Body Image, Food Feelings and Insecurity
Woah, that's a lot for a Wednesday. Today's topic may make you feel uncomfortable. The most important conversations should make us feel a healthy level of uncomfortable. The level that makes you think and consider a different point of view. In order for us to have the willingness to discuss the uncomfortable, we have to feel a sense of safety to do so. This looks like knowing our thoughts will not be met with judgement, but with openness. One way to practice this type of listening is by not saying the very first thing that comes to our minds. I'm looking at myself. Takes practice. So, let's practice this today.
Most importantly, if you are struggling with any of these topics and now is not the best time to digest someone else's opinions on them, it's okay to skip this one.
I've had this sitting in my draft section for a long time. I'll write on it here and there as things happen, I have a new experience to add or a memory pops up. This topic is SO relevant, I add to it often and now I'm realizing it could go on like this forever and you'd never read my thoughts. I am also feeling the need to put these words on paper to get them out of my head. Honestly, there are so many paths and trails of thoughts here, you might fall victim to my tangents. There is this sense of "imposter syndrome" telling me my thoughts aren't worthy to be read, but I've also realized something else is more important. To the person who read that single sentence above, but felt the need to keep reading, I want them to have at least one voice in the world telling them, "It's okay. You're not alone. No, it shouldn't be this hard. But there ARE people here to support you." Frankly, I KNOW there is at least one person in every circle I am a part of that relates to this. I can't keep it to myself anymore. They deserve to be seen, known and loved including their body image, food feelings and insecurities.
Think about a time in your life when you felt uncomfortable in your own body. Think about a time in your life when you made a choice NOT to eat a certain food because you felt it would add to your uncomfortable feelings about your body. Think about a time in your life when you felt insecure in your clothes. Think about a time in your life when you felt insecure while eating a meal with family or friends. The more I talk to friends, the more I know without a shadow of a doubt that every single one of us could think of "a time" for each of these scenarios. For most, thinking about those times is painful and possibly traumatic. For even more, thinking about "a time" might have been yesterday or right now. I don't ask you to think about these times to bring up old feelings, but to remind you, you are not alone. Yes, it is hard. Your feelings are valid.
I can speak to my own experience of all of the above. Growing up as a competitive gymnast, the idea was to have the perfectly lean and graceful body. If you look at gymnasts in the 1990's, you see women who looked just like me. Petite, slender and slightly muscular in all the right places. I did, I had the perfect body to be a graceful gymnast. My sense of my own body image was that it got the job done. The job being to flip, dance and leap well enough for the judges to give me a good score. Most often, that job was done well and my scores were high. I felt good about my body because it could do what I wanted it to be able to do. Pretty, close to perfect, gymnastics.
To describe meals in my house growing up, I'd say they were quick, simple and whatever my sweet mom could put together between the hours of 4pm and 5pm. In order to get to gymnastics practice every day, she had to have food on the table for me by 4:30pm to be eaten and out the door to get to the gym. It's truly a wonder. I don't know how she did it. Yet every day, I had the energy to go through school and 3 and a half hour practices. I'm sure there were some meals she made that I liked better than others, but I don't remember complaining too much. My mom could shine a better light. My very few "outbursts" about food had to do with vegetables. My great aunt putting collard greens on my 5 year old self's plate even after my mom repeatedly told her, "She's not going to eat that." I didn't say a word, just picked them up off my plate and put them back in their dish in front of the whole family. I don't know what my great aunt was more mortified with, the fact that I used my bare hands or that she was indeed, wrong. Then, the one time (they've told me about!) I pitched a fit at the dinner table because I did not want broccoli and chicken casserole (now my favorite meal of my mom's) and my mom said, "Okay. Then go find something for yourself." I found a cold hot dog. Really? Really. None of these stories were about humiliation or ridicule. They are not stained memories, but funny antidotes. Yet both instances I was allowed the opportunity, whether intentional or not, to make my own choice. Most often during the week, I would eat whatever my mom put in front of me because I knew I didn't have time to worry about making something else. I also think even some part of my pea sized, teenage brain knew she was doing her absolute best to take care of me and provide what I needed. Who cares if I didn't like the peas? (I don't. Sorry, mom! Love you!) On the weekends, I can remember eating more of my favorite foods or going to restaurants so my mom had a break from the overwhelming responsibility of creating meals every day. This was also for our enjoyment as a family who seldom ate a single meal together during the week. My overall sense of food was it had a purpose and I enjoyed all kinds of it. I enjoyed food as an activity with friends and family. There were some foods I liked more than others, but nothing to make me wonder if I needed to feel some kind of way as it related to the looks of my body.
Clothes are a big part of our body image. Clothes are one of the most annoying parts of being a woman. But we enjoy them so! The feeling of finding what you're looking for or wearing your favorite outfit gives you the extra push. It's worth the work of searching. Sometimes. Maybe you thought about a time you were standing in a dressing room and felt uncomfortable in an outfit you loved on the hanger. You might have thought, "Ugh! I look terrible!" I'm pretty sure we've all been there! It is frustrating and disappointing. I can remember one time in particular when I was with a good friend and we were looking for a fancy dress for our sorority formal. I found one I really liked and was so annoyed when it didn't look good on me. She could tell I was annoyed and said, "Elizabeth, it's not you. It's the dress." My experience of dressing rooms up until then was not a negative one. I don't remember ever thinking twice about my own body when the clothes didn't work out. But somehow, hearing her say those words out loud made me feel better. If this is something you struggle with, I hope next time you'll repeat those words to yourself or call me and I'll say them out loud for you. It's not you. It's the clothes. I promise.
You might be reading this and wondering, "She doesn't seem to have any issues with her body OR with food. That's not me. It's not fair." You'd be 100% right. I've learned as an adult, my childhood experiences of growing into my body and food are not the norm. Most women I talk to on the topics had trouble with these parts of life and many can remember those troubles beginning very early on. I think THE difference maker for MY positive experience was my parents. I don't remember them EVER saying anything about my body, good or bad. I don't remember them telling me not to eat something because it would make my body look bad. If they said anything about my body or about food, it must have been positive because I do not have trauma memories of anything standing out in a negative way. I can remember my mom mentioning my toe point or my straight legs in a leap being pretty after gymnastics meets. I can remember my dad asking me before driving me to gymnastics practices if I needed anything else to eat to make it through. Reflecting, what I notice about both these examples is they do talk about body image and food feelings. But not for the purpose of how my body looked on the outside. Both their statements and questions directed toward the ultimate goal of what I wanted and needed my body to be able to DO.
Here's another element of all these topics. Peer pressure. In my opinion, this is the main make or break of being confident or not in our bodies, food choices and even working through our insecurities. Especially in young women. Who are our friends? What are their personal insecurities? How are those projected, even though unintentionally? If you go back to my earlier prompts to remember "a time" some of the most painful are likely comments we heard from our very own friends and peers. I heard, "You're too skinny." more than I cared to count while in middle school. This even led to a bullying incident. (A story for another day.) These comments continued through high school, but shifted to, "You're so athletic. I wish I looked like you." You may read that and think, "Ugh that's annoying. They were complimenting you! Get over it!" Well, those same commenters wouldn't get a reaction from me, then turn to starting rumors behind my back out of jealousy. I didn't react, not because I worried what they thought of me. I didn't know how to validate how they felt about themselves. I knew my body was different. I knew it was desirable to look the way I looked. I wanted to be able to feel good about myself AND help them to feel good too. At the time, I really didn't care what they were saying about me. Truly, I didn't. It is crazy to think about it now. I wonder at my teenage self. "Girl! How did you just take it? How did you not even bat an eye?" I know how. I KNEW without a shadow of a doubt that God made me and my worth was only in God. God gave me the gift of gymnastics to teach me, "Yes. This is your body. This is only a small piece of what I made it to do." I am so lucky and blessed to have been born into a family that was able to provide me ALL I needed to grow and be successful in anything I wanted to do. I'm so lucky I found gymnastics and was all consumed by it that when the mean girls came, I couldn't be bothered by being distracted. Even though my experience of the gymnastics world and the world in general within these topics, was a positive one, I KNOW so many others had the opposite. Even within my own teammates and friends. Still today, there are girls going into gyms being told to stop eating certain foods because of their effects on their outward appearance, NOT their physical well being. There are still girls going into gyms being told their bodies aren't good enough based solely on what they appear to the onlooker. They are being conditioned to think "God made me this way, but it's wrong. I have to fix it." If you have ever had this thought or wonder, please hear me. No. No amount of food or physical conditioning or mental conditioning would ever be too little or too much for God to tell you you are anything but perfect. You do not need a coach, a trainer, a friend or even a parent to validate what is already true. You are perfect.
It wasn't until later in early adulthood that my ideas about the way my body looked shifted into an unhealthy direction. I don't remember any one incident that warranted my change in priorities, which is why I say "shift." It wasn't sudden. It was over a few years that I realized I was making different choices about food. Then realizing those choices were directly related to feelings about my appearance. I would go through random periods of "dieting" or choosing certain foods at times when I didn't feel great about what my body looked like. None of those choices would ever last long. Looking back at the timeline, this shift seemed to occur around the time I'd graduated from college. I was in a weird place mentally. Looking for and not finding the "forever" job/career. Prior to this, I'd been around friends in a dorm or apartment almost 24/7 and constantly had something to do, including playing intramural sports or being active outside. Then, all of a sudden, I had none of those to land on. I'd gone from having a mom make all my food choices out of necessity and training 6 days a week to the college kid life of living in constant activity and loving the cafeteria. Pause. Yes, I loved the cafeteria in college. Every choice of food imaginable at any time of day and I didn't have to make any of it myself? Can I go back?! So, the shift to living alone and making all of these choices on my own was overwhelming even if I didn't realize the scope in it in the moment. My mindset had completely shifted. The one incident that brought me out of my own head was in sitting with a friend in a restaurant. She struggled with her body image and always said she was uncomfortable in her weight and wanted to fix it. She talked so openly about all of these issues. I realized I was intaking her thinking as my own because I was not voicing my own thoughts in the same breath. None of this any fault of hers! I admired her ability to communicate her struggles and attempt to do something to "fix" it in the way she saw it in her mind. We were in a pizza/pasta restaurant and she ordered a very basic and plain salad. I remember thinking to myself, "That's not what I want. That sounds terrible." I ordered pasta. And I enjoyed every bite. She sat, ate her salad and was clearly uncomfortable sitting across from me as I ate. I felt terrible and like I was a bad friend. The joy about the pasta felt like eating leftover fish from the microwave. I left that meal and decided it didn't matter what I ate if I didn't feel good about it. I left that meal and also had to begin the process of unlearning, relearning and remembering, my choices about food and my body were mine. Even if they didn't align with someone else's. If I didn't enjoy what I was eating, I'd be depriving myself of feeling joy about food. If I didn't feel good after eating too much, then I'd adjust the next meal. If my body felt sick or hungry, I'd have to find what worked for me to fill it for those needs. Food had to become food. Nothing else.
What makes us so uncomfortable when it comes to food and our bodies? Our insecurities. We all have them. But why and where do they come from? From what I hear from friends and women (plus a few men), it seems these insecurities have more to do with how we "think" we are viewed by others than the reality of how they view us. Insecurities come from a place of worry in how we compare. Insecurities are fueled by the flames of what we read, see in the shows we watch or even hear from the people we interact with. Insecurities find our cracks of doubt and create giant gaps. For me, my feelings of insecurity come in the phases where I let other's thoughts and opinions outweigh my own. I know who I am, what I stand for, and when I feel at my best. For me, feeling at my best means enjoying food, even if it is "unhealthy". Feeling at my best means I'm able to run 10 (hopefully + soon!) miles. Feeling at my best means I've had enough rest during the week. Feeling my best means feeling confident in bright colored clothing. Feeling my best doesn't look any one way every single day. Feeling my best doesn't look like a certain body size on the outside. Feeling my best isn't in being validated by other's opinions of me.
I could sit with you and talk about all of these things for hours. Really, I could. I think it's important to talk AND listen about it. Not enough of us do. Keeping secrets is another reason I decided I needed to write this. Recently, I had a meal with a group of children and noticed one child was acting a bit weird. Unlike themselves. Slightly uncomfortable where they were normally very confident. I realized about halfway through the meal they didn't have much on their plate to begin with. I asked, "Are you okay?" Yes. "Would you like something else to eat? There's plenty!" They looked over at the table, but didn't answer my question. I didn't push. Shortly after, we'd gotten up from the table and were transitioning to our next activity. I didn't see them, went to look and found them hiding, eating a cookie while stuffing their pockets with more. My gut immediately fell to the bottom of my stomach. You work with them long enough to know when their actions are more about rebellion or an act of need. I could just tell. This was an act of need, not rebellion for having extra cookies because they are a sweet delicacy to be enjoyed. The child's face when they realized they had been "caught" told me they needed to feel "seen." So, I said, "Hey! I'm glad you found the cookies! You don't need to hide them from me. We can take them with us." They finished the cookies and jumped right in with the rest of the group in playing. Relief. That was it. Nothing more to be said or done. Sometimes, solving that moment's anxiety is enough to spark hope for next time. Sometimes, you just want the cookies. And it's okay to just eat the cookies.
I've had several conversations with friends recently that made me realize I haven't always taken the time to think first before speaking, but I hope I've made progress. I know I've been in conversations with friends who've said, "Ugh. I can't eat that, I want to lose weight." And I freeze, don't know what to say, so I go with, "Oh it'll be okay! Just this once!" Or they say nothing at all, suffer in silence and I respond, "Come on, just eat something." In my example above, I can remember other times I would tell a child, "No cookies until you've eaten REAL food." Of course, every situation is different. Of course I'm coming from a good place, but that doesn't mean it is helpful. In some instances, these replies could be damaging to someone's progress. If I've said this to you and it was indeed damaging, truly I apologize and I'd like to be able to try again. I know there isn't any one perfect way to handle these situations. Even though life tries to tell us, it is NOT one size fits all. But I have learned, to pause and have a little compassion before responding is ALWAYS a good first move. If you pay enough attention and look into their eyes with compassion, you'll see if they feel "caught" and would like to be "seen."
Okay. Almost there. I mentioned it being important to talk AND to listen. The listening part is often the hardest part. Especially around these insecurities that feel "taboo" or unsafe to talk about. In the conversations around these topics I've learned that once people feel safe to be heard, they really NEED to talk and it is cathartic to put thoughts outside of themselves. Maybe it helps. Maybe it gives a little hope. Maybe it means feeling less isolated. It's also important to support boundaries. Many times we unintentionally offload or vent to our friends without realizing they might not be in the best place to listen. Any topic! I do want to share that I am in a place where I feel like I can listen and still be true to my own thoughts and feelings about my body image, food and related insecurities. If that is something you're needing, I hope you'll feel welcomed to share with me. I'm not a counselor or therapist, and definitely not a nutritionist. I won't give you my "office hours" and open the floodgates. That's not healthy for either of us. But in all seriousness, if you need somewhere to turn and can't seem to find it, I can be the opening.
Last thing I'll leave you with, for now. We all know the quote, "Be kind because you never know what someone is going through." I'm going to share some pictures of myself at particularly low and vulnerable points in my life when I didn't feel my best. Not to say, "Woe is me!" but more as a moment to remember where I've come from. To recognize these "times" do not represent every memory. They don't define who I am as a person. It is possible to live through it. But it's better to live through it, then acknowledge it to know how to move forward the next time. Not only to know how, but to know we CAN.
I don't say this to TELL you how to make your own decisions, but to give you a tool that helps me and maybe it will help you too. Often times when we look in the mirror, we're taking in what we're seeing a little too literally. Maybe we say to ourselves, "I don't like how my stomach looks." or "These pants don't fit me right now." or "This is just how I look. It'll never change." I try to remind myself by asking the question, "What do I need my body to do right now?" Maybe it's to run miles at a time. That requires food and a little more of it than for other needs. Maybe I need to make it through 3 days of work activities. This requires rest to have not only the physical endurance, but the mental endurance for all the "peopleing" and interactions. (Hello, extroverted introvert!)
These are from recent times when I felt my best:
After my body was able to run 6 miles at a personal record time. After my body was able to lead a full day of activities with children. Clearly, with lots of coffee. Both felt equally as good. Tomorrow may feel nothing like either of these pictures and that is okay. But I know it can.
That was a lot. Probably felt a little chaotic to read. Thank YOU for listening. I hope you'll take the time to give yourself some grace for the lows and reflect on the good. Maybe we'll continue this conversation another day. Maybe it will look and feel different to us then. Either way, I hope we'll feel more "seen" than "caught."