Being Body Conscious – for Better or Worse

My earliest memory of being self-conscious about my body was during the summer months of swim team before 6th grade.  I was a very thin, petite 12-year-old, still quite childish in my appearance.  I started comparing myself to the other girls my age and I loathed my body for the first time in my life.

Donning a bathing suit, swim cap, and goggles, surrounded by my peers – it was a recipe for anxiety.  Not only were the girls catty and fickle, they could be downright nasty.  I was teased for being “too thin,” for having “stick legs,” for not developing breasts like some of my teammates, and as a shy girl who had not yet learned to stand up for herself, I was ostracized.

I formed a new group of quiet friends on the swim team and we were sort of a motley crew- when I look back on it, we were the girls whose bodies were not “ideal.”  There was the girl who was bigger than everyone else, and the girl whose hair and face were not “pretty” in the traditional sense, and there was me – too thin, too underdeveloped.  And though none of us talked about our bodies, it was the elephant in the room for me. Striving to fatten myself up, I remember days when I would sit on my driveway eating a Big Mac, fries, and a milk shake.

By the time I was 13, the social pressure and anxiety of swim team was too much for me.  Sure, I loved to swim, but the bad feelings I had about my body and myself as a result of interaction with my peers just wasn’t worth it.  I quit.

The strange thing about my memories of swim team is the juxtaposition of my own negative body image, against the body image/ opinion of my own mother.  At some swim meets, the parents were invited to compete in an adult race.  On one occasion, my mom, then in her late 30s, decided to compete in freestyle.  I watched her proudly as she dove in with a beautiful swimmer’s dive.  She was fast.  She was strong.  She was beautiful.  I remember hoping that I could swim like her one day, that I could look like her, that I could be like her.

I didn’t swim again until I was 20 and enrolled in a swimming fitness class in college.  I wish I could say I had moved beyond the body conscious pre-teen years, but I really hadn’t.  Then, it was about being thinner (ironic, isn’t it?)  I did yoga and swam and had a diet that was borderline starvation.  I was thin, and beautiful, and strong.  But did I feel that way?  No.  I still wasn’t “right” in my mirror and in my mind.

As I look at my now 35-year-old body, I wish I could say I didn’t poke at it negatively, silently pointing out all the “problem” areas and wishing I looked better.  After 3 kids, my body is not the same as it used to be.  It is scarred, it is stretched, it is rounder, and it hurts more.  I am hard on my body now, for better or worse.  I say, “for better” because my body obsession has driven me to lead a healthy lifestyle and maintain an exercise regimen. When time and my children allow, I find myself at the gym 4-5 days a week, swimming, and participating in classes.  In many ways, I am stronger and healthier than I ever was.  And when I look back on my own self-criticism over the years, I want to laugh at my younger self for the very minor physical imperfections I perceived, but also, I want to hug her.  I want to tell her to stop worrying and focus on being the strongest version of herself, to enjoy the healthy, beautiful body she has.

I think my future self wants to do the same for me now.  And I think my mom does too.  As I look at my beautiful mother, and see how life and age continue to challenge your body, I can only show appreciation for this body now.  Too often I take it for granted.  This body can carry 2 children through beach sand dunes, and up and down stairs.  This body can chase the children in the backyard.  This body can wield a 12 pound body bar in a helicopter/ninja move that looks intimidating.  This body can serve and hit a volleyball with enough force to scare a group of elementary school girls.  This body can swim and bike for a solid hour without failing.

So today, I’m reminding myself that no matter what my body looks like, what counts is that it is healthy and it is strong.  I am powerful.  I am fierce.  And finally, smiling to myself, I am like my mother on that day I watched her swim.  I hope that is how my daughters see me now and I hope that they learn to see themselves and their bodies that way too.

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