I talk a lot about body diversity, health at every size, body love, body acceptance, and any numerous things about loving your body. I pontificate about it pretty much non-stop. I do it even when it's hard to believe my own words. I want people to be happy and healthy and weight has nothing to do with that. It's taken me a long time to realize that, embrace that, and continually I struggle to believe that. It's hard. It's a struggle. Some days I win, some days I don't. I win more than I struggle, but I think it's important to talk about struggling.
I went to a workshop during our campus' Love Every Body Week -- which is our celebration of Eating Disorders Awareness Week -- where we focus not only on eating disorders, but the wider spectrum of wellness, health, body image and body love. The workshop was hosted by the author of Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!), Connie Sobczak. The workshop was several hours and explored many topics but one of the activities we did was draw a flower or tree that was emblematic of our body stories. The roots were supposed to be the messages we got in our youth, primarily from our family, about our bodies. The trunk or stem was supposed to symbolize how we feel about our bodies now, and the flower or leaves were supposed to express something about how we hope to use our bodies to shape others in the future (I can't remember how exactly she phrased it). This was my drawing:
I love sharpies. So although we had a range of art materials to pick from, I picked the shaprie. I don't know what it is about sharpies that I love...maybe because I love the sharp, harshness of black, maybe I love its permanency (I'm not so good with change), or maybe because sharpies always seem so damn serious, like "oh shit, she just brought out the sharpie, shits about to get real!" (and that's kind of how I think about myself a lot). But anyway, I chose the sharpie.
I chose a palm tree. I've always loved palm trees, but I've loved them even more since my therapist used an analogy using a palm tree. My therapist is the friggin best with analogies and metaphors. It's one of the things I love most about her. We were talking about strength and flexibility and she compared an oak tree and a palm tree. Oak trees are strong, hard woods. But in a tornado or major storm an oak tree will snap in half. A palm tree is also strong, but it's extremely flexible. In a storm a palm is much more likely to bend and then bounce back after the storm is over. Most of my life I've lived as an oak tree. Trying to be strong and impenetrable, but ultimately that strength is my weakness. When the storms of my life or OCD come blowing, I snap and break. Instead I should try to be like a palm tree and learn how to be strong enough that I can stand tall but flexible enough that life can push me around without breaking me. And if that isn't fucking beautiful I don't know what is. So when it came to drawing a plant, I drew a palm tree.
At my base I had two simple statements: You are more than your body & all bodies are beautiful. These are true statements. One of the best gifts my parents gave me was the gift of growing up in a home where bodies were not only NOT shamed, but were really not mentioned at all other than our bodies do lots of magnificent things for us. My mom is an artist and so we saw lots of diverse bodies through art. My mom also grew up in a home with intense body shaming and regulation and she didn't want to pass that on to her children. My feminist father was raising 3 daughters so he made sure to a) follow my mom's lead and b) embrace all facets of human diversity. I also grew up in a hippie beach town where we had no qualms about stripping down at the beach on a whim or running naked through the yard. It wasn't really until we moved to Indiana and I entered the tween years that I even really realized that bodies were something that people valued, berated, etc.
I made it through the teenage years slightly better than most, but not without the constant pressure from the outside to hate my body. I've always been on the larger side of my peers, but of course when I look at pictures of my teenage years the difference is negligible.
In my early 20s my sister and I joined a gym together to "get healthy" and "lose weight" for her upcoming wedding. We decided to try running on the treadmill together and gradually progressed to wanting to run a couple 5Ks. At the same time I started using a Fitness/Calorie counting app on my Palm (oh how I loved my Palm). It started out ok, but over time I became obsessed (this should not be shocking to you -- though it was to me in hindsight). I was running 3 miles a day 6 days a week and maintaining a 1200-1500 calorie diet. I felt like YES! I'm doing this! I'm doing what society tells me to do! I lost 30 lbs!
But I hated getting up and going to do something I loathed. I kept waiting for that runner's high to hit me. Or thinking that as I ran more it would get easier and I would learn to like it, maybe even love it. I didn't. Ever. I hated every single second of it. The only thing I loved about it was hanging out with my sister every day. That's the one and only thing. We bonded, we laughed, we had fun together in spite of the running. I wouldn't take any of that back for a second.
I hated counting every single calorie. I hated being a slave to my fitness app. I hated all of it.
I hated it even more when I plateaued at 30 lbs of weight loss. I hated that I pushed myself for so long and so hard that I fractured my foot from the stress of running and the lack of nutrition I was getting. I hated that even after 30 lbs of weight loss I was still fat.
And then it hit me...health is only one part physical. An equal and valid part of one's health is mental. I was not happy. In fact, I was miserable. I was miserable and still fat and now had a fractured foot. Was dismal mental health worth the so-called physical health I was achieving? Was my physical health really all that better or was I just 30 lbs lighter? What would happen if I participated in fitness I enjoyed and ate sensible meals without worrying about calories? This started a long period of self-reflection. That reflection continues to be on-going. And I continue to find new and well-documented information to support my feelings.
EVERY body is a GOOD body. Every day we wake up and our bodies do amazing things for us. We only have one body so we might as well make the most of it. It's much easier to learn to love your body (not that it's easy) than to hate and try and transform your body. Trust me, I've been there.
So the middle of my drawing is who I am now. I am a (mostly) solid message of body love, and I try to spread that whenever and wherever I can. It's not easy. All those arrows up there? External messages trying to tell me I'm not ok as I am. I've had to build my bark up thick and strong to keep those messages out. It's not always easy. Sometimes arrows get wedged in-between my layers, but I just keep on growing layers around those arrows. I grow through activism, I grow through heavily editing and considering what media I expose myself to on a daily basis, I surround myself with other people who share my beliefs, I follow the tenets of the Health at Every Size movement, and I forgive myself when icky thoughts sneak up on me.
My branches are my desire to spread this love and awareness and sense of self to everyone around me. I may not change the world, but I will damn sure try.