I originally posted this three years ago, a few months before I got married. I still struggle with this complex issue. Yesterday I even did what I wrote I’d never do and told Nina I felt fat.
I recently read Portia de Rossi’s autobiography, Unbearable Lightness, a brutal book about her struggles with anorexia. I respect her unflinching account of this time in her life: forcing herself to run sprints in a Beverly Hills parking garage (dodging people and cars) to burn off a pack of sugarless gum; lunging around her apartment, instead of walking, to burn more calories; forcing herself to throw up dinner in an airplane bathroom. She hides nothing in an attempt to show the ugly reality of the disorder.
While it made for engrossing reading, I couldn’t relate to most of it on a personal level. However, I was shocked to find myself resonating with her confession that her weight directly affected her mood. Like de Rossi, when I’m thin I don’t just feel thin; I feel more competent, confident, more “together.” When the number on the scale or the profile in the mirror or the “skinny jeans” give me the opposite message I feel lazy, ugly and less-than.
We’ve all heard the phrases: “Girls, focus on being healthy and loving yourself no matter what your size.”(Usually said by a TV personality wearing a size 2.) “Embrace your unique beauty.” (The Dove people. Remember this video?) “I’m beautiful in my way ’cause God makes no mistakes.” (Lady Gaga, fount of wise counsel.)
On this blog I tend to question conventional wisdom or cliches, and sadly that includes these. Because while I want to say these things and mean them, if I really did I wouldn’t simultaneously be clawing so hard to stay thin. I wouldn’t occasionally live on cottage cheese to lose weight before an important event or feel guilty if I eat pasta. I certainly wouldn’t waste energy obsessing about a few pounds here and there. (Wait, does obsessing burn calories????)
Don’t worry—I’m far from anorexic. Anyone who saw me shoveling down carrot cake and potato salad at the NEXT conference last week can attest to that. But I think like most women in America, I’m somewhere on the spectrum. 25% of college-age women in this country do have an eating disorder. More than half of 13-year-old girls and more than 75% of 17-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies.
It’s time to stop the madness, but how?
Most of us, if we eat nutritious, unprocessed food at least 80% of the time and do something to stay physically active, will never struggle with real obesity. Can we make peace with the bodies that result from these basically-healthy lifestyles and stop focusing on the imperfections?
This has become more personal recently. During my last visit with Matt and the kids, my future stepdaughter Nina, newly-turned 12, looked at her picture and said matter-of-factly, “My legs are fat.” This girl is 5 feet tall, weighs less than 100 pounds, and wears pants with such thin legs I sometimes have trouble getting my arm in far enough to turn them inside out for the laundry. If she’s fat, Portia is portly. But here she is, believing these legs that can outrun her brother and score soccer goals (and which, incidentally, would be the envy of any anorexic woman) are too chubby.
It’s a complicated issue. Early in her book, de Rossi describes learning to lose weight fast so she could accept a modeling job:
“There was no other option but to starve myself for the five days and hope that I could at least lose the five additional pounds I’d gained……My mother, a dieter from way back, approved of this quick-fix plan….so she reluctantly taught me a couple of her dieting tricks. Mostly they consisted of caffeinated beverages without milk, Ryvita crackers with beets and steamed vegetables. Oil, butter, dressings–everything that made food taste good–were out. Dry was in……Over the next five days, I consumed a total of 2,000 calories and lost the five pounds. I felt like I could accomplish anything. I was proud of myself, and my mother was proud of me, too.”
Although she takes responsibility for her choices, de Rossi also admits the huge influence of her mom’s behavior and expectations. As Nina’s stepmom, I’ll have a similar role; each day I can corroborate society’s messages about appearance or intentionally speak into her life with encouragement and affirmation. Of course I want to do the latter. I won’t diet in front of her, complain about my weight, or say anything about hers. I certainly won’t buy her diet pills or make comments when she eats a cookie, as Portia’s mother did.
But let me just take a cue from Portia and be completely transparent. I’m also not going to let myself gain any more weight than I have to. None of this “happy fat” thing after getting married. I may explain skipping dessert as a health choice and jogging as a stress relief tactic, and both statements will be true………in part. What I won’t tell Nina is I don’t like myself much when I’m not a size 6, that sometimes being thin is more fun than eating dessert, that I get treated better personally and professionally when I’m skinny. I won’t tell her I think those cliches about self-esteem are inspiring but idealistic. I definitely won’t teach her to let the scale affect her outlook on the day.
She’ll figure it out for herself.