“Goodbye my big, strong, healthy wife!” As I registered these words I knew, without a doubt, that they were meant in encouragement, but all I heard was the word BIG. As a woman I have been conditioned to think of big as bad. Big means heavy, big means fat, big means you lose. I can remember being in middle school and wanting to be smaller. Mostly shorter at that time, because I was a gangly kid. I hated that I was taller than the boys in my class. I felt like a giant. In high school, as I came to resemble a woman and not a girl, I was less focused on height and more focused on weight. I remember flinching as I sat down next to someone because I knew my thigh would spread out on the seat. I was afraid of how much larger it would look, how much more space I would take up. Of all the things to be afraid of in this world, I was afraid to SIT DOWN. As crazy as that sounds, it was my reality, and therefore heartbreaking. My young brain had already been wired. Those obsessive thoughts about appearance and size had formed well worn pathways, riverbeds in my psyche and given a chance, any chance at all, the water simply flooded them.
As soon as boys came into the picture the goal of strong and healthy took an immediate and longstanding back seat to beautiful. I wish I could say I was one of those people growing up who didn’t care about being cool, the outcast who in the movies always grows up and turns into a wildly successful CEO or famous artist. But that simply wasn’t true. I did care. A LOT. When I think about this I feel a pang of embarrassment, even occasionally shame at how much I cared. As I watch my young daughter, I try to will her future in another direction. I also want to understand how I became that way. I know part of it was because I didn’t have enough love and acceptance for myself and I either didn’t know how, or wasn’t interested enough, in finding out how to develop some. Or maybe it was because I succumbed to the media’s idea of beauty, drowning in the heaviness and impossibility of those standards. Maybe I was too focused on winning the prize. The prize more often than not being, boyfriend, fiancé, husband. If you were big or if you were the wrong size, you didn’t win the prize. This is oversimplifying things, it is in no way an absolute truth or every woman’s experience. Unfortunately what is true never matters as much as what we believe. Our beliefs are what drive our behavior, not the truth. To change my behavior, and how I felt about myself, I had to change those beliefs.
As I got older, I navigated through all kinds of healthy and unhealthy relationships, became a mother and was exposed to other cultures where big didn’t equal bad, where size didn’t matter as much. This has transformed most of those belittling beliefs into more empowering ones. But I would be lying by omission if I didn’t tell you that even after so many attempts at introspection, awareness, and self love, I still catch myself pulling down my tank top to cover my butt, my thighs, my curves. I still catch myself feeling just a little bit awkward if I’m standing next to a man who is shorter than me. I still catch myself fixating on the word big, at the expense of strong and healthy. And you know what? That is perfectly okay. It doesn’t mean I’ve failed. All it means is that I’m still up against many of the same opponents, the media, society and my past conditioning. What matters is how quickly I recover now. What matters is how I was able to reflect on WHY big stood out to me. What matters is that I discussed it with my husband over dinner that night, with not a thought wasted on how my thigh met with the seat of my chair. And what matters is how I can list SO many ways that big is beautiful, strong, and healthy.
Inquisitive. Open. Kind.
For most of my young womanhood, I struggled with yo-yo dieting, binge eating, emotional eating and compulsive exercising. I felt locked into a destructive cycle of guilt and shame around my eating and body image. Over the years I’ve learned that the purpose of exercise is not to punish the body, but to allow it to move freely. I’ve learned that there is a way of eating that can result in real nourishment, one that has absolutely nothing to do with calories or grams of fat. As women, I believe we need to stop giving away our power to the scale and to elusive images of perfection we see in the media. We need to stop denying our right to be exactly who we are. Then we can realize our journey through life is not bound by rules. It is a practice. And wherever we are is beautiful.