bodyshame part I: “Big=Bad”
For the past two months, I’ve been blogging about topic which makes people cringe: shame. In my first post, “A Year without Shame,” I shared my intention to experience a deeper, more spiritual level of joy in 2015, which meant continuing to let go of the shame, grief, and pain which blocks me from experiencing supernatural joy. In my second post, “The Joy Robber,” I tackled a recent experience which triggered shame, and how I was able to confront how I was feeling and release myself from shame’s grip by speaking my truth.
Since I’m finding freedom in writing about shame and inspiring so many other women to do the same, I decided to write this month’s post about a deeply rooted issue for many of us: BODY SHAME. As I started to write, a waterfall of memories, emotions, and insights flowed from my heart to the page, and I quickly realized that this topic deserves more than just one post. This month, I’ll be publishing two posts: the first to share my “shame story” of how body shame wormed its way into my psyche, and the second to explore how I feel about my body today and how I continuously work on surrendering my body shame.
This post differs from my previous posts because I’m writing about my formative memories and pinpointing when…
body awareness: “I’m aware that I am different”
body consciousness: “I feel self-conscious about being different”
and eventually into
body shame: “I feel ashamed that I am different.”
I’m not writing this to blame anyone for my shame– I’m simply sharing how a young girl (me) interpreted the messages she received from her parents, teachers, classmates, and the media about her body and how her feelings evolved over time. Some of you reading this post will remember me as a bright, talented, independent, creative young girl who danced to the beat of a different drummer and wasn’t afraid to take the stage. You may be surprised to read about my hidden body shame, but I believe my story will resonate with many of you who also excelled in school and extracurricular activities, while hiding painful insecurities and shame about your appearance.
I hope you’ll read Part I with an open and compassionate heart, and that you’ll reflect on the messages you received about your body as you were growing up and how they continue to influence you as an adult. If you are a parent, I hope you will think about the messages you are sending your children about their bodies and what you can say and do to be a positive role model. Most importantly, I hope you will do what I did as I wrote this piece: Hug the little girl inside of you as you wipe away her tears. Forgive her for what she didn’t know and release her from the mistakes she made. Let her know how proud you are of her. Let her know that you love her just the way she was and is today. Set her free to be who she was intended to be.
PS: Spoiler alert: it’s a LONG one… get comfy and grab a glass of wine or a cup of tea, maybe some Kleenex nearby if this is a sensitive subject for you too.
I remember when I first became aware of my size….
In 2nd grade, I was the first kid in my class to own a ten-speed bike. Unlike my schoolmates, my 7 year old legs had outgrown the kiddie bikes, so my parents gave me a shiny blue ten-speed for my birthday. I was pretty proud of myself– I knew that being tall made me unique and eligible for special perks like ten-speed bicycles. YEEEEEEEHAAW!!!!
In 3rd grade, my teacher (Miss Johnson- still my fav!) asked for volunteers to perform the Mexican Hat Dance for an upcoming celebration and my hand immediately shot up. “YEEESSS, PICK ME!,” my heart screamed. I never turned down an opportunity to dance! Miss Johnson then faced the challenge of finding a suitable male dance partner as no one had volunteered to dance with me. I vividly recall that height was the selection criteria as I towered over most of the boys in my class. She settled on the tallest boy in the class, Peter, as my dance partner. I don’t think he had a choice in the matter. The take-away for 8 year old Chrissy was that boys should be taller than girls, and boys don’t want to dance with girls who are towering over them. (In retrospect, 8 year old boys probably don’t want to dance with ANY girl, but this wasn’t how I saw the situation at the time.)
Then, in 5th grade, I remember riding on the bus next to a classmate who called me a “she-man” referring to both my height and sturdy build. I was 10 years old, and my shoe size was the same as my age. I certainly wasn’t an overweight child, but I wasn’t built like my petite girlfriends. I left elementary school with an acute awareness of being taller and bigger than my peers, including the boys. My mom always reminded me of the “perks” of being tall, but I really just wanted to look my pixy-n-pretty friends… you know, the popular girls who the boys thought were cute. From my childish standpoint, BIG=BAD. I couldn’t really see any perks in that equation.
At home, I only found evidence that supported my BIG=BAD theory. My tall, Scandinavian mother was constantly dieting and talking about losing weight with my dad and her friends. To this day, I DESPISE Wasa Crisp bread because I associate it with my mom being a diet and replacing our sandwich bread with this tasteless, cardboard substitute. While I never remember her as overweight, I know my mom felt ashamed of her size and worked very hard to maintain a certain size. I remember digging through her closet and finding a love letter that my dad had written to my mom shortly after they married. In the letter, my dad wrote that he would love her “even if she weighed 150 pounds.” My dad, having grown up with an overweight and domineering mother, liked his women skinny and subservient. He also dieted, and boasted about his quick weight losses. In my childish mind, I determined that love must be conditional, linked to one’s weight. To be loved, you must stay thin. THIN=LOVABLE.
Middle school was a self-esteem minefield, as it is for so many kids. Even though my peers were catching up thanks to growth spurts, I was still tall, still sturdy, and STILL growing. Us girls were starting our periods, developing breasts, and growing hair in unexpected places. I started to wear baggier clothing to hide my changing figure. When it was my “time of the month,” I tied a sweatshirt around my waist to hide any potential leakage (golden rule: never, ever wear white pants) and safety-pinned my pads to the inside of my waistband. Girls who carried purses were targets for teasing because everyone knew that they were having their periods and needed to carry a purse full of pads. Body shame was rampant as we couldn’t control or hide these bodily changes, and the school bullies preyed on our vulnerability and awkwardness.
One of the most humiliating and shaming experiences happened in my home economics class when I was in 8th grade (13 years old). The teacher set up a scale in the front of the classroom where she weighed every single student in her classes. She then recorded our weights on index cards and kept them in a box on her desk. As if the public weigh-in wasn’t embarrassing enough, the boys in the class would regularly open the box and shout out other kids’ weights. They liked to pick on the girls in the class, typically those who were on the “bigger” side. I remember a classmate sitting at the desk with the index box in his hand, yelling across the room, “Hey Chris, do you weigh 140 pounds?” I turned all shades of crimson, lowered my head, and mumbled, “No, I don’t.” Deny, deny, deny. I wanted to crawl under the table, leave the room, jump out of the second floor window…anything to escape being shamed in front of the class. I still remember how physically sick I felt in that moment, and how badly I wanted to fall off the face of the earth. The boys continued on, doing the same to the other girls in the class, humiliating every single one of us.
So, in 8th grade, I went on my first crash diet. I remember feeling proud of myself for losing 10 pounds in a week right before my mom took my sister and me on a shopping trip. Never mind that I gained the weight back within a few days of resuming my usual habits. That summer, with my parents’ support as avid dieters themselves, I joined The Diet Center, which included a zillion mystery pills, a restrictive diet, and weekly weigh-ins. While my skinny girlfriends were munching on Fun Yums and Skittles, I was concocting strawberry-tofu smoothies and eating eggs with wilted spinach on diet toast. Every week, I biked to my weigh-in to log my progress and replenish my supply of mystery pills. It didn’t matter how much weight I lost, I already felt deeply-rooted shame over my body and its inability to conform to a smaller size.
If middle school was bad, then high school was waaaaaay worse. In high school, I hung out with a group of girls who didn’t want their thighs to touch. We were all “good” girls who excelled in school and our extracurricular activities, but we would have preferred being called “dumb” over being called “fat.” We all struggled with the same desire to be perfect. We spent our evenings doing Jane Fonda exercises in our bedrooms while on the phone with each other comparing diet and exercise notes. By this point, I had developed a full blown eating disorder: I binged and purged, I compulsively overate, and I went on 800 calorie a day diets. Breakfast was often a cup of yogurt, lunch was usually a granola bar washed down with a Diet Coke, and dinner was a miniscule portion of whatever my parents were serving up that night. I would lie in bed at night, hungry and admiring how my hips jutted out. As a slave to the scale, I didn’t want to eat in the middle of the night because it would mess up my morning weigh-in and ruin my mood for the day. Everyone, including my parents, complimented my slimmer figure, which further reinforced my desire to be thin at all costs. THIN=LOVABLE. Whenever I would feel upset about my dad’s drinking and verbal abuse, agitated by my parents’ fighting, or stressed by school pressures, I would binge on comfort foods, purge out of guilt for overeating, and then hate myself for being so weak and out of control. Sure, I lost weight, but at a significant price to my health and happiness.
After a falling out with my group of girlfriends, I gained 20 pounds between my junior and senior year of high school thanks to a summer of compulsive overeating. That August, I remember baking myself a pink confetti 17th birthday cake, which I promptly frosted and ate as soon as it cooled. I sat on the kitchen floor, sobbing and stuffing myself with globs of pastel cake to numb my pain and self-hatred. I was embarrassed to tell my mom the truth about the cake, so I told her that it hadn’t turned out. A month later, I returned to school feeling horribly ashamed of myself for putting on so much weight. Again, I just wanted to disappear, to hide, to fall off the face of the earth… I spent most of my senior year in a depression, only attending the classes required to graduate, and taking a class at the local university where I felt anonymous.
Despite feeling trapped in a vicious circle of restricting and overeating, my blossoming inner voice told me that I could find a way out of this hell hole by developing a different relationship with food and my body. I took the first step by joining a support group, unbeknownst to my parents who had regularly encouraged me to diet and were oblivious to my eating disorder. I discovered Geneen Roth’s books on breaking free from compulsive eating and I devoured them just as frantically as I had devoured my birthday cake. I journaled and wrote poetry about my misery and self-hatred, opened up to a few close friends, and asked my parents to help me find a therapist (which they did). Over the course of my senior year, I was able to stop the extreme dieting, binge-purge cycles, and compulsive overeating, but I hadn’t stopped believing in the BIG=BAD body shame equation. Even though I was never overweight, I had a horribly distorted body image and poor self-esteem. Changing my mindset and developing a healthy relationship with food took time….a long time and a LOT of self-love.
Part II coming in mid-March
 To this day, I don’t understand why this teacher weighed us—it certainly wasn’t part of her duties as a home economics teacher- and I don’t understand why she allowed the boys to further shame us.
Poem written May 30, 1990, when I was 16 years old at the end of my junior year of high school
I shut the window, sealing myself into my virginal, sacred room
From my view, I watch, gaze, wonder, judge
Raindrops flattening themselves
Clouds overlapping the sun like men denied water
I feel the layers of fat building upon myself
Muddling my brain
Crushing every sane thought
I grow larger, more obscure in hopes of becoming obsolete
The drops smatter against my looking glass
A punishment in each tiny capsule
The window remains sealed, only to leak in the spring.