Dear Bartender & Priestess,
I’m a 20-something woman with a lot of interests. I hike, I’ve got some art projects going on, and I’m happy in my chosen career. When I look at myself on paper, I know I look good. So why do I believe that no man will love me unless I lose weight? I don’t date. I won’t even flirt until those twenty annoying pounds come off. Again, when I look at this on paper I know I’m way off base, completely illogical. But it’s how I feel and I can’t shake it. What can I do to get past this?
B: Oh, man. A body image issue. These things are tough.
I’m sure you’ve heard—or even made unto yourself—all the conventional arguments. But it’s only 20 pounds! You have so much to offer anyway! Honey, you don’t want to be with someone who only loves you for your body; beauty fades, look for the relationship that will remain! But you have such a pretty face!
Right? Am I right? I know I’m right, here. Because you’re not the first person to have body image issues. Please don’t misinterpret that as “We all struggle with this, get over it,” because it’s not what I mean. Rather my point is, you are not alone. I fight with myself over this every day, especially when it’s time to stare down the contents of my closet.
Every day, we are subjected to hundreds…perhaps thousands…of images of idealized womanhood. Emotional merit is given to those who achieve an idealized look, while those who do not look the part of the feminine ideal are left open to ridicule. We use weighted language (ha ha, no pun intended but maybe kind of a little) to describe our relationships with our…well, it’s really with our fat storage, isn’t it? We’re bad when we take the ice cream, because it will make our bellies grow. We’ve all heard that woman, the one with a beatified smile on her face, say, “Oh, no. I’ll pass on the cake, thanks. I’m being good today.”
Repeat after me: there is no moral virtue or downfall in cake. It’s just cake. (P: Cake? Cake is wonderful! Cake is so Cakey!) There is no good or bad in your weight. It’s just weight. And all this is an elaborate way of saying, we have, for the most part, allowed ourselves to be manipulated into thinking that there’s only one correct way of looking. That way is, of course, lean and strong (but you’re a woman, so not too strong) and fastidious in your eating (but not too fastidious, because sometimes a guy just wants to have a burger with his best girl) and curvy (but only in Barbie proportions, so invest in boob and butt implant surgery, will you?) There are as many right ways to be a woman as there are women on the planet. And, physical perfection is no guarantee of life-long happiness. Even Halle Berry has been cheated on.
By asking for help in getting past something, I’m presuming you mean that you want to climb over your self-imposed, 20-pound wall, because you hate the body standards American women are asked to adhere to, and resent that they’re something by which you feel that you must abide. I noticed that your question doesn’t include a statement like, “I’ve started a healthy eating program that should allow me to lose between 1 and 2 pounds per week, so I should achieve my target weight in about three months, give or take a week or two. What’s a good way to re-enter the singles scene at that time?” (Hint: bring body armor and Purell.) This tells me you’d like to focus on liking yourself more and shedding the notion that whether or not you’re lovable is tied to your dress size.
First thing: you need to realize that this 20-pound quantifier comes only, strictly, from you. There’s no weigh-in committee that only allows people with the “correct” height-to-weight ratio to date. So the obstacle in question, really, isn’t the weight.
P: Whoa, ok, Terri! But she’s right — let’s acknowledge that so many of us have felt this way at the same time we acknowledge that it’s codswallop. Neither Terri nor I are immune from this particular lie — but it’s a lie. And when it stops us from having a life that we want (and I don’t see anything in your post about actually getting the weight off…), then we either don’t want the life or we aren’t willing to do the one thing we think will make us worthy of the life we want (this is the codswallop part), then we’re wasting our lives. And what if you get the right guy, and then the weight sneaks back? Divorce? That doesn’t show a lot of trust in the partner. And do you think losing the weight means you will suddenly be secure in yourself? Nothing external really works… It’s like varnish. It wears off.
B: You need to dig in deep here and ask yourself, why do you think you’re unlovable? What planted that notion in your head? Was it a parent with body image issues? Did your mom cry when she looked in the mirror? Did your dad shake his head and mutter, “If only she could lose the baby fat…”. Did your high school dream boy react in horror when he found out you liked him? Do you have frenemies who tell you, “Yeah, you could be really cute. It’s too bad about your butt.” Is it thanks to the onslaught of women’s magazines and TV shows and advertisements and gossip and movie roles reinforcing body stereotypes? Because here’s the thing: none of that? Is actually real. They’re images manufactured on Madison Avenue, airbrushed and polished to a glossy shine. They’re your mother’s baggage, your friends’ insecurities, a boy caught in his own adolescent morass of what’s “right”. They’re words and ideas, that’s all. But these influences become a voice, the legion that speaks into the loop playing over and over in your head, telling you that you’ve got a problem.
P: At some level, it comes down to loving who we are and joyfully accepting that a partner will love us for all our fabulousness. You don’t want to offer yourself to a potentially fun partner with a damaged goods sign around your neck. Because if you think that, you’ll certainly be able to convince your partner that it’s true. And then you can prove to yourself that your fears were valid, as he runs screaming not from your avoir du poids but from your sense of being less than… but those fears? Groundless.
B: So drown that voice. Surround yourself with positive things, with positive people. If you have that friend who doesn’t make you feel quite-that-good about yourself, cut him or her off. If it’s someone you can’t readily cut off (like a relative), then throw the brakes on conversations you don’t like. Say, “Hey, family member, I appreciate your interest in me, but I’d rather talk about something other than my non-existent weight problem. Are you streaming anything good on Netflix right now?” Do things that make you feel good. Try a new means of expression in an art project. Learn to knit, or learn how to change the oil in your car. Stop reading books you don’t enjoy (you don’t have to finish them!). Join a gym. Not necessarily to embark on a weight loss plan (unless you want to), but to reconnect with your body. Recognize that you are strong, or graceful, or limber, or can run like the wind, or love to dance. Full disclosure: I also teach Zumba. I’ve seen a lot of people walk through the doors of my gym who are at odds with their bodies; not over their weight, mind you. A lot of people don’t “get” how the whole system goes together, they don’t know how to move in their own skin. Get to know yourself. And be kind to yourself. Affirmations can work. Remind yourself of your self-worth, all the time.
P: There may be reasons that my beloved and Terri’s beloved decide they don’t love us any more. Goodness knows we’re complicated enough, there could be a long list of good reasons that they saddle up and ride out — but in fact, both those very smart men love us for all our complexities and do the best to buoy us up in our insecurities. And they know what they’d miss if they left. It’s not about the weight.
That said, our weight is about our health. Are you healthy? Because if not? That’s a problem you don’t want to give your bf. And getting healthy in a gym? Great place to meet a guy.
Are you happy? Because a happy woman is her own best advertisement. Are you doing things you love to do and are going to have to let any guy who comes into your life know that he’s just going to be one of the wonderful things that make your life great.
Do you really want to meet someone? Or are you content obsessing about your weight? If you want the guy, there’s a therapist that would like to help you with your weight and health issues. But here, let’s let Terri take this one out… she’s all over this one.
B: Smash the assumption that you’re not lovable by taking stock of the people around you who do love you. Don’t dismiss the love that’s in your life because it’s not coming from a desired, imaginary person, and being directed toward a thinner, imaginary you. Magazines and TV and cultural memes are the projected products of other peoples’ inner lives, but they’re not real, and they’re not your life. Be present in your own life. That’s how you throw away twenty pounds worth of imaginary obstacle.
P: Leaving me no option to do anything but sit in the amen corner and holler, “Yes!”