A Week’s Worth Of Reflections On My Ugly, Sexy, Old, Beautiful Body
By Tina Plantamura
As I’m getting dressed, I stand in front of the mirror and assess my reflection. I am impressed with the strength and power my body has earned over the past several years. This body that has birthed three children, conquered addiction, and run five marathons continues to move with ease and fortitude, even though it — and I — are getting older.
My thighs are large and muscular. My oblique muscles are visible, and my shoulders look strong. Maybe I should take a quick photo so the next time I feel bad about myself, I will remember this moment, I think.
On Tuesday, I love my body.
I get dressed for work in the morning and choose a pair of pants that are a little too tight. I am tired and overwhelmed with everything I need to accomplish this week. My body feels heavy, and I remember that I haven’t exercised in a couple days.
I stand in front of the mirror and fixate on my thighs.
I remember the first time I noticed them; I was in seventh grade, sitting next to my friend on the gym floor. A boy I only knew by name walked by and said, “Wow, your legs are so much bigger than hers,” and I realized he was right. That same year, my mother took me shopping for a bathing suit. When I opened the dressing room door and said, “I like this one! Can we get it?” her look of approval quickly changed to disgust when she peered over my shoulder in the mirror, clearly focused on my thighs. “Oh god . . . ” she whispered.
More than 25 years later, I sometimes still hear her when I stand in front of a mirror.
I remind myself that (according to the CDC) I walk the line between “healthy” and “overweight.” I think of all the women I know who are about my height and weight, and how different our bodies are — some have lean legs and larger midsections. Some have large breasts and small waists. Some, like me, have big hips and thighs and a lean torso. Which one of us appears to be “overweight”?
I worry that it may be me.
I notice that my waist looks bigger than it usually does. And my shoulders have less muscle definition. Is this from aging? Eating too much? Not moving enough?
Throughout the day, I do my best not to catch a glimpse of myself in the giant mirror in the restroom at work. When I get home, and my husband returns from work, he puts his hands on my hips and pulls me closer for a kiss; I wonder if he’s thinking about how wide his grip now has to be.
On Wednesday, I hate my body.
My alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. so I can run six miles with a friend before work. We run this same six miles every Thursday, and even though I dread leaving my bed, I’m always glad I did. I think about how running helps my brain calm down when I’m stressed, and feel proud that I’ve invested in my health.
According to the American Psychological Association, mood enhancement occurs within five minutes of the start of exercise. By the time I return home, I’m too busy feeling great to remember that yesterday, my thighs were monstrous.
I tell myself that I look great.
My husband puts his hand on my lower back when he kisses me goodbye, and it causes a small stir. I feel desirable and coveted. Maybe even sexy. My workday goes by quickly and I can’t wait to get home.
As I drive home, I see my reflection in my car window. I look and feel strong and beautiful.
On Thursday, my body is unstoppable.
I stay in bed a little longer than I should. I think about how yesterday’s six miles won’t be enough to make those tight pants fit better. Then I wonder why I care about the pants so much. Should I just buy a bigger size? There’s nothing wrong, after all, with being a little bigger. And I can run six miles on a whim, so this extra weight is not really hindering my life.
Then again, it would be great to not have to fight with my pants.
When I get dressed for work, I opt for pants that fit. I stop thinking about my body.
At night, I get ready to go out with a friend. I don’t feel like making too much of an effort on my appearance, but it’s been a long week and I want to feel good about myself. Everything I try on looks like it’s meant for someone else, as though I stepped into a more attractive woman’s closet and dared to try on her clothes, only to find that I don’t have any business wearing them. No matter what I do, even with modest makeup, my face looks so old.
I wonder if this will be the year when I finally start freaking out about my age. I don’t want to be one of those women — I want to grow older with grace and dignity, ever aware that aging is a privilege.
But I can’t stop thinking about my hair, my clothing, how I look, how I’m changing.
On Friday, my body is old.
I wake up, and immediately regret eating all that food last night. Then I remind myself that I’m privileged to have great friends, a little money to spend, and somewhere to go. Still . . . I just ruined a healthy food streak of several days. Maybe I’ll go to that Saturday morning yoga class I’ve been meaning to take. Maybe I’ll run to the class, then run back.
No, I’ll just enjoy the leisurely morning with my family. We make breakfast and talk about how much we miss the summer. I decide that this is better than yoga.
Afternoon comes, and I get ready to go out again. Since I felt so frumpy yesterday, I choose a dress that I love. I know it’s cold out, and I’d be more comfortable in jeans, but I need to feel good about myself. I take my time getting ready, and as I stand in front of the mirror, a surge of confidence makes me smile at my reflection.
I meet some friends at a bar, and end up talking to a man who’s sitting beside me. The man tells me how gorgeous I look. After some awkward conversation, I thank him and tell him that I’m married. He carries on about how he saw me as soon as I walked in, and how lucky my husband is, and how he hopes I don’t mind that he says this.
For the rest of the night, I secretly replay his words in my head. I’m (still) desirable. I’m (still) sexy. My husband has told me these things in a thousand different ways throughout our lives, but I often question his sincerity and his perspective. Tonight a drunk stranger told me, so it must be true. I recognize it’s strange that I feel I need to hear this. But I do.
On Saturday, my body is hot.
Since I drank more than I should have on Saturday, I feel terrible. Nonetheless, I drag myself out of bed at 6:30 a.m., try and enjoy a cup of coffee, then get dressed for my usual Sunday morning group run. When I’m lazy and indulgent all weekend, I’m not allowed to sleep in on group run day. I start telling myself that I don’t really need to run today — I certainly don’t make enough efforts to be healthy, and missing one run isn’t going to make a difference. But I said I’d be there. So I go.
I hate the first mile. Then I bargain with myself, promising not to do more than three. By the third mile, I’m mildly proud of myself for making it this far and not ditching the run all together. By the fourth mile, I am fine with running four miles back, because I basically have no choice. When I get home I tell my husband the same thing I tell him almost every Sunday morning: “That sucked a little bit, but I’m glad I did it.”
When I get in the shower, I let the hot water rinse the salt from my hair and my face. I look down at my stomach and my legs, and I wonder what they’ll look like 20, 30, 40 years from now. Someday, I will long for the body that I have right now. Someday, I won’t be able to run 8 miles on a Sunday morning, work a physically demanding job, or stay out late on a Saturday night with friends.
I tell myself that from now on, I will be less critical — but I know that promise is fleeting. I spend half the day half trying to be productive, and half trying to enjoy the rest of the weekend.
I write, I cook, I talk and laugh with my family.
On Sunday, my body just is.
This week is no different than any other week. I wonder how many years I will spend feeling confident, then insecure, then confident, then insecure — a shift that happens daily, hourly, sometimes minute to minute.
I’ve spent decades already grappling with these conflicting emotions — and while some years were better than others, there was never a time in my (pre-teen through adult) life when my physical appearance was not a source of stress.
Even though the shape of my body is not my primary focus and utmost priority, I’ve spent nearly a lifetime either trying to improve what I’ve got, or convincing myself that I’m beautiful as is. If I feel confident one day and deplorable the next, how can I tell what’s real and what’s perceived? Could this daily change be evidence of body dysmorphic disorder — the chronic mental disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about a flaw in your appearance, either minor or imagined?
While studies claim that this disorder affects only about 2% of the population, experts also state that people with BDD frequently compare their appearance to others and check their appearance in mirrors or other reflective surfaces. They often camouflage their perceived flaw with make-up, hair, or clothing. They may change their body position to only allow people to see them from certain angles or in certain lighting conditions.
In some form or another, I’ve always done these things. There have been times when I declined an invitation just because I couldn’t bear the chore of trying to figure out how to make myself look presentable enough to go out in public.
Maybe I don’t have dysmorphia, but what I’m feeling is both real and almost startlingly common. A survey by Glamour magazine revealed that 97% of us are critical of our bodies every single day, and the Journal of Consumer Research reported that simply looking at an object intended to enhance beauty can make women feel worse about themselves.
I know my appearance is only a small part of what defines me as a woman. But still, nearly every day, I have moments where I hate it.
This is the first morning in days that I don’t think about the state or shape of my body. I just go through the motions of coffee, shower, get dressed, and work. I don’t think about what I should be doing more, or what I should be consuming less. I feel relieved. Why does my body matter so much to me?
Is it okay that I want to feel better? To not have to buy a bigger size since I have a stockpile of clothes that will fit just fine if I lose 5–10 pounds? Is it okay that sometimes I choose whiskey in bed with my husband over a nighttime workout? Can I make exercise a priority without making it the priority? Can I eat and drink as much as I want tonight, and run 10 miles tomorrow, just because I love how both of these things make me feel? Am I a terrible person for being scared of the thought of being too fat to move with ease, too fat for my favorite sex positions, too fat to run, too fat to curl up in my favorite chair?
Am I crazy? Unhealthy? Normal? Will I get to a point where I can just be? Will I stop desiring improvement? Will I stop finding flaws? Will I ever remain in a state of contentment, or will that always be fleeting? Does true personal body acceptance even exist? Will it ever be unconditional?
On Monday, does my body even matter?