Earlier this summer, my husband and I moved out to Cedar Creek, TX, which is an unincorporated community just outside of Bastrop (population per Wikipedia is slightly north of 8,500 citizens). 20 miles southeast of Austin, my first time living outside of a major metroplex. Life is simpler and quieter out here. Our herd of animals (five dogs and a pig) love it.
As I started going to the Bastrop HEB for the weekly grocery run, this odd phenomenon started to happen. People would stop me in the produce or health food aisle and ask my advice. It would range from how to tell if a certain fruit is ripe, how to cook asparagus so it isn’t bitter and what protein bars are the best. I’d answer to the best of my ability and continue on with my own shopping. The first couple times it happened, I just brushed it off, thinking in a small town people are a heck of a lot friendlier. But, then it kept happening. It wasn’t until 6th or 7th time when the older gentleman preceded his question with “you look so fit and healthy” and then asked his question.
The precursor to the question stopped me dead because I realized, the image of what I see when I look in the mirror is still so far off than what the world sees. I workout regularly and eat healthful foods but I don’t see myself as someone that a stranger would describe as fit. How in my 30’s is my body image still so askew?
Growing up my mom never allowed me to have Barbies. She was worried Barbie would set unrealistic beauty standards and I’d have poor self-esteem. Barbie was the least of my body image problems.
My mother had this list of features that she thought made the MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN THE WORLD. A few of those features included:
- Long, lithe ballerina body
- Straight, shiny dark hair
- Big blue eyes with long eyelashes
- Flawless poreclain skin
- Toned but not too muscly – muscles aren’t becoming on a lady
- Minimal hips and butt – she never understood the original fascination with J.Lo’s butt in the 90’s
- Boobs should enough but not too much, anything over a B cup was too much
- Tiny waist and a thigh-gap were the ultimate goals
Welp, I had none of these. I can’t even name a celebrity who fits the description. It was a standard not even Hollywood could meet. I was short, stocky, frizzy dirty blonde hair, brown eyes with big boobs and a butt that started developing early. I’ve always been more on the muscly side, these legs have always been pretty strong and sturdy, no thigh gap here. I was a full 180 from what my mom thought was beautiful. Ouch. That’ll make a severe impression on the developing body image of an adolescent girl.
Don’t get me wrong, my mom never called me ugly or made me feel directly bad for how I looked. One of her favorite compliments was to pick out the features we shared (we do have a strong resemblance) that she didn’t like and tell me how much better that feature looked on me than it did on her.
Since she didn’t posses many of these features herself, she’d find comfort in commiserating in our shared lack of these beauty ideals – that she idealized. The story of our dynamic is a topic for another day, it’s one I have to work up to in order to share. But, I know she was just continuing a cycle passed down from her mother who also set unattainable beauty standards for her daughters. Cycles are made to be broken.
My mom’s standards of beauty are not mine but they are still in the back of my mind. When I find myself down on how I look, I realize I am comparing myself to the list that was ingrained at such a young age. I don’t want blue eyes, I like my brown eyes. I don’t want minimal hips, I love the curve that goes from my waist down my hip (so does my husband). So why are those still the things I’m comparing myself to? I have to constantly remind myself, what do I want, what do I find sexy, what is my own standard of beauty and rewire my brain. This happens more often than I’d like but I’m conscious of it and can make course corrections to stop myself before I go too far down the self-loathing rabbit hole.
My mom also kickstarted a long-term dysfunctional relationship with food. In the 6th and 7th grade, I got a smidge bit pudgy thanks to changing hormones. She taught me that it was acceptable to just eat an apple and a can of tuna FOR THE WHOLE DAY to lose some of the weight. I was 12. Anything with fat has always been the enemy and fat-free cottage cheese and Lean Cuisines, the beacons of health food.
I’m still in the midst of changing my relationship with food, it’s not the enemy, it’s fuel. It’s necessary. Starving and avoiding all fat is never going to be the answer. Today, I subscribe to the 80/20 rule. When we cook at home it’s pretty healthy, sticking to a Paleo inspired diet. A girl still needs pancakes and queso, so enter the other 20%. Balance! When we switched to Paleo a year ago, it was mental warfare to cook with the amounts of butter, oil and ghee needed. It went against everything I had been conditioned to think. And it’s been an amazing lifestyle change. Fats are awesome, they make your brain work. Eat more of them.
There are somethings that I will always struggle with, the visible scars of being a human. Our bodies are incredible vessels, the changes it goes through, the stress it can take, the strength it posseses. All of these leave their mark with a story from your life. Stretch marks from boobs developing too quickly, loose skin on my stomach from carrying an extra 30 pounds while I was in a toxic relationship, cellulite on my thighs from being a living, breathing female.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get on the “these flaws are beautiful” train. They are part of every person, man and woman. They should not be shamed but I’m not in a place where they should be celebrated either. They are what they are. You won’t find me posting a pic on Instagram of a close up of my cellulite riddled thighs but you also won’t find me wearing pants in the summer to hide it.
We’ve overcorrected a bit as a society, there is now pressure to love every single part of yourself at all times. I can’t do that. And I don’t know many people who can. It’s ok to want to improve things about your body, it’s there to be molded and shaped. We just need to recognize our limits. And accept the unchangeable. I can lust after long legs all I want but I’m 5’2″. It will never happen. I can choose to sulk about it and forever be unsatisfied or I can realize that these short legs store a lot of power and therefore have their own beauty.
The foundation for poor body image was laid early and it’s a work in progress to fix that foundation everyday. As an adult, I’ve been skinnier, I’ve been heavier but I’ve never been healthier than I am now. Mentally and physically. Health is my beauty standard. And it looks different on every person. That’s one of the most amazing things about beauty, everyone brings their own uniqueness.
I am beautiful. You are beautiful. We are all beautiful.