When being “healthy” isn’t…

A friend of mine passed along a link to an article every mom needs to read: “Moms, Put on That Swimsuit.”

It was most definitely an article I needed to read at that moment.

The author writes,

I refuse to miss my children’s high-pitched, pool-induced giggles because of my insecurities.

I refuse to let other women’s judging eyes at the pool prevent me from exposing my kids’ eyes to the wonder of the sun glittering on the water.

I refuse to let my self-image influence my children’s.

I refuse to sacrifice memories with my children because of a soft tummy.

Because at the end of the day, it is not just about me.

It is about my kids.

I want them to remember twirling in the water with their mom.

I want them to remember splash fights together.

I want them to remember jumping off the edge of the pool into my arms.

I want them to remember that their mom was there, with them.”

Her third refusal really jumped out at me: I refuse to let my self-image influence my children’s.

I thought about my own self-image right about now. Last year around this time, when I ironically was still logging in a lot of running miles (I tend to blame the dearth of running in my life because of my injury as the reason I’m feeling a little less comfortable in my own skin), I wrote a post about my struggle with the scale and how I felt like a fraud admitting I was suffering from “scale sickness” since I am supposed to be a healthy body image expert. I wrote a book making peace with your body, after all. I speak to women and encourage them to redefine beauty and to accept their God-given designs. Shouldn’t I do more than talk the talk, so to speak? Where was my walking?

Some days it’s there. A lot of times I am a super model for my kids and my fellow women. Not the Cindy Crawford variety (I am getting old; I don’t even know who the cool super models are anymore), but of the super ROLE model variety. I sometimes live a life that reminds women that in our efforts to be beautiful, we women must not limit that pursuit to sexual appeal. Our virtue is what begets real beauty.

But there are days when I’m not very kind, or I’m just plain selfish and that makes me ugly. Or there are days when I feel ugly and that makes me not want to be very kind. There are days when I feel lacking as a good human soul – and as a body.

Then there are the moments when I think that maybe I did a thing or two right. I look back on my day. I did something nice for a friend. I cuddled with my kids, read them books, put my husband’s socks away with nary a complaint. And, yet, my insecurities – they are so deep-rooted – still get the best of me.

Let’s tackle the pool first. I have been swimming with my kids this summer. I’ve jumped in, made a splash, and not worried that I don’t have perfect abs. But that’s because I’ve made sure to go to a pool that none of my friends go to, and we’ve visited at odd times. Or we’ve headed to my parents’ lake house where there’s nothing but family, love, and acceptance. I’ve avoided being seen by anyone other than those who will love and accept me no matter what. What will I do in July when we are on vacation, and there will possibly be those judging eyes the “Moms, wear your swimsuits” author mentions? Will I gladly accept the swimsuit and bear my skin all for the sake of my family? Yes. I will. But I would be lying if I told you it was going to be easy.

Recently, I’ve been whining to my husband that I’d like a pool in our backyard like I had growing up, which isn’t really a possibility with our given yard and home. Besides. I love my home and don’t really want to move. But, oh, how I want my own pool! I sound like a spoiled ninny. I use the excuses of a backyard pool simply being more accessible, a great way to fight the afternoon doldrums, a place for me to exercise and rehabilitate my broken-down body, and the fact that we ought to want to create a super-cool teen pad so that when our kids are older, they will want to hang out at our house with our friends.

These are all fine and valid points perhaps, but there’s another reason I am pining for a private pool that I haven’t dared to say aloud. I don’t like public pools. Again, not because I am a snoot. Not because I worry about my kids’ decibel-piercing “outside” voices disturbing the peace, although this is true sometimes. Not even because it can be overwhelming to keep a vigilant eye on four swimming children, but this is a reasonable source of reluctance for me spending every afternoon at a crowded, public pool. It’s exhausting, really. I can’t possibly socialize with friends I might see at the pool and make sure my kids, especially the two littles, aren’t on the verge of drowning.

But perhaps, sadly, the biggest reason and the unspoken one is that I want my own pool so others won’t have to see me in a swimsuit. Or really, I won’t have to be seen by others. I’ve wanted to avoid public pools this year because of the way I look – or the way I once looked and the fact that I don’t think I look that way any longer (my dear husband still says my body image can be a bit distorted and that I haven’t completely shattered that funny carnival mirror in my head that twists and distorts the way I seem myself as well as my body). Or maybe it’s just the way I think every other woman but me (we never see others’ faults as glaringly as our own, now do we?) looks in their swimsuit. I am afraid of those (probably non-existent) judging eyes. I don’t want an audience. I feel okay with just my family, but I don’t want any other onlookers to see my physical flaws or to see that I don’t possess the kind of self-confidence someone who fights for women’s freedom from the scale and the societal constraints of beauty ought to have.

I do also happen to have some really fit friends. I try not to compare myself to them, but it’s difficult when their bronzed skin is sparkling in the sunlight and their muscle definition pops out at me like an Andy Warhol painting.

I feel inferior, weaker.

My kids don’t know about my feelings. Yet. I haven’t complained about my swimsuit. I have taken them to the pool – just an unpopular one where we never see anyone else swimming. I jump in and swim and feel happy and weightless. I forget that I am sometimes still at war with my flesh.

But when I read the article yesterday, I realized me putting on a swimsuit and being confident in it – whether we are hanging out in our backyard patio kiddie “pool”side or at a public pool – isn’t about me any longer. Like the author points out, it’s about my children. It’s about showing them there’s more to life than looking “hot” or just “good” in a swimsuit. It’s not how you look; it’s what you do with your life. We can’t let our bodies or our feelings about them define our lives.

As I came to realize my own reluctance to slip into a swimsuit with ease, I started to consider the other messages I might be conveying to my children – all under the guise of pursuing health and fitness. I recently joked about how my 9-year-old admonished me for doing push-ups less than 24 hours after I’d had an impacted wisdom tooth extracted. At the time, I felt like I was sending her a positive message. Look at your tough mom who can show her strength even in the wake of surgery, albeit a very, very minor one. But this morning, I realized I was performing a precarious tightrope walk there between coming off as strong and healthy and just plain stupid and obsessive.

I am constantly teaching my children about healthy food choices. I don’t define any food as bad or vilify any one food group. Food is fuel. Some of it’s better than others. Food is also a conduit of community and even love. We break bread together. We don’t need to serve it with a heaping side of guilt.

Similarly, I don’t make exercise (for them) about feeling good in a swimsuit. We’re active because it’s fun! They feel great in their swimsuits because it means they get to cool off and swim! Nothing more, nothing less. With the exception of one persnickety child who doesn’t cope well with the occasional swimsuit wedgie, they have no cares when they show more skin. And, yet, I am still not always conveying the “right” message to my beautiful daughters.

There’s a fine line between the pursuit of health and an obsession with it. A relatively new eating disorder known as orthorexia has even been introduced. The National Eating Disorders Association explains orthorexia and those who suffer from it like this:

Those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from “orthorexia nervosa,” a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity. They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with “slip-ups.” An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style. Every day is a chance to eat right, be “good,” rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise). Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.

I’d add that a “sister” disorder would be those who become “addicted” to rigid exercise routines. The obsessive organic and the compulsive CrossFitter both have problems even if they appear to simply be making healthy choices. We need to ask ourselves: How attached are we to these healthy choices? Does our need to eat a strict Paleo diet or run a certain number of miles a week steal intimacy from our lives? The more attached we are to being healthy, the more we might withdraw from others. We might avoid a social event out of fear that unhealthy food might be served or because it interferes with our workout schedule. We might miss a child’s baseball game because we have to work out. We think we are gaining with these righteous, “healthy” choices, but we’re really losing.

I have often argued only treating women with clinically diagnosed eating disorders is rubbish. Just because a woman doesn’t have a dangerous BMI or drop a below a certain percentage of her weight doesn’t mean she’s not sick. There are women walking around at a healthy, average weights who are slaves to the scale and food or who purge several times a week after eating “bad” food. There are overweight women who are obsessively at war with their bodies and eat as a way to soothe their frayed edges and to fill the part of them that they feel is unlovable. And there are women with athletic, lean bodies who look like the picture of health but who wouldn’t think of skipping a workout even if they had a fever or a family member needed them or it was Christmas morning. All of these women have disordered habits, and I’m afraid performing push-ups because I feel fidgety and then thinking it’s funny or just a sign of my tenacity might be a wee bit disordered as well. Sometimes being healthy just isn’t.

Pray about the messages you might be sending to your children with your “healthy” or otherwise choices you make every day and your subtle and not-so-subtle actions.

Our daughters – and sons! – are watching. They see us when we duck out of a photo-op. “I’ll take the picture,” we say obligingly. “I don’t need to be in it.”

They read between the lines. “Mom doesn’t want to be in the photograph.”

Later, they will wonder why. Is it because she didn’t feel beautiful, good enough? Am I good enough?

“You go ahead and swim. Have fun! I’ll be watching!” we shout to our children at the beach or the pool as we stay wrapped up in a cocoon of flesh-hiding towels.

Mom’s always just watching instead of living. She’s watching the scale. She’s watching how her jeans fit and allowing it determine her mood for the day.

Or Mom is chronically on a diet or refuses to eat anything with gluten in it even though she’s never been diagnosed as being gluten intolerant. It just seems like the healthy thing to do and at some level, Mom feels superior because she can go without a food that others enjoy eating.

“I want to be strong!” Mom says as she squeezes in a few crunches or tricep dips at an odd time.

Kids already think their mom is strong; she doesn’t need to ban a food from her diet or obsessively flex her muscles when a doctor has told her to take a few days off. That’s not a healthy role model. That’s someone with an unhealthy compulsion.

Disordered eating, compulsive exercising – these are addictions. We turn to our addiction – whether it’s with food (binging on it or restricting it) or exercise or the scale – because we think it will give us something we need: Control, self-worth, value, a purpose, strength. All the while it’s robbing us. It keeps us from the pool. It keeps us from making happy memories. It keeps us from enjoying food and enjoying the movement of our bodies. It keeps us from loving our families fully. Addictions cause us to accept fear and anxiety as an inextricable part of everyday life. We should not have anxiety about wearing a swimsuit in front of others. Nor should we fear going to a friend’s house for dinner because she might not serve “clean” food.

A preoccupation with food, our weight, our health, and yes, ourselves keeps us from living.

Addictions always, always take far more than they give.

I see so many moms embracing Paleo diets or going gluten-free or running 5Ks, and I am proud of them for taking charge of their health. But be careful, Mothers. It’s not easy to hide your insecurities or distorted body image in a swimsuit, but it can be frighteningly easy to hide in the subterfuge of an ironclad dedication to a healthy lifestyle.

Consider those little eyes watching your every move. They are learning from you – for better or worse.

Once my most sensitive child was eyeing her reflection in the mirror as I braided her honeyed hair. “I’m not as pretty as [one of her sisters],” she said.

I looked at her sparkling, doe-like eyes. You could get lost in their dark, imploring beauty, and I wanted to gently shake her like a snow globe and watch all the white specks as they settle into their peaceful, beautiful form. Why would she think this? Why would she compare herself to someone else and feel like she had come up lacking?

Why…

Ah, yes. Maybe because her own mother fears the public pool because in her distorted mind it can become a contest of the fairest of the fair. Or maybe because her own mother is so afraid of losing a few days of fitness she ignores her doctor and her husband’s orders.

My daughter is beautiful in every way. So are her sisters. So am I.

I believe my children are nothing but loveliness and beauty personified. I can easily see glimpses of God in them, in their sense of wonderment, their peals of laughter, and the raw joy they exhibit at the most simple sights – a ladybug discovered on their bedroom windowsill, morning clouds gilded with the gold of the rising sun.

Indeed, it’s easy to see the beauty in my children. In me not so much. But it’s time to start working at it again.

So many of us are hungry for something more in our lives. We fill this void with food, or rigid, healthy habits, or we relentlessly pursue beauty or youth in an effort to feel better about ourselves. Many women know eating disorders – anorexia, bulimia – are bad. But exercise and eating clean? Well, these are just good for my health, we rationalize. And they can be. To a point. We must protect what is precious, that is the house – our bodies – that carry our souls. We must consecrate the desires of the flesh to sanctify the spirit within, and that means making healthy choices and sometimes saying no to the Doritos and Ben & Jerry’s.

But we’re no longer being healthy when we lose balance; when we feel overwhelming guilt because we ate one cookie or missed a workout. A desire for self-improvement can easily become self-annihilation if we can’t ever let go of our healthy habits, or we’re always focused on the person who’s more cellulite-free, prettier, or thinner than us. And she might just be sunbathing at the pool, so it’s best to stay hidden at home and keep doing those push-ups.

Then it becomes a compulsion, an addiction. We become a slave to it. And so do our children.

Meanwhile, life is passing all of us by.

Moms, put on your swimsuit. And swim. Moms, step in front of the camera. And smile. Those photos will one day be treasured memories and you might think you look puffy or old now, but a few years from now you’ll recognize the beauty that is you. Your children already see it. Take care of your body, yes, but not at the expense of your health or your family or as punishment for feeling inadequate or for mindlessly munching on potato chips. Don’t let being healthy become unhealthy.

Step away from the mirror and instead become a mirror for your children; a mirror filled with light, a mirror that reflects love, joy, and optimism. I promise that even if you don’t always, your children, your friends, even the stranger at the grocery store or the fellow mom you meet poolside will love what they see. You.

Enter the Conversation...

2 Responses to “When being “healthy” isn’t…”
  1. Rachel G says:

    I agree with the message of this post. I definitely believe that it’s possible to give the “pursuit of health” far too big a role in our lives till it consumes/controls our thinking. I hope to always give it the “right” place in my life, which for me, is not going overboard and indulging and eating things that I know will make me sick and never doing anything active–but instead letting it be a part, an aspect of my life, not the goal of it.
    Rachel G recently posted..Nightmares

  2. Angela says:

    Kate, I’m right there with you. I have struggled with eating disorders in the past too, and now that I’m a mama, I so want to be a good example for my babes. I run, I eat well, but I also feel the tug of the scale, wanting to see the numbers going down (and they aren’t). I know being healthy and balanced is the best for me and for my family, and I’m going to put up a good fight for that goal:)

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