I'm usually a cynic about "awareness" campaigns, due in large part to my tendency to vomit every time I see a product made of cancer-producing chemicals painted pink to raise "awareness" of the cancer that everyone seems to be getting from all the chemicals in the environment. Indeed, "awareness" failed to keep cancer from killing one of my dearest friends, so in my truly dark moments I lash out at "awareness" for falling down on the job.
But this cause is different--in this case, "awareness" is what kept another of my dearest friends alive. National Eating Disorders Week is February 20-26 this year, and though it's officially ending tomorrow, there's hope that the new Let's Talk About It campaign, sponsored in part by the National NOW Foundation, will continue changing (and saving) lives.
From the NEDA website: "Our aim is to ultimately prevent eating disorders and body image issues while reducing the stigma surrounding eating disorders and improving access to treatment. Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening illnesses--not choices--and it's important to recognize the pressures, attitudes and behaviors that shape the disorder." One of those talking about her recovery from an eating disorder is that dear friend, Erin Matson. Anorexia came close to ending her life while she was in her teens, years before she and I were introduced at our first Minnesota NOW meeting. The fact that it didn't is something I should never take for granted.
In the spirit of talking about body image, I'm reprinting "The Stories Bodies Tell," a column that appeared in the June 2009 issue of the Minnesota Women's Press. It refers to an essay for HipMama from March of that same year, and to another MWP column from the summer of 2007. All of the body anxiety I wrote about then remains with me. I struggle EVERY DAY to hold back the negativity that bubbles to my lips when I look at myself in the mirror lest I speak them aloud to Miriam, who still thinks that every lump in her mom's body is just fantastic. "Your tummy is big because it used to be my home," she says, patting me lovingly. Below is a 2005 photo of her brother kissing that home--the one that used to be his.
And now, that column:
Last April, HipMama.com published an essay of mine inspired by a childhood memory of hugging my mother’s soft tummy. Sharing that memory with her twenty years later ended in disappointment, I wrote, for her reaction was shame, not tenderness. To her, the belly fat that gave her child comfort was a source of embarrassment, one so deep she couldn’t fight past it to remember her daughter’s love.
I don’t blame her. I’ve put on weight lately, and now my young daughter has a soft playground of her own. She enjoys a good stomach squish whenever she can, and it takes a superhuman effort to allow her explorations, to fight the urge to push her loving hands away from my own source of shame. I’m no longer the same size as when I wrote the column “Perfect Diet,” published in these pages in July 2007. These last two years have tested my sanity like no others, with estrangement, serious illness, and death all part of my reality. My body tells this story to anyone willing to hear it.
Ironically, that 2007 column challenged the assumption that a thinner frame equaled health; everyone told me I looked fabulous when devastating jaw pain meant I couldn’t eat. Nowadays, I look for refuge from stress in the snacks I munch while streaming “30 Rock” on Hulu. My balance is off, I realize, but my body itself is fighting my efforts to right it: these 37-year-old knees aren’t as excited about step class as they used to be. I remind myself that a certain amount of softness can’t be that bad, but I don’t believe myself any more than my mother did.
The chasm between the child’s adoration of her mother’s softness and that same mother’s hatred of her own flesh provided the spark for the HipMama piece. If bodies tell stories, my own could speak to the way I was raised, and the different way I want to raise my children. I don’t blame my parents, or their parents for that matter, for the accidents of genetics that left the family tree touched by chronic anxiety and depression. Even without this hurdle, no one can live free of powerful cultural messages about our bodies, embedded as they are in every aspect of American life. These struggles will own us if we resist naming them.
I write my columns at my desk, in a pose identical to the one I held in my fourth grade classroom, the first time I remember sucking in my gut for acceptance. Today, my belly bumps up against the cherry wood beneath my computer and is significantly larger than the one I was teased about. Do I hate myself more or less? At 37, I have the twin gifts of wisdom and perspective, yet I also have 27 more years of Madison Avenue programming. When I don’t fit into my 2007 pants, I listen to the judgments of the magazines before I honor the story my body tells of my emotional pain.
Making things worse is the fad of the “Yummy Mummy.” Today, 50 is the new 40, is the new 30, and so on. Once upon a time, a woman up to her elbows in the work of raising little kids could reap at least one reward—a ticket off the body hate treadmill. No more. Valerie Bertinelli claimed that Weight Watchers got her bikini ready for People magazine, but in the accompanying article she admitted to starving herself in the seven days before the shoot, just in case. Valerie is 48, thirty years past what was once considered the anorexia danger zone. Her flat tummy even sports a perky little belly ring, driving home the message that to be the mother of an 18-year-old, you need to look like one.
It’s hard enough to worry about your body in fourth grade, but age used to provide an exit strategy. In hindsight, I was naïve to think that my mother would welcome a memory based upon the roundness of her body, when voices so much louder than mine shout that her abs should be as tight as Madonna’s. When I shared this memory with my mother, I wished to affirm our connection. As a mother myself, I have her softened shape to offer my own children. Instead, my mother affirmed a different connection—the sisterhood of shame. Both are inheritances we pass on to my daughter Miriam, a girl who has just turned four.
It’s a burden far heavier, pound for pound, than anything physical.