On Body Image and Superheroes

Right after Thanksgiving and heading into the holidays, right now might not seem like a very good time to talk about body image. But then again, maybe it’s actually the best time to talk about body image.

As you probably already know, I had a baby last summer. Let’s just say that my body image was at an all-time low. And it didn’t help that Sally would sit on my lap, poke my abdomen, and say “your belly is squishy, mommy”! I have always had a horrible body image. As a teen, I was convinced that I needed to perfect my cooking and homemaking skills so that some man would choose to marry me even with my terrible looks.

Even after Sean convinced me that I really was beautiful, I struggled with my weight. I was a bit pudgy, and given the images of super thin women that mass culture bombards us with, I saw myself as fat. I sometimes deprived myself of food in an effort to lose those extra pounds. Before I had Bobby I had started to feel better about myself, eating a more healthy diet and getting some regular exercise on my bike, and I have to be honest, losing that all was one of the things that was hardest for me about beginning my second pregnancy.

And so we come to last summer. My body was all out of sorts and I felt that the baby weight would stay forever. My body image issues were coming back with a vengeance. And then, quite unexpectedly, I read something that completely transformed my perspective and, quite simply, changed my life. It was a post on the blog of another young woman who grew up in a Quiverfull family and has spent the last couple of years sorting through all of that. The post was called Superhero. She has struggled with body image issues for years, but what she wrote here took my breath away.

Most people would say I have a slow metabolism. I prefer to think it is just madly efficient. It would keep me alive for months without hardly any food or water. My Irish genes are designed to withstand cold, starvation, and probably virus’s, which means I will be the one saving the world during the zombie apocalypse when the rest of you are enjoying brains for dinner. So really, I’m not chubby and awkward; I’m a super hero. Why didn’t I figure this out sooner?

I’m pretty sure superhero’s don’t change their bodies to fit into their clothes. Hell No. Super hero’s have clothes made especially to fit their super awesome bodies. I think it’s time I threw out my old size 8 pants and got myself some new 10’s and 11’s. I guess I’ll just always have giant, well-muscled thighs and broad shoulders. That’s not a bad thing.

What does your body do that makes you special? Are your arms just the right size to reach through half closed car windows and unlock the door, thereby rescuing the person who locked their keys inside? I have news for you, you have a superhero body too. Are you super awesome at moving your hips, to the point where you rock every dance floor you stand on? Superhero. Are you so awesomely hairy that you could survive an Alaskan blizzard because of your extra warmth? Superhero. Does your extra layer of fat make treading water incredibly easy? Super. Hero.

Why do we spend so much time focusing on what our bodies look like, instead of what our bodies can do? Why do we think about our hips and double chins when we plan what to eat? Shouldn’t we be eating out of respect and love for our bodies instead of hatred and mistrust?

So, here’s some advice I should really take myself. Do you own a scale? I suggest that you go and throw it out. Or at least take out the batteries. Stop looking at charts and graphs that measure numbers instead of value. Our bodies are awesome machines that perform extremely complex and impressive tasks every day. Find some things about your body that rock, and celebrate them!

I’m trying to find words to articulate just how much this post meant to me, but I’m having trouble doing so. Reading Sarah’s post turned the way I view my body on its head. I had been appalled by my baby weight, I had hated my flabby arms, and I had been depressed by the fact that, as a breastfeeding mother, I couldn’t put my weight-control method of choice – cutting down on the amount I eat – into place. I had also been tying my body image to the numbers on a scale and to how “sexy” I was. As I ruminated on Sarah’s post, this paragraph kept going through my head:

Why do we spend so much time focusing on what our bodies look like, instead of what our bodies can do? Why do we think about our hips and double chins when we plan what to eat? Shouldn’t we be eating out of respect and love for our bodies instead of hatred and mistrust?

It’s not that this path is easy or that this change can be made in a day, a month, or even a year, but I have set aside society’s messages about the body and what constitutes “attractiveness” and have started focusing instead on, to use Sarah’s words, what my body can do. Rather than cutting down on food consumption in an effort to lose weight, I have started lifting weights. Rather than looking with a frown at my flabby forearms, I am instead focusing on having arms that are strong. Rather than turn down desert so that I can lose some of the extra weight on my legs, I have started focusing on what my legs can do.

I am today happier in my body than I have ever been in my life. I take pride in what I can do with my body, not in how it does or does not look, and I quite simply feel more comfortable in my body. I approach food with a thought to health rather than calories, focusing on the fact that I feel better when I eat fresh food rather than processed foods. It’s difficult to explain just how huge this change has been for me.

And then there is Sally. Sally is quite fetching, and it’s an odd day when when can go out without a stranger telling her she’s beautiful. But given all of my body issues, I’ve known since Sally was a little baby that I want to do everything I can to help mitigate the harm done by messages about beauty and thinness. So I take every chance I can get to emphasize to Sally the importance of being both strong and healthy. I talk about what food is good for her body and what food isn’t, and I praise her for how fast she is, how nimble she is, and how strong she is. It’s not like it’s a hard sell, either. She’s just as likely to talk in excitement about how strong or healthy she is as about how beautiful she is – more likely, actually.

The things I read in Sarah’s blog post changed my life, and through me they will affect Sally’s life. I can only hope that reading it may help others as well.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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