Our culture is one driven in many ways by sex, beauty and the images of both. We’ve always heard that “sex sells” and as such nearly every product sold here is advertised by lengthy, toned and tanned models with perfect skin and hair. From a young age, I think these images shape our perceptions, especially those of us girls, of what the “ideal” is for the appearance of women and even men. As such, I don’t think the story I am about to share is much different from most girls and women today.
From about the time I was in junior high, I began struggling with both my and others’ perceptions of my physical appearance.
Unlike the rest of the girls in my junior high, I never “shot up” and instead I remained under five feet tall well into my sophmore year of high school. These days I top out at a whopping 5’2″. I was encouraged to wear “tall shoes” to compensate. At the time platform white tennis shoes and wedges were really in. I quickly discovered the pain that comes from trying to make yourself something you are not in the form of excrutiating shin splints at the end of every day.
Next came the acne. I was nicknamed “stucco head” at the time because that was precisely what my forehead resembled.
Also unfortunate for me was that I still had a super fast metabolism. So when all the girls my age were getting perfect curves in all the right places, I was skin and bones. It used to be great fun among my friends to see who could fit a single hand around various body parts (wrist, ankle, stomach, etc.) or try and feel my ribs. Soon this changed, however, and just like all my other girlfriends the metabolism slowed down.
I didn’t exactly like the results. I was taking a ballet class at the time and one week I suddenly felt like I was twice the size of the other girls in my class. Just to put things in perspective though, I was still under 100lbs.
Around this time I remember consciously making the decision to skip a meal. Then two. Eventually, I got to the point where I could go whole days without eating. I’d tell my parents that I wasn’t hungry or that I’d already eaten. Some days they were on to me and made me eat. I hated these days. This sounds cheesy, but a Lifetime movie came on all about this girl that died from an eating disorder. So I started eating again. Because I didn’t want to die.
The struggle with my appearance in comparison to others didn’t just end there though. It was and is always there. Festering and nagging me.
My next attempt at control was vegetarianism. I knew that meats had a lot of fat in them. I figured I could make everyone happy by still eating, but eliminating meat would be an easy way to get rid of calories and fat. My parents weren’t into “special” meals though so I was often stuck with steamed veggies or salads (iceberg, tomato, carrot, shredded cheese and ranch dressing). It got old really quick. One day, I just wanted a hamburger and that was the end of my being a vegetarian.
Right around this time I was finishing high school and lot of good things were happening in my life. I had a circle of friends that came in all sorts of different shapes, colors and sizes. We were friends because we liked eachother for who we were. I was going to church and discovered that God loved me for who I am.
These, among a few other things, really started to pave the road to my learning to be OK with the way I am.
But I was (and am not) cured.
Right about the middle of my freshman year of college I got Valley Fever. As scary as this virus can be for people (mostly because of secondary infections like pneumonia), my only symptoms were a one time case of violent hives, a cyst in my lung that I didn’t really even know about until they took an x-ray, some funky blood count, extreme exhaustion and complete lack of appetite. I lost 40lbs in a month. I was scary skinny.
Once I finished up my anti-virals, gained about 10lbs back, and started remingling with the rest of the world it quickly became apparent to most other people that I saw that I “looked good.” It seemed like everywhere I went people that hadn’t seen me in awhile said that and wanted to know about my diet, fitness routine, etc.
I knew that the only reason I looked so good was that I had barely eaten anything. I knew this wasn’t healthy or a healthy way to maintain an “ideal” weight. I knew that I shouldn’t be excited about others’ perceptions of me because it wasn’t a real possibility for my body under normal conditions.
But I was happy with what they said. I was happy with the way I looked. I was happy that I could share clothes with my sisters again. That I could fit into the “skinny” jeans in the back of my closet that I never wore.
As the pounds came back on, I decided to accept that this was the way I am and I just wasn’t ever going to be as pretty or skinny as the other girls, models, actresses, etc. Besides I’d met and started dating Stephen at this point and he liked me so I figured this was just a dumb thing I had in my head I needed to get over.
When we decided to get married I went on birth control and like most women blew up like a big balloon. No amount of eating healthy or working out could combat it. So I gave up. Not having kids was more important to me than being skinny.
By the time I finally went off birth control I was wearing a size 14 and I weighed 168lbs. There were stinging comments from well meaning friends and family trying to motivate me. I knew that I was overweight for my height. I cringed at pictures of myself. It just seemed a hopeless cause.
And then I got pregnant. If you’ve read the birth story you know that I went from 168 to 136lbs in the first trimester because of all the throwing up I did. Once I started feeling better, I was again greeted by friends and family members telling me that I looked “soooo good!” and that you couldn’t even tell that I was pregnant. Other pregnant friends were jealous of my barely there tummy. And when I looked in the mirror, the double chin was gone.
Even after I had my baby people wanted to know what I was doing and they just couldn’t get over the fact that I looked so good. What to tell them? How to respond? I wasn’t doing anything. I had only gained 12lbs my whole pregnancy. I weighed less after giving birth than I did pre-pregnancy.
The thing is, I’ve never really resolved that nagging, festering mode of thought about my appearance. My last pregnancy update post on baby #2 is full of it. And this time around (for the most part) I’ve also gotten the “you look so good” comments that I don’t know how to respond to. My midwife and I jokingly refer to my “luck” at not gaining much weight as “Lisa’s pregnancy diet.”
As of this writing I currently weigh 145lbs. I started out the pregnancy at 136lbs. At my sickest point I weighed 134lbs. The only maternity pants that fit me are size 2 or small. Most of my pre-pregnancy clothes still fit me. Most of my maternity clothes from Bean are like a tent on me.
But is this something to really be proud of? Especially considering the unhealthy manner in which is was achieved? What do I really say to the people who want to know my secret? And what about the other people who think that even this is too much weight? What do you say to yourself when you feel and see huge in the mirror?
I don’t really know if I have the answer. I do know that the “ideal” we are fed through the media is not achievable for me or most other women. I know that I am tired of being compared and comparing. And honestly, I’m kind of sick of compliments on appearance in general because I don’t look “so good” or “so much better” than you or anyone else. I look like me and the way I’m supposed to look based on me being a unique individual, my genes, lifestyle, habits, diet, how much time and energy I decided to put into personal grooming that morning, etc.
“Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting…”