For years – most of my life – I have struggled with body image issues. I have a mother who, at the age of 83, is still dieting. As a child my best friend was put on a diet at the age of 11. As a child I was what you would call sturdy. I wasn’t fat, but I wasn’t skinny. Just solid. But growing up in the age of Twiggy that seemed fat.
I look back now at pictures from my childhood and adolescence and see that I was fine. I wasn’t fat. But I felt fat. I went on my first diet when I was 12. When I was 19 I went on a diet where I would alternate between eating 500 calories a day for a week, then having a week of normal eating. I lost 30 pounds in 3 months this way, and I was really too thin at the end.
Throughout my 20’s and into my 30’s I was up and down 10 or 15 pounds, but in reality even with the extra 15 pounds I was fine. But I didn’t think I was. When I had surgery at 34 I gained about 15 pounds from my low, and when I got married at 35 I put on another 10 or 15 so I was at my highest weight since before the 500 calorie a day diet.
My marriage was not a happy one, and it was clear that my husband had issues with people who were overweight. During the eight years we were married I gained 100 pounds, putting on 50 in just one year. It was a good distancing technique, although I wasn’t consciously gaining weight to distance from him.
Within a few years of when the marriage ended I lost 50 pounds, but was still 50 pounds heavier than when I came to the marriage. I struggled with feeling unattractive, especially as I hit the age of 50 and began looking “old” in addition to being overweight.
The counterpoint to this was that I didn’t want to be judged for being fat and old, I wanted to be loved for who I really was on the inside, even though I judged myself more harshly than many others. It was a real balancing act. I am not my body, but I hate my body. I am lovable just as I am, I don’t love myself just as I am.
A couple of years ago I was talking about this with my therapist. His question for me was “how much weight do you have to gain to prove that you are lovable as you are?” A good question. I didn’t know the answer.
Then about a month ago during my annual physical my doctor suggested we do blood work for cholesterol as mine had been borderline two years earlier. I dreaded the idea because I knew what the results would be. I had been telling myself that it was okay to be overweight because I was healthy. But if that were no longer true, then what? I’d be in quite the dilemma between loving myself as I am and showing love for myself by taking care of my body.
A week or so later I got the call. I wasn’t able to answer the phone, and so my doctor left a message to call back for the test results. I just lost it. I never wanted to call back and hear the results. I felt like I wanted to run away. I just knew that she (my doc), who is a thin person, was judging me for being lazy, slovenly, not good enough as a fat person. I was so distraught and upset I knew that I had to do something.
I started journaling. I’ve found this to be a good way for me to work through how I’m feeling about something. I said some really awful things to myself about being overweight; all the things I was projecting onto my doctor and others. And then it hit me: I was making my body my identity.
Somewhere in me a switch flipped. I got it. I am not my body. The real me inhabits this body, but my value and goodness as a person has nothing to do with the shape (or age) of my body.
Just like coming to understand and feel my wholeness in my heart for the first time, I felt and knew in my heart that I was not my body. It was very different from holding the idea in my head and wanting to believe it. I really did believe it.
I began to meditate on this idea. Very quickly I came to the understanding that I can love myself – and my body – just as I am right now and still do the things I need to do to take care of my body. By taking care of my body I am not saying there is something wrong with who I am as a person, or even the shape and size of my body. I am showing love for myself by doing things that keep me healthy.
For the past few weeks I’ve been paying attention to what I eat, reading labels, recording everything I eat in order to lower my cholesterol through diet. I’ve been using an online tracking tool to keep me honest about how much fat, saturated fat and cholesterol I’m eating daily.
This tool asks for your current weight. I chose to guess at my weight since my goal is not to be a certain weight, but to lower my cholesterol. After two weeks I did weigh myself, and I weighed less than I would have guessed. But I’m not going to get hung up on what the number on the scale is. My goal is to have a healthy body, regardless of how much it weighs.
My attitude about these dietary changes has been much different than when I’ve dieted to lose weight in the past. I am much more flexible and lenient with myself. I have targets around fat and saturated fat, but if there is a day where I’m over my target I know there will be another day when I am under, and that I’m moving in the right direction.
I’d like to say that I no longer have any body image issues, but that isn’t true. What is true, however, is that I am much less focused on being critical of my body and consequently much less focused on what I imagine other people are thinking about it. I do love myself, and I’m learning to love my body however it may look.