Changing the Conversation

A little over two years ago, I entered the ACUTE Center in Denver, Colorado, weighing around 55, to receive treatment for anorexia.

I say this not out of pride, nor do I say it to receive pity or praise. Simply, at that time in my life, I was not healthy physically or mentally. I was terrified and angry as I went into recovery, and I am thankful for the support I had to help me return to a more “normal” life.

I don’t wish to tell my story of recovery here- though I do wish to share it in full at another time. What I do wish to discuss is body positivity as it relates to body image and self acceptance.  

During recovery, I had to come to terms with my own understanding of what a healthy body looks like. I had an intense fear, as many anorexic individuals do, of becoming grossly overweight if I did not restrict calories, eat “healthy”, and exercise obsessively. I believed I could maintain a “perfect” body, and was determined to not be just another lazy, overweight American.

Obviously, my notions of thin and healthy were distorted and I had put my body at risk through a lack of proper nutrition, but my motives were not purely related to the idea of beauty in and of itself. I had accepted that I would never be “beautiful” according to the movies and pop culture, but I did still want to have a trim body. I associated fat with laziness and unrestrained eating of the worst possible foods. I wanted to only eat things that were “good” for my body, and I wanted to prove I was the exact opposite of the stereotypical American “couch potato”.

One can easily argue that my beliefs and obsession was the result of the influence of the media, constantly pushing diets and weight loss, different philosophies for “healthy” eating, and constantly showing women of below average weight as models of the ideal, regardless of how realistic it might be for the average woman. Certainly, culture and media  have a tremendous impact on personal values and psyches. Though it was not the only factor in my eating disorder, the presentation of women in media and culture did have an impact on my own beliefs that I had to fight against to see myself in a different perspective and come to better conceptions of what is healthy.

Over the past decades, there has been many initiatives to support “body positivity” and to embrace all body types for woman, and to better represent these. Changing the standard for what can be considered beautiful is long overdue; all skin types and body types are equally beautiful and valuable, and I am always encouraged to see these movements make it into the spotlight to challenge the dominant message so frequently put out. Women do not need to be constantly told that they are imperfect, and that they need to drastically change their appearance through clothes, diet, make up, or even surgery in order to truly be beautiful. They need to be shown that beauty is hardy a fixed concept, that instead there exists beauty in each and every individual. (I  realize this is an idealistic notion, but it is one I do firmly believe in.) It will take time and great effort, but it is something that is possible.

As I was perusing the news recently, I saw an article that highlighted conflicting viewpoints and the primary points on campaigns (from both sides) for body positivity or acceptance. 

While we must be careful to not mislabel individuals as being over or under what is a healthy weight, it is also irresponsible to present an extremely overweight image as one that is ideal. (To be clear, I do mean extremely overweight, according to BMI standards.) We have to remember that the dominant images presented in the media become acceptable. Obesity IS a concern in our country, and is increasingly a problem for children. Long term health risks from obesity are well known, including risks of diabetes and of  heart diseases. There of course is no single cause of obesity, but what is most important is to recognize that it is an issue that should not be ignored, just  as eating disorders should not be ignored in any way. If we accept obesity as something that is an acceptable part of our culture, more and more individuals will struggle with poor health, as well as overall poor quality of life.

As someone who has grappled with their own body image and feelings of inadequacy, I believe having a conversation about body image is of great importance. Body shaming is not something that can ever be condoned or tolerated. That does not mean, however,  that we should promote a blind acceptable of obesity or being greatly overweight to a point where it begins to affect individual health. Is there a clear line? Certainly not. And there is a great difference between demeaning someone because of their weight and recognizing that their weight is a concern because of more than appearance. Promoting body positivity must also be done in a way that does not the need for correct nutrition and exercise. Life is all about balance; there is no need to be below a healthy BMI for the sake of looking attractive, but there is also no reason to not say that obesity is an inescapable fate that should be presented as a positive model. Individuals of all ages and genders must see that what matters most is their well- being. Ultimately the conversation isn’t about what is and isn’t attractive- it’s about caring for oneself and your body. Emphasizing either extreme- either dangerous thinness or dangerous obesity- is problematic if they are presented as acceptable and “normal”.

I don’t believe it is fair to say that body positive campaigns necessarily promote obesity or overweight body types in an irresponsible way; they are simply showing real woman, with bodies that many more women can identify with over the “traditional” model types. Will showing some women who are overweight having a long lasting impact on our society? It seems unlikely. The women in body positive campaigns are not overweight, according to the medical definition, in many cases. It is important to present alternatives to the unhealthy, unrealistic images that have dominated for so long. But what is more important, I believe, is bringing about greater changes to what we place value on in terms of attractiveness in general, and placing greater value on overall well-being.

One saying I have always found to be ironic is “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We hear it from a young age, but it not something generally seen and promoted throughout our culture. Especially in today’s world where we are bombarded with images and videos, we are constantly being told what is and isn’t beautiful. I am not so naive that I believe this can be changed anytime soon. But I think it is important that we begin to acknowledge more and more that there is more that one single type of beauty that exists. The pressure for woman, and certainly increasingly on men as well, to fit the ideal image is something that must be addressed, through certainly more diversity in the ways we present beauty in art and advertisement. I don’t want the students I teach daily to feel inferior because they do not look like the famous individuals the see on TV and the internet; instead, I want them to feel that their value comes from their actions and the relationships they have with their friends and families. I want them to have healthy lives, where they can get the exercise they need to truly enjoy each and every day rather than lives imprisoned by feeling that they will never be good enough or by illness from obesity. I want them to be judged by their spirit and quality of life, and to be able to feel proud of the way their uniqueness adds to their own beauty. Why continue to waste time obsession over unrealistic ideas and appearances rather than our own joy and personal successes and growth? 

Here one body positive model’s journey. 

Instead of focusing on whether the woman in ads and in shows are “beautiful”, let’s focus on whether or not they are healthy.

“Acceptance is different than apathy. It is important to strive to be your best self, your healthiest, most productive, joyful self. But that is going to be a different answer to everyone.”  -Teri Hatcher

 

Approaching 30

In less than a year, I will officially leave my twenties. Entering a new decade of your life always feels significant, regardless of what society tells us. As we age, we trace back over our journey in life that has brought us to our present moment, and think of all the choices we did and didn’t make, and all of the progress we have or haven’t made  towards finding the life we truly desire.

By the time you are thirty, there are certainly a number of milestones you are expected to have reached. You are expected to have completed at least one college degree, established a career to some extent, purchased a car and home, perhaps some major appliances, gotten married, become a parent. This is normal progress- maturation, and steps on the path to self- actualization. I don’t believe that anyone truly feels any one of these achievements will bring about happiness, or that any one is an ultimate measure of individual success or self- worth, yet they do count of something. At the very least, they serve as evidence that we are capable of meeting societal norms and expectations. When we can not accomplish these things, it surely means we have failed in some way, however minor it may be. There must be something we haven’t done correctly, something we weren’t quite good enough at, that prevented us from being more successful.

Yet the timeline of adulthood has been constantly shifting as our society changes; we no longer marry right out of high school, and couples are having their first child later and later in life. Fewer individuals can afford to become homeowners, and are forced to pay inflated monthly rent instead. What was the “normal” or “standard” in the past clearly is no longer so; but how much have we changed our own perceptions of progress and accomplishment? Not very much, in many ways.

I don’t consider myself an exceptional “millennial”. By that, I mean that I believe I have fared no better or worse than any other members of my generation, and that I have encountered many of the same challenges and had many of  the same opportunities. I grew up under the same conditions, experienced the same triumphs and tragedies, and have struggled to be heard in the same way as my peers. I grew up in a world evolving more and more rapidly with the accelerated advancement of technology. I have survived the difficult years where many were without any steady source of income, but it has not been a straight path towards the career I have now chosen, perhaps belatedly.

So, yes, I am another millennial who may be judged as an “adult” a bit later than traditionally expected. I am proud  to say I now own my own car, and have recently purchased a house, and have begun to (hopefully) build a true career instead of just having a job. If you had told me I would be where I am now three years ago, I probably would have simply laughed and said that it simply wasn’t possible. Of course I am proud of all that I have achieved in the past few years, and I realize all of the hard work I have done. In spite of all I have been able to accomplish, there are moments when I still feel as though I have fallen far behind my peers, and my own expectations of myself.

It’s amazing how easy it is to fall into the simply traps of comparing yourself to others and of focusing on what we are lacking rather than what we do have.

I am guilty of both of these transgressions against happiness. Through my daily social media feeds, I perpetually see friends getting married and having children, celebrating wedding anniversaries even. Recently even my youngest cousin, who is about eight years younger than me, got engaged. While I hold no illusions about other’s lives being perfect and feel that mine is inherently inferior and extremely dull in comparison (though this is true in a few instances), I can’t help but wonder why my life has turned out so different from theirs, why I wasn’t able to find the same stability and… normalcy, for lack of a better word. Was I asking too much? What had I done so very differently from them that would have prevented me from maintaining a relationship, sticking with a job I felt passionate about and establishing a solid position there? What had I “missed out” on?

In all fairness, there were things I did do that deviated from some of my peers. I went to a liberal arts college, getting a degree in Literature and Writing, nothing practical like pharmacy or marketing. I went on to work on my Master’s Degree and worked random jobs to support myself as I could. My only solid career option was teaching, and I only half-heartedly tried to find a teaching position, not feeling I would excel as a teacher and also recognizing the difficulty in obtaining a position as an adjunct professor, at least  where I was. (Though, retrospectively, I have no real clue how likely or unlikely it might have been for me to get a position, as I realize my efforts were minimal in applying and inquiring about it at the time.) As far as relationships go, I had a number of promising relationships that failed for a variety of reasons, as many relationships do, and  I couldn’t say it was the result of anything other than not being able to reconcile differences and find solid common ground to stand on. We learn from each relationship and move forward. I do not regret any of the relationships that I had, nor do I wish they had worked out any differently. However, I still wish I had been able to find a more suitable match much sooner than I did. I have had to look on with a constant tinge of jealousy as many of my friends and loved ones have negotiated relatively peaceful and healthy relationships which have stood tests of time and hardship while my own relationships ended in disappointment.

Perhaps I should have had different expectations, both of myself and of life in a broader sense. Why is it so easy to believe that we are entitled to the “perfect” life that we imagine for ourselves? Is it pure egotism and selfishness? I suppose on one level it is. But we are all entitled to happiness, at least as much as we are willing to discover in life. Our culture informs us that we must have certain things in order to be “happy”, and how much these relate to what will actually bring us contentment is difficult to say. In some ways, we seek acceptance, love, and comfort more than anything tangible. We need someone who cares for us and is there when we need them most, and that we have some sort of place in our social circle, however large or small it might be. While we value our independence and expect to be allowed to be our own person, we also do not desire to be isolated for our entire lives. To be accepted into society, we must make concessions and subscribe to certain expectations and values. We must “fit in”, for lack of a better phrase. This is not meant to be pessimistic, and it is not advocating blind adherence to “social norms”. Certainly, we can only continue to improve as a society if we question our values and reconsider what is accepted as an ideal and moral life. With each generation, we experience slow by steady progress towards new conceptions of what is valuable and meaningful, and new models of success and decent. We strive to do what is right for our fellow women and men, and for our environment. At least I believe this is true of most people. (I must believe this, and refuse to give in to hopelessness for our future.)

However much progress we make, we still cling to long-standing models of what the “perfect” family looks like, and what a “perfect” life should look like- a home in a quiet, quaint neighborhood, a career, two cars, two or three children, a loving and supportive life-long companion. Responsible citizens pay all their bills and taxes on time, they do not litter, they recycle, they take family vacations, they offer help to their neighbors in need, they spend quality time with their children and help them learn and grow, they do not drink excessively or get involved in any type of drug use, they stay informed about important news events, they donate to charity, they support local businesses, they abide by all laws- including the posted speed limits. They contribute to their community and have healthy social relationships, they don’t display either depression or aggression, they are polite and compassionate, they work hard while at work and have hobbies to unwind during their free hours of the day. They make sure to change their oil regularly and send birthday cards to those who are important to them. They mow their lawn before the grass becomes a tangled jungle, they attend their children’s recitals and performances and help with homework, they slowly work their way up through promotions at work. Eventually, their children will graduate, move out and begin their own journeys. They will retire, purchase another home somewhere where it is warm year round, somewhere that offers many activities and social gatherings for seniors. All of the milestones and daily activities have become engrained in our society as the correct path, full of happiness and fulfillment.

I by no means mean to say that we shouldn’t wish to have a family, have a comfortable place to live, and a career that provides us with a sense of achievement. These things are certainly valuable; they provide us with a sense of purpose as well as security and relationships that help us continually improve. Everyone wishes to be able to look back on their days and know that they achieved their goals, that we will be remembered as someone who was successful and meaningful.

Yet it is is so easy to get caught up in the day to day chores and tasks, and lose sight of the experiences that matter most. For, as many have said before me, it is our experiences that truly determine the quality of our lives. Exploring beautiful landscapes and cities, attending  a powerful concert or play, discovering history and art in museums, having meandering conversations with friends and family that have no specific subject or purpose in mind, simply holding hands and enjoying the close presence of a loved one. All of these small, simple moments are ultimately more valuable than the specific job title we hold or our physical address (and its implications, positive or negative).

While we recognize that material items and social status are hardly where we truly find value in our lives, we continue to pursue them because it is a part of being a member of society. This does not mean that we ignore our own values and beliefs, or that we discount our experiences in favor of social conventions. Instead we try to find a way to balance them, though this is not something that is easily achieved.

Part of me recognizes how irrational it is to constantly compare myself to others, and to evaluate my own worth and success based on unrealistic “ideals” or cultural prescriptions. Why is it so difficult for me to be satisfied with all of the progress I have made, and be thankful for the many opportunities life has provided me? Am I just selfish, shallow, and ungrateful? Am I that different than thousands of other adults my age around the world? I realize am not alone in feeling inadequate, rejected, and a failure in some respects.

The future has never been more uncertain, as we continue to face a great many challenges locally and globally. My generation has been provided with many advantages compared to previous ones, yet we also face challenges as great or greater than those before us. I do not wish to present us as some great tragedy, something to be pitied or granted some sort of clemency for their missteps or transgressions. I do not believe that we  are entirely self- centered and uncaring, and I do not believe that we are lethargic and unmotivated, contributing nothing valuable to society. We have done what we can under the circumstances, though this does not absolve us of the need to continue to strive for more. It also does not mean we need to look at ourselves as less capable or less accomplished because we do not reach certain expected milestones earlier in life.

I know that eventually I will get to experience the inexpressible joy of marrying someone who makes me a better person every day, and that perhaps I will become a mother. I know rationally that the fact that I have not married or become a parent yet is not a fair way of evaluating my accomplishments or worth, but that does not mean I can not long for these things and wonder dolefully at why I have been denied them.

As we continue to press forward with many advances in society both positive and negative, my generation will continue to struggle to find their own place and establish  their own conceptions of “success” and “true adulthood and independence”. Our achievements will come at different times than our parents and grandparents, and may look a bit differently. We do not need to feel ashamed of this, but we also do not need to complacently accept that we can not become exactly the adult we wish to be, that we have to resign ourselves to lesser positions and fewer fulfilled aspirations. Certainly we need to find joy in our every day experiences of beauty and companionship, and we can certainly revise our expectations of what the “ideal” life looks like. Such larger cultural changes take time, and we must always remind ourselves that it is only when we resign completely that we have truly failed. We are allowed to feel disappointed in ourselves, but we must not believe that we are not making progress or that we will not be able to have the future we desire.

I’m not going to say that we should ignore our social feeds, or that we should stop seeing certain milestones in life as being significant and markers of achievement. We should not simply ignore our hopes or aspirations, but instead be motivated by our desire to continue to better ourselves- not simply because society tells us to, but because we seek something a greater sense of fulfillment. There is no single path we can- or should- all follow, and we may all encounter detours and barriers that force us to backtrack. But we must keep going, and we must never feel that we are any less significant because others have made further progress than us.

So I will let myself feel jealousy and longing for something more, for the things I have yet experienced in my own life. I will allow myself to not be “perfect” but I will not stop pushing myself to find greater fulfillment and greater purpose through perpetual forward momentum toward the life I envision for myself. And I hope I can inspire and assist others to do just the same.