Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with my body image over the years. I’ve written about all the ups and downs I’ve had with it before, but I feel like I need to post an update, especially since things have evolved since I became a mother almost 9 months ago. In today’s post I explore why body positive motherhood is important to me.
I’ve been following a lot of prominent body-positive activists on social media in the past couple years. Too often I feel shy to join the conversation, especially since I don’t always feel like I ‘qualify’ to share my opinions on body positivity as I’ve had a fairly straightforward path with my appearance – or so it may seem to an outsider. I haven’t gone through any drastic weight fluctuations, or experienced threatening stages of eating disorders in my life. I haven’t gained a lot of weight during pregnancy, or struggled to lose it after to ‘get my body back’ (ugh, I hate that phrase!). And yet accepting my body as it is has still been a tough task for as long as I remember.
I’ll admit that my body acceptance has gotten much better over the years. A big win has been embracing the fact that I don’t have to work out till I drop from exhaustion every day in order to be worthy of my own love. However, recently I realized that I’ve made a few missteps on the way to embracing body positivity. It’s even more important for me to admit my mistakes and learn from them now that I am raising a daughter.
My biggest mistake has been perpetuating the idea that everyone has to be on the path to self-improvement, and that becoming healthier has to be a part of that self-improvement effort. When I voiced my disapproval for a certain famous plant-based blogger’s obsession with being skinny, I believed that people should focus on gaining health first, with weight loss being a *possible* bonus if they play their cards right.
Today, however, I admit that I was wrong to tie the notion of health to the notion of thinness as the benefit of that health, which, as I have since realized, isn’t always the case. Plus, the mere idea of having to be on the path to self-improvement in order to be respected rubs me the wrong way now. I am saying that however people decide to spend their time in life, or whatever they choose to do with their own bodies is none of my business. If they choose to do nothing, they’re still worthy of respect, no matter their size or health condition.
The talks about ‘health’ and self-improvement’ in the context of going plant-based and/or adopting an exercise routine can be well-intentioned, but they can also be a slippery slope to disordered food behavior and the formation of self-destructive eating and exercise habits. I’ve been there. In fact, I’m still recovering from being there.
I’ve been obsessed with becoming ‘healthier’ while already being fairly healthy. I’ve experimented with eating too little (or too low-calorie) and exercising too much, even though I’ve never been what’s conventionally known as ‘fat’. I’ve talked about ‘health’ way too often in my earlier blog posts. Yet I haven’t had a single post about whether or not those exercise and eating habits had brought me the final state of eternal happiness because they never had. As I read some of those earlier posts, I see that for me the idea of health used to go hand in hand with fat shaming. For this I want to apologize.
I’ve recently realized that truly embracing body positivity has reached a new level of importance for me now that I’ve become a mother. My task is no longer limited to just being nice to myself and my own body – I have to make sure that I minimize my daughter’s exposure to our society’s conventional paradigm of ‘good bodies’ vs ‘bad bodies’ and whatever is believed to make some bodies good and other bodies bad.
In a world where people (and women in particular) are bombarded with fat-shaming messages, I want to help my daughter form a healthy relationship with her body image no matter what her body looks like.
I grew up in Russia, a place that’s to this day is firmly set in its patriarchal ways that objectify women and assign their value based on their looks. As a kid, I formed my belief that my body wasn’t good enough, that it ‘needed work’, from a myriad of tiny comments from family and friends, and lots of body-shaming messages targeting women on TV and in the media.
My mom was trying to inspire me, a slightly chubby, sedentary kid, to do things like running in place at home, or to swap a higher-calorie snack for something more ‘slimming’. Growing up to become a fat woman in Russia was a scary prospect, and my mom was trying to shield me from that fate just like she was trying to avoid it herself her whole life. On TV and in the real world around me, I’ve heard countless negative remarks aimed at people who happened to be bigger than the average.
Those remarks made me fear that if I ever got fat, it would be like social suicide. It’s no wonder that in my teen years I formed an obsession with exercise that went hand in hand with skipping meals. When I lost a lot of weight over the summer before my senior year in high school, everyone around me cheered my ‘strong will’ and ‘dedication’. Not a single person raised any concerns.
A few years later while I was still living in Russia, I went through an abusive relationship where one of my boyfriend’s main hang-ups was the fact that I gained some weight during a summer I had spent in the US. He would raise hell if I skipped a workout or ate anything after going to the gym. He would pick famous skinny actresses and demand that I needed to work towards looking like them.
My resentment towards him eventually grew to a point when I got the courage to leave. But even as I left, I took with me his ideas that I needed to be skinny at any cost. Those ideas plagued me for years afterwards.
I moved to the US at 21, and for the first few years continued to subscribe to the same idea that skinny equaled good. I picked up running and did too much of it at times. I toyed with the idea of diets (the low-carb craze didn’t escape me) and took my guilt for eating dessert as a given. Even when I decided to go plant-based in 2013, I’ll admit that the original appeal of this diet for me was the possibility to eat a lot without gaining weight.
The pinnacle of my obsession with thinness was my decision to train for a bikini competition that ended up a huge failure but taught me so much about myself. It took a lot of time, discovering the work of body-positive activists, listening to progressive podcasts, and going to therapy before I was able to see the fault in my way of thinking. When thinness is the goal of all your self-improvement efforts, it will never lead you to discovering balance in life because balance goes beyond just the looks.
It is a natural thing for parents to want to shield their children from making the same mistakes they’ve made. Instead of setting my daughter to discover the fault in the values I raised her with, I want to give her the right values from the beginning. I don’t want my daughter to struggle with her body image for a third of a century like I did – instead, I want her to know that she is worthy of love and respect just the way she is.
I do understand that I won’t be with her every minute of her life, so it’s more important for me to give her the right set of values so she can make the right judgments on her own in any situation. When discussing things like food, exercise and physical appearance, I need to talk about them in neutral terms rather than to place them into the paradigm of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’.
Of course, I hope that my daughter grows up healthy, but I don’t want her healthy habits to be formed at a cost of her self-esteem. Nor do I want her to stay in touch with people who tell her that her looks make her unworthy of respect.
Raising a child is a long, long road with lots of bumps and unexpected turns. But just because I won’t always know how to deal with them, I’m not going to get discouraged. I still have a lot of questions about fostering self-love, and I can only hope that my search for answers will benefit not just myself but my daughter as well. And if she grows up to have fewer self-destructive hang-ups than I had as a young adult, I’m going to consider my job well done.
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