Respecting Our Bodies, Now and Then

I'll start with the briefest apologies for being MIA as of late. There are many reasons for my little hiatus, one of which is that I've been pretty busy pouring my heart and soul into teacher's college and my practice teaching, working as much as I can selling climbing gear at my new gig, and still trying to stay balanced with sleep and training and fitting in friends and family. I'm ready for the holidays and a break in the routine, but it's been a good whirlwind!

My current placement has taken me away from blogging and into the world of field trips and students ranging from kindergarten through high school. I’ve found it so interesting to get to know what kids are like as they grow up. Besides surprising me every day with how clever they are and tons of positive things I’ve taken away from my experiences, I’ve also had a few moments to ponder the way that the world we live in affects everyone when it comes to how we think about and take care of our bodies.

Perhaps the clearest—and most upsetting, for me—moment has been when one fourth grade girl, who told me earlier in the day that her legs were sore from a trip to the gym with her mom the night before where she did “40 pushups from her knees and lunges” was sitting with another girl in her class and audibly voicing body shame that I wish no nine-year-old could feel nor share. When she told her friend—and I hesitate to describe the girls’ bodies, but they were those of 9 year-olds, soft in some spots and clearly capable of running around all day smiling, poised to keep growing up healthy, I’m sure—that she had to go to the gym that night with a sigh, the friend asked her why. Her initial response of “I just have to,” was not enough, so prompted with the “But why?” of a curious fourth grader, she responded with, “I have to lose some of my donut,” lifting up her jacket and grabbing her stomach.

I have not stopped thinking about this girl since. I hear other kids, mostly girls, calling themselves fat in passing. I am hardly ever a part of the conversation, so, as a fly in the wall, I am not sure how to help. Do I jump into the conversation? A minute of hesitation comes when I think about the 5 layers I’m wearing and whether or not I’d be one of those cool adults whose advice a kid would take or the kind of weird grown-up who you wouldn’t listen to.

What I do know is that if a nine-year-old has picked up on the way that people, girls in particular, have to manage their bodies, we’re setting our women up for literally a lifetime of living in opposition to their bodies. I was already ashamed of my own body at that age, but I don’t think I would have said it out loud. I know that puberty was a huge challenge for me, and when you’ve already decided that you take up too much space or have fat in the wrong place, imagine weathering the challenges of puberty.

Puberty, pregnancy, menopause. Consider for a moment the messages we send and receive about our bodies through these big changes in our lives. Even though each represents a very different time for our bodies, isn’t it strange how the message to control our bodies, and in general to keep them from expanding and from letting ourselves go, remains the same? What if there was an appreciation for the way that the female body will gain weight in particular areas in each of these, and instead of vowing to battle it, we just went with it? My own journey has taught me that the more I try to fight what my body wants, the more I end up taking poor care of it. I have been the most mentally and physically exhausted because of (failed) attempts at controlling it, and I’ve learned that when I listen to my body and trust it, that’s when I feel the best and my weight can take care of itself. That flies in the face of the messages we get on a daily basis that tell us that our bodies require constant vigilance, or else…or else what?

The diet culture and so many industries out there rely on our believing that our bodies will somehow get away from us if we stop dedicating our lives to managing them. We’ll get fat, and fat is unfortunately one of the worst things we could be in this world. But I think we need to question that on two levels: Will we really expand and expand and keep getting fatter and fatter? And I can only assume someday explode because we can’t be contained? My experience has shown me that is not the case. I don’t actually want junk food all the time, and I feel better when I exercise. And is being larger than the “ideal” the worst thing in the world? I think there are worse things—being rude, a liar, stealing, cheating, etc. come to mind. And I think it would be worse to miss out on all the amazing things we could do with our lives because we’ve put our energy into managing something that is designed to take care of itself. It comes back to this: our bodies are our vessels to live our lives, not our life’s work. Contrary to what society seems to say, we don’t have to spend all of our time worrying about them to have a body that is healthy and lets us live a great life. This is a message that unfortunately sounds wild because we have been told over and over and over again—implicitly and explicitly—that our bodies require us to manage and control and perfect them.

My sister is about to have a baby. She is having a boy, and that has brought the idea of being a parent into the forefront of my mind. Did that girl on the field trip learn to refer to her stomach as a “donut” and a problem from her parents? I don’t know. I don’t think that my body issues came from my parents so much as a combination of the magazines and books and TV I was exposed to and the way kids treat chubby kids at school, so we can’t put blame on parents. But parents, teachers, coaches—anyone who spends time with kids—these are the people who have a chance to lead by example and try to pass on some body positivity to the younger generations. We can’t do that if we’re too hung up on our own bodies, and if we don’t recognize that our own issues are a problem we might pass down. In short, we have to be purposeful and intentional when it comes to being body positive. 

I don't think there is a perfect way to end this post, which is fitting because I don't think that I've figured this whole thing out. Just like when it comes to eating disorder recovery, I think respecting our bodies is a choice we have to make every day. It's not something we decide on once and for all, but something we are going to have to keep in the forefront of our minds as we go through life, navigating what is unfortunately a world that's not particularly conducive to us getting along with our physical selves. To that end, I hope that this post has been a little reminder that when it comes to your body, it's time to hop off the crazy train and to be a little kinder to you and yours.