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The Hunger Games

2011 June 6

Yes, I did start reading Suzanne Collins’ rampantly popular series The Hunger Games last week, but that’s not what this post is about. (Expect that post later this week). This post is about a conversation I had with a friend this weekend that I found very interesting.

It began with a seemingly innocuous discussion about the caloric advantages of drinking cocktails rather than beer. Then, my friend remarked that it was so easy to talk to me about things like diet and exercise, and it was surprising because it didn’t seem as though I had ever been overweight or had any weight problems. While this is true, I don’t think that being body conscious is solely the domain of people with “weight problem” histories. This is not to say I’m not at fault: I find myself sometimes making similar assumptions–last week, my office ran a seminar on nutrition and losing weight, and I expected those in attendance to be on the heavier side. Of course, I was wrong, and all types of people attended the seminar.

I have been fortunate to be blessed with a pretty good metabolism and have never been “overweight.” However, I have always been conscious of my body’s shape, my eating habits, and my physical fitness. Of course, I aspire to be fit and feel sad when my jeans fit too snugly (which seems to be all too often these days). I try to eat healthy while still allowing myself to indulge, but it’s difficult to find a good balance. Admittedly, I often feel more negative about the way I look than positive. But I thought most women felt this way. Which is why it came as such a surprise to me that my friend seemed fascinated by our discussions about diet and exercise. I should have been better able to articulate this during our conversation at the bar, but alas, we were at the bar…barstool articulation is not always my strong suit.

Basically, I think you can be body-conscious without ever having struggled, in the traditional sense, with weight issues. I know plenty of  women who are not happy with the way they look, or at least are very aware of the food they eat and the exercise they get, no matter what their body shape.  Maybe we should all appreciate what we have, but let’s be honest–this is not Utopia. We’re all trying to live up to some Hollywood stereotype of beauty and fitness, even if we say we’re not.

What do you think? Should women worry about body image, regardless of whether or not they’ve ever been overweight or underweight? Does any of this make sense at all? “Weigh” in in the comments. (I should go into comedy).

*image by Phoebe Rudomino, via Underwater in Art.

7 Responses Post a comment
  1. meghan permalink
    June 6, 2011

    How appropriate for bathing suit season! Anyway, I think one of the unfortunate side effects of being a woman in 2011 is that we are very conscious of how we look. As someone who was a chubby pre-teen, I was incredibly conscious of being “fat” in high school, even though I wasn’t. I in fact have very rarely been overweight in terms of BMI, though I would no longer consider myself “skinny” as I was in college and high school. My issues come more from being broad-shouldered and having an apple shape which is not really in line with received wisdom about femininity and attractiveness. (I think a lot of these issues come from messages I received from friends and family growing up, but also from my tendency to take away the negative rather than the positive!) As I have grown older I find I care less and less about this as I have become more confident in myself, however, certain things like dress and bathing suit shopping can set back my self-confidence and body image for a few days. When I start to feel down about it though, I go to the gym or go out for a run and give thanks for what my body can do. I really like eating and drinking and doubt I will ever ban pizza or beer from my diet, but I do try to make healthy choices (does light beer count?). I focus on health and testing my athletic abilities (or lack thereof) instead of size and that seems to be the more positive way to go about it for me.

  2. June 6, 2011

    I find it really hard to think of a girl I know that ISN’T body-conscious. Judging from your friend’s experience, I bet most people would look at me, see that I’m at a healthy weight and very athletic, and think, “I bet she doesn’t have body issues.” BUT OH MAN DO I. I have long since given up trying to “diet,” as one day I just refused to let my body image interfere with my love of food, but I do go out of my way to make healthy choices. And more importantly, many would think my workout routine is borderline abusive because I feel fat and lazy if i don’t workout twice a day.

    I went through a phase in freshman year of college before I joined the crew team where i gained some weight, and I have this really vivid memory of my dad telling me, “wow, you really got fat, huh?” while I was home on a break (although I think i only got as big as a size 10, which is NOT fat. thanks dad). Ever since then, especially when I go home to my parents, I’ve been really self-conscious of my body, even now when I’m in really great shape.

    Sometimes I think we don’t even know what our bodies ACTUALLY look like: we look in the mirror and see what we think it looks like, forcing ourselves to be dissatisfied with the image, no matter what it really is.

    Every so often there comes a day (or a facebook photo) where someone comments, “wow! you look SO GREAT!” and I think I look awful. And I end up believing myself instead of the friend/random commenter. why is that?!

  3. Mal permalink
    June 6, 2011

    My body-image issues also stem from my parents–it’s really the only thing I worry about when I go back to visit them. I’ll amp-up my workout routine months before I see them and weigh myself every day, just so that I hope they will say I look really fit. I know it isn’t logical (aside from one year of study abroad that resulted in some extra Guinness poundage I’ve been the same size since I was 16), but I still get incredibly nervous about it.

    I remember trying on bathing suits with my mother when I was 12–she poked my stomach and said, “You’ll have to lose that by summer.” I think that’s when the self-ridicule started. I don’t even think my mom knew what she was saying. I’m terrified that I will pass down the same insecurities to my children, or that they’ll see me looking in the mirror, poking and prodding at softer areas, and think it’s normal or healthy.

    Mostly I am disgusted with the amount of time and effort that I put into thinking about it. If I could just accept my body, run and workout because I like it, and stop trying to mold myself into something that is completely impossible, I feel like I would actually get more done in my day, and that’s pretty sad. Hopefully I’ll be able to accept my size and my body one day, but I honestly don’t even know how to take steps in that direction other than throwing away my scale (and mirrors).

  4. June 7, 2011

    I’m not overweight but I have terrible body image issues. My parents had an irrational fear of my siblings and me becoming fat, even though they were not overweight and neither were we. We hardly ever sat down to a meal without hearing something like, “Too much–insert food type–will make you fat.” My mom never bought junk food, and rigorously controlled everything we ate. Cheerios were considered a treat in my house. Once, when my sister had gained some weight, our father said to her, “No one loves a fat girl.” People blame Barbie and the fashion industry for body image issues? They should blame parents. Barbie never made me feel fat.

    I just finished reading Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata, a science writer for the New York Times. It’s good, if a little discouraging to people who hope they can find the right diet and finally lose weight. It appears that everybody has a set weight range. You can live at the low or high end of your own range, but permanently escaping it is extraordinarily difficult. Experiments done on thin people have shown that it’s as difficult to make a naturally thin person become obese as it is for an obese person to lose a lot of weight and keep it off.

  5. June 8, 2011

    What a good post, Jill. This is such an enormous issue, and I think that there are too many factors affecting women’s body issues to count. There is no escaping at least thinking about your body image – do you like your size or not – but I think that the important thing is trying to maintain perspective and learning to love what you’ve got. I know that this will be a life-long project for me, as I’m sure it is for a lot of women, because we are essentially encouraged to hate our bodies. I remember in middle school and high school, the locker room or sleepovers would at some point involved everyone pointing out what she DIDN’T like about her body. It was like a competition to see who could want to change the most things about herself, whether that meant her arms, tummy, legs, hair, etc. And most often, these were my fellow athletes who were fit, healthy and young, and yet they still perceived their legs and arms as fat.

    So like Liz said, I think that so often we look at our bodies and have no understanding of what we really look like. We need to focus on being healthy (exercising and eating well), instead of focusing on losing weight. I would hope that if we did that, women would better understand their bodies and learn to appreciate what they have. So much easier said than done, of course.

    At the risk of rambling, I have one last thought! As a friend, I try so hard to be positive about my body and my friends’ body image when I’m hanging out with my girlfriends. Instead of allowing them to make ludicrous comments about their size, I try to point out how silly they’re being and how beautiful they truly are. And if the conversation goes to self-hate land, I nip that in the bud. We can’t allow each other to indulge in critiquing our bodies; we need to support our friends in making healthy lifestyle choices and having a more realistic understanding of our bodies. Like Patience, Mal and Liz mentioned, words are so powerful, and we don’t forget things people we care about say to us.

  6. Raquel permalink
    June 8, 2011

    Jill, I’m glad to see that you posted this! I have struggled with body image and weight issues since age 8 (AGE FREAKIN EIGHT, when most girls are running and playing, I was thinking about my fat thighs!) and am only now, at age 30, truly starting to address them and get to the heart of what’s causing them. I think the reason your friend was surprised is because of what you said: physical appearance leads people to make assumptions about one’s emotional state. I’ve known very thin women who were anguished over their bodies. I’ve met fat women, fatter than me, who were in love with their looks and confident in themselves.

    The real issue for me is that those of us who are larger/plus-sized women bear an even heavier weight (excuse the pun) or a stigma because many of us physically wear our issues on our bodies in a way others can see more easily. When we cannot fit into some garment in a shop, when our rolls protrude or jiggle, when we need to shift in a subway seat to fit in it better–there are a thousand little daily physical manifestations of what we are going through on the inside. I think about my body and its size many more times a day than I probably should, simply because my body is bigger and doesn’t fit into a fat-phobic society’s rigid standards of “normal.”

    This being said, I never assume that someone doesn’t have issues with eating, weight, or their body simply because of how they look. I just feel like people tend to assume that larger women automatically have issues and smaller women don’t. We’re all human; we’re all subjected to the tyrannical body obsession of our society. Some of us, fat or thin, are able to ignore it and accept ourselves unconditionally. Many more of us, fat or thin, are unable to ignore it and find ourselves struggling with these issues. I appreciate your honesty in opening this subject for conversation. It’s vital that women keep talking about this, and it’s vital that our society stop vilifying fat, fat bodies, and fat people. I am, by all medical standards, “fat,” and yet I am really healthy in terms of cholesterol, blood pressure, heart rate, blood levels, etc., as well as eating a decent diet and getting off my ass–so why is society telling me I’m unhealthy? Fat is not the problem. Society’s problem with fat is the problem.

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