The Body Image Epidemic
During my first college dance class of the new year — the one after Christmas break — my professor, a flamboyant, bald black man from the south, would saunter between our moving silhouettes to survey the crowd. As a dance major, it should have been my responsibility to maintain my physique over the break. Inevitably we all struggled to catch our breath between routines, feeling the aches and pains of our two weeks off. With a cynical eye and a chuckle in his throat, he’d announce, “Looks like y’all need to lose some of y’all’s selves.”
The mashed potatoes caught up to me.
This mantra stuck like a bug in my ear from College Sophomore to Thirty Something. This time of the new year, the part where we “start over,” it seems there is an unspoken rule that we ought to commit ourselves to a newfound love for fitness and repent to the gods of vegetable broth and quinoa. Punishment and guilt are a few words that come to mind. And I’m so sick of it.
While there are loads of body-positive women out there; I just don’t happen to know many women, personally, who are wholly content with the size of their figure, be it curvy or petite, big-chested or flat-assed. And it bothers me, the former dancer who is all too familiar with self-imposed torment. It upsets me that I, as well as America, am so consumed with the size and shape of the female figure. Years after I’ve hung up my pointe shoes, I still find myself in an emotional tug-of-war over my own physical ideal.
One minute I gaze longingly at glossy magazine pages of Karlie Kloss’ rock-hard abs and daydream of what it must be like to flaunt a midsection flat enough to press a panini; in the next minute I worship the undulating curves of Ashley Graham. Both women represent an ideal of beauty and I wonder: What kind of body type do I want to strive for? And why have I spent so much time thinking about it, working for it, and sliding into a black hole of self hatred over it? Models aside, it comes down to the very powerful, suspiciously loud voice in the back of my head.
Though well liked, I was a fat kid, the chubby sidekick to the school’s prettiest blonde. Aside from your average schoolyard taunts, it didn’t really effect me. My family was nurturing and supportive. My mom encouraged me to be healthier, but in 1980’s Jackson, Mississippi, we just didn’t know much about the acceptable strategies for whipping your chubby kids into shape. The only whipping we knew was Cool Whip.
I phased out of my husky days naturally, got braces and hit puberty. And even though I wasn’t traumatized by my childhood chunkiness (still love an elastic waistband), the negative voices that encroach on every young girl’s consciousness started yelling at me, too.
By my junior year in college, I was dancing up to 8 hours a day in hip-pinching leotards. And I was puking up cheeseburgers at night. My slim, size 4, 5’7”-figure warped before my eyes into a short, fat, fun-house mirror reflection. Once inside the studio, I could never be thin enough.
The voice inside my head wasn’t telling me that I was unworthy or overweight. I knew better. It was my eyes that probed a floor-to-ceiling mirror each day and sent a message to my brain, constantly reminding me that I wasn’t as thin as the other girls. I scrutinized every curve, each inch of flesh that wasn’t bare skin and bone. I thought if I wanted to dance like them — the best dancers — that I needed to lose my meaty ass as to nail that 90-degree arabesque, trim down my athletic thighs to appear diminutive in my tutus, and eliminate the tiny pooch in my lower belly as to disappear when I turned sideways.
The voice inside my head told a different story. As I wretched over toilets, having perfected the art of sliding two fingers down my throat with a surgeon’s precision, my inner voice shamed me. This wasn’t me.
The reason we do things like this varies. Sometimes it’s because someone told us that we weren’t good enough and we believed them — going on a hot date with bulimia seemed like a sizable solution. Sometimes it’s because we witness so much praise for rail-thin women, that we just put two and two together. Sometimes it’s a need for control in a world that feels as though we have none.
But all my life, I’d been praised. Even as a chubby kid, my mother, overcome by Mom Goggles, spoke of my beauty as though I were Liz Taylor circa Cleopatra. (I was not.) But I was popular in high school and liked in college. In fact, most of my life I was the proud owner of an ironclad confidence. And yet, even I couldn’t escape the lure of thinking that, if only I were skinnier, I’d be “better.” Whatever that even means.
We all have that voice. And maybe yours has nothing to do with body dysmorphic disorder. I’ve got plenty of other trolls in my head, too. What I realized, though, while I was hanging my head into a porcelain abyss no human face should go, was that these voices weren’t going anywhere. The quicker I learned to deal with them, the better off I’d be.
I live a well-balanced life. I genuinely enjoy eating leafy greens and ancient grains and I go full-on gospel in a spin class. Living a clean lifestyle gives me clarity. I will also make a pizza disappear before you can say “cheese.” I will not count my calories anymore. I exercise to feel good about myself, not to punish my preferences, and I don’t care if I fill up on chips and salsa before my burrito arrives.
Even in the moments when the voice has overcome me — and yeah, at times it does — I will not let it destroy me. I’m allowed to be frustrated and angry at my choices and myself, but I am the only one who holds the power to change that conversation.
I don’t pause before I put food in my mouth anymore. I don’t punish myself at the gym. Sure, I’d like to be a bit tighter, more muscular, and I wouldn’t mind if there were more space between my legs, if for no other reason to avoid the feeling that my inner thighs are like two kids elbowing each other out of the way with every step. But most of the time I’m proud of the hourglass silhouette I see, even if I’m unimpressed with the jiggle in the middle. I’ve got more important things to worry about.
Not everyone has the kind of gusto for food that I do. Maybe a regimented routine of all cardio and no carbs is what makes you happy. And in that case, go on wi’cha bad self. But to me, the occasional culinary indulgence is necessary; it creates wiggle room, encourages a healthy food-life balance, and offers reprieve from the guidelines we’re so often assigning to ourselves. I don’t think we should punish ourselves for that.
When I was confronted with an eating disorder, my relationship to consumption became very complicated. It took years of psychological work to undo that fear, to find a happy medium, and to banish the anxiety that enveloped me each time food found its way to my hungry lips.
I don’t know what could have prevented me from flinging my head over a toilet after every meal and I don’t know if we ever fully kill the voice in the back of our mind that tells us, for whatever reason, that we’d be better, prettier, more likable or popular — whatever it is — if we just did X. For the rest of our lives, I think we’ll all be managing the volume and influence of that voice.
Are fitness goals a great thing to have? Yes. Give me endorphins or give me death! Will eating clean foods help us be our best selves? Absolutely. But can we scrutinize less? Can’t we create a dialogue that has less to do with this diet or that fitness trend, and focus more on moderation and overall wellness? Can we all agree to do our best, and be OK with whatever that means to us, no matter how it manifests in our physical body?
The struggle for self-acceptance is real for everyone, no matter your size, height, or appearance. We live in a world that makes it increasingly difficult to feel beautiful in our own skin. So I think we keep talking about it, encouraging people of all shapes and sizes to speak out about their moments of strength and also weakness. Because we’re all human, no matter the number on the scale.