I am a card-carrying member of the Ms. club; proud feminist, maiden name keeper, donor to Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, and all the rest. In my heart I believe the feminist movement played an important role in righting centuries of wrongs by raising awareness and shining light on gender inequality. That said, as much as feminism has done for my sistahs and me, it hasn’t managed to make a dent in the mindfuck that is women and body image.
Body image; the old elephant in the lady’s room. The consciousness raising groups of the late 60s, the bra burning and shaving boycotts of the 70s, the glass ceilings and shoulder pads of the 80s, the curve embracing 90s, even the photo-shopping exposés of the 2000s—all of that and that great hulking elephant is still there, trying to camouflage its bulk in the corner with a yoga mat and a Luna bar.
As comfortable as I am with who I am, I’m not so comfortable in my jeans. Though I will never be a size 4 again without some sort of parasitic tapeworm, I would like to fit in my size 8s, comfortably and without having to yank and pull and lay down on the bed to get them zipped. So yes, I have jumped on the resolution bandwagon. The diet has begun and the work outs have stepped up. I need to moderate my over-indulgences with some under-indulgences in order to even things out. It’s like the financial crisis. I’ve spent too much and now I have to put some austerity measures into place until things balance out. I am ok with that. Mostly. What makes me pause is how much I talk about it.
How many of the conversations I have with other women revolve around food and exercise? Too many. In today’s modern world there are plenty of reasons to worry about what we are putting in our mouths, as our lives become more sedentary, it’s important to make sure we keep moving. That’s not what I’m talking about, however. I’m talking about how much effort women spend talking about dieting and exercising, not to mention putting it into practice. We talk about how much we are eating, what we are not eating, what we’ve given up, what we’ve indulged in, what we miss eating, what we ate too much of which is why we are obsessing about what we are not eating. We talk about diets (Paleo, Atkins, South Beach, 5/2 fasting). We talk about exercise (yoga, Pilates, cross training, boot camp). If you’re thin and fit, you offer advice, tips, dos and don’ts, gluten-free recipes and tricks. If you’re overweight and out of shape you seek it out, looking for wheat in the chaff to avoid the chafe.
Generally speaking, most of the women I converse with are all just either side of the average. None of us are in desperate need of losing vast amounts of weight to save our health. Yet even the thinnest among us is unhappy with some body part, the fittest still striving for better definition or a flatter stomach.
None of this is unfamiliar to me. I am a daughter of the Tab and cottage cheese generation. A child of aerobicizing and Let’s Get Physical. I grew up in a house with a mother who knew the calorie count of a baked potato off the top of her head. And that is just it. The fads and the trends have come and gone, but not much else has changed. Sure, instead of putting on a leotard and sweating to the oldies, we are wearing lycra and paying a boot camp instructor to bark at us to crunch harder, squat lower and jump jack-ier. The scales are digital, the gadgets are more high-tech, and there are apps to do the math for you, but the amount of time and energy we put into thinking about it, discussing it, fretting about it—well, that hasn’t changed despite all the years of trying to be happy with ourselves. Even after decades and seminars, consciousness raising, educational initiatives and after school specials, most of us are still beating ourselves up to meet an idealized version of an imaginary woman; whether it’s the buxom, wasp waisted pin-up of the 40s or the cross trained triathlete’s body of today.
The real elephant in the room is that most of us are convinced WE are the elephant in the room.
Across my forty-some odd years, I have come across no more than a handful of women who have a truly healthy relationship with food. By healthy I mean women who eat a balanced diet without having to obsess about it, or restrict it, or count it or talk about it. Women who eat for pleasure without guilt. I will be the first to admit that as motivated as I am by wanting to be healthy, I am even more motivated by the idea of fitting back into my clothes. And if I am honest, I don’t mean the size 8s, I mean the size 6s.
We are too hard on ourselves, stretching and starving to meet an idealized image in our own heads. While I may fret about how my stomach looks hanging over the button of my jeans, when my husband sees me naked, I’m pretty sure that’s not what he’s thinking about. When I am having a coffee with a friend, or sharing a bottle of wine with another couple, I am pretty sure they aren’t tracking the caloric tally of my Rioja intake. If I’m digging a sand castle with my kids on the beach, I really shouldn’t be worrying about whether or not people think my ass is too big for a bikini or that my arms could be more toned. But I do. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
I’m not saying we should all break out the cheese puffs and stick our heads in the batter bowl. But as we’re logging those calorie counts, we should try to strive not so much for a size or a six pack, but for a healthy relationship and not one of extremes. There is a balance between never having a slice of your child’s birthday cake and eating the whole cake in by yourself in one sitting. And while we are downloading the latest app for the iPhone or worrying about the right amount of wicking in our workout wear, we should take a moment to put things in perspective.
It’s a modern, champagne problem. Surely women of the Industrial Revolution weren’t fretting over fitting an exercise program in between their factory hours. Surely all the upstairs/downstairs to-ing and fro-ing of the Victorian era precluded any need for an evening yoga classes. In a world where millions struggle to find enough to eat, we are keeping track of our calories to make sure we don’t eat too much.
I need to be the first in line to take my own advice. You would think I would know better. A card-carrying feminist, a student of Women’s Studies, a forty-something woman who blogs about knowing herself. I am just as guilty of striving for an impossible ideal. Perhaps my resolution should be more about moderation and less about size 6 or even 8.
It’s time to confront the elephant in the room and to send it back where it belongs.