Normally when I ponder things I like to come to a good conclusion. Perhaps it would not be an exact solution, but at the very least an attitude to approach the dilemma. Unfortunately, I have pondered this particular subject for years, and have yet to come to a good conclusion. This is all a bit honest and raw here.
Topic: women and their weight. Or, to be more precise, women and their physical appearance in regards to how big they are. Because if there’s one thing that women hate to actually say is the NUMBER of their weight. Because whatever it is, they actually are ashamed of it. If they are so bold as to share their weight, it’s likely because they were at a different weight before that they considered shameful, and would much rather share their new weight as a less shameful number. They want to be acknowledged for their success, because less is always better. Some people with actual health issues where they are underweight, need to gain weight, deal with this social norm in awful ways. The other women in their life will actually make that person feel ashamed as well, by praising them for their underweight condition, or starkly confessing jealousy for that health problem. We don’t need to go into deep detail as to how this impacts American culture, because if you are a deep thinker at all, you know how we glamorize and sexualize the female body to the point where almost every female exposed to this culture has complicated emotional baggage when it comes to weight at best, and at worst she has eating disorders, mental health affected, and other awful things.
I have been considering this subject since I was a teenager and I noticed how much attention women pay to all of this. Even then, the teen magazines emphasizing beauty seemed shallow and dull to me. I never wanted to buy into the hype. I even hung around people with similar distance from the foo-foo rat race. We were pretty practical about appearances for high schoolers, and generally talked about other things. But despite our desires to focus on bigger things in life, you cannot escape the judgement of other people and how the social expectations for your appearance as a female permeate almost every aspect of culture. Even us all being together in a group on the lower end of the social group was a symptom of it.
Once I started reading on the various experiences of women as adults and reflected on my own life, I began to see how living as a rather dull looking woman had shaped my own experiences, and still does. And here if I confess to being plain looking, the sensitive and encouraging people will rush all over themselves to assure me, “No, you’re a beautiful woman, inside and out!” or whatever encouraging thing they happen to come up with. Because appearance is SO DAMN IMPORTANT to us we can’t let anybody we really care about think they aren’t beautiful. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, except for the fact that it’s a symptom of something rather awful. In our culture, if you aren’t beautiful, that’s a terrible, awful thing. There’s been this slide to shift the idea of beauty to include more body shapes, and to make sure we consider somebody’s intrinsic qualities when we consider them as a person. But beauty has become so deeply entangled in our self-esteem and cultural values that we would rather redefine the concept of beauty than let somebody think themselves less than beautiful.
Clarifying bit: No, I don’t think it’s awful if people call me beautiful, or anybody beautiful. Beauty often depends on the beholder. But beauty is so crucial to women’s deep feelings that the only appropriate answer to somebody questioning their beauty is to reassure somebody of their beauty. People confessing other shortfalls, like being bad at math, not being very funny, or things like being very short or tall, does not have the same emotional baggage that not being very pretty does. I don’t think I’m ugly, I even like the way I look sometimes, but it’s ok for me to recognize I am far down the beauty scale from Kristin Bell or Beyonce.
But all one has to do is pay attention to figure out what the beauty standards are. Then pay attention to how people treat those who meet more of them vs. you and others who share your physical traits. It’s really obvious if you pay attention. The thing is, everyone pays attention to this. Men and women have a sliding scale, and attractive women benefit more in many ways. They may have a few drawbacks to being so attractive. This is a social system that kinda fails everybody. But since there’s no big movement to go out of their ways to get fat and ugly again, it’s obviously not as bad as being farther down the pretty scale.
Part of enjoying adulthood has been working on many parts of myself that are intrinsic, and have nothing to do with my appearance. Which I have done in many ways, and have experienced many wonderful things. I can honestly say if I got in an awful accident today and was laying dying in a hospital bed, I wouldn’t be filled with regrets, but peace, at what I had done with my life. And as I look down the road most of my hopes and dreams have nothing to do with my appearance. So I consider a large part of this a triumph over the sexist nature of our culture.
Except that, despite my confidence in other things, so much of my life has been spent trying to be skinnier. And when I look down the road I keep that goal in mind. Even when I haven’t been actively trying, I’ve felt guilty about my lack of trying, and been negatively affected by my appearance.
On top of being plain looking to begin with, a series of genetic and life events has left me in a heavy way. I am short, almost reaching to 5’2. Short people have it rough in many ways, but the main reason a woman has it rough is that there just isn’t that many places for fat to go. I mean, plug any weight you want into here and then change the height around. Taller people look much skinnier than shorter people at the same weights. Every woman on my maternal side has been obese at some point and all except the one that has dieted constantly for the last decade still are. Even the one who has dieted would be considered medically overweight according to BMI charts (which yeah, they are debated, but value wise they still line up with American cultural appearance values just fine). I then had four children in just over five years, starting at age 20. When you have a lot of small children, you don’t have a lot of time for diet and exercise. Most of your sleep deprived, stress-filled life is spent keeping them all alive, fed, and in a house that is not filthy. Except as a women you know you should anyway, so I actually made great efforts to eat healthier all throughout that time. I went from somebody pretty clueless about nutrition to being somebody who led her family in very healthy eating on a budget. I had some dieting bouts and lost weight, then got pregnant again. Finally, after pregnancy number four, I got hypothyroidism disease. So before I could even recover from the 40-50 pound weight fluctuations from pregnancies, my body’s metabolism was hit with the equivalent of a nuclear bomb.
I have always had a pretty healthy relationship with food, neither overeating or undereating. Looking back after some recent research, I do kinda see how due to us being very low income and not having much to spend on food, we likely all ate more carbs vs. proteins than we should have. But I was the only one to gain weight from the eating habits until my husband hit thirty. So, for the past few years, having my appearance be overweight has been frustrating. Even if it had been from me hitting the Ben and Jerry’s nightly and emptying bags of chips into my maw, being overweight is frustrating anyway. But to have your outward appearance display that you are somebody who is sloppy and selfish about food when you’d tried for years to be healthy was especially disheartening. There is always practical frustrations as well. Finding flattering clothes when your body shape is very different from typically offered store clothing dimension is challenging.
But being honest and practical, nothing is worse socially than knowing you come across as fat. I am not a stranger to American culture and pressures on females especially. I live here. I know when it comes down to reality, everybody’s knee jerk reaction is disgust to fat. If you’re nice, you ignore it, if you’re more bitchy, you mock it. But here, fat is gross. Fat people are gross to look at. She’d be so pretty if she just lost some weight! And if you’ve ever been famous and then gain weight, tabloids will circle your shame like vultures over a dead rabbit.
I have visited my doctor’s office a great deal the past ten years, first for many pregnancy things, then for hypothyroid things, then for some failed attempts to figure out why I fainted last spring. My doctor has run tests, knows my health condition well, and has never put pressure to lose weight. She has encouraged eating more protein and veggies and exercising more. But I think she has a lot of hypothyroid patients and she’s seen the long term results of the disease. She probably knows that me being overweight for the rest of my life is the most likely reality. She encourages life health, and knows from all my blood tests, x-rays, and heart results that I am a very healthy person.
And I have continued to try to figure out how to lose weight. I have even found a diet that worked a bit, even if it is a difficult fit practically. I have kept at it because of it being the first thing that’s worked. When I just eat normal, healthy food, and eat normal, healthy, amounts, I gain weight because I have a metabolism problem. After four or five months the burnout of a very restrictive diet and the weight loss tapering off to nothing for the last two months has led to a re-examination of the whole weight thing. And then comes up all this baggage with weight issues. I feel like there would be some great benefits if I let it go. If instead of valuing being prettier, I put healthier as my sole concern, and just ate normally and encouraged an active lifestyle, and continued building intrinsic values in me. But my desire to be more loved, more admired, treated with more consideration and respect, looks over at how people treat pretty women. It’s not just that they are considered beautiful. They are more loved, more admired, treated with more consideration and respect. If Emma Watson or Anne Hathaway says it, it is heard across the world, because a beautiful woman is saying it. I’m not saying these women don’t have other talents. But not matter what talents they had, they wouldn’t be famous if they weren’t beautiful. Even the part of me that knows if I were 120 pounds I would be nowhere on the level of a celebrity, I know I would be praised.
I would be praised, first of all, for losing so much weight. In this system, losing weight is as much a personal triumph as getting a doctorate or raising a child. That’s not to say that anybody who has lost a great amount of weight hasn’t done a massive amount of work at a great personal cost. But when was the last time you praised anybody for gaining any amount of weight? You don’t. Nobody wants that! But the main thing I would be praised for would be fitting into the beauty standards so much better. I could spend a lot of time and money on hair and makeup and that would be great too. But nothing makes you prettier like being skinnier.
Due to my metabolism, I know that I must be restrictive the rest of my life not only if I desire to lose weight, but I must do so to avoid gaining weight. Most women gain weight as they approach and go through menopause, but I tend to gain just by existing.
This goes against many things I am for. I don’t want to have a complicated relationship with food, with many rules and restrictions. I want to eat when I’m hungry. I want to enjoy delicious things (I am an adventuresome person who enjoys epicurean experiences). Because I associate having to micromanage what you eat as a fixation with food, with a failure to value yourself unless you are skinny, with suffering from terrible self esteem. I have seen too many women at completely healthy weights avoid eating, avoid experiences, have the ‘oh I’m in front of people I can’t eat more than three cucumbers and 1/8 a piece of birthday cake’ problem. I have seen women all around me struggle with dieting and feel awful about their weight. Dieting is not emotionally neutral. Dieting is wracked with shame.
Yeah, sure, I want to lose weight to be healthy. But honestly, I am a really healthy person. I feel great most the time. I have no major health problems, I am even athletically fitter than my much more slender husband due to my tendency to pop on the elliptical more often. So the real reason is I am dieting because I am ashamed to be fat. I wish people saw me as normal person instead of a fat one. I wish I was more pretty. I wish people treated me more like a pretty person than a dowdy invisible housewife. Even though I know there are reasons behind me being overweight, that doesn’t actually make me feel better about it.
So when I am forced to track calories to lose weight, (and being hypothyroid means a much bigger deficit than regular people) I am reminded of that shame. I am remind that my social standing and how people treat me is negatively affected by my weight. I am reminded that no matter how much I’d like to live in a world where it doesn’t matter how I look, I actually live in a world where it matters a great deal how I look. I am reminded of my failures in dieting over the past ten years. I am reminded that one of the main reasons I have all this belly weight is because I gave huge sacrifices in carrying, giving birth, and caring for my children, and I had at most a year and a half between pregnancies. My children give me great joy and pride, as I have worked very hard to make sure they have their needs met to be awesome, secure, and happy people. But my body leaves me shamed. It says, “Who cares how noble she was in denying her own needs. She’s neglected her womanly duty of being beautiful above all else, and the reason doesn’t really matter.”
Recently a thread was posted on one of my forums, the topic being, “How would your life be different if you were born the opposite gender?” And it was a bit of a shock to me as I considered the implications. You can kinda mess around with a few different concepts there, because the presence and amounts of testosterone, estrogen, and other hormones do change how people act. But in most cases, your life would be very different. Your gender likely was a main consideration in many of your social relationships. But the big hit for me was this: If I had been born a man, I wouldn’t have this screwed up relationship with my weight, dieting, and beauty standards. I definitely would never have been pregnant. Statistically speaking, I likely wouldn’t have even struggled with my weight or gotten hypothyroidism. I just sat there wondering how wonderful it would to be a man, and not have to feel shame or triumph over what I put in my mouth or how carefully I managed it. Other men and women wouldn’t criticize me harshly even if I were overweight. So those were all some very depressing considerations.
I wish I could just leave all the pressures behind and enjoy eating normally. There is so much more to life than being fat or not, and life is very short. Idealistically, I would love to live in a world where people would be honored and respected for who they are, everyone would be encouraged to be healthier for life happiness, and the only pressure about weight gain or loss would be left to your medical professionals who know all of your health situation. We would encourage people to follow their dreams and conquer them, and celebrate creativity, acts of great humanitarianism, intelligence, and triumphs of various natures, all regardless of the physical appearances of the people involved. But, I live in this world, where it is hard to find any group of women having any conversation without weight loss or appearance references coming up. Football stars and actors make much more money than teachers and scientists. In this world, I am afraid of gaining the weight back, and I am afraid of gaining so much weight back I am much fatter than I was. In fact, if you look at statistics about dieting, that’s normally what happens to dieting women. Lifestyle changes are supposed to be much healthier long-term, but my gradual lifestyle changes admittedly haven’t done much for me. So to dieting I go. Back to shaming myself, and trying for a ‘better’ me.
This week I got a tummy bug, and after a few days of this I weighed myself and found I had lost eight pounds, and my first reaction was glee. Of course, logic caught up. Wow, it’s from being unhealthy, and it’s likely water weight and will come back. But like almost all of you, any lower number on the scale will make me a bit happier.
I turn 31 this week. I don’t know how many years of existence I have, and it depresses me to think that so much of it will continue to be impacted by this struggle. I know as I age, my already bad metabolism will get worse. It’s dreadful to anticipate. It would be nice if dieting were a one-time thing. Or even a struggle-with-it-a-while, succeed-and-be-done thing like getting a doctorate or raising children. But in many cases, the weight comes back. When I’m working on dieting, I’m also haunted by the threat that all this effort could be wiped out.
Part of me just can’t wait till I get to some future age where it’s acceptable to just throw all this crap out the window and live it up because the end draws nigh. If you ever see me packing a Nutella jar around in my purse, I probably will have reached that age.
There are many parts of me, I have many interests. When I step back and think I can think of many things about myself I like, and I know I am a creative, smart person who is great at caring for people. I work hard at getting better at those things, and at age thirty I’ve improved in all of them! But none of those things concern me like my weight does. I feel like when it comes to weight, I’ve consistently gotten worse with age. I know that’s wrong. I know the former should matter more than the latter.
Another clarifying bit: I recognize that there are mentally healthy approaches to weight loss, and have used them myself. It’s taking the emotion out of it, and figuring out your health interests, and effective ways to pursue them. If dieting and losing weight were as simple as the mechanics (I eat less calories than I burn, I exercise 30 minutes thrice a week for heart health, and I can aim for this healthy weight I set up with my doctor, etc) then I wouldn’t have this complicated emotional stuff that comes up sometimes. Most of the time, I am able to approach weight loss mechanics without my baggage. But sometimes I get extra stressed, burned out, or emotional, and the baggage comes up. This post is an attempt to recognize the emotional baggage for what it is.
As a person who’s always been at the lower end of the social ladder, I don’t even have harsh standards for other people. I really do focus more on who they are, what they like, what we have in common and ways to enjoy each other as people. As a result I actually have wonderful people around me, who are supportive and wonderful, funny, smart, a bit naughty, creative, and many other things that come to mind when I think of them, not what they look like or should look like. It’s much tougher to extend that same grace to myself. I suspect other women may be that way too. I wonder if voicing our inner harsh critic of ourselves encourages other people to let their inner critic be an asshole as well. I try not to voice mine most of the time. I don’t know if it helps. But just because I don’t share about it doesn’t mean I actually like myself all the way! This is an honest post, folks.
There we have it. Honest post is honest. And ugly. Whew. Do you feel similar things? Do you, too, wish you could punch your inner critic in the guts with a mace and finally life your life the way you want to? Are you fed up with the impact of beauty standards in your life? Let me know in the comments, or write your own blog and link me. This is therapy blogging, folks. Honesty is ok.