Body Image Issues: Forgetting the Fun-House Mirror Image of Myself

From journal #37, dated 12.14.16
Tonight I went to Aqua Zumba for the very first time. I want to discuss how it felt to get into a bathing suit for the first time in six months, and how I saw myself differently than I had in the past.

God made my body, and I almost wrecked it. I am always on the verge of wrecking it.

Tonight I put on my one-piece blue bathing suit, the one with three tones of blue that stripe obliquely across my chest and abdomen before they go horizontal across the pubic area. This year was the first year in probably nine or ten that I wore a suit like this. I still have my two-piece that looks like a one-piece with a skirt. I bought it specifically to cover my saddlebags and thighs.

When I bought the blue one-piece this past summer, before we went on our vacation to North Carolina in June, I was pleased that the tops of my thighs did not bulge out like an opened can of frozen dough does, oozing its way out of the can. Well, on second thought, may be they did ooze a little, but certainly not to the degree that they would have if I had tried on this suit a few years ago. Back then, I would have been disgusted at the sight of it. I would have angrily removed the suit, perhaps with tears filling my eyes, and placed it back on the rack, avoiding the image in the mirror that felt like a fun-house joke.

All through high school I struggled with the idea that I was fat. My butt, hips and thighs were too big. I remember thinking that if I didn’t rollerblade daily, I would get even fatter. What’s sad is when I see pictures of myself from that era, I can now see that I was NOT fat. I was a healthy 120-pound young woman who had a very nice shape. There was aboslutely nothing wrong with my body back in those days. I wasted many years thinking I was fat and ugly.

Interestingly, I became overweight after leaving high school.Very soon after I started college, I began dating a man who could really cook. My once-120 pound frame packed on an extra 20 to 30 pounds over the next year. During that first year of college, and for several years following, I felt uncomfortable. A lot. My clothes never fit right. My jeans always felt too tight. My face felt too big, too puffy. I couldn’t stand the look of myself. Later, I had my hair cut boy-short. It was not a good look for me, but by that point, I felt that it no longer mattered. I felt ugly all around. My body took on a stocky appearance. 

Now, when I see photos from that era, I see that I was never really that fat. I was definitely overweight, but not as huge as I felt. But I also remember that my knees ached a lot and I just always felt uncomfortable. I never felt good about myself during those ten years of being overweight.

Here’s the question that I now ask myself occasionally: should I have tried to embrace my size at that time? If I were to talk to a girl now who was the size that I was back then, I would say “Yes, embrace who you are. You can walk, you can move, you can keep doing these things despite your size.” At that time, I did a lot of walking and outdoor rollerblading. Even at that size (I was between a size 10 – 14, depending on the manufacturer), I was moving quite a bit.

Looking back now, I know that I was not healthy in many ways, not just physically. I was emotionally not well, so I ate. I grew out when I should have been growing up. My soul’s decay reflected itself on my outside. I felt miserable, I looked miserable, so I felt even more miserable; one of those vicious circles we sometimes battle.

The problem that I can recognize now, though, is that I was too self-conscious, too focused on my appearance. I hated how my whole body looked. Instead of being thankful for my mostly active body, I instead only saw the lumps, puckers and bulges. I completely overlooked the freedom that came with everyday movements I took for granted like walking, jogging, and rollerblading.

It didn’t help that I had the distant voices of family members and friends in my head who often berated themselves for their looks: boobs that were too small, noses that were too big, butts that were too plump, hips that were huge. These words were like a non-musical soundtrack playing throughout my childhood. I also carried mental images of the thin, willowy women from fashion magazines, lamenting that I never looked like that.

Without realizing it, I had been conditioned to have a very negative view of my body which did so much for me, for others. Instead of focusing on what I could do with my body, I instead wasted many years berating myself for how I looked.

Eventually I started dating a new guy, who is now my husband. In our earlier years, we spent a lot of our time eating out, which did not help either of us in our weight struggles. In 2006, as I completed a bachelor’s degree and also prepared for our June wedding, the stress of it all caused me to fall back very close to my high school weight. I remember, at our wedding, one of my childhood friends noted that I looked “anorexic”. I knew I wasn’t. Perhaps the last time she had seen me, I was at my chunky stage. I see pictures of myself from a walk we all had taken that wedding weekend, and even to this day I think my legs look like gigantic smoke stacks.

Even being so close to my original high school weight, I still felt fat. The loathing continued for the next nine years of our marriage.

I believe things began to change when we joined our local YMCA in October 2015. One of our first nights there, we were walking clockwise around the track, watching a Zumba class in session. I had always been curious about Zumba, and they looked like they were having fun. I got brave enough to try it another night. I remember that rush of endorphins, the “Zumba high”. I started going to the Sunday class since I wasn’t always around during the week because of my traveling job. 

I started out wearing baggy capri exercise pants, while admiring the brave women who wore tighter capris in fashionable designs. “Not me,” I reasoned, “You’ll never see me in those.” That changed around Christmas, when I bought some jogger pants before eventually buying and wearing the tighter capris out of sheer comfort (I felt too awkward from constantly pulling wedgies out of my butt with the looser pants).

I noticed some positive changes in my appearance, nothing huge. More importantly, though, I wasn’t having the back pain after injuring my back in 2014. My back, arms and legs felt stronger with the use of weight machines a few times a week. Plus, because we had a warm place to go in the winter time, within 15 minutes of our house, so we were more motivated to exercise consistently through that winter. 

But in June 2016 and again more recently, what I noticed was that I didn’t feel disgusting when I slipped into that blue one-piece bathing suit. My legs aren’t perfect, my saddlebags are not completely gone, but I feel healthier.

Now, when I look in the mirror, instead of smoke stacks, I see legs that dance, bringing me much joy in my Zumba classes. They are legs that, just a week ago, clumbed up a large sand dune near Lake Michigan and did not get tired. Those legs ran without abandon down the other side of that dune with my niece Teagan and nephew Cooper, and we laughed hysterically. 

Instead of a “muffin top” waist because of my previous back injury, I now see a waist that looks and feels a little stronger because I’m learning the value of working my core. My stomach, which used to give me many problems years ago, is now pretty calm with careful eating and increased water consumption. 

I see arms that are getting stronger and more toned. They are arms that carry groceries, hug my husband. They are arms that held hands with Teagan and Cooper as we walked in the woods one cold December afternoon.

My shoulders are nice.

I like my big, round butt!

I like that my legs still rollerblade, and they have for over 22 years.

My back feels almost normal, three years post-injury. I had expected to have constant pain for the rest of my life, as I had for the first year and half post-injury.

I am still coming to terms with my aging face, puffy eyes and graying hair. But for now, I am thankful that I can appreciate the body that God gave me, appreciate it for what it can do, instread of trashing it for how ugly I once thought it was. Perhaps I am finally learning to ignore the fun-house mirror in my head and see things as they really are.

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3 thoughts on “Body Image Issues: Forgetting the Fun-House Mirror Image of Myself

  1. All my life I’ve never been happy with how I looked. I wonder where you picked up those feelings? My face being my worse enemy. So I found ways to hide my looks, with hair down to there and my height. So God took away my height and thinned down my hair. You will laugh at this but my voice always brought on compliments, and I wonder if it will be the next to go?
    I have gained weight for the first time in my life without being pregnant.
    When you wrote all the things that have upset you about your looks it surprised me and yet it didn’t. I don’t think there is a woman alive that hasn’t felt disappointed for not getting the perfect body, eyes, teeth, and height they crave.
    I was with my best friend yesterday. I warned her, “Dont look at my tooth, the cap fell off. And don’t look at my hair. I cut it while I was in a bad mood.”
    She says, “You always look beautiful to me.”
    God says to me, “Appreciate what I have given you. You always look beautiful to Me.”

    1. That’s just it – you’re right when you say “there isn’t a woman alive that hasn’t felt disappointed for not getting the perfect body, eyes, teeth and height that they crave. ” Those women all around us. No wonder we only get negative images about ourselves. I’m not saying I’m completely over my negative self image, but I am learning to be thankful instead that I have a well-functioning body. If I was in a wheelchair all my life, I’m pretty certain I would want to walk more than ANYTHING in the world, and not care at all if my legs look like smoke stacks!

      Thank you for commenting. And by the way, your children never saw those negative things you saw in yourself. We always thought you were beautiful.

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