why we shouldn't abandon critical thinking when it comes to self-image
I have Asperger's Syndrome, and I guess my body doesn't work the same way other people's do. For the most part, I try to ignore my body because it's inconvenient to have to feed and clean it. It doesn't give me good signals when it's hungry or when it needs to vacate. I figure I'm missing some neurological connections that pass along information like "I'm hungry" or "I need to poo". I manage pretty well, in spite of the communication problems, by feeding my body regularly and washing it once a day.
Although I have a somewhat objective relationship with my body, I'm not immune to feelings of inadequacy within the subjective realms of "attractiveness". When I was a teen, I was painfully thin with small breasts. Sometimes I wished I was pretty enough to be a model, because pretty girls were popular and I was not. People talked about models with admiration. No one admired me. I felt inconsequential. Other girls were obsessed with their appearance, so I worried that something was wrong with me and started worrying, too. I didn't feel particularly feminine, so I compensated by dressing in a boyish manner. I was always surprised when other people found me attractive.
In my 20s, I gained about 20 pounds and achieved a healthy body fat ratio. By this time I was married and well immersed in cult life, so I bought larger clothes and didn't think too much about my appearance beyond dressing in a feminine style. The cult advocated women "staying in shape", "not letting themselves go", and "dressing in an attractive style" in order to keep their husbands interested in them. I didn't understand the point, but I went along with it to avoid conflict with cult leaders.
I had my son at age 33, and my daughter at age 36. My body, the one that usually doesn't communicate well, had plenty to say on the subject of food during my pregnancies. I was very physically active during the first pregnancy, and was delighted by the feelings of craving a food. I ate all the watermelon I could get my hands on. Salad was amazing. Root beer was bliss! My second pregnancy wasn't nearly as fun. My marriage was disintegrating and I was under a lot of stress. I felt nauseous all the time. I could barely choke anything down and I suffered from hear-burn. For months, I subsisted on smoothies blended from fruit, yogurt, and protein powder. It was the only thing I could keep down. In spite of my problems with food, I gained far more weight with my second pregnancy than my first. I didn't really notice it, though. It didn't make me uncomfortable.
Then a friend showed me some pictures she'd taken of me and my baby girl, and I was shocked. "oh my god, I'm fat!" I exclaimed in surprise. I marveled that although I saw myself in a full length mirror every day, I hadn't noticed that I was much heavier than I was used to being. I didn't feel unhealthy. I didn't feel overweight. Yet I gave myself that label when I said "I'm fat".
Fast forward a few years. I had finally divorced. I was working full time and raising my two kids, and I was stressed beyond belief trying to manage all my responsibilities with no help from my ex-husband. My weight had gone up and down with my stress level and was, for the most part, an inconvenience because I don't like it when my clothes don't fit. Then I went to a doctor, diagnosed with "situational depression" and prescribed Zoloft. It never did anything for my depression or anxiety, but it did cause tics, diarrhea and eventually convulsions. For two years doctors experimented on me with everything from Seroquel to Risperidone, and I had severe side effects with every one, ranging from uncontrollable hostility to mania to severe somnolence. The one constant side effect with all of them was weight gain. Although I didn't gain as much weight as I had during my second pregnancy, it was very different. I felt sick. My GI tract went from sluggish to static. Blood-work indicated something was wrong, and I was subjected to tests to rule out cancer. I didn't have cancer, but I didn't have answers. A visit to a gastroenterologist revealed that all the medications I'd been on had caused my body to store fat on the inside of my abdomen (instead of the healthy female locations like hips, thighs and butt) and that fat was pressing on my internal organs. I quit taking the medication and refused any prescriptions.
That was a year and a half ago. I'm still heavier than my ideal, but I've lost a good 15 pounds of fat from inside my abdomen. I can sit down without getting instant acid reflux. I can tie my shoes without throwing up. I feel healthy again.
But, because I'd given myself the label of "fat" eight years ago, I continued to use it without much thought. When I was at my sickest, with my belly distended and painful, my little girl asked me if I was having another baby. I told her "no, I'm just fat".
That word stuck with her. As I got healthier, she'd say "mommy, you don't look so fat anymore". I tried to put my situation into perspective by telling her that I'd stopped taking the medications that were making me sick and that I was much healthier. Then, a few months ago we were talking about growing pains and I commented to her that she was eating about three times the amount of food as her brother so I thought she'd be getting a lot taller pretty soon, and she replied that she would get taller but since she's skinny she wouldn't get fat like a couple of her classmates.
My heart sank to my shoes. For a little girl just going on nine years old to make the distinction that "skinny" is better than "fat" scares me, especially since she's my little girl.
I hate the idea that anyone would grow up looking at "people" as so generic that only the most general of descriptors come to mind when noticing differences between individuals. Who's Jack? "The Asian kid." Who's Melissa? "The fat girl". Who's Dee? "The black kid". Who's Sarah? "The girl in the wheelchair".
I guess the mind wants to categorize, but accepting such general labels is socially myopic at best.
So I sat down with my daughter and we talked about ranges of body shapes and sizes. Some people are short. Some people are tall. Some people are heavy. Some people are slight. We shouldn't put a value on any of those because they're external and superficial. They don't tell us much about a person, just like a person's skin color doesn't, or the color of their hair. I'm lucky that my daughter is already aware of and concerned with a nutritious diet and chooses to eat healthy food, so I used that as a starting point to explain that a person can be both underweight and malnourished, just as they can be overweight and malnourished. People can be within their ideal body weight range and be malnourished. Health cannot be determined by weight. I asked her if my belly still looked big and she said yes. I told her she's right, my belly is still big but the fat that had built up inside of it had gone away over the last year because I stopped taking the medications that made me store the fat, so even though my belly is big, I feel pretty healthy most days. I don't feel pressure on my stomach. I can breathe when I sit down.
I asked my daughter to help me get words like "fat" and "skinny" out of our vocabulary when we're thinking of the characteristics of ourselves or other people, and think more about "healthy" and "unhealthy". Fat is just a way that our bodies store a type of energy, and we all need to have some or we'll die. A person might be unhealthy because they're carrying excessive body weight from eating too many nutrient-empty calories, or they might be heavy because of taking a medication or having another health issue. A person might be dangerously underweight because of an illness like cancer or because of medical treatments like chemotherapy.
When my son was about the same age we went through almost the same exercise when he tried to point out a certain class-mate on the playground. We'd live in an almost exclusively white and hispanic city before moving to our current home, so in his mind saying "the black kid over there" probably made sense. I pointed out that half the children on the playground had dark skin, so I could not tell who he was talking about. I asked him if he was in a group like the one on the playground and I told someone to find him by looking for "the white kid", did he think they'd be able to figure out who he was? He thought about it for a minute and decided it would be impossible. I asked him how he'd describe himself so someone could figure out who I was talking about, so he described his hair cut and hair color, his glasses and the color of his shirt. I told him that's perfect, now do the same thing for the other kid. He then described the boy as having "short curly black hair and wearing a striped shirt". I was immediately able to say "I see who you're talking about."
I want my kids to look beyond the obvious when noticing characteristics... and not just in other people, either, but in themselves as well. "Skinny white boy with Asperger's" is not a good description of my son. He's my musically talented emo drama queen with a twisted sense of humor who is technically savvy, learns software really fast and likes math and science and usually dresses in black. "The tiny girl with ADHD" is also far too general to describe my intellectually gifted, highly social daughter and her vast ability to love and forgive. It also fails to indicate anything of her incredible memory or the fact that she uses an abacus to do her math homework, has an incredible singing voice, and likes punk rock.
The realization that my own thoughtless label had so much potential impact on the way my children view themselves and others made me really think about the way I described myself to them. Labeling myself "fat" was lazy, demeaning and superficial and only served to reinforce, for both me and my kids, the negative body image propaganda we're all constantly bombarded with. My body is much more than a set of measurements. It's not just a cup size, a waist size, a weight on a scale. It's my soul's vehicle through life and I should treat it with respect and teach my kids to do the same for theirs.