For most of my life I've suffered from a seriously distorted sense of body image —-- just how distorted I didn't realize until a recent visit with my best friend, Zahara. While thumbing languidly through her old photo albums —-- the archives of 20-plus years of friendship -- I revisited our former selves. There we were, dancing in high school recitals; home from college and tearing up New York City's thriving club scene; bikini clad and romping in the Caribbean during our scandalous 20s; blowing out candles at the big 3-0; and most recently, seated at her daughter's birthday party with our infants on our laps.
Cringing at the sight of my post-pregnancy body and the extra 15 pounds it carries, I had a startling but telling realization. While perusing the collection of photos, I saw images of myself from age 13 to 35, encased in a body that has been at times as small as a size 6, but never —-- even post-pregnancy —-- larger than a 12 (the size of the average American woman is a size 14). At each stage, I thought I was overweight and that life would be perfect if I could just lose 15 pounds. It became clear that this long-standing battle of mine is not one of the bulge but one of the mind.
Body love and hate
I don't remember exactly when my body and I fell out of love. It could have been in prep school, where the reigning beauty aesthetic was blond and waifish, but I suspect it started earlier. Perhaps it was in front of the Webster Avenue projects near where I grew up in the Bronx, when a man as old as my father took a look at my 12-year-old thighs and called them "big" in a voice so lustful it sent me sprinting down the block. Or maybe it was during a Kingston summer visit when another man took notice of my budding breasts and crudely announced to his cronies my need for a bra.
Later, my adult feminist consciousness did little to inoculate me against the culturally fueled neurosis surrounding women and weight. Yes, I've read The Beauty Myth and I know that "fat is a feminist issue." I even married a man who not only loves me "healthy and thick" but who also waxes eloquent about the myriad ways the fashion and beauty industries conspire to convince women that their bodies are simply not lovable once they've reached double-digit sizes. None of that has stopped me from making that extra 15 pounds of baggage an ongoing source of depression for most of my life.
Battling the fat blues
Being a Black woman who suffers from a distorted sense of body image can be a lonely thing. According to the stats —-- including a recent poll on ESSENCE.com that found many of the respondents preferred their own body types with some tweaking here and there —-- this is supposedly not a Black-girl issue. Blessed with men who allegedly prefer sisters who have some meat on their bones, we are supposed to be far more comfortable with our bodies than White girls are. Certainly by our cultural standards, I've never looked fat. Even now, struggling with the vestiges of baby fat, I'm only a chunky size 10 —-- a little heavy for my 5'5" frame but hardly obese by any standard.
In an attempt to conquer my latest attack of the fat blues, I recently bought a treadmill, hired a trainer and committed five days a week of pre-dawn time to whipping my body back into shape. About a week and a half into my program I blew out my kneecap —-- an injury that can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to heal. A firm believer in things happening for a reason, I realized that my forced time-out was really Spirit telling me all the sweat in the world was not going to help me if I continued to allow my dress size to be the barometer of my self-worth.
Committed to change, I tried to remember the times I felt relatively at peace with my body. There were two: The first was about five years ago during a grueling but effective personal-training program. While my original motivation was sheer vanity, I soon fell in love with how strong I became. The second time was during my pregnancy when I fell in love with the roundness of me and with the incredible wonder my body was performing. I even let my girlfriend, a brilliant photographer, talk me into sitting for nudes. I now recognize these as empowering moments in my life because I paid due respect to my body's capacity for miracles.
Woman in the mirror
I tried to hold on to those feelings as I recently ventured, naked, to the looking glass. The face staring back at me revealed that the years have been kind: Very little has changed since my twenties —-- save a few gray hairs and soft laugh lines that gently frame my eyes when I smile. (I greet them as the seasoned signs of wisdom.) And my breasts, fuller and a little less firm, are absolved of the sin of gravity simply by performing the miraculous feat of feeding my child for a year.
As if on cue, my son, always far more comfortable with my nakedness than I, ran over to bestow a loving kiss on my tummy. "Belly!" he exclaimed joyously. "That's right," I laughed. "That's Mommy's belly. You used to live there, you know." Delighted, he ran away, peals of laughter trailing behind him. His exuberance strengthened me. More confident, I allowed my fingers to caress the fullness of my hips, the little extra rear and thighs. I eyed the sway of my walk, which revealed the subtle confidence of a woman who's well over the short skirts and notice-me antics of her younger years.
Though the peace I seek with my body is still a ways off, I have taken the first step. I've started with like. Perhaps in time my relationship with my body will turn into love.