Wake up to change

 
 
 

When I was growing up, every adult woman I knew was either on a diet or talking about how she should be on a diet. She was often seen wearing colorful spandex and Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Richard Simmons on VHS or waking up early to try and rid her body of yesterday’s poor food choices with Charlene Prickett on the popular exercise show, It Figures. Everywhere I looked I saw evidence of what it meant to be female – to obsess about your diet and weight – and knew I needed to get on board if I wanted to make it in this life.

At the age of 12, I was fully immersed in the idea that to be a successful female I had to be fit and thin and traded in a joy of walking for a more purposeful jog. I would grab my favorite heavy metal band on cassette tape, put on my Walkman, and hit the pavement for an hour every evening. By 15 I understood that my diet had as much to do with my overall physique as my ability to work out, so I began to track what I was eating and take in as much information about “healthy diets” as I could. The Internet was not something I’d even heard of at that point, so magazines and books were my go-to for learning about how to stay “healthy”.

I traded in my subscription to Teen Beat for issues of Shape, Cosmopolitan, and even perused the occasional Women’s World, all of which were filled with the best get-thin-quick guides. I set my alarm for 6:00am to get my aerobic workout done before school. I even spent a few months in a relationship with bulimia before I realized that wasn’t a path I wanted to be on.

With each passing year, and each passing diet and workout fad, I felt I had a grasp on this whole health thing. Yet, somehow, nothing was ever quite good enough. I was never super happy with how I looked and wasn’t sure I was as healthy as I could be (should be?). But that didn’t stop me from continuing to find the next best thing to make me feel good about myself and how I looked.

I should pause to mention here, so you grasp the true absurdity of the situation, I was 5’3” and in high school I barely tipped the scale over 100 pounds. I tell you this because it speaks to the impossible beauty standards set by society to make every woman feel like she’s not good enough. I was already thin, yet I was spending so much of my energy working to get thinner because I thought that was the only option if I wanted to be happy. I mean, look at the women on the magazine covers! They’ve discovered the latest and greatest diet and they couldn’t look happier about it! So obviously that’s the goal, yes?

After my daughter was born, I came home from the hospital, put her down for a nap, and went to work out. Rather than focusing on letting my body heal after creating another human being, I was concerned about getting rid of that belly fat quickly so I could get back into my low-rise jeans without feeling like I was spilling out over top. It was more important to be able to say I fit back into my regular clothes after x amount of days or weeks than it was to say I was raising a kind human being.

This fitness slash “health” mentality continued until I started to notice I was passing on my negative body image to my daughter, and it made me feel like I was failing as her mother. Maybe, on some level, I’d always known this diet-obsessive culture we’re living in wasn’t the way to go, but it wasn’t until I saw how it affected my teenage daughter that I decided I needed to make a change.

I took small steps at first. I practiced using words of encouragement rather than telling my daughter I care about her being healthy and that’s why I don’t want her to eat that second cupcake. I tried to keep my dissatisfaction with how I looked to an internal struggle, rather than letting my daughter hear me talk about having a belly or how disappointed I was in myself for not working out that week. And, while it may have been a good start, it wasn’t yielding the results I wanted.

This past summer I noticed my daughter was showing signs of unhappiness with how she looked. She’d suffered an injury severe enough that her only doctor-approved activity was walking. Slowly. And the healing process was equally as slow. Not being as active as she was used to being was taking its toll on her mentality and seeing this change in her didn’t sit well with me. I could have let it go, left it up to her to work through. But that’s never been how I parent.

One hot summer morning, we were at our seasonal campground sitting in our lawn chairs under the protective shade of the awning. I asked my daughter if she wanted to go to the lake that afternoon. Her response was a non-committal, “Uh, maybe. I’m not sure.” Taking the opportunity to open the conversation, I asked if it was because she didn’t feel comfortable in a bathing suit. I heard the crunch of my collapsing soul when her answer came. “Yeah, kinda.”

Pause. Breathe. Choose your words carefully.

It felt like I was chewing on a wad of gum - I’m talking an entire pack of Hubba bubba - as I spoke, “I hope I haven’t caused you to think poorly about how you look,” said more like a question filled with hope of her saying of course it wasn’t my fault. Of course it had nothing to do with me. I’m the best mom ever! But I’m not writing fiction here. Instead the response was, “Well, kind of you have.”

Thump.

My heart sunk faster than the Titanic to the bottom of the ocean. Wait…did that happen quickly in real life? Or just in the movie? Either way, you get the idea.

In all my worrying about raising my kid to be a good human being I forgot to help build up her self-esteem. I forgot to teach her to listen to her own body instead of what society (or her mother) tells her she should look like. I forgot to work on my own body image issues so I wouldn’t pass them on to her. Instead, I helped to create an environment where she felt she had to hide treat wrappers after she ate them in secret so she wouldn’t get scolded for her poor food choices.

That was enough of a wakeup call for me to make a huge change. It’s one thing to say you want to be a better person for yourself, and if that’s all you need to make a change then kudos to you! But I went into full-on mama bear mode and I knew the only way to protect my cub was to make drastic changes to my verbiage and my actions.

As much as I wished I’d made this change before my daughter was born, the beauty about having this realization when she was a teenager was that we could embark on this change together. We still live in a society that tells women we have to be thin to be happy. And, worse than that, we still believe that narrative. We applaud women who are working out and dieting and comment on how good they look when they lose weight. But what happens when they fall off that diet train or have an injury that prevents them from working out and they gain the weight back? No one comments on how good they look anymore, which might make them wonder if everyone thinks they look like shit and should be ashamed of themselves because they are no longer accepted into the club.

What club, exactly, I’m not sure. But that’s what it feels like. An exclusive club for fit and thin women that only fit and thin women can join, and you have to maintain your fit and thin status in order to keep your membership. I wish I was joking here, but I’m really not.

Over the past six months, my daughter has helped me reprogram all the fucked-up things I learned about diet culture in the past 40 years. At first it was hard, I’ll admit. I had more internal dialogue to stop myself from speaking about how someone looks on more occasions than I probably ever had in my entire life. It was a constant battle for the first while, but then something changed and I noticed I didn’t have to remind myself as often to not comment on food choices or working out vs not working out. My brain felt free, clear; like I’d been under the smoggy influence of society for so long I didn’t even realize there was a bright blue sky with an actual sunshine, not just the idea of one. And this, my friends, is a wonderful head-space to be in. And, I’ll tell you, it’s way easier to feel happiness in this space than it ever was being sucked into any diet.

This past weekend I went to an event where a young local woman spoke about her journey to body positivity and, ultimately, opening the first body positive gym in Winnipeg. I loved listening to her and couldn’t help but hope she is the voice of change. Because here’s the thing about personal growth: it’s personal. And for as much as I have changed my mindset over the past six months, it hasn’t changed how society views women’s bodies. I am only one person and I can’t change the minds of every other woman in the world. But I can remove myself from talk about diets and unfair ideas about health.

And that’s exactly what I intend to do.

Ladies, and folks who are surrounded by ladies that talk about diet culture, we are better than this. We are intelligent and interesting people and, surely, we have more important things to discuss than what our bodies look like.

So, the next time you find yourself in a conversation about “healthy eating” or working out, I encourage you to consider changing the subject to something interesting that will actually provide value. We do have the ability to control the narrative and we are the only ones with the power to rid society of diet culture for good; to free ourselves from the judgement of others about how we look.

Because, the truth is, thin does not equal health and happiness and to imply that it does only serves to harm the self-esteem of women and girls everywhere. And I’m not comfortable being part of that destruction anymore.

Are you?