It was their ritual: the women would stand around the kitchen counter and talk about what they were and were not eating for the next few weeks. Last month they were on a Weight Watchers kick and passed around a recipe for a casserole that was only 8 points per serving. Glorious.
The older one – silver-haired and stunning, her skin soft and pillowy and everything you hope your skin feels like when you’re 65 – has recently discovered Atkins. She declares that bread is a sin now.
She slides me and my sister each a plate of cinnamon rolls that she made by hand. I stare at them calculating my next move. I love that I can expect to devour no less than five of these every time I come to her house, feeling no shame about my sticky fingers and hazy, post-binge nap that will happen once I turn on Nickelodeon. My family doesn’t have a lot of traditions, but these cinnamon rolls are sacred to me. Holy, even, for their consistency in my life. Now they’re dangerous.
So I decide to eat four and then go to the bathroom. I kneel by the toilet for a good 20 minutes, experimenting with the different ways to stick two fingers down my throat in just the right way to trigger the system my body was wired with for stuff that didn’t belong. It looks like I’m praying and I think I probably was, in my own way. Except nothing happened. No matter what angle I tried it just didn’t work. I failed for saying yes to temptation and now I wouldn’t even be allowed to join the sacred circle of stopping calories from setting up camp on my body.
I watched women I admired restrict, exercise, count, and wear themselves out trying to one day be smaller. This was around the time that I poked at my own thighs, wondering why others looked different in the destroyed, low-rise jeans that were the status symbol of every suburban girl in the mid-2000s. They gained all the bumps of early womanhood and yet it’s like their limbs still didn’t know what fat was, all twig legs and knobby knees. Later I learned that the secret was cocaine and eating disorders, but I still envied the figures I saw in the magazines. I was shaped more like a piece of Playdough that, with a creative mind, could be a great mermaid one day if it was stretched and rolled out in the proper places.
I saw first-hand how the disappointment of cheating on a diet could far outweigh the triumph of losing 5 pounds when I watched the women of the kitchen counter “fail” every few months or so. I remember looking at the dimpled parts of my own thighs, thinking that if I just spent more time on the elliptical or skipped breakfast then this “ugly” part of me would disappear and I would be one step closer to acceptable. I may even be wanted one day, if my calves had more definition and my hot dog legs began to look like my sister’s soccer-player toned extremities.
But I chose swimming over soccer. I was active but never an athlete. I ate fruits and veggies and participated in the occasional Taco Bell run after practice. I’ve had cellulite since I was 17 and spent years trying to hide my body from being seen up close and unfiltered.
Today I am textbook healthy – eating whole foods, exercising regularly and enjoying the occasional (and appreciated) pint of Ben & Jerry’s or glass (or 3…) of wine. You wouldn’t look at me and think that I have the body of a supermodel which is fine because I don’t. And I likely never will due to the culture we live in and given that my love affair with carbs will not die until a doctor medically pronounces me allergic to gluten and I risk certain death every time I eat it. Plus, I have thighs. They bring me places and help me run and have a lot of surface area to snuggle dogs. But they don't look like the majority of thighs seen on Instagram.
Summer is tough for me. Sunshine brings shorts, skin and exposure. I often feel insecure. Remnants of what I learned at the kitchen counter like to be loud. They convince me that I’m not good enough until I am 10 pounds lighter and I shouldn’t even think of myself as beautiful until my stomach is flatter. I’m learning to identify those voices and knock out their front teeth. (Metaphorically, of course.) But my insecurities don’t have the same diminishing power over me when I speak openly about them.
So here we are and it scares me. I want to speak light into the spaces that don’t get dusted off very often. I want to help others experience the lost-and-found feeling of “Me too.” This means I have to be honest, even about things like body image, and that’s really hard. Chances are you’ve probably felt the same kinds of shame and embarrassment around your own skin. Whether it was too big or too small or too brown or too pale or had hair in weird places, it is a freaking journey to learn how to love all parts of yourself.
The body positivity movement has been growing in popularity, which I think is great because we need more diversity in media FOR SURE, but it seems to focus a lot on becoming confident by exposing your skin in any state. Which is fine, but to me this doesn’t encompass all of what a healthy body image is. I don’t want to feel like I have to put myself on display in order to change the narrative.
There’s this word in the Bible called shalom that Jesus used throughout his ministry which dates back to the O.G. Jewish days and I’m obsessed with it. Basically it means peace, but as a concept of ultimate balance and wholeness. When you spoke shalom over peoples’ lives, you were saying that you hope every aspect of their life is complete and no part is upstaging the other. It’s a powerful image of what humans were always created to be – enough by existing, resting in the fact that they have no reason to want because everything they need is just as it is: holy and good and loved. This also means you don’t have to PROVE yourself as valuable either. You just are.
Theologians, if I’ve gotten shalom all wrong please by all means correct me. And same for BoPo folks – I would love to learn if there’s an aspect of this movement that I’m not educated about! But even if I totally messed up the Hebrew or hashtag, I’m still sure that either way tells us we are created worthy enough for love at any state of being your body is in.
People shouldn’t have to feel like whispering to their inner circle if they want to make changes to their diets or their bodies – especially for the sake of physical or mental health. We all could benefit from the “good for you, not for me” mindset. But I also pray that your participation in another round of Whole 30 is a pursuit of wellness rather than an attempt to feel validated through something as trivial as a dress size.
Don’t diminish yourself and waste your life chasing an image that is anything less than what is true: that bodies are weird and different and beautiful, the media is the absolute worst measuring tape, and the sexiest quality a person can possess is their unapologetic willingness to be themselves.
Our existence is not measured by a number on a pair of jeans whether it’s on one side of the chart or another. You were made to occupy the place in the world that your body fills. Stretch out, breathe into the white space and fill it with gratitude. What’s really beautiful is what you do with the life you were given. I hope mine is marked more by how I loved rather than how much I was able to lose or show.
I’m speaking shalom over you – over the parts you worked hard for and the parts that someone told you aren’t there yet. My advice is to buy the dress. You know the one. Wear it out instead of letting it hang in your closet waiting for “good enough”. All of you is golden, even the hidden parts, and that dress is one little step into making your whole life a victory march. So wear the dress. And eat a damn cinnamon roll.