In the aftermath of Christmas, my mother started to think that she needed to go on a diet. She made one of those, "Ugh, I can hardly stand to look at myself; I need to diet," comments, to which, my dad said, "No, you don't need to lose weight. Grandmothers are not supposed to be skinny. They're supposed to be huggable." Then he turned to me and said, "Tell your mother she doesn't need to go on a diet."
My parents have four children, and nearly twenty grandkids, none of whom have ever expressed a desire for a skinnier matriarch. I agreed with my dad, "Skinny grandmas can be nice, but chubby grandmas seem cheerier." I should mention that my mother is not really chubby at all, and mention of dieting from someone who has maintained a healthy weight throughout sixty-plus years of life is sort of beside the point. She'll take care of herself—she always has.
But I started thinking about the conversation, because I have certainly set goals for myself based on the mistaken perception that what everyone must certainly want of me is not more hugs or a kind and open demeanor, but to be better looking.
A friend of mine did Weight Watchers several years ago and lost quite a few pounds. She since has gained some of the pounds back, but explained that she wouldn't do Weight Watchers again any time soon: "Losing weight takes up all of my mental energy. When I go for it, I can't really think about anything else, and my kids need me too much right now for me to be thinking about food all the time."
I've had health issues, gestational diabetes for instance, that required me to measure every bite I put into my mouth for the love of God and my family. But I think my friend hit on a worthy point. There's healthy weight and there's movie-star weight. Maintaining a movie star figure is a full time job.
I can look at images of Angelina Jolie surrounded by her six children and think, I'd like to be a mother of six like that. It's easy, in her beauty, to overlook the fact that she has made a point of being sexually available to anyone she chooses, and sexually desirable to just about everybody in the World. She is probably a very good mother to her children, but she is not a valid representation of what the world can expect the mother of many to be, nor how she should look.
And as a mother of many myself, I have to guard against thinking that undermines the vocation I've chosen.
In my personal history, when I have embarked on ultra-weight-loss programs, it has been not only for good health, but also, secretly, for the benefit of a nonexistent, idealized future. Everything will be better when I lose ten pounds. I'll look better in clothes. People will call and ask to be my friend. Like the girl from Ipanema, everyone I pass will say, "Aaahh!" including many handsome men who might mistake me for a young single girl rather than a married mother of five. The delusions are ridiculous written out, but it's funny how willingly I believe them—harmless little fantasies, they seem.
Many of us have had the experience of setting a difficult goal, and reaching it, only to discover that life really doesn't change all that much. Hollywood doesn't come knocking for the hottest housewife in Decatur County. And sometimes, life changes for the worse.
If one has designed her life around the hope of perfection and affirmation from strange men (or women), it's difficult to be open and vulnerable with one's own lawful spouse. Emotional intimacy with a spouse leads to sexual intimacy, which leads to potential pregnancy, a matronly body, and the loss of an imagined host of admirers for the more quiet, often imperfect appreciation of a very human husband.
And yet, to whom have I given myself?
I have freely given my body and soul in marriage and motherhood to my spouse and my children. I am theirs, not the world's. No other man in the world has a right to my affection, even my imagined affection, but my husband. And certainly, no other man in the world has a right to my body, so it's important not even to imagine marketing it as though it's available.
Such thoughts cause a turning away, a withholding from the ones who truly have a claim on me. And whenever I withhold what I know I should surrender, there is internal dissonance.
The same holds true for men. If your wife says you don't need the six-pack abs and back-waxing to be attractive to her, you might ask yourself whom you're trying to please. Infidelity doesn't begin in a seedy hotel room, or even with the flirty email. It begins with our thoughts, a withholding from the people who should matter most to us, and a nod toward other possibilities.