There have been several posts related to weight and appearance circulating around the Catholic blogosphere in recent weeks. I’ve read all of them with interest because body image – the way we perceive how we look – is something that’s never far from my thoughts.
I’ve made an effort to read each post as a “normal” woman – that is, a woman who, sure, might like to lose a few pounds (when she’s not six months pregnant, anyway), tighten up her abs, and look her best – rather than from the perspective of someone who has used eating (and not eating) as a vehicle of expressing feelings that had little to do with weight or my appearance. But, frankly, it hasn’t been easy. For the majority of my life my appearance has been tightly braided along with other issues: Feelings of worth (or worthlessness), vanity, grasping for control, to name a few. I offer this as a caveat because some of what I write may not make sense to anyone who has always had a realistic image of herself, of how she looks or should look, of what it means to be healthy, and of what it means to be physically attractive and to even have that coveted hot body.
Let’s start at the beginning. The wonderful Betty Beguiles answered the important question: “Is caring about your body inherently vain?” My emphatic answer to this is, “No, no, no!” A good measure of self-care is not only essential if we’re to carry on the often physically demanding task of motherhood, but if we are to believe our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, then we have a great responsibility to make God feel at home in them.
There’s also something to be said about the kind of image we portray to the rest of the world. Do we want to give motherhood lots of lip service about what a sublime vocation it is but go around looking like like a yeti because we haven’t shaved, showered, or exercised in months?
Overwhelmed, shower-deprived, mamas, take heart, I don’t shave or shower as much as I probably should, and truth is my thick tresses always look the best when they’re not freshly shampooed. My husband has said I would fit in well in Europe since I like to buy fruit fresh but don’t mind skipping daily showers. Still, I do make an effort to look fairly presentable when we get out of the house. We do have occasional PJ days as a homeschooling family, but there are plenty of days when I make the effort to style my hair or slap on some lip gloss just so I’ll feel better even if my day consists of keeping my home one step ahead of a health hazard. I also enjoy primping a bit for the sake of my husband who surprisingly finds me just as attractive in yoga pants as in an a-line dress and heels.
Now if, on the other hand, we spend every waking hour pondering over what we should wear, obsessing over the size of our derrière, or we become so attached to how we look that it impacts virtually every aspect of our life, then we’re probably crossing the line over to vanity.
For me, vanity has always been about wanting not only to look good in others’ eyes but to be good. (Good can be easily interchanged with possessing worth.) Pleasing others on the surface is virtuous, but if pleasing others takes precedence over pleasing God and/or leads to unhealthy obsessions, there’s a problem. Vanity might begin innocently enough. As I said, my vain tendencies were often rooted in a desire for affirmation. Weighing a certain amount affirmed me not only as being somewhat physically attractive but simply as a person. That’s where a lot of my troubles began. Being affirmed is something we all need, but if we’re only using our hair or makeup or weight to affirm us, we might need to reassess our approach and attitudes toward beauty and our appearance.
When I desire to be physically beautiful only for the sake of beauty, for the sake of my spouse, for the sake of sharing the Good News, or even so that the world won’t equate mothering littles with frumpiness, then I’m probably okay. But too often in my life I’ve wanted to come off as beautiful in every way – not just on the exterior – because this beauty made me feel better about myself, and sadly, even sometimes superior to others who weren’t as “strong” as I was since they couldn’t restrict their dietary intake as much as I could.
It’s worth mentioning that my struggles with vanity can certainly be about my about my physical appearance, but they can also trickle into other lifestyle choices. In fact, my spiritual director has reminded me that in discernment over things like my family size and whether or not to homeschool indefinitely, I must be wary of any leanings toward vanity – the desire to look good and holy in others’ eyes – and to soulfully examine what is best for my family. I can’t make decisions based on how these choices might make the outside world perceive me.
Pursuing beauty for the sake of my spouse actually helps me fend off vanity – at least when it comes to how I look physically. Some of the other aspects of vanity – like the one I described above – demand more spiritual introspection. My husband’s opinion is far more important than what Hollywood agents might say about me (and in my aspiring actress days, Hollywood did size me up so perhaps I have a unique perspective. I was told in so many words that I wasn’t blonde enough). My husband is also much better at recognizing my outward beauty. When he tells me I look nice, I need to believe him.
But I digress.
Betty’s post kicked off other related musings. Mrs. Darwin chimed in and writes from a healthy place after losing some weight,
“I’ve been amazed (and that’s not too strong a word) to see contours of my body I’d forgotten I had reappear, as if there’s a whole new healthy self emerging. Vanity, perhaps, but also wonder and delight at the thought that this is ME! And that’s not to be lightly brushed off — God made my body, and it is good.”
No arguing with that. Our bodies are good. Excessive vanity, I discovered in my personal journey toward healing from an eating disorder and a distorted body image, takes away the wonder, the awe, and the innate goodness of the flesh.
Betty Duffy shared her own body language. As always, she offers an insightful take as she reflects on Bearing’s response to Betty Beguiles’ original post and perhaps give “hot body” a more appropriate definition:
“Grace and proportion are restored with the loss of twenty pounds, or whatever. So maybe it’s not so much that I want to have a ‘hot body’ but that I want to have ideal proportions, to appear graceful.”
(Are you still with me? :-)). Bearing frequently talks about matters of weight and appearance and never fails to get me thinking. I admit I can’t always relate to some of her posts about maintenance and how she vigilantly keeps tabs on her weight and caloric intake. Vigilance when it comes to my weight is a slippery slope. With this pregnancy, in fact, I finally decided to stop weighing myself because it was just depressing me since I’d gained more weight than in any of my previous pregnancies. However, I know there are healthy women who use regular weigh-in to keep themselves within a healthy weight range. They do not suffer from scale sickness as I have.
In the post Betty Duffy responds to, Bearing offers the valid point that a lot of us claim to want to be thin or to lose weight all under the guise of being more healthy but if we’re truthful, our health isn’t the primary reason we pay homage to the treadmill. What most of us want – whether we admit it or not – is a hot body.
Finally, Kimberlie’s beautifully honest post about beauty and body image really resonated with me. I could really relate to her own thoughts as someone whose desire to have a “hot body” spiraled out of control and became so consuming it robbed me of my joy and my health.
Again, I have to remind myself that a lot of other women don’t become slaves to the scale as I did. They’re really not grasping for control or seeking validation. They just want to lose a few pounds and feel better about themselves. They can openly admit they wouldn’t mind boasting a sexy body at least from the point of view of their husbands without the trappings of vanity. They’re not an obsessive nut like I once was (and still sometimes am tempted to be) when it comes to their shape or the number on the scale. They really do only care about their husband’s opinion of their hotness instead of thinking he’s lying every time he tells them they look beautiful. They can do Weight Watchers without letting every single thought revolve around how many points they’ve accumulated.
Yet, as I read through all of these excellent posts, it was the “hot body” issue that really made me pause. I don’t have a problem with a woman longing to occupy a desirable body. Bearing and Betty Duffy are right: A lot of us are probably bluffing if we say that we’re watching what we eat and religiously doing our p90X workouts just so our doctor will pat us on the back at our next physical for being a paragon of good health.
The problem I have with pursuing hotness over health is that there often exists a schism between what is healthy and what is perceived as “hot.” In my personal experience, our health and how we feel physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally rather than just how we look seems to be a better gauge for whether or not we’re perversing food and/or pandering to vanity or to gluttony rather than our level of hotness as perceived by ourselves, the world, and even our spouses.
Over a series of posts I’m going to explore why I’ll continue to champion health over perfect proportions/a hot body.
I’ll start with this: A hot body doesn’t necessarily mean we’re healthy in mind, body, and/or spirit.
When I was 16, I woke up one day and seemed to be occupying a body of what others based on society’s narrow standards might consider a hot body. This was after years of being the only one of my friends to not be a stick-thin, little girl. Mind you, I didn’t think I had a hot body. On the contrary, I despised every inch of my flesh. But people (mostly guys and some girlfriends who wanted to know what my “secret” was since I’d transformed seemingly overnight from a chubbster to someone worth giving a second glance) talked and said things that suggested I just might be attractive.
When I looked in the mirror, I still saw the chubby girl with the round face obscured by orthodontia who boys oinked at and called names like Miss Piggy. I couldn’t believe people would actually think I was pretty. Although I wasn’t comfortable with my body or entirely convinced that it even was my body when I blossomed over the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I saw that my newfound curves, girlish figure, and more grownup face gave me power. And so I learned to wield my body as a weapon. It was a way to get affirmation. Whipping my body into submission and losing weight were ways to feel like I was in control. The less I ate, the more powerful I felt. The more skin I showed and the more I teased, the more attention I seemed to garner. It’s not easy to confess this, but as a young woman, I frequently seesawed between wearing clothes that hid my flesh because I hated every inch of me and wearing skirts that were an inch too short – even to Mass. Often, I didn’t accentuate my curves; I flaunted them. I wanted boys to notice me. I wanted anyone to notice me.
Once a guy I knew told me I was a geek trapped in a hot body. I remember how his words struck me as odd. I knew I was a geek. That much was obvious. But that a guy would say I had a hot body took me by complete surprise because I loathed my body. I saw it as never being good enough. I’d have fleeting moments where I’d think I looked alright and pretty even, but I could always be thinner or more attractive. I could always be better. I was never enough.
This made me lonely because a lot of girls turned into my enemies because I didn’t appear to have a weight problem. “Shut up already! You vain, narcissistic you-know-what!” They didn’t see what I saw. The image of my body was completely distorted. It frustrated the opposite sex because I only wanted their attention from afar. Come too close, and I’d flinch, retract into myself, hide and deny the very femininity that caught their eyes in the first place. And it confounded my parents and others who saw me as beautiful inside and out.
There were many, many days when I purged using laxatives or running in thunderstorms or willing myself to eat only naked lettuce (hold the dressing, please). I lost what I had thought was the answer to my happiness – a good body – because I lost a lot of what made my newfound female form lovely that really was just a result of late puberty and some good genes. Even when my body probably would have fallen somewhere in the “hot” category, I wasn’t happy.
Now I realize that some women (perhaps even a lot of women?) out there might obtain their own level of hotness or what their husband/boyfriend considers sexy and find contentment. They won’t push themselves harder and think, “Well, if being this hot gets me this much happiness (fleeting or not) and attention, what would happen if I got even hotter?” But good measurements don’t always bring enduring happiness or health. We may have a hot body, but we may be spiritually or even physically sick.
On the flip side, some women will never be hot by society’s standards anyway, or the only way to achieve siren status is for them to resort to unhealthy, extreme measures. So we can say what we want and believe what we want – who wouldn’t want to look smokin’ hot? – but I’ll continue to argue that health, which is far less subjective than what is beautiful (a topic I’ll explore in my next post), still should be our primary motivator for wanting to exercise, eat right, and/or lose weight.
UPDATE: Barefoot and Pregnant’s Calah just jumped on the bandwagon, too, with an excellent post on self-control as applied to food and other areas of life as well.
“As I was writing this, it occurred to me that although I like the sound and look of the word temperance better, I prefer to use self-control. Self-control. Control of the self. It’s a bit of a blow to the pride to admit that I can’t control myself, but there it is. Like a two-year-old who can’t quite make it to the potty on time, it seems that I just can’t quite stop myself before shoving that whole Cadbury chocolate bar into my mouth. I just can’t quite stop myself before screaming at my children to calm down and get ahold of themselves. I just can’t quite stop myself from clicking on that interesting-looking blog and losing another half-hour to the internet.
But the thing is, I’m not two. And I can control myself. It’s just that I choose not to, most days. And that needs to stop.”