I started to count calories when I was nine.
I’d gained some extra weight and could only buy pants that had a stretchy waistband.
And since many women I admired regularly counted their calories, I started a little journal and tracked my own in secret. I didn’t know what number to shoot for, so I aimed very low, sometimes only eating 700 calories in a day. It breaks my heart to look through these old journal entries now:
I had all kinds of ups and downs in grades five through eight, and I remember feeling a little panicked about starting high school with a body I tried to hide under baggy t-shirts. So the summer before my freshman year, I hardly ate anything–and lost about 20 pounds before the first bell rang in September.
During high school and college, I lived a healthy, active lifestyle, and I learned to value myself for who I was inside. Though my weight fluctuated 10 pounds or so over the years, by the time I got married, I felt comfortable with my weight, maintained it pretty-much effortlessly, and could wear anything I wanted. No more stretchy pants.
But then I had my first baby. And my second and third. We moved nine times, and I endured years of painful health problems and five surgeries. We had a fourth baby. And now I run The Power of Moms while trying to maintain balance and care for a busy family, and though it took me awhile to realize it, I’m carrying around some major body-image problems.
My mirror-talk is full of thoughts that need to be replaced. Whenever I need to put on a swimsuit, I cringe. Whenever I look at a photo of myself, my eyes immediately dart to my “problem areas.” I’m a generally happy, healthy, hopeful person, but the dialogue going on inside my head (in relation to my body image) is crippling. It’s painful. And I’m determined to eliminate it.
I remember one experience back in 2004 when I overheard my four-year-old talking enthusiastically to her siblings about the movie she’d been watching:
“And then Winnie the Pooh got stuck in the door to Rabbit’s house . . . because he had a huge bottom . . . just like Mommy. It was like . . . [stretching her arms as wide as they could go] THIS big.”
Yeah, I laughed at that one.
But later, as I completed another exhausting day of folding laundry, wiping spit-up off the floor, washing dishes, and trying to create some order in our small student apartment, I looked at the unused treadmill in the corner, and I had to blink back the tears.
Writing this post is hard for me. I feel like I’m exposing one of my biggest weaknesses for all the world to read. I was even tempted to leave the author as “Anonymous” because I know that my problems pale in comparison to many others, and it’s much more comfortable to write about my strengths.
But as I’ve spoken with other women about this over the past couple of weeks, I know that I’m not alone. And I know that these issues plague women of every body size and body type. So I’m here to talk about it today and ask you to answer these questions:
How does a mother learn to feel love and appreciation for her body–for what it can do, what it can create, and how it is the means for her to live a beautiful life?
And how does that same mother simultaneously put caring for her body as a priority?
Let’s talk first about the love and appreciation:
I’ve read lots of books about accepting the squishy-ness, and they do help. When I’m pregnant or nursing, I’m pretty gentle with myself because my body clearly isn’t about me. (But now that I think about it . . . is my body ever only “about me”?)
Growing up, I didn’t care one bit if my mom had abs of steel or toned legs. I valued her smile, her warmth, and all the energy she put into taking care of me.
I know that my value isn’t dependent on my waist size or the extent to which I jiggle when I run into the waves at the beach. (My children simply squeal, Mom’s coming in!)
My babies like to snuggle into my softness. And I honestly love and admire women of all body types. I’m hard on myself, but not on anybody else at all.
So what kind of mental shift do I need so I can stop worrying about this? Honestly, it is totally irrational, but it holds me back every single day.
But I don’t just want to talk about one side of the equation.
I also want to talk about how we take care of our bodies.
What I too often find in the “accept yourself for who you are” books is a sense that it’s okay (and almost noble) not to exercise, eat well, or devote time to making your body beautiful. It’s almost as though we should just “let ourselves go” and love it. But that doesn’t feel right to me.
I think about my daughters and what I want them to know, feel, and do when they become mothers. It hurts my heart to think of them looking at themselves in the mirror the same way I do.
So what can we do to achieve optimum health and demonstrate through our actions that we honor, love, and respect ourselves?
I think the root of my problem is that somewhere deep inside, I doubt that I deserve the time required to really take care of my body. I somehow think that my happiness in this area doesn’t matter.
I already go through a lot of effort to make sure I get 8 hours of sleep in each 24-hour period. I make the time to do my hair and put on make-up just about every day. I sit down and eat my own meals, and I prepare healthy foods for myself. I give myself time to read, think, worship, and breathe. But when the day gets busy (and it usually does), quality exercise is usually the first thing to go. And when I get overwhelmed or stressed by my circumstances, I eat more than I need.
The hardest part about this is that I know that there are much more important things to worry about in life. There are people who are starving. Families that are falling apart. Children who are desperate for love and affection. There is more good to do in the world than I can possibly do in a lifetime.
But I (and millions of other women) need to learn to solve this body image problem–so we can move past it and on to the real purposes we have in life.
Fortunately, I don’t struggle with serious eating disorders, but I know mothers who step on the scale more than 10 times a day, starve themselves, binge, and/or hide behind food. Some have simply learned to numb themselves to the point of not caring anymore.
And something inside us is begging for that all that energy to be directed toward a more deserving cause.
Wouldn’t it be great if we, as women, could stop being obsessed with the scale, resist the power of mainstream media, stop those crazy diets, and get on the same page as far as building strong, healthy bodies?
And wouldn’t it be great if we could teach the next generation to do the same?
This post has a lot of questions, and my hope is that you, the mothers I trust, can provide answers in the comments area. Then I’ll write a follow-up post in a couple of weeks with my “game plan” . . . based on the encouragement and resources I know you can give me.
One thing Saren and I both believe is that when mothers unite, we can solve any problem.
So I’ll repeat my questions:
(1) How do I get to the point that I can really love and appreciate my body?
(2) What are the key principles I need to learn to help me put my physical care as a priority?
I’m looking for sound advice, good habits to develop, favorite books on the subject, excellent websites, nutrition education, workout routines that work with motherhood, and thought processes that help mothers consistently make good choices.
I want to know how you have learned to ignore the photo-shopped images in the media and how you teach your children about their own body perceptions.
I’m also looking for additional questions or observations you might have. Are you struggling with this, too? Do you have an experience or a story you need to share? The Power of Moms is a safe place.
This is a hard subject, but it’s important, and I’m feeling quite hopeful that this weakness (that many of us have) can become our strength.
Thank you, in advance.
Illustration of Winnie the Pooh by the Walt Disney Company.