Body Politics

I just might as well come out and admit it: I have a body disorder. No, not an eating disorder. A body one.

All of my life–sometimes fully aware and at other times unconscious of it–I have measured an intense level of self-worth and value by the way my body looks. Not by how it behaves, or by the fact that it is healthy and that I can walk without pain. It was never about how strong my body could be, or about how good my body was at sports. It was about looks.

J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot’s marvelous anti-hero, said, “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” I, in turn, have measured out my life in clothes sizes and by food portions.

Daughters pick this up from mothers. My mother was always very aware of her body. She always applied makeup on her face, even when we were just spending the day at home (and it always looked perfect, right down to the false eyelashes that looked real thanks to my mom’s patience and skills in applying them for decades). She tanned when I was in school, she rode the stationary bike in the garage for at least an hour a day, and she ate like a bird. I won’t say she was anorexic, but I will say that there were a lot of meals where my mother had very little sustenance on her plate. (I think one of my sisters did struggle with anorexia, and I think she still does to some degree. For a while, when we were in our early teens, she would eat corn chips and ketchup for lunch. And today, with the pro-ana/thinspiration movement completely ravaging Instagram, it’s easy to start believing that if a person can’t see the upper ribs in your décolleté that something isn’t right with you.)

The theory was that the food portioning was done to save money. Raising three kids on one income wasn’t an easy feat, even in the economic boom of the 80s. We were rationed to servings (for instance, I remember a time where we were only allowed to drink one cup of milk a day, and that was at dinner). Food was this prized, hoarded thing.

I don’t think I realized how many food rules I obeyed until I got married. When we were dating, my husband would cook these great meals for us. (I never really took up cooking, I think in part to my mom’s control of the kitchen/food, but also because I’ve never treasured and valued food. I’ve just seen it as a way to either quench hunger or entertain myself.) He grew up in a family where you showed love by sharing your food. So he would pile food on my plate, and I would enjoy eating every.single.bite, because wow, here I was with a full plate, and I always finished my (smaller) plates of food while growing up and while living on my own. He also believed in spending a lot of money on good quality food (again, five people on one income = lots of coupons and food on sale). So I was tasting things I’d never tasted outside of a restaurant before, and I was enraptured. Add new love to that equation, and you had a very interesting dynamic going on in a woman’s head who has a very complicated relationship with food.

Eventually, I was matching my husband’s portion sizes, and he’s quite a bit larger than me. So I gained some weight. I called it newlywed weight and found an article pointing out how it meant we were happy because newlyweds who don’t gain weight aren’t happy in their marriage (um, how simplistic and wrong is that? But I wanted to believe it, so I did.). I had also started following some glamor-grocery-store mags online (I had started looking at them when preparing for the wedding to get tips on “how to be beautiful,” because, you know, we need those magazines to help us define beauty). I joined a gym and started to go at least three times a week (I thought of my mom and her stationary bike, and I felt proud). But I didn’t change my eating too much. So the weight didn’t really come off. Add to that the stress of moving three times in four years, the adjustments into my first marriage, increased commuting time, and a job that demands more than what it pays, and it was not a good combination for ultimate body health.

I discovered that I had been skinny as a child, very skinny, because of a few things:
1) genetics. Both Mom and Dad are/were slender.
2) a fast growth rate. I was the tallest girl in my grade for years on end.
3) a fast metabolism.
4) rationed food.

Genetics will still play a factor (and technically, compared to the average American woman, I am still on the thinish side). But I’m no longer growing, the metabolism is slowing down (thank you, mid 30s), and I can now eat whatever the hell I want. I have my father’s sweet tooth too, which is fun at times, but when the guilt comes, it’s too much.

Oh, the guilt.

Add onto that being pregnant, and I’m one big mess (no pun intended). I feel the pressure to eat better for my child. I try to force down foods in the midst of food aversions. I try to get out and exercise in the midst of extreme fatigue. I got approached by a trainer at the gym the other day who sold me a personal training session, and I agreed to it (I’m an easy sell, to my detriment), and then I had my husband call back to cancel (I’m a scared little girl deep inside), and now I’m nervous to go back to the gym because I might see this trainer (people-pleasing is a horrible thing).

So, wow, it’s a big cycle.

I just ordered this book, Bodies, by Susie Orbach (apparently she helped Princess Diana overcome bulimia). This is the review on amazon that helped sell me:

Throughout the Western world, people have come to believe that general dissatisfaction can be relieved by some change in their bodies. Here Susie Orbach explains the origins of this condition, and examines its implications for all of us. Challenging the Freudian view that bodily disorders originate and progress in the mind, Orbach argues that we should look at self-mutilation, obesity, anorexia, and plastic surgery on their own terms, through a reading of the body itself. Incorporating the latest research from neuropsychology, as well as case studies from her own practice, she traces many of these fixations back to the relationship between mothers and babies, to anxieties that are transferred unconsciously, at a very deep level, between the two. Orbach reveals how vulnerable our bodies are, how susceptible to every kind of negative stimulus–from a nursing infant sensing a mother’s discomfort to a grown man or woman feeling inadequate because of a model on a billboard. That vulnerability makes the stakes right now tremendously high.

In the past several decades, a globalized media has overwhelmed us with images of an idealized, westernized body, and conditioned us to see any exception to that ideal as a problem. The body has become an object, a site of production and commerce in and of itself. Instead of our bodies making things, we now make our bodies. Susie Orbach reveals the true dimensions of the crisis, and points the way toward healing and acceptance.

The relationship between mothers and babies, to anxieties that are transferred unconsciously…


I need to get this dealt with, and now.

Here’s a review of her work that also really spoke to me. This part especially:

So what’s driving all of this? Why, Orbach asks, “is bodily contentment so hard to find”? In her first book [called Fat is a Feminist Issue], she showed us how people’s bodies can be shaped by forces beyond their control. Here [in her book Bodies], she turns her attention to the controlling forces - “the merchants of body hatred”. Her point is that capitalism works much better if we hate our bodies. If we’re anxious and needy, we are better consumers; if we’re anxious and needy when it comes to something as fundamental as our bodies, we are putty in the hands of marketeers and diet-merchants. And if we ever start to get comfortable with what we’ve got, along comes another body - another piece of unattainable perfection - to keep us anxious.

Who are these merchants of hatred? Where are all these images of perfection? Actually, they’re everywhere. They are, I began to think as I read this, the people sitting at the keyboards, writing the ads and marketing the holidays, airbrushing the pictures and arranging the loans. They are us, me and you, communicating, right now, via a medium partly funded by advertising. And look at the ads! Look at the bodies in the ads! And think of the meaning of those bodies, and how they got there, and what those bodies will do to us. That’s one of the things I was thinking, as I was reading this book. I was thinking: it’s us - it’s all of us! We are the merchants of body hatred.

Orbach takes us on a world tour of body anxiety - the rock videos, the magazine covers, the ads, the people who tweak the portraits of children to make them look perfect, the high heels made for babies to wear, the mothers who diet during pregnancy, the elective caesareans, the pressure to lose “baby weight” in new mothers, the spread of cosmetic surgery, the spread of cosmetic surgery shows… and it’s all repeating the same mantra about the need, particularly for women, to be slim and sexy, but with the right breasts and now the right bottom. “Visual muzak” she calls it.

I placed text in bold that I would have highlighted if this were a paperback book (I hate ebooks, by the way). And come on… baby high heels? Are we that screwy?

But the diet thing during pregnancy… I’ve actually thought that, because I’ve been reading about “the average weight gain” for pregnant women, and I’m almost at the max at 16 weeks. I’m comparing my belly to other pregnant women’s bellies, and I feel like I’m “too big.” And don’t get me started on Pintrest. I created an account just to look at baby things, and wow. The images of 8-month mothers lifting weights tweaked with my head. The mothers with six-packs at 9 months made me want to cry. Then here comes the thinspiration statements like, “you don’t want it bad enough,” or “sweat is fat crying,” or “don’t make excuses; make progress.” I tend to slip down the slide of depression as it is; add these little demons to my shoulders and I’m heading for the pit.

So I’m fighting. And it’s a one-step-at-a-time kind of thing. Reading this one blog entry from A Cup Of Jo is one of those things that is helping me right now. She quotes Amy Poehler, from her memoir Yes Please:

I have many friends who have had natural childbirth. I applaud them. I have friends who have used doulas and birthing balls and pushed out babies in tubs and taxicabs. I have a friend who had two babies at home! In bed! Her name is Maya Rudolph! She is a goddamn baby champion and she pushed her cuties out Little House on the Prairie style!

Good for her! Not for me.

That is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again. Good for her! Not for me.

Good for her! Not for me.

I was in line at Rubios with my husband the other night for some dinner, and a new mother with her 3-month-old were in line in front of us. We were gushing over the baby, and my husband asked for advice on parenting. She gave some good advice (like enjoy pregnancy, because it goes fast), but then she started recommending documentaries and asking if I was going to give birth naturally and if I wanted to breastfeed, etc. etc. etc. And I was just like woah, stop please in my head while I was smiling and nodding on the outside, like a puppet.

Here’s my plan, world.

I’m going to the hospital when I go into labor–a traditional, Westernized hospital. My husband, mother, and mother-in-law will be in the room with me (if they want). I will have my OBGYN and nurses and whoever else needs to be in there to help. I am going to try my best to stay active so I can try to give birth naturally. But if it is too much, then epidural here I come. And if THAT is too much, I’m totally and completely open to a C-section.

That’s what I feel I am to do, and my husband is in total agreement with that. And it’s empowering to say. No, I’m not saving chord blood. No, I’m not eating my baby’s placenta (wtf anyway?). But at the same time no, we are not getting those invasive genetic tests done to see if the baby has DS or other things (we are keeping the baby regardless). And no, we are not getting 3D, 4D, or 5D sonograms done (not even sure if 5D exists, but I’m sure somewhere it does). I’m going to invest in lavender lotion to keep mosquitos away (creepy and horrible Zika virus!). And I might do some other things as I read more articles and such. (Yes, our baby is getting vaccinated! Stay away, anti-vaccine people!)

So that’s in pregnancy. How else can Good for her! Not for me. work?

-She’s exercising 6 days a week. Good for her; not for me.
-She’s a size 2 only seven days after delivering her baby. Good for her; not for me.
-She still wears the same size she wore in high school. Good for her; not for me.
-She can cook anything in her kitchen. Good for her; not for me.
-She never eats processed food. Good for her; not for me.
-She gets to stay home with her children and cooks/cleans/dances around her house like a domestic goddess. Good for her; not for me.
-She has a smaller belly than I do. Good for her; not for me.
-She doesn’t have varicose veins in her feet. Good for her; not for me.
-She has toned arms and legs. Good for her; not for me.
-She looks thin. Good for her; not for me.
-She has fewer wrinkles than I do. Good for her; not for me.
-She has devoted her life to the cultivation of her body. Good for her; not for me.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16, NIV)

Charm and grace are deceptive, and [superficial] beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord [reverently worshiping, obeying, serving, and trusting Him with awe-filled respect], she shall be praised. (Proverbs 31:30, AMP)


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