Body Image Problems: Who’s to Blame?

View of a broken mirrorIt’s a weekend evening from my past. My husband and I are newlyweds. We sit, side by side, knees grazing, sinking into the soft leather, the color of the deep earth. His arms draw me closer.

I flinch.

I reject his touch, his love, all for the sake of a few pounds.

The diatribe against my body begins.

“I’m gaining weight.”

He listens. Then he sighs.

“You look great,” he says.

“I’ve gained three pounds and I can’t lose them.”

How much of my life have I wasted obsessing over a few pounds?

“I don’t care.”

“But I do.”

“You’ve got to stop.”

“But I can’t.”

“You can,” he says, “but you won’t.”

I flinch again – this time because of his words, not his touch.

They cut through me, their simple truth.

I haven’t forgotten those words. They come to haunt me when I’m tempted to shrink away from my husband or pick apart my body.

I’ve given a lot of thought to body image and why so many women struggle with it through the years.

I’ve searched for someone, something to blame.

In college I wrote a research paper on the television’s portrayal of females and how it affected college-aged women’s body image. I conducted primary research as part of the paper and randomly selected college women to complete a survey about their television viewing habits, their perception of the actresses on popular TV shows at the time (like Friends). I also included questions that analyzed how they felt about their bodies. The results were shocking and oddly comforting to me at the same time because I didn’t feel so alone in my body angst. The majority of respondents strongly agreed with the statement that television actresses were unrealistically thin; yet, a similarly high number of respondents strongly agreed that they often compared themselves to these same actresses.

We compare ourselves to unrealistically thin women.

Scarier still, more than 30 percent of the respondents agreed they would give up 10 years of their life to be 10 pounds thinner.

Ten years of living for 10 pounds.

What’s wrong with this picture?

A whole lot. Obviously.

But there’s something wrong with the picture in my head, too. And the media didn’t draw this distorted picture either. I did.

Back then, my research was proof for me that I’d been right to blame the media for my own problems with my self image and my eating disorder.

Of course, there were other scapegoats. My former, chubbier self and the cruel teasing I endured when I was soft around the middle and not what any sixth grade boy would consider pretty. In college, I blamed the boy who broke my heart. Sometimes I blamed my perfectionist leanings, which certainly played a role in my desire to stay thin and to resort to unhealthy habits to keep the scale in check, including any mode of purgative measures to keep me below a certain weight. Starving myself, running through a stress fracture, taking an entire package of Exlax in order to “cleanse” my body of ugly, nasty calories, and forcing myself to vomit many times a day.

I felt so powerful then. When my life felt out of control, it was easy to turn to the number on the scale as a way of feeling in charge.

I could not make people love me, but I could make myself thinner.

Eating disorders and any body image problem are more complex than simply wanting to look a certain way, and all of these pieces of my past and personality probably contributed in some way to my eating disorder. And so did the unrealistic images portrayed in media.

Why should I find my “inspiration” in twenty-something women airbrushed and/or carved from silicone?

I shouldn’t.

But should I be spending so much time thinking about myself, my flesh, the way stomach feels against the band of my skirt?

You can, but you won’t. 

The truth is, when it comes to my body image and why it hasn’t always been the healthiest, I can blame a lot of things.

I can blame the media and the barrage of airbrushed beauty.

I can blame society for suggesting women’s power is found in their curves and their beauty.

I can blame the jerky men who made me feel like an object and spent way too much time looking at me instead of talking to me.

I can blame my former self, that chubby girl nicknamed “Miss Piggy.”

I can blame the relics of my eating disorder.

I can blame my husband for not understanding. During past body image discussions, I’ve been known to lament, “You don’t understand.”

And the men we love and the men who love us probably don’t completely understand why we are at war with our flesh.

But neither do some women.  I can blame them, too, for not joining in on the body bashing. (Or I can at least be envious of them for their inner peace and the loving self-care they gift themselves with.)

I can also blame the women who might understand, the women lost in an obsession with dieting, good and bad foods, who compete to be the fairest of the fair.

I can blame the scale I wasn’t supposed to step on.

But I have to take some of the blame, too, because what my body image really is more than some social construct is the way I see myself in my head.

Maybe it’s time I take some ownership of my past body angst and start blaming myself for looking inward instead of outward, for believing I’d be better somehow if I dropped a few pounds when my dignity does not change with clothing size, for spending more time beating myself up instead of building myself up, and for being so absorbed in self-hate, which really is a deviant form of self-love, instead of paying attention to others, especially those I love. Especially those I love who are hurt by my body pummeling.

You’re beautiful, he tells me (and so does He, always) more often than I deserve. (There I go again.)

It’s time I start believing that. It’s time we all shatter the funny, carnival mirrors in our minds that twist and distort the way we see ourselves. If not for my own sake, then for our spouses, for our children, and for the Author of Beauty whose designs are to be praised, not condemned.

Enter the Conversation...

10 Responses to “Body Image Problems: Who’s to Blame?”
  1. Karen says:

    I myself have never gone to the extremes that you write of here to make my body look like those Hollywood beauties. But I did make myself exercise. I had the Janet Jackson stomach and did lots of sit-ups and did lots of Tae-Bo to get there.

    Now that I'm married and have had 3 kids and 4 on the way, for some reason, I don't seem to care anymore. I wish I cared more actually because I want to be healthy so I can live a long life for my family.

    My husband loves me for who I am and it sounds like yours does too. I wish that was enough for us girls, but most of the time it's not because for some odd reason, we hold society's views higher than those that we love.

    Keep fighting the fight. If not for you, for your own beautiful girls.

  2. Kate Wicker @ Momopoly says:

    Amen, Karen. And for me, it may have started out as a desire for thin or to look more like what I thought was society's standard of beauty but when I was really sick, it had nothing to do with my looks or weight and everything to do about a desire to be in control, to be "perfect," and to fill an empty void – a void that can never ever be filled by anything material like food or weight.

    God bless.

  3. Cathy Adamkiewicz says:

    Kate, this is some of most powerful writing I've seen you do on this subject, and I know it comes right from your heart.
    "I felt so powerful then. When my life felt out of control, it was easy to turn to the number on the scale as a way of feeling in charge." I am living this right now. My husband lost his job; relationships are strained. This morning I got up and couldn't think of anything going well in my life. When I stepped on the scale and saw I had lost a pound, I felt jubilant; it was my only joy.
    That's not how it should be, I know. "You can change, but you won't." I don't think I can change. But God can change me, right?
    Thanks again for your transparency and your generosity. Love you!

  4. Willa says:

    Your blog is beautiful. I have struggled with eating disorders too in the past, especially during my teenage years. In my case I don't think it was so much TV and too-thin models as a desire to control something in my life. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Kate Wicker @ Momopoly says:

    Thank you all for your support. Writing about this is both difficult – and cathartic. It also never fails to amaze me how many women email me and share their similar struggles. It seems body image problems haunt women of all sizes in all walks of life and that very few women are completely immune to at least occasional insecurity over their body and/or looks.

    Willa, I am with you 100 percent. The relics of my eating disorder tend to haunt me the most when my life feels like it's out of control and I'm met with anxiety. Oftentimes, what may begin as a desire to lose weight perhaps even the healthy way can pave the way to an obsession, especially those predisposed to eating disorders, anxiety, depression, etc. Research is becoming more and more prevalent that suggests a strong link between eating disorders and genetic factors. But we can beat our genes and the odds. I love what Cathy said. Maybe we can't change ourselves or even our bad habits, but God can. We just have to open ourselves to his graces and remember that in our weakness his strength is perfected.

    Praying for you all…

  6. Erika says:

    Kate, this is beautiful. I have also struggled with body image as much as the average woman, I suppose- but especially now after having my first child. I am lucky, like you, to have a husband that tells me I am beautiful- and I also find myself, like you, disagreeing with him- *why*? You really made me think. And now that I have a daughter, I am hoping that as a society we can get past the worship of unhealthy feminine body images, for her sake and for all the little girls out there…

  7. Mary Poppins NOT says:

    This is powerful. I would like to share my perspective.

    I was always a "sturdy" sort of girl. Looking back, I was absolutely not fat, but felt it at times because I wasn't thin. There was no middle ground between fat and thin, although now I realize I was "just right".

    Now I AM fat. I know it. And I hate it, but I struggle with every blessed part of my life, and have no extra energy to completely change my lifestyle and loose 40 pounds.

    For whatever reason, once I had children, my body packed on the weight. My eating and activity level hasn't changed dramatically since having children, but pregnancy and nursing has made me round.

    I eat mostly healthy food.

    I am acceptably active, although since having my 8th baby in my mid 40's, daily exercise hasn't happened.

    Why does any of this matter? My family loves me, my husband loves me and is attracted to me, and my children are not embarrassed by me. I am healthy.

    It matters because weight matters in society. When I am around people I don't know, I do not get respected. Seriously. At stores, I do not get waited on. Fat = stupid in so many minds. Add in "8 kids", and I am perceived as a raving idiot.

    What to do? Stay healthy. Strive to add more activity to my days that include my family so I don't get myopic, and then offer up the rest. And that stinks. I hate offering up the rest. But would I give up my last 3 kids so I could have stayed a size 12? Or skipped them all, so I could stay a perfect size 10? Of course not.

    But that fact that I could even pose such a question, and have it be considered shows that our culture is broken. And even though we are trying to hold it all together, we are affected by it, and suffer from it, and all we can do is throw ourselves on God's mercy and love like there is no tomorrow.

    My personal promise is to go out of my way to treat everyone I meet, but particularly overweight people, with respect and personal attention. The only thing more invisible than a fat person is a disabled one.

    God bless you!

  8. Kate Wicker @ Momopoly says:

    Mary Poppins NOT, thank you so much for contributing such a thoughtful, honest comment.

    "My personal promise is to go out of my way to treat everyone I meet, but particularly overweight people, with respect and personal attention."


    You know what is as warped as the funny carnival mirrors in some of our heads and the media's distorted view of beauty? Society's warped view of human dignity and that to be "fat" or an "unwanted" baby or someone who, because of physical limitations, is unable to contribute to the GDP is somehow less of a person.

    We've spent years looking at bodies like ornaments. We really do have change the way we see people and not size them up based on their appearance. I hope I can teach my own children to see people through a lens of love.

    Society does sadly reward slenderness. It didn't always do that though. Women used to be chastised for being too thin. Whatever is more difficult to obtain (and maintain) seems to be the Holy Grail of attractiveness.

    But who decides what is beautiful? Hollywood? The "thin" people? Vogue magazine? Reality TV?

    The answer, of course, is God and I pray I can always see people – including myself – in His eyes.

    God bless all of you. Thank you so much for pouring your heart out.

  9. Cassie says:

    I love your writing. Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are so brave.
    God bless you. You are beautiful.

  10. Lynn says:

    Thank you for sharing this… I do the exact same thing to my hubby when he tells me I am beautiful or hot. I told him "thanks" begrudgingly but where I difer is that my mind thinks he tells me this in order to seduce me. Sad but true.

    I wish no pray that my mind set will change and just say "Thank You" and actually mean it!

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