Voices from the Backseat
September 25, 2019
The other day, my nine year old spent 15 minutes sobbing in the car. For the sake of her privacy I won’t report her words verbatim, but suffice it to say, it was a meltdown over how she looked. I was heartbroken. On reflection, I was amazed that this didn’t happen sooner. She made it to nine, nearly ten, before this particular inner monologue started up in her. Far later than it took root in me, or in most women I suspect.
I attempted to coach her through the moment. The breakdown did not respond neatly to the previous trope I employed whenever conversations about the state of one’s body came up. “Does your body do what you want it to do? If so, great. That’s all that matters.” This had worked for many years, but now I had to switch up my tactics. As I mentally scrolled through articles on the topic, I simultaneously stomped out all of my own inner critics that longed to take the easy way out and join her in wallowing sorrow. Instead, I decided to write a series of essays on my own body image journey. (Thanks, therapy!!)
Before I begin, a disclaimer: My parents did a kick-ass job. Upon reading this, mom and, to a lesser extent, dad will start blaming themselves. Guys, this is so much bigger than either of you! You did an above average job with the five of us! Look how differently we all turned out! You clearly were encouraging each of us to be our own best selves! Quit thinking that this essay has anything to do with you. You are just minor, supporting characters. So just calm down. This is but one of the many ways you screwed me up and made me the complicated, therapy-supporting citizen that I am today. I hope to succeed as spectacularly.
Chapter 1. The unclear roots of the thing
I don’t feel like doing a bunch of research on how girls form their body images. I’m sure it’s terribly complex and there are entire journals devoted to the subject. I can only report what I know.
Around the house? I guess my mom and her sisters and girlfriends were concerned about their bodies and weights. I remember a lot of conversation about avoiding a cantaloupe belly, which was their euphemism for what has come to be know as FUPA. You know, the usual stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary. Mom didn’t have a lot of diet food around the house, no Diet Rite or Tab. But she was a bit of a whole grain freak for most of my childhood. Let’s just say she stocked carob and we ate tofu before it was cool. So I did develop a bit of a “feast or famine" attitude toward coveted sweets and soda. Sweet cereals were especially intoxicating, and I still have a fascination with the milk / cereal management dilemma that can lead to massive amounts of cereal consumption in one sitting. But, again, nothing overtly problematic. Just the usual background noise.
In the ether? I grew up in the 80’s. All the women seemed to be wearing leotards, including Jane Fonda on the cover of the LP that mom had to guide her home exercise routines. I remember Special K. This was the days of the tagline, “Thanks to the K you can’t pinch and inch, on me!” and a lady in a leotard or bathing suit would pinch her thumb and finger together along her waistline and –oops!—be unable to encounter even a tiny pinch of flesh. Haha! I always was able to pinch an inch, as are most humans. One time, a goofing-around uncle went to tickle my five year old tummy and teased, “Pinch a foot! Pinch a foot!” This had to be insignificant, right? I mean, it’s just a coincidence that I remember it. It was just more background noise, right?
Around this time I developed the habit of dealing with my anxiety with food. No matter the worry--school, friends, nuclear war with Russia, the fact that we will all die eventually, what’s that bump on my cheek?--food solved it. Food is very effective at temporarily numbing feelings. That’s why so many of us turn to it so religiously. It works so good! Because mom was health obsessed, (only for about the first three of us. For the last two, it was off to the races with sugar cereals and Little Debbies. I’m just saying.) there was no typical junk food in the house. So I would turn to less obvious choices. Baking supplies like sweetened coconut, handsful of raw nuts, and raw sugar. Of course, because this was all definitely weird and off limits, I scarfed it in secret. And then I felt worse about myself, got all anxious, and eventually…well, you get the idea.
So guess what? Eventually I was able to pinch an inch. And I clearly remember the first time that this bothered me. It was summertime, and we were running around in our bathing suits. I guess I was about eight or so, in my royal blue tank with pink and orange horizontal stripes. I walked into the family room, dutifully draped a beach towel over the coveted recliner and flopped down to watch some Price is Right. And a fold appeared in my belly. Had it ever been perfectly flat? Probably not. But I saw the fat, and I grabbed it, and I hated it. And I the Slim Fast commercial suddenly made sense. No one had to create a curriculum to teach me to hate my belly fat. Life was my curriculum, and I was a dedicated student.
October 2, 2019
Amazingly, I somehow managed to avoid actual diets as a child. Mom was so busy pushing whole grains and homemade granola and raw honey that dieting for weight loss took a back seat. The house's media environment was pretty clean, too. We didn't have cable until a much later date, so other than the spokesmodel candidates on Star Search, it was a pretty non-thin-worshiping zone. Finally, the closest thing to a women’s magazine that we had in the house were back issues of “Good Housekeeping.” They didn't tend to feature diet plans that I recall, just a lot of Hints from Heloise. We were more of a “Readers Digest on the bathroom floor” kind of a house. While other girls learned about the intricacies of dieting from an early age, I studied up on lighthearted stories and built my vocabulary with word quizzes. There was also the Catholic Digest, so I was up on liturgical humor early on as well. I had a lot of guilt around food, but I never really developed a dieting way of dealing with it. Yet. I continued to bury my general anxiety and body-specific shame with surreptitious sneaking of forbidden foods.
At the same time, we Bier kids were encouraged to do something with our bodies other than look at them in the mirror. We all had to participate in at least one form of physical activity and one musical activity at any given time through eight grade. (the latter requirement was waived for Pete, much to the piano teacher's relief.) I chose dance and softball, with a brief foray into basketball. I was kind of a disaster at basketball, but it was Catholic school and dad coached, so I "played" through eight grade. I was OK at softball, but never mentally tough enough to handle the pressure. And I still tap dance so, yeah, that worked out OK.
I learned the lesson early on that, no matter how I looked, I could get my body to do stuff if I worked hard at it. In fifth grade I came home from school one fall day, devastated. It was the Presidential Fitness Challenge day, the worst day of the year: the shuttle run done with erasers, and the flexed arm hang, and the sit-up challenge. Interestingly, this particular form of public mortification still exists, under the moniker The Pacer Test. I’m always torn between being glad that kids have another way to publicly succeed in school, even if they aren’t necessarily good at the “school” part, and the memory of the abject terror and associated diarrhea that accompanied those days for me. In the fall of fourth grade, I performed miserably on the sit-ups. My soft tummy didn’t have any abs hidden underneath, apparently. For whatever reason, I took this misery to my dad, instead of the usual mom route. She would have reassured me that I was fine just the way I was and probably employed the awkward phrase, “pleasantly plump.” (Hang in there mom! You did a great job! As we'll discover later, there aren't any non-negative words for anything above average weight! It's not your fault! Just think of the carob!)
Dad suggested that if I really wanted to be good at sit ups, I could. But I needed to practice. What a novel idea. Your body could be trained to do something, no matter how it looked at that current moment. For the rest of the school year we did sit ups every night, alternating between holding each other’s feet. By the spring? I could knock out 50 in the standard 60 second time period. I got the highest number in the class. A boy accused me of cheating and lying. I honestly don’t remember what happened after that, and I wish that I could say that this started me on a lifelong habit of physical training, but the novelty wore off pretty quickly, and there were TV shows to watch. My life didn’t change dramatically when I did those 50 sit ups. I didn’t suddenly become a new person. Getting my body to do something didn't suddenly relieve me of all anxiety and change me life. This was a big clue, but of course I didn't pick up on it.
I also had a lot of reading to get done. I was busy idolizing my literary heroines: Anne Shirley, who is routinely described as "lithe," and Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Ma Ingalls is celebrated for having a waist so small that Pa’s hands could wrap around it. Did I consider the presence of corsets in these people’s lives? No. Nor did I consider the malnutrition and mind numbing manual labor. I just continued to feel non-lithe and non-worthy. I did it even without a house saturated with women's magazines or cable TV!
And then, it happened. I grew boobs magically between sixth and seventh grade, rapidly outstripping the offerings of the juniors lingerie section and never looking back. I dressed in loose clothes. My weight would fluctuate and no one really noticed, except for me, lying in bed at night, assessing whether I had three gaps between my legs as some article suggested I should (ankles, knees, upper thighs—ha, yeah right). I’d go to school the next day and hungrily devour the appearance of girls in their tight cords, silently walking as their legs never even approached each other when they walked down the hall, and I pulled my sweaters down lower.
October 9, 2019
It was around high school or college that I determined that my happiness and success was most likely tied to the way my body looked. I frantically dieted and exercised the summer before starting college, in order to take advantage of the opportunity to start over and reinvent myself. It's not so easy to escape one's neuroses, though. I silently joined the throngs of women lurching between Out of Control Eating and In Control eating. It was either black or white—I was either mindless numbing my feelings with food, or I was on some sort of a diet. I discovered the equally-effective anxiety numbing effects of extreme dieting.
While dieting, I continued to use food as a way to deal with anxiety, but just in a new and improved way! Instead of numbing my feelings with the actual consumption of food, I could use mental recitations of calorie counts as a mantra to ward off stress. During those times of dieting, at any given moment I could rattle off what I had eaten that day, and what I had left to eat before bed. I weighed myself daily, if not multiple times per day. The number dictated my mood for the day. On official weigh-in days, I carefully got up first thing, stripped naked, peed out as much as possible, and obtained a number that I recorded on whatever tracking system I was using.
Because restrictive dieting worked, I received a lot of positive reinforcement. Indeed, I succeeded according to the tenets of whatever diet I was on at the time—cabbage soup diet, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Slim Fast. I was a model participant, and I always lost weight. People would comment, and I’d smile serenely and cite diet and exercise, racking up the positive accolades and frantically waiting to drop another dress size. When I was heavier, the scale controlled me in that I was afraid to go near it. When I was dieting (only occasionally to the point of what would be considered thin), the scale controlled me in a far different way. It consumed my every waking thought.
And that’s the thing. For any number of physiological reasons, even the most extreme diets resulted in what would be defined as the thinner end of normal weight. I was never remarkably thin. And that’s the only thing that separated these times of hyper-focus on food from a stereotypical eating disorder. I was just as obsessed, just as preoccupied, just as miserable. I just never was adequately gaunt to draw negative attention. Instead, I received waves of positive attention. My anxiety-driven obsession with food and dieting was seen as a good thing. Indeed, some people reading this will probably think that I should go back to that way of being.
And I wanted to. Oh, how I wanted to go back. But after having kids, I wasn’t able to devote adequate mental energy to obsessing about my food intake. For me to succeed, according to standard criteria, I needed to eat no more than about 1100 calories a day. Did I forget to mention that? At the times that I was deemed “doing well” by the appearance-judging outside world, I was eating, at the very most, 1100 calories a day. Every day. With no room for error.
And I should mention at this point, that I married a man who never even seemed to notice what was going on with my weight! If he did, he never made any mention of it good or bad. Never. The only things I remember him saying were that I always seem to be happier when I’m exercising (true), and he’d go to the gym with me or get up early to do P90X if I wanted. I just wanted to give Jimmy his due accolades.
So. Eventually, I couldn't succeed at dieting, so I actually sought out help at an eating disorders clinic. And there I met my wonderful therapist. I hoped that she would be able to help me fix my overeating, so that I could successfully get back to fastidious dieting. After a lot of work that remains ongoing, I started to see that eating and food and what I thought about my body at given moment had more to do with how I was managing my anxiety and feelings than anything else. Guys, it was a lot of work. Years and years and lots of crying and writing and breaking up with medicine. A lot of work.
In addition to my work in therapy, I had a life changing moment when I first heard Lindy West reading from her book, Shrill. There are a handful of moments in life that I remember specifically, and I remember the first time I heard an interview with her. It was around the time that I was working intensely with my therapist to unpack all of the reasons that I was misusing food. It was fall, I was walking on the Oak Leaf trail near our home, and I was listening to an interview with Lindy West on Fresh Air. She discussed the audacious concept of being OK with a fat body just as it is, and not owing the rest of the world an explanation or an apology about it. I replayed that interview three times and walked about six miles. I was in a glorious, revelatory trance. I want quote from her book, but honestly the whole thing is quotable, and you just need to go read it.
OK, fine, here’s a quote taken from an online essay she wrote in response to a piece about being concerned about the obesity epidemic. It was later reprinted in her book:
"Fat people already are ashamed. It's taken care of. No further manpower needed on the shame front, thx. I am not concerned with whether or not fat people can change their bodies through self-discipline and "choices." Pretty much all of them have tried already. A couple of them have succeeded. Whatever. My question is, what if they try and try and try and still fail? What if they are still fat? What if they are fat forever? What do you do with them then? Do you really want millions of teenage girls to feel like they're trapped in unsightly lard prisons that are ruining their lives, and on top of that it's because of their own moral failure, and on top of that they are ruining America with the terribly expensive diabetes that they don't even have yet? You know what's shameful? A complete lack of empathy." (Lindy West. "Hello, I Am Fat," The Slog, 11 Feb, 2011.)
Lindy's interview and, later, the book honestly changed my life. For one thing, she helped me realize that I deserve to wear cute clothes at whatever size I happen to be; I don’t have to wait until I lose x number of pounds before I can dare to present myself to the world in a way that is anything other than shrouded in shame. I started standing up for my body being OK as is. I challenged the weight-shaming statements that my mom and her sisters punished themselves with. I shopped in Lane Bryant—openly! One day, when a thinner friend asked me where I got a top I was wearing, I had to tell her the Eloquii doesn’t carry her size. I was open about it. It’s weird and it’s hard, but I’m done with offering apologies for myself, or reassurances that I’m working on my body in order to make its existence acceptable.
So here’s what I do now. I try not to use food to manage my feelings. That's my diet plan. I try not to hide my eating, as that usually means it's anxiety-eating. This means definitely avoiding eating from drive-throughs. I try to do other things to manage my anxiety. I'm on medications. I check in with my therapist and my friends. I write. I don’t do punishment-style exercise anymore either. I don’t enjoy feeling like a wrung-out rag, maybe you do, but not me. I much prefer brisk walks with the dog. I discovered Barre, which makes my body feel like a wrung out rag, but in an enjoyable way. I try hard not to compare myself to others in the mirror. I usually fail, but I have to try. Am I perfect? Absolutely no way. Not even close. But if I expect my girls to be able to see themselves as beautiful and worthy no matter how they stack up to the person next to them, I have to try and give myself the same break.
October 17, 2019
So after all that unpacking and introspection, what are we left with? What are we as parents supposed to do? We are reminded constantly of the obesity epidemic in this country, the causes of which are beyond any one individual's control. But we want to prevent our kids from being victims. And knowledge is power, right? If their weights are creeping up the percentile chart, they need to know about it, right? What are we supposed to tell them to inoculate them from weight and body image misery?
It sounds astonishing, but it's true. Stop talking about weight and diet and appearance AT ALL. A 2016 guideline from the American Academy of Pediatrics is clear on this point--your conversations with your kids in regards to their relationship with food and exercise and the body that they have? Should not be about their weights. Shockingly, even well-meaning attempts to comment on a child's weight can increase their risk of both obesity AND disordered eating! I'd love it if schools stopped sending home those stupid weight report cards. They've never been shown to do any good. And definitely don't tease about weight. Even if a lighthearted comment innocently comes from a place of love? It very well may echo through a kid's life until they are writing about Special K commercials when they are 40.
Talk about what your kids' bodies ARE able to do, what they'd like them to be able to do, and make a plan to get there. Not a plan to get to a certain size or a certain appearance. Eat nourishing meals as a family. Short of a true medical indication, don't prescribe separate diets for separate people in the house. Everyone should share in the rewards of nutritional sanity. Fill your house with a healthy media environment. Include images of people of all sorts succeeding at life.
And physician, heal thyself. Speak kindly of your own body. Think kindly of your own body. Nourish your body. Move around in ways that bring you joy rather than punish you. Work on your anxiety. Go to therapy. Buy cute clothes for the size that you are. Dare to look at an image of a fat person as something other than a before. Fight the patriarchy.
And what if, despite all of your best efforts, you find yourself in the car with your nine year old, who is bewailing the misery of her fat body and subsequent worthlessness? It stinks. It stinks that you can't shield these precious beings from the slings and arrows of reality. It is hard to quell the natural fight or flight reaction to such a situation. I wanted both to run away in order to protect myself. I also wanted to literally stomp those words out of existence with all the rage my maternal instinct could muster.
Here's what I've learned is the right thing to do. I had it about half right that evening. I'll be even better the next time, because there surely will be a next time. You sit with them as they work through this spasm of grief. You act as a sink for their pain, letting it drain away so that their scars may not run deep. You don't try to correct their assertions, no matter how ugly or ridiculous they are. Correcting them would make the child wrong, in addition to whatever insults they are already piling on themselves. Sit there and let them work through it. It will kill you a little bit. It will make them a little bit stronger. A.K.A., being a parent.
Afterward, you double your resolve to fight the patriarchy in your little world. You share your thoughts with others to remind us all that most experiences are universal, and that shame withers in the light of day.
And finally, you find a better word. It really stinks that seemingly every word for "fat" is, well, heavy with negative connotations. Fat, obese, chunky, plump, rubenesque, stout, heavy. They all practically reek of judgment. I'm not nearly mentally strong enough to shoulder any of these adjectives, let alone blithely suggest them to my daughter.
Guess who gave me a better word? My poor mother who trudged through these entries even though it was hard. We officially call dibs on Zaftig. Please don't tell me that it has any bad connotations, because as of now, I'm a little bit enamored.
adjective, from the Yiddish
1. (of a woman) having a full, rounded figure; plump. (Merriam Webster)
2. Deliciously plump, or carrying your extra weight very well. (Urban Dictionary)