* want to lose weight or that the beauty standard is one we should all live up to. But I do think that if you’re unhappy where you are, I’m not sure it makes sense to berate yourself into *being* happy where you are, because you feel that trying to get back where you *were* happy means you’re buying into the beauty myth.

    • Kate

      p.s. That is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t be happy where you are. I’m just saying that I don’t see it as terrible or hypocritical for someone to want to be back at the weight where they happily existed for years, given that that weight is reasonably attainable. You can love your body either way.

      • Hmm, this is interesting!

        I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me wanting to be 140 pounds again in the sense that 140 pounds was a healthy weight for me, it was easy to sustain, and my clothes fit well. It’s not like I’m saying “it’s 115 or bust!” knowing full well that maintaining 115 pounds, for me, would involve surviving on lettuce and prayers. (Note: Of course there are women for whom 115 is a perfectly normal and healthy size — I’m just not one of them.)

        But I think the danger comes when you’re so focused on “I want to get back to my happy weight” that you can’t be happy at your current weight —  because everyone deserves to feel happy with themselves. You say: “What’s wrong […] wanting to feel like myself again after so many months of not feeling like myself?”

        And I think this is the key — you are still yourself while you are pregnant or going to beauty school or doing whatever else it is that causes a person to gain weight. You are still yourself after you give birth and are still carrying around some of those extra pounds. You are always the same person, in the same body, you just go through different experiences that are new and feel unfamiliar (and sometimes VERY uncomfortable).

        And yet because we live in a culture where certain body types are celebrated and certain body types are denigrated, we start using language like “I want my body back” to imply that “No, I’m not actually this heavier person, in this heavier body. I really am a skinny girl inside!”

        So yes, nothing wrong with loving yourself at a smaller size — as long as you don’t hold that up as the ideal at the expense of your current happiness.

  9. Denise

    Who cares what anyone thinks about the food you choose to eat, too bad you had to give up your healthy diet to please others. Although we have to take care of these bodies, you are not your body, just in there during this lifetime.

  10. Thank you for this post. It’s good to see someone else talking about the importance of seeing the capabilities of our bodies, rather than focusing on appearance.

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  12. Caroline

    You are such a rock star. I’m so proud you’re my sister.

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  14. Bravo! I gained 40 pounds my first year of college and was in complete denial about no longer being a size zero (until I sat down one day and the button burst off my jeans in front of the Smith College president). There seems to be this idea that your body is Realer, Better, More Acceptable when it’s leaner: there’s a skinny woman waiting to escape all this fat.
    Or there isn’t.
    In any case. Amazing post!

  15. I think this post was incredibly honest. It is so true….we can all preach about size and how it doesn’t matter, but when it comes to ourselves, we are incredibly harsh. It is incredibly difficult to approach and love your own body when it doesn’t look or feel as you want it to (I that, I have gained and lost weight over the years…but I also deal with chronic pain on a daily basis…and when you feel gross you think you look gross). Body acceptance is one of the most difficult things to practice! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about it!

  16. corrie

    I gained about 10-15 pounds over the last year and a half – I went from a size 6/8 to 10, sometimes 12. And from a B cup to a D. (THAT part is wonderful…I just wish the rest hadn’t come with it)

    And some days I feel like this: who says this shape isn’t beautiful? Who says this rounded bum, this shapely tummy, isn’t desirable? Why am I told it isn’t? Why can’t I be shown that it absolutely IS? I’m fed all these images of what an “acceptable” female body is, and I can’t quite slip into the margins. Why am I told to hate myself for it?

    Aaaaaugh, I have no follow up to that. I just have no idea. I suppose I need to tell myself how lovely this shape can be, but it feels as though that’s not enough.

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  21. Aurora Dawn

    I personally think that your article could have done without the the comments on lower income minorities. It actually makes you sound pretentious and racist. Basically by printing that exerpt you are as bad if not worse that the volunteers at the CSA! After reading that part, I really could not focus on the rest of your article and was extremely irate about your stereotypes.
    That section had no real value in your story at all, it was extremely off topic.

    • Hi Aurora Dawn,

      Thanks for reading. I’m not clear on what you’re objecting to, exactly — is it the fact that I talked about how it makes me uncomfortable to watch other people being pretentious and racist? Or the fact that I was concerned not to be pretentious or racist myself? Either way, I’m not sure how it makes me pretentious and racist to report what I observed other people doing (especially since my goal in doing so was to raise awareness about why that kind of behavior is inappropriate) or to be honest about my fears that my own actions might be inappropriate. Talking about prejudice when we witness it is how we overcome it — because staying silent can too easily be misconstrued as approval.

      To that end, I’m certainly open to hearing what in this post reads as racist to you. It was obviously not my intention and if I’ve put something out there that can be easily misunderstood, I’d like to clarify my position. But if your discomfort stems solely from the fact that I’m talking openly and honestly about the role of race and class in various unpleasant interactions that I’ve witnessed and experienced, then we can agree to disagree. I think these kinds of frank discussions help us raise awareness and fight prejudice; you may prefer to avoid challenging conversations and the uncomfortable questions they raise.

      Thanks again,

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