Only 12% of middle-aged women are “satisfied” with their bodies. Is the body image prison not something we ever break out of?
I was 11 the first time I remember a stranger commenting on my figure. I was trying on skirts for Bat Mitzvah season and a saleslady told me I had a “bubble butt.” Huh, I thought to myself, I guess that’s a thing that some people have and that other people comment on.
It was around this time that I had my second run-in with dressing room commentary. I was at the Gap with my mom and I’d just tried on a long denim skirt (it was 1999, after all). I couldn’t zip it, and I sent my mom to get the next size up. While she was gone, an older woman in the next stall over leaned out and said, “It’s so nice to see you and your mother shopping together. My mother would have given me a hard time for needing a bigger size.” She added, wistfully, “I would have gotten so bent out of shape about it.”
Huh. I learned something else that day. It’s not my figure alone that it is worthy of scrunity, but my relationship with my figure, and my mother’s relationship with my figure, and my mother’s relationship with me about my figure. Damn, that’s a lot of layers.
Last week on WBUR.com, Massachusetts mom Rachel Zimmerman wrote a pained, eloquent essay about the trade-offs she’s made to maintain her newly thin body. What began in childhood as a grapefruit diet with her mother (who, now in her 70’s, still weighs herself every day), has spiraled into an obsession that Zimmerman calls a “prison.”
For me now, approaching 50, I’m trying to imagine a softer-edged life; less brittle rigidity and more juiciness. Recently, I’ve been troubled by my self-imposed food prison—an existence that I’d never, ever wish upon my daughters. I’ve sought help to change. But weaning myself off my daily scale addiction hasn’t been easy, nor has introducing new types of foods into my day.
Zimmerman is not alone. While promoting her book, Obsessed, about her lifelong eating disorder, talk show host Mika Brzezinski said about her daughters, “I would love for them not to have an obsessed life. I’d like them to be as happy and healthy as they are right now. I want them to enjoy their lives more than anything else.”
When, in a fit of anger, her 9-year-old daughter called another girl fat, novelist Jennifer Weiner confronted a lifetime of self-esteem issues:
I’d spent the nine years since her birth getting ready for this day, the day we’d have to have the conversation about this dreaded, stinging word. I had a well-honed, consoling speech at the ready. I knew exactly what to say to the girl on the receiving end of the taunts and the teasing, but in all of my imaginings, it never once occurred to me that my daughter would be the one who used the F word. Fat.
Some little piece of my heart breaks for Zimmerman, for Brzezinski, for Weiner, for all of us. These are incredible women, accomplished women, influential women, and they are all struggling with the same tension between the insecurities they’ve battled forever and the desire to see their daughters live differently. The world isn’t fair for women, they know, and it’s even less fair for fat women. Is it wrong to want to protect their daughters from one extra hurdle? As Weiner says, “How do I walk the line between the cold truth and helpful fiction, between the way the world is and the way I wish it was?”
I’m not a mom, but I have a pretty great one. I have one who, when I asked for the next size up in the denim skirt that day 15 years ago, didn’t blink. Whatever worries she had for me, a thickset kid who would become a chunky teenager and a heavy adult, she kept to herself. I was a tomboy, and though I was often the biggest girl on the field or court, I enjoyed the physicality of sports and the social experience of playing as a team. Both aspects of sports, the effort and the community, have contributed joy to my adult life over and over again through kickboxing classes, group yoga, tennis dates, and 5Ks with friends.
Largely because exercise was kept separate from body image in my household, I became a woman who likes to exercise for the zen that follows a good sweat, the pleasant soreness the day after, the pleasure in improving my backhand, not for the numbers on a scale. In fact, I don’t have one.
Although I do have moments of food frustration, of calorie counting, of body anxiety, I live most of my life outside of the Zimmerman’s prison. I like donuts. I also like brussels sprouts, and I try to eat more of the latter than the former. I am so grateful that my mother let me find my own way to my version of balance, which, of course, is a work in progress.
When my mom recently lost a substantial amount of weight, I was less shocked by her jean size than by her admissions, new to me, of decades of scale anxiety. For the best, I think, she had never shared with me very much about her own relationship with weight, and I had always assumed that she was one of the few women I knew that had magically avoided this particular set of insecurities. She always looked great to me, and had seemed to effortlessly inhabit that mythical space of “in moderation” when it came to food and exercise.
I can’t speak for all daughters, but I find it unbearably depressing to think that this whole body image thing doesn’t get any easier with age. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the phenomenal women I know and read about in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s still devoting so much brainspace and emotional turmoil to this issue.
I look forward to aging for permission to give a lot less shits about things I’m supposed to give shits about. I already feel myself writing off sexist bullshit with a confidence I didn’t have at 18, and I only expect that willingness to grow. I hate wearing high heels, so I don’t wear them anymore. I’m so over the sexy underwear thing. I speak my opinions more forcefully and care less if they make people uncomfortable. Isn’t this what aging is about? “Less brittle rigidity and more juiciness?” Socks and sandals if I feel like it?
As Zimmerman says,
For so many of us, just when we should be out there enjoying the lives we’ve created over decades, we’re obsessing over our hips and skin and post-childbirth bellies. Personally, I think about how twisted my own priorities can get sometimes: Instead of enjoying my great good luck—two smart daughters who sing and climb and do math puzzles, a job I love, a spouse who has never in 11 years of marriage said anything negative about my body—I’m hunkered down counting out my allotment of pepitas for the day.
Her case is extreme, I supposed, but a new report out of the University of North Carolina finds that only 12% of middle-aged women are “satisfied” with their bodies. I had hoped this was a thing that, as we outgrew our self-absorbed 20’s, we would similarly outgrow. It seems that’s not the case, and I’m not sure what to do about it.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.
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