Thoughts on life after the PhD
I’ve been putting off this post for a long time, because the last thing I wanted to do was write a post that had anything to do with weight. I hear about weight every time I turn on the TV–gaining it, losing it, trying to keep it off, losing a lot and then gaining it back, blah blah blah. We’re bombarded with billions of dollars worth of advertising on a daily basis that’s designed to convince us that 1) we all need to be thin, 2) we should hate ourselves if we’re not thin, and 3) staying thin is just a matter of will power. So rest assured that this won’t be a post with any of those messages.
I should also mention that this post isn’t meant as a dig at people who *are* thin (as long as you’re not doing horrible things to your body or your self-esteem in order to be that way). Healthy comes in all shapes and sizes. And my definition of “thin,” by the way, is tiny, similar to the ubiquitous magazine cover models–not “slender” or “average,” but skinny. You get the idea.
Up until age 30 or so, I was thin without working at it. I attributed it to a couple of things–lucky DNA, no taste for fast food or soda and only minimal chocolate / sweet cravings, and living for six years in a city where I did LOTS of walking. One thing was for sure–I wasn’t thin through hard work or will power. I exercised, but minimally. I ate what I liked. I didn’t really understand why people around me (okay, mostly women) stressed so much about their weight, because I’d never had to.
Ever since I was an adolescent people had complemented me on my thinness. Of course they were just being polite (have you ever noticed how much women complement each other on being thin, or comfort each other when one of them is feeling less-than-thin?). But their complements suggested that my thinness was an accomplishment, and I gradually started to think that it was one. I was proud of my thinness, as if it was something I’d worked for.
After college I started to learn about all the bullshit that surrounds the thin ideal. I learned that thinness is valued in women because it’s a sign of fragility and weakness–thin women are attractive because they’re easier to dominate. I learned about the relationship between thinness and consumption, realizing that every exercise video, surgical procedure, body-shaping underwear, fad diet, and photo of an impossibly thin celebrity was designed to get me to hate my body as it was so that I’d spend a lot of money trying to change it. I learned that society is horribly unforgiving to women who don’t fit the thin ideal–not just to women who are severely overweight, but to women who have a bit of belly fat or larger-than-average butts. I learned, in a nutshell, that being thin wasn’t necessarily something I should be proud of.
I was still thin, though. And I was still proud of it.
And then around age 30, I stopped being thin. I didn’t balloon or become unhealthily large–I just went up a few dress sizes and noticed that there was belly fat where there hadn’t been any before, and that I suddenly had hips. I’m still not sure what caused it, but I can guess–age, a more sedentary lifestyle, cooking a lot of rich foods, a change in birth control pills. Whatever the reason, by age 32 I had to accept the fact that I was no longer thin. And that terrified me.
It was embarrassing to realize that as much as I talked the talk about thinness being a tool of the patriarchy and not giving in to the shallow messages of magazines and TV, I was scared to death of not being thin. I began dreading the sight of myself in photographs, expecting to see myself as I’d been in my twenties and instead confronted with a different and unfamiliar creature. I refused to diet–I still realized that dieting didn’t work, and it would only make me unhappy–but I became more conscious of what I ate and started to exercise a lot more. I became self-conscious about wearing form-fitting clothes. When an old friend sent me photos of myself in a bathing suit in 2002, I almost burst into tears.
What was much more disheartening than the physical changes in my body (which weren’t dramatic at all) was how much they upset me. What kind of modern woman was I if a few extra pounds compelled me to do sit-ups at midnight and hide from full-length mirrors? Was I a total hypocrite, preaching a philosophy that I couldn’t follow?
I still haven’t resolved these questions, but in the past three years I’ve learned a few things. One: I love food, and no fucking way am I going to count calories and cut out everything with an ounce of fat or sugar in it. Sure, for health reasons I’ll stay away from the really bad stuff, but I’m not eliminating one of life’s great joys in pursuit of a flatter stomach. Two: the message that not-thin people should hate themselves is *damn* powerful, and no amount of rationalizing and affirmation can make you immune to it 100% of the time. Three: being thin isn’t something that anyone should be proud of. Being healthy, yes, but not being thin.
When I look at the photos of myself in a bathing suit in 2002, I remember a lot of other things that were different. Back then I was in a very unhappy relationship. I lived in an apartment the size of my desk. I had few friends. Maybe, like those things, my skinny body is something that I should be relieved to leave behind. It was never something that I worked for, never something to be proud of.
Again, I’m not attacking people who *are* thin–I’ve got plenty of friends who eat healthy but heartily and look great in their naturally petite bodies. They’re not the problem–the problem is the idea that we *all* have to look like that, even if it means starving ourselves and exercising to the point of insanity.
When the myth of the thin ideal gets too overpowering, I’m lucky that there are plenty of websites and articles out there to remind me not to take a complete detour into crazy town. I especially like this quote from M. Maine and J. Kelly’s The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to be Perfect:
“The body gives us the apparatus to think, speak, touch, feel, listen, taste, smell, and sense both ourselves and what is around us. It provides the means to express our self and shape our relationships with our self and those we love. We are in the body when we reflect on life’s ongoing difficulties and joys, and when we grow in response to them.
“But we are not our bodies. You are not your body. Your body is only the vehicle; it is not the journey or the destination.”
I’ll drink (and eat) to that.
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