My Health Journey: Part 1
I’ll admit, writing a series of posts about my life, my journey … myself … feels pretty indulgent. I’ve questioned it a dozen times. But I’ve decided it’s important because every time I share the smallest piece of my story with a client in my office, they look up at me with shock and relief and they say, “Really?” They can’t believe that I’ve been there too. That sometimes I’m still there. Most people come to me feeling really alone. And until I started talking about my struggles with food and body image, I used to think I was alone, too. So, even if only two people read this – it’s important. Because it’s in community with others that we actually find ourselves.
The first memory I have of being aware of the shape of my body was when I was 9 years old, in the fourth grade. My dad was the pastor of our church, so we were alllllllllways there, and I knew everybody. On Wednesday nights, the elementary kids had choir practice, and the youth group had their concert-style teen worship service, complete with loud music and colorful spotlights. I had to walk from the “baby room” past the teenage room to get to my dad’s office and meet my parents to go home every Wednesday. For me, it was a walk of shame. It was a physical reminder that I wasn’t one of them. And I soooo wanted to be one of them! I wanted to tease my hair and wear acid wash jeans and ride with boys in Camaros.
Adding insult to injury, some of the girls in there were my babysitters on occasion. Whenever they would leave to go home (after getting paid to watch me! … mortifying), I would stand on my bed so I could see my whole self in the mirror on the opposite wall in my room. I would stuff socks into the top of my nightgown, and I would blow kisses and pose, imagining what it would be like to look 16 or 17.
That initial awareness of having a child’s body vs. an older one led to more observations and comparisons. It didn’t take long for me to start noticing I was bigger than some of my friends. Chubbier. And one day in the fifth grade, I announced to my mother that I was no longer eating red meat. I have no idea what reason I gave for this, but had I said anything even remotely hinting at “being on a diet,” she would have nipped it in the bud. She is a family therapist and parent educator, so she is no stranger to sniffing out disordered behavior. I must have convinced her it had something to do with health. (This moratorium lasted about 15 years, by the way. I was grown and married before I ate beef again.)
I’m not sure avoiding red meat really did anything for my weight. I basically felt bigger than all my friends my whole adolescence, until I went off to college. And even then, I would only compare myself to the smallest ones of the bunch.
Here’s the crappy part: I believed that whomever I was *bigger* than, I was *less worthy* than. And if there was anyone I was smaller than, I (subconsciously) believed I was in some small way, superior to them.
Of course I didn’t know it then, but body size had become currency to me at the ripe old age of ten. I operated in a social economy where the less space you took up, the more power you had.
No one told me this insidious lie. No “mean girl” said it in words. There was no subtle communication of it from my parents. In fact, if anything, they lived in stark opposition to that economy — truly seeing and valuing all people, praising character and not appearances.
That is why this is so scary (especially now as the mom of a daughter) … I just picked it up somewhere along the way. I picked up that my face was “too” round. My thighs were “too” big. My stomach was “too” fat.
Now, this is not a sob story. Some children are teased and bullied mercilessly. I really was not. I remember only a handful of comments over the course of my childhood about me being ugly, or having big hair, or being fat. Standard cost-of-doing business kind of stuff. (My daughter is five and a boy who repeatedly tells her he loves her and tries to get her attention just told her yesterday that she is ugly. It happens.)
I actually had pretty high self-esteem, thanks in large part to my home environment. I did well in school. I made friends easily. I could sing. I was a cheerleader all through junior high and high school. I was the president of a couple different clubs and committees over the years. I had plenty of reasons to feel secure. But I also spent 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades being utterly shocked whenever I would hear a rumor or find out that a boy liked me. I would wonder why it wasn’t one of my smaller friends instead. Unless, of course, they were all coupled-up at the time, and then I would think, “Well, that explains it.” And when a boy did seem to be interested in me, I immediately devalued him. (If he likes ME, he must not be that cool.)
I had a lot of friends, just no real close ones. I was sort of a “fringe” member of all the various groups. Looking back, I was leaving the ring-leading to the girls I considered more worthy – the ones smaller than I was.
Again, I realize I had it pretty easy on the childhood bullying front. My point is only that it is an interesting social commentary that a young girl who seems to have lots of things going for her still gets culturally saturated with the message that the smaller your size, the higher your value.
That was a dangerous worldview to have when I went off to college, where you’re starting from scratch socially, trying to identify your own value and find a place in the pecking order. My freshman year was a bit of a trainwreck, which I’ll touch on next time in Part Two. But after the trainwreck came a turning point that is really where my health journey actually began.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this first piece of the story. Your childhood and adolescence could have looked completely different than mine. Looking back, do you see a theme of “body size as currency” shaping your thoughts about yourself (and of course, out of our thoughts comes our behavior)? Let me know in the Comments!