long drawn-out body image history
October 11, 2004 11:43 AM

Last entry I mentioned wanting to write down all the steps I'd taken where my body imagey stuff was concerned, for posterity or for the curious or whatever. I tried not to draw too many conclusions as I wrote it (to just let events stand for themselves), but that didn't work out so well. Really, when you're talking about memory, how do you go about distancing what happened from what you think about what happened?

So, here goes. I've tackled it as a complete history, cause that was interesting to me. If you're looking for advice on living, I would skip way past college if I were you.

Elementary School (and earlier): I have generally very vague factual memories (they're more like sense memories and pictures) of anything more than 15 years in the past). I distinctly remember being called "pudgy" by a babysitter when I was five and knowing that "pudgy" was very bad. I know from stories that I was a little obsessive about girlishness and flat-out refused to wear pants from age 4 to age 6 or so. I usually hung around older (7 and 8 year old) kids, who were very decisive about what boys vs. girls do.

[Which is a challenge that any of us who choose to have kids and not raise them with gender stereotypes. There will be parents and teachers who say things like "girls like pink" and there will be other kids to reinforce that. So probably the most useful thing you can do for your kids is convince them to question things really really early.]

I had weird school issues in first grade. I started wearing glasses in second grade. I got the World's Worst Haircut in third grade, which is when I actually started looking kinda pudgy. I was pretty much the essence of tragic nerd.

All the playing I remember doing was very focused on girlness. Yes, dress up stuff, but also - I recall playing at "kidnapped child being rescued" and "sexual assault victim" as well as the usual soap operatic Barbie games. The sources for that play were primarily the cautionary tales of Officer Friendly. Which just goes to show how early we start initiating children, especially girls, into a culture of fear.

Puberty & Middle School: If you are already a dork, there is little more upsetting that growing breasts at the age of ten. I remember nothing from that year other than a vague haze of teasing and harrassment from other kids. And also suddenly feeling completely clueless about girlness. Where had all my training gone?

Yep. So, there I was, wearing a bra (which I was deadly ashamed of) and hitting my full adult height (5'2") and bleeding and suddenly actually starting to be fat (despite people's assertions before, if you look at photos, I didn't actually get fat till I hit puberty), and I'm just getting out of the pigtail habit. Other people, family included, started tormenting me for being fat as well as for just being dorky (well, family had never cared about the latter).

It sucked. So I started shaving my legs, got contact lenses, braces, and went on my first diet, which I'd learned about from the pages of my mother's magazines and from other girls. I didn't tell anyone, cause that would be admitting to being fat and ugly. God forbid! In any case, I continued to diet (including a "vegetarian" period consisting mostly of pineapple juice and rice cakes) through middle school. I wore too-small, graying bras to hide my development. I also continued to dress like a complete tool, but it was the eighties. There was a perm involved. There was a lot of effort involved in trying to be attractive to boys who wore pink knit ties.

But I'm starting to diverge from the body image story - it's the great temptation to mock eighties fashion. I never had - and have never since - felt as terrible about my body and my worth (which were, in my mind, completely tied together) as I did from roughly 1985 to 1988. I seriously got up every morning and tried to suck in enough air to count my ribs. I weighed myself twice a day or more and freaked if I gained a pound. It was a bad scene; there was just no way I'd be anything but ugly.

Enter High School: I actually rocked high school. I left a private school for a public school and theatre magnet school (it was a half & half deal), which meant I was "smarter" and more articulate than most everyone half the day and was surrounded by other much freakier freaks the other half.

Body image in high school, then, had a very different meaning. I remade my image probably 4 or 5 times. I tried girly (another year of refusing to wear pants). I tried old-school punk. I tried preppy. Image became more about performance than attractiveness; attractiveness itself became more about how "you" you could be. I stopped obsessing about weight by end of junior year, ate like a horse and I think started getting thinner (though it's hard to say given what I'd been wearing before). I bought the first truly good bra I'd owned at Victorias Secret (a new store at the time) at a Virginia Theatre Association conference in 10th grade. Um, I also accepted a dare to dance around in that bra at the same conference. VTA was pretty much a giant artistic makeout festival. As was the Rocky Horror Picture Show. As were most of our theatre crowd's parties.

Which is not to say that I was blissfully happy. I still barely dated, and my few forays into dating and sex were mostly disastrous (in that maximum awkwardness and/or humiliation was achieved at every turn, except for the bra incident). But I don't remember hating my body, not explicitly. I think part of that was the sexual tension around - that the body was now exciting - and part of it was being accepted as a freak, rather than being accepted only when I could pass for a non-freak. Oh, and there was this unbelievably hot girl who was rounder and weirder and smarter than me. Giant crush. Might have helped, too.

I left high school a brilliant academic success with purple hair, a healthy disregard for norms of appearance, and a drawer filled with fishnets and tights with circle cut into them.

Oh, hell. College: And I'd been doing so well.

Well, at least I started getting regular exercise for the first time, like - ever. With the walking. But I started out eating absurdly too much, of all the wrong things, then shifted to subsisting on caffeine and nicotine. I lost several pounds freshman and sophomore years, and I look pretty tired in most photos.

Because I was. Without any explicit "I'm ugly, I'm fat, I'm bad" track playing in my head, I picked up a bulimic's eating pattern. The feeling of being empty was so nice; I'd not eat for 3 or 4 days to keep it going. Then binge on pizza and fizzy drinks, and start again. It was the essence of ick. But because I started out weighing maybe 150-160 lbs, I was suddenly sexy when I hadn't been before and everyone congratulated me for getting to a "healthier" 120-130 (still on the "high" end for my height, ironically). Yeah, passing out in class is healthy.

I think the worst period was second semester of sophomore year, when I had no meal plan, my roomie and I were basically estranged, and I spent most of my time with the stupid potheads. No one ate around me, so I didn't eat; I'd forget. I still forget to eat if left on my own sometimes.

But I had other friends who socialised around food, and I just kinda got over it by being around them. Well, that, and being more sexually active. And then I got fat again. I stopped walking as much, admittedly, but mostly I just went back to eating somewhat normally.

Post-college, midlife crisis: Buying clothes to try to get a job after college led to my recalled first fight with my mother over my weight (I think I was maybe back at 150?). There were probably tears. So, I "struggled" with weight - meaning I bought slightly too-small clothes and made punitive plans to eat only foods I didn't like or exercise 2 hours a day; these plans weren't very effective, I just got fatter and fatter.

And yes, I was eating a little more than I absolutely needed and getting almost no useful physical activity in. But I went around thinking I was a terrible person about half the time. It was more or less middle school all over again, but without the constancy. I was okay sometimes. I was plucky and almost size-accepting sometimes.

[Big newsflash in all of this: my body image is tremendously impacted by life transitions. If I perceived the transition as negative, that's the direction my self-opinion went. Duh.]

It was actually another fight with the 'rents - again over the weight thing and their "concern" that I'd never be gainfully employed or directed or successful in any way as long as I was slightly fat - that got me to stop being such a giant wimpus and try to do something about being cool with myself rather than doing stupid things like the no-food-for-three-days-diet.

I read Marilynn Wann's Fat!So? on an all-female media consumption jag, and I started buying clothes that fit without worrying about having the suffix "-teen" in my size.

Finally, I grow up! This is where the good stuff starts.

So, back in college I'd hooked up with the feminists because I was already hanging with the queer kids - same crowd, basically. It's not like I wasn't clued in to the whole beauty myth idea; I was just (and still am, though in more balance) more concerned about the politics than about the things that seemed to govern individual choice. Like - do I shave my legs? Who cares?

I hadn't thought much about the whole cultural connotations of beauty and size and gender, which is remarkable when I think about how argumentative and research-prone I was. But I got there. This is basically the sequence in which I took steps.

I read and listened to a lot more stuff by women and feminists. I did (and still ought to do) the occasional feminist-media-only month.

I did some martial arts training.

I got a job I didn't hate (thereby removing the #1 stressor in my life).

I allowed myself to stop worrying about food at all. This (not surprisingly, I guess) made me fatter.

I stopped wearing makeup at all and stopped shaving for awhile. Then I started again.

I started an online journal and hung out with feminist diarists.

I bought clothes that fit right then, instead of waiting around. I gave away clothes I'd been holding onto in case I got unfat.

I started a feminist zine.

I found exercise I could do by myself, without feeling humiliated (as I had where sports were involved most of my childhood). I bought, I confess, "Sweating to the Oldies" tapes. I did that comparison "oh, she's fatter than me and she can do it" thing, which is also embarassing to admit.

I found groups of people who agreed with me (mostly on the internet) and I hung around listening to them.

I bought clothes that didn't merely fit, but felt "sexy" (whatever that is). And I wore them.

I stopped looking in mirrors so much.

I actually spoke to the people in the groups who agreed with me.

I wore a bathing suit in public.

I started a feminist group online so I could focus discussion more than on, say, the old Ms. boards.

I bought more books, more academic and theoretical books, about image and gender and such.

I started going to dance classes.

I bought more size acceptancey books, although there aren't very many good ones.

I started up a whole new "healthy lifestyle" plan, with exercise and stuff. And stuck to it. Because it was fun.

I started looking in mirrors more.

I stopped shaving my underarms again (well, mostly). Which is not to say that shaving is inherently anti-feminist or bad for your self-image. Not doing it was just a useful way to help me care less about the effort of appearance.

I went to a pro-choice march.

I went to Hawai'i.

I started an online group to talk about fitness and body image and stuff.

That takes me up to pretty much last month.

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