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.

  • http://lapalma-island.com Sheila Crosby

    Yes, I think we all need to focus more on what’s healthy and a lot less on looking good. I’d also like to point out that the skinny, fashionable type has a big effect on who men like to be seen with, but a much smaller effect on who they want to be private with. Most men like a healthy woman.

  • http://mymusingcorner.wordpress.com Lana

    I have a friend who saying he is going on a diet. I’m like, “just focus on eating one new vegetable a week instead of the diet.”
    Funny part is I was just writing today about how much modesty shames a girl into believing something is wrong with her if she is sexually pretty. Women are attacked in all areas around. No wonder we are always down.

  • SueDibs

    Libs, You…..are not a number. Who you are and what you mean to Sean and the kids and even me…is NOT a clothing size. Sarah is right: we need to reframe our self-image with all those positives she listed. And let’s dump defining ourselves in the negative. Think about how we describe some one we love and adore. We do not start the list with “Sean is NOT a serial killer, he CAN’t exercise at 12 mets, he was born WITHOUT his appendix.” NoNoNo! We’d say “Sean is sweet and funny and creative and evolving and has great ideas when entertaining the kids.” And so we need to extend the same optimism and grace to ourselves. You have a body that creates and nourishes perfect babies, a body that is lush and abundant for Sean and the kids to embrace and snuggle in! You have a body that would, in a nanosecond, protect your family. Sarah is right about you, Libby Anne. You are a Super Hero in every way! Thank you for posting this. Like many people, I needed to hear this again. Thanks! ***runs off to dig out Super Sue cape and tights from storage***

  • machintelligence

    I think this is relevant, but at some small risk of being labeled sexist, here are YouTube links to some videos of a local (Denver) belly dancer named Sadie Marquardt.
    She is a world class dancer, and in the first video is obviously pregnant and world class.
    (There are plenty of earlier videos so you can compare her style, which didn’t change much.)
    The second link is her most recent, about a year after the first. She is still sexy and a spectacular dancer. I also like her sense of humor: in an interview she says that she is often asked if she comes from the exotic Mideast. No, she answers, she is from the exotic Midwest — Sheboygan Wisconsin.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia lucrezaborgia

      Oh LOL on the people thinking the baby had any real reaction to the movement or that the fetus would be bouncing around like a pin-ball.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I have always struggled with my weight. I’m a bit like Sarah in that I have a really efficient metabolism (genetics don’t help either), even when I was in high school and did rugby and didn’t eat much I wasn’t thin. Now that I’m depressed, eat way too much and barely leave the house I’ve gotten unhealthily fat but it’s a vicious circle since one of the things that get me down is my weight (although not the most important by far) and when I feel sad I eat more and do less so I get fatter… That post was very nice but I just can’t see it like that and I just hope I can get out of this funk.

    • Liberated Liberal

      You aren’t the only one. Only my issue isn’t necessarily my weight. I haven’t been able to look into the mirror in over three years now (I can’t believe it!!). I have started taking measures to take good care of myself regardless, and it helps some. Exercise, getting my hair done, eyebrows done regularly, and shopping for nice and easy clothes has given me a bit more confidence to participate in the world. It was all of this and searching for answers about why I have always been made to feel inferior, ugly and useless without beauty that caused me to examine my Catholic upbringing and women’s roles in our society. It is what landed me here, even, and for that I am grateful.

      I understand the depression and the vicious circle that not leaving the house can cause. I hope you feel better soon. If it helps you, I do my workouts at home away from others (along with walking to my music). It suits my personality much more than gyms, classes or trainers.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        Thanks for the advice.

  • jemand

    I had a much higher body image at my largest BMI (overweight) than I did at my lowest all through high school– which was significantly underweight. I think it can be easy to think if I’m just going to fix this NUMBER, I can fix how I see myself… but I don’t really know if that WORKS, because I was cripplingly insecure, say, about visible bones in my body then and wore many baggy layers to hide the fact I was as thin as I was.

    Now I’m neither over nor underweight, I don’t own a scale, and I go rockclimbing at the local gym regularly, which is a type of exercise which is totally *awesome* for my body image. So I’m doing alright.

  • Rebecca Newman

    Quiverfull girls, in particular I think, have terrible body-images – how can we escape it when we had it in our minds that our bodies were so unattractive that we needed to drape them in frumpy long dresses? And what made it worse for me was that I had an intense inferiority complex when it came to my sister just under me – she had the highest metabolism EVER – 5’8” and 120 lbs – she was always told she should go into modeling. And she was so gorgeous that guys took notice of her even decked out in her ridiculous outfits. She was whistled at all the time and I never earned so much as one whistle. My stepfather lectured me constantly about how if I didn’t cease perceiving myself as unattractive I was going to grow up to let men take advantage of me – and he was right, as the guys I’ve gotten involved with were hardly the nicest guys – but the most ironic thing is that it’s his fault I’m like this. And the funny thing is that my sister has an equally unhealthy view of her body, that she’s way too skinny and bony and bemoans her vain attempts to gain weight. I told her once when she came to visit me at college that I hated walking next to her because she made me feel so fat and she answered in surprise that she was feeling acutely aware of her “boniness.” Thanks, dear stepfather.

  • lane

    If you don’t already, I recommend checking out the blog Already Pretty or at least her body image posts. She’s written things similar to what Sarah describes in the post you quote. Here’s a good place to start: http://www.alreadypretty.com/greatest-hits
    Some selections:

  • RMM

    I love this, and I think it calls us to examine the idea of a standard that is higher, but more freeing. It calls us to be mindful in what we do, but not obsessive. Such a hard thing to do!

  • veganatheist01

    I’ve gone through much the same thought process about my own body over the last two years or so, focusing more on strength than on weight or beauty… with the result that now I hate being female because it means I will never be as strong as a man. (And that I can bear children somehow doesn’t sound like a fair trade.) There’s always a catch, I guess. :/

    • jemand

      Focus on longevity then. You will likely live longer than a man.

    • abra1

      I remember reading something about the disparity between the median strength of men and women… and that elite rock climbing teams tend to be co-ed because while the male partners brought brute strength to the table, the female partners tended to be more nimble and able to get to spots that strength alone couldn’t get the men to. Strength isn’t the positive physical attribute. For example, women tend to have better fine motor dexterity a as a result are better at things like sharp shooting.

      But, I feel your pain. I am married to someone who is just good at everything he tries. He started in martial arts and sports very early (3yo) and thus as excellent balance and coordination as well as 40lbs and 7inches on me and a lot more practice doing about everything we might do. So the only physical thing I know I can do better than he can — at the moment — is touching my toes. If he were to decide that it was important to him, he’d pass me up in a couple of weeks.

      • abra1

        *Strength isn’t the only positive attribute.

      • Carolyn the Red

        Yeah, me too. I’ve not got a great body in what it can do – I have short little arms and legs which never give me great speed or strength, am an awkward klutz who doesn’t pick up skills very quickly, and am not naturally flexible. If I do better than anyone at any activity, it’s because I put a lot of work into it.

        I’ve made some peace with this. I work hard, and I figure it’s OK if I hope my kids get more of their dad’s body. It may not be much, but it’s me. And what I wear and how I adorn myself expresses a sense of me-ness.

    • Mark Temporis

      Depends on the man. On average men tend to be stronger, but the scales overlap: a reasonably strong woman can be substantially stronger than quite a few men. No reason not to try for it.

    • Christine

      You can be as strong. It might take a bit more work (because you have lower testosterone levels, so building muscles will take longer), and you need to compare yourself to men your size. Most of the advantage is just from size.

      • Eric D Red

        Maybe it’s the technocrat in my background, but I always look at in a strength to weight ratio. In that measure the difference drops considerably.

        And visible muscle bulk isn’t a great indicator of endurance or practical strength. I’ve heard from body builders that it’s mostly show.

  • Marta L.

    I’m so glad that you read this message, as it’s a needed one. I’m sharing it on my FB page as soon as I finish this comment, because I think a lot of people interested in body images (their own or as an “issue”) will find this really liberating.

    Somehow this is a message I’ve always believed. I am objectively overweight and am trying to lose weight and do better on fruits/veggies for health reasons, but as far as looking “pretty”? I was always more impressed with the strong legs that are signs I ride the bus and walk everywhere rather than drive. Or the arms that are a testament to the many trips up the stairs hauling up groceries and laundry. My body image is less about potential and more about battle scars – things to be proud of.

  • Discordia

    Great post!

    I was bullied very badly because of my weight (BMI 25 then) in school when I was 15/16. For the next 7+ years almost my whole life revolved around my weight and eating which caused a lot of anxiety. About nine years ago I threw my scale away (I used to use it like 10 times a day) and started slowly to change my thinking. I’ve almost completely got over my eating disorderish thinking. Sometimes I almost slip back to my old thinking patterns, but then I remind myself that’s not the life I wan’t to live. I still need to monitor my weight and eating a little bacause of certain health issues, but I ‘m focusing on what makes me feel good and not on what makes me to become overly thin. And I still refuse to own a scale.

  • wanderer

    Thank you for this.
    I have pretty much always been thin, but about a year ago a series of events happened in my life that has brought me to a place where I am…well…happy. For the first time in years.
    And part of being happy, I realized, was not being hungry all the time just so my jeans would fit. I want to eat enough, and when I feel secure and happy I don’t want to deprive myself. The result is that the favorite jeans don’t fit and probably never will again.
    I’ve kind of struggled with whether it’s bad that I’ve got a few extra pounds (because, I think, even somehow it worked itself into my understanding of God that he thought I was better when I was thin).
    This post is so refreshing.

  • A Reader

    That actually made me cry a little bit–in a happy way :)
    I think my “superhero” power would be my thighs. They’re huge & they don’t fit my pants correctly (because if I buy them so they’re comfy on my thighs, they slip off my butt), but they’re pretty buff from all the dance & band. Plus, I’m pretty sure they hold like 40% of my body’s fat reserves, so they’re always warm!

  • Sid

    I do really love this message, and that post is wonderful, but I think we should expand on it a bit. Many of us have bodies that have failed us; it’s hard to think of ourselves as “superheroes” when we hurt every day, when our lungs don’t work like they should, when there are things we will never, ever be able to do. Not all of us are physically strong or resilient, or ever will be. And you know what? That’s okay. Weakness isn’t shameful.

    I’m certainly not attempting to rain on this message, I think it’s great and I’m really happy you’ve made friends with your body. I just think we should leave room in our support for those who look to what their bodies can do and don’t find much.

  • teaweed

    I ran across this article about role-modelling self-esteem for daughters that moved me deeply: http://offbeatfamilies.com/2012/11/telling-daughters-im-beautiful

  • http://www.wobiscomm.com body image forever

    Yes, just focus mainly on what your body can do.Of course, you’ll also need to know when things are going out of hand, that is, you need to keep an eye on your diet.Glad you’re now enjoying your life.

  • Kathy Lundy Derengowski

    Oprah is a Cabbage Rose
    Gwyneth is a lily
    Logic very clearly proves
    That dieting is silly.

    The Bassett’s built for comfort
    The Greyhound’s built for speed.
    They both possess a perfect shape
    On that we are agreed.

    The humming bird is made for flight
    The peacock for display
    Both beautiful, but really not
    The same in any way.

    The pony is a tiny horse
    The Clydesdale is immense
    And jealousy between them
    Would not make any sense.

    Don’t yearn to be a different breed
    There won’t be any prizes
    For Beauty is a fickle lass
    And comes in lots of sizes!
    -Kathy Lundy Derengowski