Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Some Thoughts on Body Image

If you read Gertie's amazing New Blog for Better Sewing, then you know that yesterday she posted a beautiful, honest, thought-provoking entry about body image, weight, dieting, and personal fears. It's a topic that I've mostly tried to avoid thinking about too much, but it's definitely come up more often now that I sew. When you're trying to make garments that fit your body, one of the first things you learn is that you need to be honest about your measurements...which for me can lead to embracing my authentic shape and learning to make garments that flatter it, or it can lead me to obsess about my numbers and every little change.

I've never really articulated my own journey about body image, mostly because it is such a sensitive topic for women. Even with my closest friends, discussion on the topic isn't so much discussion as it is self-disparaging comments. It's especially tricky because many of my girlfriends express envy for my body. I don't say that to be all "oh look at me and my awesomeness," but rather that it feels wrong to talk about your own body image issues when others see your body as one with errr...less issues. Which can lead to a lack of self-examination, thereby allowing some unhealthy thoughts to persist when they could've been brought to light and worked through with others. So here's my attempt to crystallize some thoughts.

I don't think I was really aware of my body or self-image until second grade, when I started wearing glasses. I was obviously the only kid in my class with glasses, and back then there was no cool hipster glasses look, just the dork look. I hated my glasses, how they marked me as a nerd (it didn't help that I wasn't good at any sports that involved round objects and would bring books with me to recess), how they made me easy fodder for bullies who thought it was great fun to steal my glasses. Once adolescence came around, I started breaking out and then I added hating my skin to the list. I went through a growth spurt that left me several inches taller than my female classmates, relegating me to the back row where the boys stood every time we had a class picture. The crowning glory of middle school was my seventh grade school picture, where I had bad skin, a sullen expression, glasses slipping off my nose, and in-the-process-of-growing-out-bangs that my mom insisted that I push out of my face with a headband, thereby causing a weird ring of spikes around my head. The one positive body thought I remember having during this time was thanks to doing martial arts -- I was grateful that my legs were strong and I could hold my own when sparring against high school guys. But even then, I don't think I had any idea what my body looked like. I was so covered up against San Francisco fog that I think I thought of myself as just a head on top of some (unfashionable) clothes.

At that time, I thought my mother was the most beautiful woman I knew. She used to model when she was younger, and looking through all of her old photos just made me wish I could look like her. I totally identified with Meg Murry's angst in A Wrinkle in Time, thinking that she was a monster compared to her gorgeous mother.

With my mom on my wedding day. Photography by The Youngrens.
High school brought about a lot of positive changes -- my skin settled down a little bit, my bangs were done growing out, and I was finally allowed to get contacts. And for the first time, I met other geeks who helped me learn to love myself and my quirks. I got into track and swimming and tennis and volleyball (all badly, but at least I tried to overcome my middle school fear of sports), and in general reveled in being healthy and active. I didn't think much about my body, oddly enough, considering that high school is when most women's body image issues come to the forefront. It didn't hurt, either, that relatives kept commenting on how much I was starting to look like my mother.

It wasn't until college that I really began seeing my body for (what felt like) the first time. Blame it on San Diego's gorgeous weather, beaches, and the fact that for three-quarters of the year, girls walked around in tiny shorts and tops. I suddenly realized that my legs, which had served me so well in martial arts and less well (but not their fault) in high school sports, were not quite the thin, gamine limbs that it seemed everyone else had. This was only emphasized by one casual comment a guy friend made (I'm sure he didn't mean it to be hurtful, but it's funny how these things stick with you, isn't it?), that I must have done a lot of running in my "formative years," because my calves were burly. And thus began the hate part of my love-hate relationship with my lower half.

Oddly enough, what helped a lot was talking to my mother. I don't know how it came up, but somehow she mentioned that she, too, disliked her legs. She commented on how sad she was that she (and I) hadn't inherited my grandpa's long, thin legs, and that she never wore skirts or dresses because she wanted to hide her short, thick legs. I was floored. My mother, the most beautiful lady I knew, had body image issues too? I began to see that these issues I had with my body were only going to be a prison of my own making if I let them continue. But even knowing that, it was still hard to let go of the lies that I'd subconsciously, accidentally absorbed from society.

Once I started working after college, my body began to change as I no longer walked everywhere, my metabolism slowed down, and suddenly became a foodie. Granted, it wasn't a big change, as teaching is still a relatively non-sedentary profession, but it was enough to get me worrying. Because as one commenter on Gertie's blog said, "When bloggers bash thin women, I wonder if they can know how absolutely unwinnable that game is. All 'thin' can ever be is 'not yet fat today,' and 'not as thin as I could be.'" At the same time that I was worrying over my (so it seemed) ever-thickening legs, I was absurdly proud of my tiny waist. It's hard not to take something so silly as what you happen to be genetically blessed with (my mom also has a fantastic waist for having had three kids) and turn that into a source of pride. It's funny and sad that one of my primary reasons for not wanting kids yet is that I would miss my waist.

Which brings me to now. I'm slowly inching closer to thirty, and yet I still find myself having a very similar battle as when I first started being aware of my body. I don't have some awesome answer to this ongoing struggle. I know, cognitively, that I am wonderfully made and that my worth is not in my body or what others think, but that's such a difficult truth to take to heart. I'm still afraid of gaining weight, although my husband's sweetness on that issue is extremely freeing and refreshing and healing. I still think about calories when I eat yummy food, although to be perfectly honest, I decide to ignore that most of the time and eat it anyway. The only difference between then and now, it seems, is that I've decided that I'm not going to be afraid to wear what I want, while still trying to make sure that what I choose is flattering and camouflaging at the same time. I love making dresses that have the retro look with nipped-in waists and full skirts, which I feel simultaneously emphasize my best feature and hide my worst. But if I feel like squeezing my legs into skinny jeans, I'll do it anyway. I know that my bust is smaller than the American norm (and the big pattern companies' sizing norms), but I like being able to shop for cheaper bras in the kid section, and at least when I sew for myself I can adjust accordingly and not be constrained to RTW sizes.

A lot of other sewists talk about how sewing helped them to accept their bodies; I don't know if that's so much the case for me as it is that it's helped me to know my body and what works for it. I think I'm still working on the acceptance thing, but as that commenter continued, "When bloggers bash thin women, I wonder if they can know how absolutely unwinnable that game is. All 'thin' can ever be is 'not yet fat today,' and 'not as thin as I could be.' Only when we walk away from it do we remember how to live and be happy." (emphasis added by me)

Recently one of my friends posted on her blog about completing the Insanity workouts by Shaun T., and she said that she was pleased with how much more fit her body was after the two-month series. I've always thought she was absolutely gorgeous, and to hear (read?) her thoughts on how her body functioned and not how it looked, made me's time to start being more concerned with health and whether my body can do what it needs to, than how my body fits into some random standard set by modern society.

This entry was kind of all over the place, but I feel relieved? weirded out? catharted (you know like the verb form of catharsis :P)? to have written it all out. TL;DR Summary: being close(r) to society's standards of beauty doesn't mean you don't have body image issues; health is what's most important. I need to remember that my worth is not in my looks.


  1. This was a very inspiring post! I agree, function is more important than appearance. Whenever I'm having a tough body image day, I like to remind myself that i may not have a perfect stomach or perfect legs, but those legs carry me everywhere I go. I also love this quote from C. S. Lewis: "You do not have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body." It's a good reminder that looks aren't everything.
    Also, I LOVE buying bras in the children's section. SO MUCH CHEAPER.

  2. I really appreciate this post, Cindy. Thank you so much for your honesty. We all need space to think and talk through body issues. Your writing is humorous, thoughtful, real, and refreshing.

  3. I agree with Shayna. Thank you for sharing and exploring so honestly. You are just lovely.

  4. Interesting post! I just found your blog from PR, and the clothes you sew are so much fun!

    Anyway...I have always had a dislike of my calves too... I have very muscular, heavy legs (or at least I think I do).

    When I was in college, I was hanging out with a black friend, and he LOVED my legs. I thought he was weird. Then, a few years later, I was dress shopping with a black coworker. She was totally in awe of my calves. LOL, that's when it dawned on me that perhaps it was a cultural thing. Moral of the story: Just because you dislike them, it doesn't mean that other people do. We all need to be a little easier on ourselves, I think. I try to keep that in mind now when I have some body image issue.

  5. I've been helping with a high school play. (Won't mention who/where I am for that reason) It is amazing how differently you see yourself when you age. I'm married and have had two emergency abdominal surgeries, and am of course not thrilled with the disappearance of the very small waist. I remember having a better figure than most girls/women will ever have, but I'd look in the mirror and the see only the zit. We just don't see what others see.
    There is a photographer in NYC who takes pics of anorexic people. It is tastefully done. Although they aren't clothed. Meant to provoke thoughts of health, versus illness. Imo, the photographer succeeds.
    Sorry for odd post.
    Nice blog by the way.

  6. Wonderful thoughts - thanks for sharing. =)

    People have a tendency to point out features which are different, making people more self-conscious of their own bodies. (No one is ever completely happy with everything about their own body - the grass is always greener and all that.) And it's always been frustrating to me how society seems to be okay with picking on those who are more naturally slim, causing smaller girls to be feel bad about themselves. I got called "toothpicks" and "bird-legs" for most of my childhood - luckily, I didn't really care much what others thought of me and never felt I needed to hide my legs. (Now, even in my 30's, I still can't gain weight but I'm not "allowed" to complain.)

    Happiness is learning to be comfortable in your own skin, no matter what your size or shape. And sewing for yourself helps with the fitting issues (everyone has them!) of store-bought. =)

  7. I relate 100% to this post.

    I actually thought about blogging about my body image issues this weekend, but retracted because I am not brave enough to publish all my flaws online, plus I don't want to come across *insensitive* to others who have *more* body issues than myself.

    I too hated my legs growing up. When I was 10-12years old, I used to look at my friends who had skinny calves and thin thighs and feel so sad. I used to sit with my thighs lifted up off the seats so that they wont squash out and look 4 times bigger.

    During high school 12yo+ i also started growing my bangs out, and I would part them in half and clip to each side, so dorky. Ironic that years later, I have bangs with I love, but hated so much as a kid.

    When I was 19yo, I started working in an office and sared wearing pencil skirts to work. One day, my male colleague said to me "Your calves look like a concretors calves!"

    I don't know if his intention was to upset me or he didn't think before opening his mouth, but it was very hurtful and didn't help my insecurity about my legs and calves. I have always thought I took after my dad in the legs department. Short and thick. 6 years later I still recall his comment to me.

    As I said in one of my other comments on your blog, I am starting to accept my body for what it is, and I am no longer bothered *that* much by my "masculine" legs lol.

    I have accepted that every body has their own body hang-ups... a friend of mine HATES her nose, I see nothing wrong with it. She sees nothing wrong with my legs. So we agree to disagree and acknowledge that everybody has parts of their body they would like to improve on.

    I for one would love to have a nice flat toned tummy. I don't know if that will ever happen.... but if it doesnt happen, I'll focus on the good bits of my body that I do like.. which right now is nothing, but I am dieting next week and trying to start exercising again :)

    Thank you for the honest and open post.


  8. Thank you for writing this, for posting this. I am twice your age, and still struggling with body issues very much like yours. I'm going to try to take some of your words to heart--you are wise beyond your years.

  9. OMG " A Wrinkle In Time " Is one of my favorite Books EVER!! I have read it dozens of times since I was 11 and I'm now 31 now! I have always tried to look for a "Happy Medium" in Life since the first time I read it! O love your style and attitude! I wish you were in Florida so we could craft together! I would love to embroider and bead some of your pieces and make custom jewelry to match them! :)TY again for the great Posts!

  10. And by the way.... You are a beauty, I also envy your body! I understand body image issues I just lost 100 lbs after I was crippled by a semi tuck, I'm covered in scars and every tooth has been pulled BUT I truly love every scar and "flaw" now because it's me and as I long as I love me for how I look and try to be healthy and is good. Once you let go of self image issues creating beautiful things is easier too because you don't worry about how you look it's how the piece is made and you make some amazingly beautiful pieces! <3 Aly D

  11. I know this is an old post, but I'm so happy I stumbled on it! I'm 16, and have been pretty skinny throughout my life. I have slim shoulders, a small bust, and pretty big hips and thighs (thank you, figure skating). My lower half is much bigger than my upper half, and when I first actually noticed that, I was weirded out. Now, though, I've reconciled myself to that. After all, if I had little stick legs, could I launch into all my skating jumps that I'm able to? Absolutely not! It's muscle, and that's a good thing.

    Recently, though, I had a whole new bout of body-image-stuff. I gained weight over the winter, probably for the fact that winter is made for bread and chocolate and meatloaf and all sorts of amazing, high-calorie food. Plus I was busy, and I always eat more when I'm running around. Anyway, I had trouble, because (1) I wanted to be skinny and was imagining my skinny self disappearing forever, (2) because I felt guilty because I still wanted to eat all sorts of amazing food, and (3) because none of my friends understood. They all think I'm a skinny-minnie. Which may be true, but body isn't perfect and it's annoying when some think it is, even when they mean it as flattering.

    After counting calories for a couple days, then quitting, then starting again a week or two later, I've finally come to a decision much like yours: Fitness is more important to me. Skating is my life, so being healthy will help me reach my goals with that. I'd love to be more flexible. I love to hike, bike, and do yoga. I'd love to be able to make it to the top of a huge hill on my bike in a high gear, and surprise myself with how easy it was. I feel good and genuinely like protein and veggies, so I'll eat that. But I'm not banishing myself from chocolate, either.

    In short (too late for that, I know. :P), I'm going to be fit and healthy. I'm going to sweat, and push myself, because that's what I enjoy. And if my waist slims down a bit and my stomach becomes a little flatter? Fine by me. :)

    Anyway, loved this post! Really voiced my recent thought patterns. :)



Thank you for taking the time to tell me your thoughts! I appreciate reading them and I try to reply to most, if not all, comments, especially when they are questions. I ask that you keep your comments polite, and if you're a spammer, don't bother because your comment will just be deleted! Also, if you're commenting on a post that's more than two weeks old, it will be moderated.