“What your kids weigh is what you pay,” (in pennies) said the sign by the hostess-stand at the Mexican restaurant. A large mass of aluminum resembling a human produce scale stared me down as a knot formed in my stomach.
My parents’ friends’ daughter got weighed first. She was two years my senior and had the bony knees and long skinny legs I wanted, just like the ones I saw gracefully hang from the models in the pages of my mom’s Vogue magazine. I watched nervously as the meter hit 60-something. I was next. I sat on the swing-like seat and watched the hostess write “88 cents” in a red crayon on my kid’s menu.
I told my eight-year-old self not to eat, but slipped, so I binged on chips and salsa and two cheese enchiladas instead. That very night my body first became a project and that was it–my first memory of feeling flawed, unbeautiful and not thin enough.
Women’s historian and Author Joan Jacobs Brumberg calls it “the body project” – the consuming obsession girls and women have on fixing their bodies. While body angst is an epidemic affecting the majority of modern girls and women today, it’s not our heritage. For the women and girls before us, character was esteemed much more highly than physical appearance. And character, as Brumberg writes in her book appropriately titled “The Body Project, “…was built on attention to self-control, service to others and belief in God – not on attention to one’s own, highly individualistic body project.”
The thing about projects, especially big projects, is that they have a way of sucking up all your time. I learned this recently, when I bought a 1961 vintage canned ham trailer, which I named Pearl, to restore. The hours I spent bonding with Pearl over paint thinner and my ten-pound buffing wheel, was time I couldn’t spend surfing with my husband or window-shopping at Anthropologie. In the same way, the opportunity cost of making your body an intensive project can equate to intelligence and creativity wasted, beach days not attended, birthday cake not enjoyed, and beautiful adventures not tackled. Ultimately, it can cost us a life well lived and people well loved. My friend once confessed, “If I had a nickel for every time I thought negatively about my body, I could sponsor an village of starving kids.”
The fix-it tactics we choose for our personal body project are as wide and varied as the reasons that drive us: chronic dieting, bingeing, restrictive eating, comparison and over-exercise. Don’t forget plastic surgery, retail therapy or purging. Whichever method or combination of methods we choose for our body project, there is an associated cost – a life more meaningfully invested.
One day as I was stripping away Pearl’s old paint, the irony hit me – the more I buffed and shined and restored her to her premiere beauty, the older she was getting. I wondered where she would be in thirty, fifty, sixty years, and morbidly envisioned her rotting away in a trailer hood graveyard. Our bodies aren’t much different. The more we poke and prod and try to perfect them, the faster they approach their demise. Though they deserve to be cared for, nurtured and enjoyed, outwardly they are wasting away. And there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
One day if you and I are lucky, we will be dripping with wrinkles from head to toe. Our days left on this earth will be close to none and for those of us who spent our lives in constant body angst, we will finally realize our legacy is not measured by the size we wear, but by the lives we lead. We’ll come face to face with the truth that we are not our body. We are a soul in a body that is perishing.
Our bodies are not broken; they are not projects that need fixing. They are marvelously made vehicles for living.
Is your personal “body project” sucking the life out you? Are you ready to start really living? Here are some tips as you travel on your journey towards health, fitness and freedom:
- Start living fully in your present body now. As I write this, Pearl still has curtains that need to be made and dents that should be repaired, but her tires are road-ready and her axle is strong – the reality is she’s already prepared for the grand adventures for which she’s been designed. Waiting until you think your body is fit or thin enough to wear that dress or take that trip is a waste of your one valuable and precious life. Treasure and enjoy your body now in whatever season it’s in.
- Do Away with Dieting. According to research 95% of people who lose weight on a diet will gain it back within one to five years. Chronic dieting has been shown to increase binges and cravings, decrease your metabolism and be detrimental to your health. Not only does dieting not work, but it’s also linked to eating disorders, increased stress levels and feelings of failure and low self-esteem.
- Cultivate Intuitive Eating. Our bodies are trustworthy. Learning to listen to and obey your natural signals of hunger and satisfaction rather than keeping track of calories or even nutrition information can prove to be a more effective way to reach or maintain a healthy weight. Mindful or conscious eating is a process that helps you create a healthy and freedom-filled relationship with food, and your mind and body.
- Find Joy in Moving Your Body. Instead of viewing exercise as a chore, enjoy the emotional and physical benefits you get from being active. Be creative and find physical activities you delight in that enhance your vitality and nurture your spirit.
- Remember that health isn’t one size fits all. Skinny or thin doesn’t automatically mean healthy. Focus your efforts on being physically fit, nutritionally well nourished and emotionally free, rather than chasing the thin ideal. Optimum health comes in a diversity of shapes and sizes. Adopt better habits for the sake of your personal health and well being, rather than looking a certain way.
Your Personal Body Project originally appeared in the first print issue of Darling Magazine. Copyright Allie Marie Smith. Do not re-publish without permission. For a request to republish, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.