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But We’re Working On It

It is with great joy that I share this guest post in the on going series on body image. Tara is a student in the campus ministry program I work with, an intern of mine from a summer past, and a friend. She is twenty one and a Junior at WCU, studying philosophy and working part time with students with intellectual disabilities. In her “free” time, she reads, knits and practices her Tae Kwon Do.  Please enjoy her words!

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When I was first asked to write this post, I thought that it would be an easy thing to do. However, when I sat down to actually write it, I ran into trouble. My body and I have never been the best of friends, but we’re working on that.

My image issues started in elementary school. I was always the quiet child, preferring to read during recess rather than run around playing tag. Looking for something to help with my self image, I turned to tae kwon do. This did wonders to teach me respect: for my superiors, for those of lower rank than myself, and for me. However, it did not help with my body image.

Because TKD has such focus on footwork and kicking, my thighs and calves became bigger. People never seemed to consider the fact that they were bigger  because of muscle growth. It was automatically assumed that I was fat.  It also didn’t help that I was the only girl in my seventh grade PE class who was not able to fill out a bra.

By eighth grade, I could be found wearing hoodies and jeans almost every day. PE was my own personal hell because the uniform was shorts and a tee shirt, which highlighted my big thighs and flat chest. I retreated further into my shell, throwing myself into scholastic achievement and my martial arts.

My first venture into the world of body positivity was during my sophomore year of high school. I joined my high school’s colorguard. This was a group of thirty or so girls of all shapes, sizes, and colors. My leg strength was  praised because I could march a ten minute show without becoming too fatigued. I was stretching and working out every day which helped my overall appearance. Throughout my three years on colorguard, I competed in three different uniforms. I had to overcome my issues with changing in front of others and wearing clothes that actually highlighted my curves.

My growth continued throughout my college career. I became more confident in myself as a person, which helped with my confidence in my body. The biggest impact, though, was surrounding myself with people who liked me for me. They didn’t look at my size, but my character. They decided to be my friend because of who I am.

My involvement in my school’s production of the Vagina Monologues has made the most difference in how I feel about my body. The Vagina Monologues are a series of monologues highlighting different women’s issues. Within this group, we support each other in all aspects. We are a body positive group that never shames.v

Another big support group has been my campus ministry group. We make the intentional decisions to focus Bible studies around self esteem issues, understanding that it is something that we all struggle with. I am surrounded by people who share the same faith as me, walking the same road I walk. It’s something I find comforting.

I have come a long way on my road to being okay with my body’s shape and size. I still have a ways to go, but I’m well on my way.

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This is the fourth post in a series on body image. If you have a story or wish to write an essay about your own experience with body image to post on this blog, please contact me. I would love to read it!

Additionally, if you wish to learn more about Vagina Monologues at WCU please go here or about the monologues in general, go here.

The Me I Love, The Body I Hate

It is with great joy that I share this guest post in the on going series on body image. Kristin is a very dear, long-time friend and colleague with whom I have shared many a body image frustration. It is definitely common ground for us! Please enjoy her words!

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I both love and hate my body.  Actually no it’s not really my body I love.  I love myself and I am completely confident that I am loved.  My mother made sure of the latter.  She hated her body.  As a polio survivor, when she saw her body she only ever saw the literal scars from the multiple surgeries she had between the ages of 4 and 13.  She saw the isolation of months spent laying in iron lungs and hospital beds.  She saw the loneliness of not being able to go outside and play with her siblings or do any of the normal things that children would do.  She saw the limitations of the things her body could not do.

There was one limitation that my mother never accepted – having a child.  Her parents and countless doctors told her it would be impossible.  She didn’t listen.   The pregnancy was hard and she knew there would only be one.  But my mother often told me I was the one thing she was proudest of in her life.  She may not have liked her body, but she wanted me to like mine.  She wanted me to have the confidence she rarely felt or in my opinion never gave herself credit for.  She told me I was beautiful and that I was loved.  She told me often.   I believed her.

As I grew up though my body did not look like the Barbie ideal. I have the wide hips and large bust common on my father’s side of the family but the shorter height of my mother’s side. My mother told me I was beautiful, my classmates teased me mercilessly. My mother dried my tears and in her eyes I saw her own pain but I also saw her love. I never doubted whether I mattered. I never doubted that I was loved. And I loved her. It’s hard not to love someone who loves you so unconditionally. And it is hard not to believe her. That is part of the reason why I have always loved my body because I love myself.

But I also hate my body.  I have always struggled with weight.  I have never liked the bra cup size that requires special ordering, the fact that I cannot buy regular pants without dealing with hemming them.  And bad habits, like comforting myself with food, die hard.  I still have a ways to go before I will ever be able to say I like my body.

When I see pictures of myself that show more than just my face, I don’t often like what I see.  That’s when I see the flaws.  That’s when I see what others see when they look at my body.  But when I look in the mirror I see me.  And I see my Mom.  And I see a cross on my forehead that says I am a child of God.  And that image I love.  I don’t know if I will ever like the me I see in pictures, but I pray I will always love the me I see in the mirror and be confident that I am loved.

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This is the third post in a series on body image. If you have a story or wish to write an essay about your own experience with body image to post on this blog, please contact me. I would love to read it!

Pretty

This is part of a series of posts on body image

This is, by far, one of my favorite thoughts on body image I’ve found on the internet over the past few years. It is interesting to hear what some people think about her words. More than once I’ve heard people say: wow, she sure is mad! Well yeah, I think that it is an angry poem but more than anything else there seems to be a ‘never again’ and ‘not my daughter’ kind of feel to it. And I like that very much.

However, what I really like the most is that it makes you think very seriously about the word ‘pretty’.

Recently I had my gall bladder removed. It was the first time I’d been under general anesthesia. First surgery ever (apart from wisdom teeth) and I was stunned at how difficult even routine surgery can be. Anxiety before hand, financial issues to sort through, digestive changes and foods that must be limited or eliminated altogether, wound care and scaring are the tip of the iceberg. Anesthesia wrecks havoc on your ability to feel like yourself for a long time after wounds begin to close up.

Truth is, your body is violated in surgery, even if it is only by the instruments, and it takes a while to stabilize again and move beyond that trauma.

After the surgery was over, after I came home and rested, after my aunts who had graciously come to take care of me had gone home, I stood in front of the full length mirror in my guest bedroom looking at the gigantic bandages.

Now, this is probably one of the world’s most amazing mirrors because somehow or another it is propped up against the wall in just such a way as to reflect the person gazing into it as ever so slightly slimmer than they actually are.  Quite a good deal slimmer. I would love to have it in my bedroom but I dare not touch it, lest it lose its magic! But standing there looking at my bandaged, weakened, exhausted body I was not as impressed with its usual transformative, Mirror of  Erised abilities.

Instead I was impressed with my very own human body!

Wow, I thought, someone cut into this body in four places, stuck a camera and other instruments inside and plucked out an organ! And yet, here I stand!

Here I stand.

As the days of healing time passed, the bandages came off to reveal a gigantic purple bruise as big and round as a doorknob on my belly and three other puckery pink and purple gashes. They were hideous, of course, but strangely beautiful, too. It seemed like they changed colors and shapes every day as my amazing, scarred, overweight, out of shape, beautiful human body healed itself. My Body Healed Itself! And I will never, ever see it the same again.

We often spend so much time worrying about pretty that we miss what is beautiful. It is like the word ‘nice’. Be nice. That’s such a trite thing. A bit like pretty. Vapid vapor at best. Mostly I think what we want people to be is kind. Now that’s a word with some depth. Like beautiful. Nice and pretty are what we want to be so that we can be liked by others. Kind is what we do for others and beautiful is about who we are.

The surgery wounds are, for the most part, healed. The remarkable bruise has long since faded and new skin seals what once opened to release one of my damaged organs. There are scars in every one of those places…. and scars are not pretty. But wow, they sure are beautiful!

This is the second post in a series on body image. If you have a story or wish to write an essay about your own experience with body image to post on this blog, please contact me. I would love to read it!

I Know Her Not

This is part of a series of posts on body image.

“Right. I look fine. Except I don’t,’ said Zora, tugging sadly at her man’s nightshirt. This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman’s magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki’s knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies– it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.”
Zadie Smith, On Beauty

While I never thought self-disgust was in any way how human beings were meant to experience themselves or the place from which we are intended to experience the world around us, it has, simultaneously, almost always been how I assumed everyone functioned to some degree or another. At some point I realized that the majority of men do not experience themselves and the world around them through the dark, welder’s goggle lenses of self-loathing and that most women do. I am quite aware that this is a broad generalization and make no particular apologies for it except to say yeah, I know but I’m saying it anyway. I could cite many studies that relate to my experience and most all would support it but I am not bothering to do so because that’s not the point. This isn’t a sociological essay with any scientific value. It is my experience and my reflection.

I grew up in a home that affirmed me as beautiful, smart, pretty (which isn’t the same thing as beautiful) and valuable not just as an individual but also as a loved and wanted member of the family. I was never once—not one single time—made to feel inadequate or “less than” by either of my parents because I was a girl.

That was, of course, only true within my family and only until I came into contact with the outside world, at which time my father’s near paranoid fear of the world’s evils, which were certain to be lurking around every corner waiting to snatch his precious child off to a Neverland Hell, and my mother’s certainty that some characteristic or habit would prevent others from taking me seriously, began to cloud that sense of self. Their desire to protect, love and prepare their daughter for the world collided with the world’s desire to transform every human into a base, consumable item and, just as it has been true for many a woman, a perfect storm of self-disgust was born.

I learned to dislike myself, that is to say specifically my physical body, early in elementary school because I was big, both in height and weight, and different from everyone else and could not hide from the cruelty of other children. My body was the ideal target for dodge ball, played both with the big half-inflated gym class balls and with words flung carelessly, and I hated it for its inability to cooperate, to shrink and be less obvious, to be normal. I also began to think of my body as an “it” and not “me”. That began a lifelong denial that rivaled Peter himself. I know her not. A daily practiced betrayal of the body.

I developed a woman’s curves very early, hips and breasts rounding and shaping a classic female shape out of my little girl body. By the sixth grade I was the tallest girl in the class and while other girls were reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, praying for their periods to start and begging their moms to buy them training bras they could then stuff with Kleenex, I was already in B cups, perpetually folding my arms across my chest and begging my mother for something other than Tylenol for cramps.

The pediatrician told my parents that this 5’1” eleven year old was destined to be a very tall woman. A big woman, much like today’s WNBA athletes. They searched desperately for role models as the doctor suggested. Every tall woman we came into contact with would be held as an example of beauty. “Look at that beautiful, tall woman! Her long arms and legs… someday you’ll be tall like that. She’s so beautiful and graceful and tall.” Linda Carter, the actress who played Wonder Woman, was a favorite example held up for me in the most love-filled and misguided attempt to root my body image in something powerful, feminine and good: Wonder Woman.

I never grew another inch taller and remained a 5’1”, chubby, uncoordinated girl with short blonde hair. Not Wonder Woman. Not powerful. Not good. Not beautiful. Though decidedly feminine and because I only got one out of the whole list, I hated that one. I hated my fat, my increasing comparative shortness, my ever-enlarging breasts and ever-widening hips, my thick legs and tiny feet and hands that, by their diminutiveness, even further accentuated my self-perceived enormous physical landscape.

The other girls hated me for my rapid development and I hated my body for it as well. But I could not seem to hate them because somehow I knew they hated their own bodies, too. We taught one another, long before the boys came along to teach us, how to hate our own flesh.

Both in love for another and hatred of ourselves do we hurt each other.

Much time has passed in my life since those days. I have come to see Wonder Women in every size, shape, color, age…. even my own. I’ve come to believe that hating the body to the point of denying one’s own personhood is hating oneself in both a deeply personal, whole identity way and in a broad, far-reaching way that spreads beyond the boundaries of our own skin and into the lives of others. We do not hate in a vacuum; it is contagious and poisonous. To heal our body image is to see ourselves as whole people and, therefore, to begin to heal the world.

This is the first post in a series on body image. If you have a story or wish to write an essay about your own experience with body image to post on this blog, please contact me. I would love to read it!