Today I was mistaken for a pregnant woman.
I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me since the birth of my five-year-old daughter, but I can tell you it has been a lot. Some of the most memorable occurrences were at my grandmother’s funeral and on the field as the third base coach for tee ball.
My feelings toward my body are complicated and fluid. Most of this is because my weight fluctuates so much throughout a given year that how I feel in my clothes truly does depend on the day. But another part of this is because the message fed to me by society is frustratingly contradictory. The media conveying an unrealistic standard for the female body is a tired notion that many people are sick of, both the skinny and the not. We all know magazine covers are Photoshopped and that Photoshop creates unhealthy and unrealistic body image goals for women everywhere. We all know that the sexualization of television shows and movies creates unrealistic expectations for men as to how a woman’s body looks naked. We are all sick of hearing this.
Despite the fact that everyone is aware of these facts, the standard remains and this frustrated enough people that a body acceptance movement came rolling in on a tidal wave. Mothers post their “tiger stripe” selfies of their bodies postpartum and write about how they shall wear their bikinis despite their stretch marks because their stripes are war wounds, accolades from enduring one of life’s most challenging tasks: growing another human being and delivering it into the world. I remember reading about a mom who wears a swimming suit despite her insecurities and using her courage as a summertime mantra. Comment sections from posts like this are filled with a battle between other women being inspired and thanking the blogger for the courage it took to post the pictures and others writing about how encouraging acceptance of an unhealthy body is one of the reasons why America is dying from obesity. For every blog post from a woman trying to free herself from this weight demon, there’s another one where a guy is telling a woman she’s probably going to be obese if she decides to have a baby since she’s already 8 pounds overweight.
Body acceptance campaigns are everywhere. Some companies are changing their tunes and trying to put more “real people” in their clothing advertisements and commercials. Overweight women are selling bikinis made for overweight people and they are being applauded. People share memes on social media that say things like “Real women have curves” and things like that. Many of these campaigns make it clear that large bodies are fine as long as they are healthy bodies. But what does that mean? Do I have the acceptable kind of large body? At least half of the food I eat is vegetables. I drink about 20 ounces of soda a month, if that, regular or diet, and stick to coffee with no sugar in the morning and water for the rest of the day. I eat very lean beef that I buy from the farmer all year long and cook 95% of my family’s meals from scratch with no preservative-filled shortcuts. But I also eat pizza, cake at birthday parties, and chips and dip if they exist in the same room as me. I don’t block out time every day as official “work out” time, but I did just take a trip where I walked 13-15 miles a day and never felt winded and I can run three miles in less than a half hour. I don’t drink tons of sugary or heavy drinks at social gatherings, but I do love a nice glass of wine at night. I have never had an issue arise at a physical with a doctor, but I do have an overweight body. So what does this mean? Does anyone actually know? Am I the healthy kind of overweight, which may only exist in some people’s minds, or the unhealthy kind?
When John Legend’s music video for “You and I” came out, it brought tears to my eyes. It featured women of all types looking in the mirror, like I do every day, worried about their appearances. In the song, Legend is singing to assure the woman in his life that she’s beautiful before she gets all dolled up and that she’s the only girl he sees in the world. I think that’s pretty much everyone’s hope in this world: to be loved, lumps (literally) and all. Unfortunately, this song loses a bit for me once the second verse comes and the girl he’s with is turning heads all night. If the girl that inspired the song is his 5’10”, 120-pound wife, Chrissy Teigen, who is featured briefly with Legend in the video, then it’s not really all that impressive to me that he can force himself to see his model wife as beautiful. This is a warped sense of body acceptance — a woman that is turning heads all night is not really the woman that needs assured of her man’s love despite her appearance. It’s the women represented by so many of the other women in the video — the ones that haven’t turned heads in a long time, if ever, that need assured that they “don’t have to try” in order to be viewed as beautiful.
Despite all of these things, women are still on a quest to look better. There are pills and wraps and powders and supplements everywhere that insist they can help people toward a healthy lifestyle, but they are often unbelievably expensive and only marginally effective. But people buy them — including myself — because they are aware they are out of shape, they are trying their best, and they want to be happier with themselves. Those that purchase these products are constantly being reminded by healthy people everywhere that the only solution is a good diet and exercise.
But here is the reality: sometimes a sensible diet and exercise aren’t enough to find weight loss success. I’m not delusional and I understand how the basic science behind diet and exercise. I understand that it is simply a tango you must dance between calorie intake and calorie output. I understand that a deficit of 3,500 calories must occur to lose a pound of fat. I understand that half your plate at a meal should be vegetables. I understand that white sugar and too much white flour creates a storage of fat that is difficult to fight against. After my two-year-old daughter was born, I used the My Fitness Pal app to carefully monitor my diet and exercise to an obsessive degree. It got to the point where I was weighing myself at least twice, if not four times, a day, and had the amount of calories found within all of the foods in my kitchen memorized. I learned that if I had a “cheat meal”- something like my beloved pizza with my family or a plate of tacos, it would take me 5 days of salads to lose the new weight I found on my scale the next morning. I ended almost every single night in the app’s happy green zone and was promised that if I kept up with what I was doing now, in a certain amount of time I would weigh a certain amount. This was true up until about 15 pounds away from my goal weight – ten pounds away from a healthy BMI. And then I just sat there, stagnant, for months. I changed my diet, I changed my exercise routine, nothing mattered. Those last 15 pounds were not going anywhere. The monitoring process was exhausting and took up a lot of the free time I had left after work at work, the work I had to bring home from work, and the work waiting for me at home with a house, husband, and two kids.
I can’t tell you how many times I looked at the number at my feet and wanted to cry. I was so, so depressed. I had set my goals, I had followed the plan, I had made the commitment and sacrificed so much of my free time doing shitty things I didn’t want to do, and all I had to show for it was failure. All my life, I have been a gold star seeker, and no matter how hard I tried the gold star never came. Eventually, I put my scale away and stopped logging my food. I started enjoying a glass of wine at night with my husband instead of inputting portion sizes. I tried embrace it and accept that this was my normal body now.
But I can’t say that I was happier. I still noticed how my stomach would hang in a terribly unflattering way off the waistband of my pants. I still noticed how my thighs rubbed together when I walked. I still hated picking out clothes in stores and taking them into dressing rooms only to find I had underestimated my size once again. There I was: a tiger-striped mother faced with the unavoidable task of accepting battle scars with pride and not being able to lie to myself enough to do so. I couldn’t stand to be the overweight woman who was trying but failing or the one that was delusional enough to accept the status quo.
Time passed and I had hated how I looked so much that I decided to try again and focus even more on exercise as a way of burning the fat. I started running, which is my least favorite thing in the world to do. But I did it anyway — squeezing the time for the run in after dinner and while my kids were in the bath before it was time to read to them and put them to bed. People that like to run always say that once you get into the habit, you learn to love the time you spend running. They say you can leave the world behind and use the time to just be with you in your head. They say you are always happy that you decided to go for a run after you finish. None of these things were true for me. I ran four or five times a week for three months and never learned to enjoy it. But I continued doing it because I knew what science and society tells us: this was the only way to get the results I wanted. This was the only way I could finally get to the point where I’d stop hating what I saw in the mirror every morning when I got dressed. I envisioned the long term end game and was willing to do the hard thing. I even avoided the scale this time — recognizing that weight is such a fluid thing, that muscle weighs more than fat, and all that jazz. At the end of three months, I did my first weigh-in. I remember stepping on the scale with my eyes closed and giving myself a silent reveal moment similar to one you’d see on The Biggest Loser. I glanced down, triumphant. I had lost 0.4 pounds. I thought about all the runs I didn’t want to go on, how many nights dirty dishes sat in the sink so that I could steal this time for vanity away from my household, how I had lost precious minutes where my entire family was home to do this, how much time and energy had been concentrated into this effort, and I cried some more.
When I shared the disappointing results with friends, most of them responded positively saying that I was still a healthier person for my efforts, always adding that muscle weighs more than fat, and that I should be proud of myself anyway. I always wanted to scream back how incredibly frustrating this was. When you try to lose weight the only way that people universally deem acceptable and not lazy, you shouldn’t have to just shrug off and be happy with zero results. I had tried my hardest to sweat off my belly, and my newly toned calves weren’t a comfort to me to see in the mirror below the belly that remained.
Here’s the ugly truth: some people can eat a moderately healthy diet, engage in moderate exercise, and maintain an attractive body. Other people have terrible metabolisms and can only achieve this body through a lifelong commitment to kale and quinoa. I think there are very few of us in the latter group that are truly happy with our appearances during the quiet moments and can rise above with our proud tiger stripe banners waving in the wind. It seems like an amazing concept, but it is flawed with the harsh truth that people, including ourselves, are critical and ruthless. No matter how much I try to find a happy medium where I am making healthy choices in my diet and finding time to run, play, and sweat with my kids, I still may never have the kind of body that society passes as acceptable, unnoticeable, or even unremarkable. I am trying so very hard to just be okay with that and to accept that a life with pizza nights with my kids still in it means that it will also probably be a life with love handles. But as soon as I achieve some success and walk out the door in something I can feel good about myself while wearing, I still can’t stop jerks at the fair from telling me my two children and “the one in there” (pointing at my belly) get in for free, or the cute, toothy six-year-old from asking me if I have a boy baby or a girl baby in my tummy, or my distant cousin from giving me a knowing smile and a congratulations over my grandmother’s funeral ham. And as hard as I want to pretend like I can hold my head high after a “silly little mistake” like this, the truth is encounters like these always leave me broken, raw, and, ultimately, back in front of my mirror.