Finding a Skin that Fits, or How I Tried on Every Size There Is and Learned to Be Comfortable In My Own Skin
Fully thrifted outfit! Romper by Madewell from Second Time Around in Philly, Tote by Kate Spade from Twice as Nice in CT, Sandals by Jimmy Choo from Buffalo Exchange in the East Village, Necklaces from Etsy, Baby by me
I am sick of women and girls hating their bodies.
I propose that we no longer accept that as normal, as default, as our sad, go-to, every day emoji face we all wear, the I've-been-so-bad face.
We're in a new century, and I hope that attitude is a leftover attitude from the last, and that one day saying you're bad because you ate a goddamn cookie will seem as quaint and constraining to us as corsets did to my mother's generation.
My grandmother wore a girdle, which was her generation's updated version of her mother's corset. Self-loathing is our generation's version. It's an internalized corset, whittling down our voices as much as it whittles our waists.
I encounter it all the time in the course of normal conversation, this intense self-loathing, and while I do not necessarily always love my body or think it's anywhere near "perfect", after having two babies I no longer hate it. Because I no longer hate myself, I can see it so clearly when other women do. I saw it at the beginning of this summer when fully-clothed women hung in the shade at the apartment complex's pool, saying they had to hit the gym first before they dared to bare. Meanwhile, all the men, some buff and some less than buff, some hairy and some waxed, some tanned and some... well, not so tanned, you get the picture, cavorted like baby porpoises.
Regardless of the corporate state-sanctioned state of their bodies, every single man felt free to let his freak flag fly in the bright sun and fresh air.
And so did I.
Yes, I felt a little self-conscious. I'd recently had my second baby. On the other hand, I hadn't had a chance to sit by a pool in years. I wasn't missing that chance because of a couple extra pounds (or, more accurately in my case, a couple extra twenty pounds).
As the summer went on, I was happy to see that the sun won, and in the heat of a Philadelphia summer all body types went on display at the pool.
I was less gratified by all the comments on my body every time I took my infant and toddler along for a swim.
You mean from all the construction workers lined up, shouting inappropriate things?
These comments came from other women. Other moms. College girls. Grandmothers. Apparently in this world, if you're a woman, not only does your uterus belong to Republican legislators, usually be-penised* Republican legislators at that, but, as a mother, your appearance also becomes the provenance of every other woman on this planet; it's like you're a celebrity without any of the consoling perks to go along with being evaluated on your looks like free designer clothes and sparkly jewelry. The world is your neverending green carpet from hell, and every woman is your potential Joan Rivers.
First the comments were, "You don't look like one of those amazing women who loses all the weight immediately." As if a woman's ability not to appear to have any utilitarian purposes for her body is what defines her ability to amaze others.
That stung, especially because I was in the shape of my life even if the scale didn't reflect that-- in their eyes at least.
Then, as I kept running to cope with low-level PPD, it became: "You don't look like a mother." That didn't feel any better, and I couldn't put my finger on why until I read Louise O'Neill's column in the Irish Examiner recently. As she puts it:
If someone I don’t know comments on the fact I’ve lost a few pounds, I’m not comfortable telling them that it’s due to stress or feeling overwhelmed.
Worse, it makes me feel as if my body is being monitored and if someone notices that I’ve lost weight, so too will they notice when I’ve gained weight and that leaves me feeling as if I’m unable to do either.
Commenting on someone’s body in that way is never helpful.
The compliments made me feel as self-conscious as the stinging criticisms had. Most of all, the sense of being judged when out with my babies even more than women feel judged in general, is something I'm learning to have to juggle. Most of all, it's a rudeness men never have to deal with. When I repeat some of these comments to my husband, he laughs hysterically-- not at me, but imagining strangers coming up to him and saying these kind of things about his body to him.
In his eyes, such comments are absurd, risible, unthinkable.
I hope it will be that way for our daughter, but these critiques are still my everyday experience and the everyday experience of a lot of women.
No wonder so many women are self-loathing, right? I refuse to loathe myself, so I've had to learn to skew the internal dialogue about my body, since I can't control the external one. In this one way, fitness has been an incredible way for me to take control and feel comfortable in my skin.
I could post a before and after picture to illustrate how much I transformed after gaining and losing 70 lbs, and then, less than a year later, gaining and losing 70 lbs. again, but fitness isn't about that for me-- the scale or being a certain size. (On a related note, I also wrote about my attitude change, weight gain, the plus-size category, and, incidentally Amy Schumer, over at xojane.com).
Here's what it is about: the other day, actually Labor Day ironically enough, I drove up to the small house we're attempting to sell in New England. I hadn't been in a while, and the garden was a tangle of weeds and overgrown branches.
"You'll never be able to clean that up yourself," my little old lady neighbor sighed, a glass of ice tea shaking in one of her arthritic hands as if it was a barbell. Soon after, she went inside, and, less than an hour later, I had OWNED that garden in more than the technical sense of the word, because, of course, I also own that garden. I felt the unique thrill of being able to rely on my own two hands and my own strong back to pull out pestiferous, deep-rooted baby amur maples and hundreds upon hundreds of thick, and weirdly juicy, four-foot high dandelion stalks.
So, in that spirit, the spirit of strength and fitness, not of weight loss, judgment or eating disorders, which is the last thing I want to trigger-- and let me point out that in the pictures above I am still technically overweight but I think I look fly-- here are some of the basic things I did to go from barely being able to hold an 8 pound baby post emergency c-section to eviscerating the hell out of 1/3 of an acre of invasive species of jimsonweed and fanwort (not to mention overcoming mild postpartum issues).
Here are the things I did to feel comfortable in my own skin:
1. Eff the Scale
Ironically enough, my first wake-up call on this subject came from a Victoria's Secret super model.
Please keep reading, it gets better.
Everyone is always oohing about those ladies' post-baby bodies, so, naturally, I was curious. I think it was Adriana Lima's trainer who told her not to stress about the scale, and, dammit, if it was good enough for Adriana Lima, it was good enough for me.
Moreover, after being every weight there is, I began openly discussing my real weight with friends.To my surprise, my friends all responded in kind. Also to my surprise, I learned that most 5'9" or taller women weigh 160 lbs and up, overweight according to the online weight index. I also learned that the weight index online is some bullshit and does not take into account things like body frames or muscles.
I have been every weight from 128-215, and I can report it really doesn't matter. Your weight does not define your fitness level. Some of my most athletic female friends weigh amounts that surprised me, given my experiences with disapproving OBs (which I wrote about here). So, again, if the scale rules your life, take a deep breath, curse it into non-existence, and repeat after me: whatever is good enough for Adriana Lima, is good enough for me. It's not about the number. It's about stomping the hell out of runways or gardens, wherever your path takes you.
2. Drink Water. A Lot of Water.
The more in shape you get the more you'll actually feel which foods truly fuel your body. While sometimes a lot of fun, if bingeing on whole boxes of Annie's Bunnies is a daily ritual (guilty) it's worth curbing. It's just a dry mouthful of sodium in the end, and it will leave you feeling sluggish. If you're hungry, eat! But the more fit you get, the more you'll want to eat things that add to, rather than detract from your energy level: oatmeal cookies, cheerios, sweet potatoes, apples, cheese, and crackers, hummus and carrots, peanut butter. (Mmm, peanut butter). Those are all snacks that will fire your afternoon up. I have only done one cleanse ever-- the vegetarian GM diet, because you get to eat real food while you do it. I did it for all of (almost) three days before I felt like a theater in which the lights were slowly going out. Like any sane person would, I desisted and began to stuff shrimp tacos in my face. Post-cleanse, I did lose some cravings for salty carbs at 5 o'clock. That was the best outcome from the experience, because I maybe permanently lost all of one pound.
However, you don't have to do a cleanse to feel the effects lots of water-drinking can have on your body and psyche. In that spirit, I bought a venti reusable cup from Starbucks. It's both environmentally-friendly and makes keeping track of water easy and kind of fun-- in that I am tricking myself with the bright cup into thinking I'm drinking something a lot more entertaining than water. I've heard that some hunger pangs and some sugar cravings are disguised thirst sensations. I don't know much about that, but I know drinking 60-80 oz of water (or 3-4 venti cups of water) a day helps me not snack as much and feel better in general (but should never replace food). That leads me to my next point.
3. Keep Your Calories For Your Favorite Meal of the Day But Practice Moderation (Not Denial)
After my first pregnancy, I did think I might return to acting on film and in TV and did count calories for a while. I sometimes tracked my calories using the MyFitness Pal app. I didn't keep it up for long, fearing it might turn me into one of those people who can quote the calories in a boiled egg on command, On the other hand, I did discover a couple "fun" things about the sugar and sodium in prepared foods.
Now, instead of a spinach feta wrap at Starbucks, I'm now more likely to grab their cheese plate. Still plenty of calories, less scary additives.
I still eat some junk food, but I now keep my biggest meal of the day for dinner, because I know I'll feel deprived and grouchy otherwise. I know conventional wisdom says to eat a big breakfast instead, but it doesn't seem to matter what I eat in the AM. I'm always starving at dinner.
I'm flying in the face of conventional wisdom, because I've learned it's easier to keep to a diet of moderation if I don't make myself miserable but go with my body's rhythms. In that spirit, I tend to eat a small breakfast, a medium-sized lunch, a 4 or 5 o'clock snack and a big dinner, usually with dessert. (I do try to avoid seconds, but not if I genuinely am starving.) Sometimes I have dessert, but I try not to eat after 9:30 or 10 (depending on how hungry I'm feeling. Again, it's not about denial, but about being healthy. If you eat too late, roasted peanuts may trigger nightmares Donald Trump is tweeting about you.) I try to aim for around 2,000 calories a day, not to starve myself, but because overeating, again while occasionally fun, makes me feel a little sick. When I was pregnant one of the nurses told me to stick to 1,800 calories A DAY, not a meal, ha, and those were the only two days I was sick out of two pregnancies. It has made me permanently wary of that approach.) Again: eff the scale and eff calorie-counting.
4. Try to Have Fun/ Break a Sweat Every Day
Exercise is no fun at all when you are severely out of shape. I know this. Also, if you are more than 50 lbs heavier than you maybe should be, and you go to the gym, some jerks might try to fat-shame you, although in my experience those kind of nitwits are in a very small minority.
I have a deep-seated hatred for only one person on the planet, and that is a Zumba teacher who asked me at only a couple months postpartum, in front of the whole class, whether I had just jumped in the apartment complex's pool, because I was sweating so much. This was at the end of her class, mind you, not before, and would have required me to run outside in the middle of her stupid, uninspired Top 40 playlist, dive in sneakers and all, and race back, dripping all over the floor like I'd just invented some kind of bizarre zumba/ swimming biathlon.
But if publicly bouncing around on your toes while other parts of you bounce around makes you cringe, there are lots of fun exercises you can do in the privacy of your home. There are so many online exercise videos now. Experiment with teachers and styles until you find something you actually like. There's even plenty of free, fabulous stuff on YouTube.
It's also helpful to have a daily backlog of things you like doing. Here are some of mine: walking the dog, yoga on YouTube (or yoga out of a book/ my brain), walking on a treadmill while watching bad reality TV, using an elliptical while bingeing HGTV, taking yoga/pilates classes (again these can be expensive, but there are great, free options on YouTube), doing a ballet video and pretending to be a ballerina (I LOVE the NYC Ballet one and have been doing it for years), running on a track, swimming laps in a pool if you have access to one, doing strength-building moves for 15-20 minutes on your living room floor, pretending to race 5ks to roaring crowds dazzled by your 12-minute mile-time while blasting Pandora. Those are some of my favorites. Every day I try to squeeze in one or two activities based on my mood. Even 15 minutes twice a day can be a game-changer. Once you've gotten a taste of the endorphin high you get breaking a sweat, you will start to crave that feeling, and you will feel better in your skin, whatever your weight, guaranteed.
5. Do Not Obsess
If you find yourself obsessing about your weight-- and I have been there, not only from my own poor social conditioning but from doctors giving me a hard time about my rapid weight gain while pregnant-- then you need to get out of your own head. I have found the more I obsess the more weight I gain anyway. Again, I know it is so hard, but try to enjoy your food. Actually enjoying your food will help you lose weight, because it will again become food instead of a frenemy you love to hate and hate to love.
Aim for portion control but not appetite control. If you're hungry, eat. Avoid nutty ingredient eliminations unless you have a medical reason to do so. Don't pretend you can't eat bread, unless like Marie Antoinette you prefer to eat cake. (Mmm, cake.) Go for a walk if you feel like you overate for dinner. Again, try to move around twice a day. Even dancing to Pandora playlists for fifteen minutes or taking the stairs counts! Anything that makes you feel strong and good counts! Once a day doesn't really cut it, anymore than eating once a day would satisfy your body. Change the focus to feeling good not worrying about your weight. If you keep it up, your fitness level and weight will settle it out themselves. If, like me, you have gained an unhealthy amount of weight-- and 70 lbs is the kind of weight that drags you down and makes your feet hurt after standing on them for short periods of time-- then I'm not going to lie, there's no overnight cure, but, even with those extra pounds, the strength-training will be liberating. You will find yourself liking the body that can do all these new, interesting things.
6. Last, But Not Least, Accept the Size You Are Meant to Be and Work It
That might seem easy for me to say, because I lost the weight, but, when I was working as a model I was always literally the biggest girl in the room. Briefly, and very, very badly, it got to me. Pressured by agents and clients to take "just 3/4 of an inch off my hips" in order to get hired as a fit model for a designer you have definitely heard of, I tried really hard to lose weight. However, anything less than 135, and I look as gaunt as a Hollywood actor angling for an Oscar. I am not making this up to sound peppy, but I genuinely like my curvier post-two-baby body better than the gaunt, skinny, pale unhappy one that modeled in New York.
What I do not like is how, in the apartment complex where I've been living, people have watched, and commented on, me whittling down in a matter of only ten months or so. I have hated the intense scrutiny, even as it's felt familiar after working as a model. My weight aside, I've noticed most of the girls in my classes at the apartment's gym have not dramatically changed in appearance in that time, even doing the same exercises I'm doing. They are all beautiful, healthy girls-- some are slim and slight and some are curvier. I wouldn't have minded staying a curvier, pin-up-ier size myself, but that's not my choice. Twice, I've shrank in the space of a year, and it's now very much led me to believe, when we're fit, we are the sizes we're meant to be. I have friends just as athletic as me who are a size 12. Our bodies have their own intelligence we should honor. I have been a size 14 and a size 0, and I was not meant to be the latter much more so than the former. At a size 0, I looked awful and felt worse.
These past three years, fluttering between all the sizes there are, I have felt like my own personal sci-fi story, like I've been switching bodies almost. As a writer, I have loved it. There are a lot of reasons my chapbook is titled The Voices of Women, but my constantly changing shape is one of them; sometimes I feel like I have experienced more than one life. Most of all, I have learned to appreciate having energy and enthusiasm after post-surgery weakness and pre-pregnancy bouts with eating disorders. So no,none of the practices I've listed above are a way to achieve skinniness. Rather, they will lead to gustatory delight and a stronger physique,
I can't help with the constant comments, though. Maybe it will just take time, a few more decades before the corset of critique will be removed, and we can be human beings without facing mindless constant criticism whatever shape or size or gender or color or religion we happen to be.
In a sense, I've gotten an honorary MFA in nutrition and exercise after what I've been through the past three years, experiencing such intense physical changes. Some of them I could control and others I couldn't. I had that brief glimpse through the veil when my daughter and I almost died on a cold operating table, and while it didn't change me over night-- there's a fascinating podcast on Modern Love about near death experiences and they all share that aspect in common with mine-- I did change from someone who's miserable about her weight all the time to someone who is comfortable in her skin, even if the change wasn't as dramatically or instantly as TV shows make out.
If you're heathy, celebrate it. Focus on it. Keep it! Live your life! Love your body!
It's the only one you get.
*I hope bepenised catches on.
I'm a busy mommy of two and a writer who loves fashion. I also want to teach myself and my children to care for and love the environment! I don't have the energy or time to be as 100% perfect as I'd like to be about my carbon footprint, but I'm trying to do the best I can. For example, I switched to a vegetarian diet (with a little bit of fish thrown in for now-- ah I cannot live without fish tacos!--), walk when I don't have to drive, wear as many sustainably made or secondhand clothes as I can, and recycle in other ways, too. Follow me as I try (at least 50% of the time) to strike a balance between the two-- mothering and writing, shopping and sustainability. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram @IsabellaMDavid.