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Musings on body image

This past week, I was reading two journal posts on obesity and body image. It got me thinking about my own struggles with my body image, starting from when I was pretty young.

I think I started being unhappy with my body at an early age, probably 7 or 8 years old. I was a big kid - not just chubby, I was tall, too. Even though I was a year younger than my classmates, I was consistently in the tallest quartile of the girls. Of course, the other tall girls usually looked like they'd just had a growth spurt: tall for their age but skinny/wiry/athletic. Me? I was just tall and a bit chubby.

Of course, I was a sedentary child. I loved to read, and could always be found with some fiction close at hand. My parents encouraged me to try various sports and activities (I remember T-ball, dance class and swim class at various times in my childhood), but I never stuck with the active things (Cathedral Choir School, on the other hand... that I stuck with for 6 years). I couldn't run worth a damn, and I'd always get caught when playing tag with my friends. A few years ago, I realized that I've probably had a very mild form of asthma all my life. I have absolutely NO endurance in aerobic activities like running. I start wheezing after climbing a flight of stairs, and if I climb several flights too quickly, I'll be gasping for air. All the repetition I do doesn't seem to help. I climbed four flights of outdoor stairs to get to classes (at least twice a day) for 3 years in college; I never saw a measurable improvement in my breathing.

I realize now that I should have been encouraged to do more low-impact exercise; I loved to swim and bike, as long as I wasn't trying to race (which is what swimming always was in classes and in Phys Ed). I could bike comfortably or swim sidestroke for hours, really. And I did really enjoy weight-training in Phys Ed, the few times I got to do that.

Although I was very self-concious about my weight as a child and teenager, I didn't try to do anything about it. There's a whole tapestry of reasons behind this, because I don't think any one of these by itself would have stopped me from doing something stupid:

  1. My parents reassured me that I was normal and well-proportioned. I still trusted my parents more than I trusted my classmates. My mom, especially, often commented on how skinny my best friend was, "like a bunch of twigs", and talked about metabolism. It made a lot of sense - as a child, my best friend couldn't sit still. Overall, my parents showed me that people come in all different sizes and shapes, and that's OK (God bless my parents for this!)
  2. I knew that crash diets were stupid - my mom had told me plenty about her experiences with dieting (she was hypoglycemic, and is now also diabetic)... it was obvious it hadn't worked out for her. I don't remember her ever telling me so, but I knew that "kids shouldn't diet", and that she would be upset with me if I did something like that while I was still growing. (Especially because kid-dieting can easily get out of control - see next point)
  3. I knew that anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders were dangerous and scary. I couldn't really figure out why someone would torture themselves that way, just to get thinner.
  4. I was scared to change anything about myself. Why? I have no idea, really. I was very timid, and mostly just wanted to hide (same reason why I wore oversized T-shirts, flannels, etc.) Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that if I miraculously became "attractive", I'd start getting attention from guys who didn't just want to tease me.
  5. I was lazy. I didn't LIKE aerobic activity (see breathing problems, above), and I wanted to keep eating yummy foods.

I first went on a diet when I was about 17; my mom and I enrolled in a Christian weight-loss group together. I lost a bunch of weight by planning out my meal portions better, and only eating when I was hungry (and stopping as soon as I didn't feel hungry anymore). I dropped 15 or 20 pounds, putting me back into a "normal" weight range for my age. Then when spring came, I couldn't ride my bike up even the shallowest hill. I had NO energy. I slowly began eating more again, and I didn't conciously diet again until I was 21.

I wonder sometimes if the root of my problem was similar to what my mom went through, 40 years earlier: "Oh, you're so BIG!" I've seen pictures of my mom as a teenager. She was tall (5'10"), and wide across her hips, but she was very skinny front-to-back. I remember trying to wear some of her old dresses when I was 12, and I couldn't get them around my hips!

Growing up, I never remember fitting into age-appropriate clothing. To this day, I remember many trips to Sears in elementary school, because they carried girls' sizes all the way up to size 16. (Most stores stopped at 10 or 12.) I was probably one of the first in my class to start changing shape due to puberty (and remember, I was a year younger than my peers). I hated having breasts, and I wished I would grow taller, because that would make me skinny.

Except for when I've been dieting, my BMI hovers between 27 and 29. When I diet, I can just barely get down to a BMI of 25 - the upper end of the "normal" weight range - and I can't keep myself there. In the 10 years since I was 14, my weight has put me below 27 BMI twice, and above 29.5 BMI once (as far as I know). I have slowly learned (and am still learning) to love my body the way it is, and think about my health instead of being "fat" or "thin"... I know I'm at risk for diabetes and heart disease, and that's a pretty good motivator. I've learned how to dress myself attractively (if I can find affordable clothes that actually fit), and with my height, no one suspects that I'm 30 pounds "overweight" (except a few close family members). My husband thinks I'm beautiful (but also wants me to be healthy), which helps a lot, too.

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lil_cherub January 15th, 2007
Crash diets never work. The only diet that can work is a lifestyle change. For example:

South Beach - cutting carbs is a baaad idea. The ring structure found in sugers is broken down and directly transformed into serotonin. Those on South Beach soon become depressed, and start eating more.... resulting in gaining all of the weight back.

Low Fat - Again, this diet too has a problem. Your body recognizes when it is full because of fat. You body needs fat also for your joints and even for energy in the absence of carbs. Its also good for muscle growth.

If you want to diet, making good food choices is the very best way to do it, and avoid all the crazes! In the end they only help take off the weight for a short time.

Aerobics aren't the only way to exercise. You can try getting a set of light weights and train your arms and legs. Muscle burns more calories and increases your metabolism. Only catch - first month or so you will see an increase in weight since muscle weights more then fat. But, you feel better and working out will start to give you a rush and its really addictive.

anitra January 15th, 2007
To be fair, I never went on a crash diet; every diet I've been on has basically been about portion-control and/or calorie-counting. The only imbalance are the ones that already exist in my eating habits - for example, I will rarely choose fruits or vegetables over starch/sugars. After a while on restricted portions, I seem to be doing OK, and I stop keeping track... and my portion sizes gradually increase back to where they were before.

I've thought about weight-training, but I guess I just haven't gotten around to it. Always seems like I have "better" things to do (laundry, cooking, cleaning, work... etc.)

lil_cherub January 15th, 2007
One easy solution is to start shopping on the parameter of the supermarket. That means, only stop at the fresh produce, deli, meats, and dairy. If you avoid buying processed foods, then in turn you won't be eating them.

And if I am buying starchy foods, I always buy whole grain wheat or multigrain. It has more flavor and its loaded with fiber which helps the body digest and maintain a healthy weight.

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