My husband and I were walking the other day. He got hot and took off his shirt. John is a relatively fit man but like a lot of middle-aged men, he has a collection of adipose tissue (fat and other stuff) collected in the “beer belly zone”.

John’s father had his first heart attack in his late thirties and the one that he had at age 49 killed him. John is 48 years old and although he lives a very different lifestyle than did his father, I still worry. He has high cholesterol, which is controlled with a statin drug. But his trigylcerides are high again and his blood pressure, although still in the acceptable range, has been steadily climbing.

So the belly bothers me. It’s not as big as it was a year or two ago but it’s still there. Talking to a spouse about health concerns especially when it could also be interpreted as a criticism of physical attractiveness, is tricky. But it is really important that both John and I be as healthy as possible, especially now that we are painfully aware that physical health is not a guarantee.

I said, “John, I’m thinking that you need to do something about the fat you have around your mid-section.”

He said, nonplussed and gesturing like Vanna White over his physique, “My stomach? Look at me! I’m almost 50! I look damn good! But I am a man and we all think we look great.”

I don’t think all men think they look great. But John is one of the least physically self-conscious people that I know. He is perfectly comfortable with his body and honestly, he is quite a good looking man. And because he is not self-conscious, he won’t mind me saying that in college, he was perhaps one of the least stylish men I’d ever met. John wore incredibly thick glasses and the arms were attached with paperclips. He cut his own hair when I met him with kitchen shears, just enough to keep it out of his eyes. John’s shirts often had holes in them. But he was kind, funny, bright, studious, and comfortable in his own skin. These qualities were extremely attractive.

I admire John’s ease with himself. He is a 48 year-old man who has felt comfortable in his own skin for 48 years. I was 5 years-old when I first thought there was something wrong with my body. We were looking through recent vacation photos and there was one of me wearing a navy blue one piece bathing suit. At least two of my five brothers immediately started teasing me for being “fat”. I’ve been pretty open in my blog about my history of weight problems but I don’t think I was actually overweight until I was 12 or 13 years old, after which I lost over 20 pounds, grew, and maintained a healthy weight until I was 24 years old, at which time my up and down weight battle began. In any event, I wasn’t the slightest bit overweight as a 5 year-old!

I have struggled with body image for most of my life. And I’m not blaming my brothers but they were a layer in the onion of negative messages I received. There is a lot of pressure on girls to be unrealistically thin in our country. To be unhealthy is to be beautiful. I’ve always known this to be wrong. I was a reasonable and intelligent girl who grew up to be a reasonable and intelligent woman.

As I’ve written in the past, there was a tape that played in my head when I was overweight. As soon as I woke each morning, I felt the extra weight on my side and noticed how much closer the outline of my body was to the edge of the bed. I thought, “I’m fat.” Every morning of every day, on and off, for YEARS. And when I went out into a public place with crowds, I would compare myself to the people around me, “fatter than her”, “fatter than him”, etc. It was like a horrible, horrible tic. I knew how unhealthy it was. At times in my adult life when I’ve been at healthy weight, the tape has positive information but it is focused on weight and comparing myself to others. I knew that although a more comfortable state, it was still the trap of depending on my weight for a significant segment of my self-image. And I also knew that no matter whether I’ve been at healthy weight or not, I’ve avoided lots and lots and lots of opportunities to swim in my life because I felt uncomfortable wearing a swim suit. And people, I was an athletic girl. I even won the 8th grade award for physical education.

A few days after my breast cancer diagnosis, I gave myself a hard look. I had started back on Weight Watchers a few weeks earlier and people were asking why I would continue given that I had just learned that I had cancer. But I had already started to lose weight and from experience I know that there is a certain groove that is hard to find but once found, goals get achieved. I was pretty sure I was in that groove. Additionally, I thought it was a concrete thing I could do to improve my health at a time when I was feeling pretty out of control of my life. I decided to press on and wrote about this decision as well as my keen sense of embarrassment that a grown woman who was a generally happy person would have an evil tape playing in her head every day. I remember thinking for the first time that perhaps I needed to give myself a break for not being a perfectly self-accepting person and maybe the tape was something I just needed to accept about myself.

That bit of acknowledgement and acceptance was an important step in dealing with that negative tape. I focused on making good decisions in my cancer treatment and living a healthy lifestyle. I kept on Weight Watchers, I started mindfulness practice, and started exercising every day. I exercise by walking between 3 and 4 miles each day. I go out to walk with extremely few exceptions, every day, rain or shine. I walk in the winter when it’s dark (darn you, northern latitudes), cold, wet, and windy. I don’t really like to get cold or wet so I was kind of worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up my walking during all seasons of the year.

I was able to keep it up and I discovered something about walking in the cold, the rain, and in the wind. I could do it and if I wore good gear, it could actually be relatively comfortable. It felt powerful to be vulnerable in the elements and to still have a good time. There’s ALWAYS some interesting life out there, the birds, the trees, the flowers. Bracing wind can bite but it can also be invigorating and as I’ve learned, it can also be the best medicine for an intense hot flash!

Admitting the existence of my negative body image tape was hard and embarrassing. But it was a confession that lifted something for me because it was no longer something that was too horrible to mention. Similarly, I admitted to a friend over a month ago that I was terrified of wearing a swim suit in public. It was a painful admission and I actually felt somewhat embarrassed and regretful afterwards about having made that disclosure. But I think just speaking it aloud wiggled something loose for me.

Meanwhile, the weather was getting hot and I didn’t want to bake on my walks. So I bought a jogging bra and shorts for my summer walking. I also thought it would be a good way to work on the body image project. Although I could deal with the shorts, having my midriff exposed was a little, EXPOSED. So I wore a t-shirt over it and got pretty hot on my walks. Then remember when I went hiking in the mountains? It was supposed to be cold that day so I was wearing a long-sleeved sports dress (there really are such things) over a sports bra and capri jogging tights. In the sun, high altitude, and my cancer-treatment induced prone to hotness, I soon got overheated. I debated for awhile but then thought, “Who would know me up here?” So the dress came off, my midriff was exposed, and guess what? Nobody died. Now I admit that it was a bit awkward given that everybody else appeared to have a normal thermostat and none of them looked over heated. In fact, some people were wearing stocking caps! So I was much more skimpily dressed than the rest of the people I encountered on the mountain trails. But again, NOBODY DIED, GAGGED, OR PASSED OUT.

Midriff in the mountains. Yes, my belly button is no longer round due to TRAM surgery. I kind of like the new shape.

Midriff in the mountains. Yes, my belly button is no longer round due to TRAM surgery. I kind of like the new shape.

Then it just got too hot on my daily walks and I found myself stripped down to a jogging bra and shorts about a third of the way through my neighborhood walks.  Just prior to my recent vacation, I realized that I was parading around the neighborhood in front of God and everybody, wearing something equivalent to one of the spicier Land’s End two piece swim suits for middle aged ladies. (And even the young girls frequently wear board shorts instead of bikini bottoms these days.) I realized that my problem was not with how much skin was covered. It was the negative associations I’d had with wearing a swimsuit or even the idea of wearing one, in the past. And by the way, in the course of my walks around my neighborhood, NOBODY DIED, GAGGED, OR PASSED OUT.

I decided that during my vacation, I would wear a swimsuit at least once. I wore a swimsuit twice with no adverse effects. In fact the 20-ish year old kid who rented me a kayak told me that I should jump off the bridge at the other side of the lake. Apparently, I was was looking confident enough in my attire to jump off of a bridge! Woo hoo! Spring break! Middle-aged lady gone wild wears swim suit while exhibiting good posture and providing no apologies. (I did actual consider the bridge jump briefly, remembered my fear of heights as well as my research training, and concluded that this would be manipulating too many anxiety variables at once.)

Last Sunday was another chance for me to work on this swim suit issue because we went to the water park with crowds of people. God was going to be there, too. But the roller coasters had turned out to be much easier than I expected, I was proud of myself, and pumped to expand the bubble of my comfort zone. I did it! I was in public, in a swim suit for hours. We actually bumped into one of John’s co-workers from Disney. Neither he nor anyone else at the park, DIED, GAGGED, OR PASSED OUT. It ended up being a lot easier than the Gordian knot I had envisioned in my head.

There were a lot of people at that park of various shapes and sizes not to mention taste level when it comes to swim attire. I found that the longer I was there, the less comparing I did. About midway through my time there, I looked around and the words that came to my mind in looking at the people around me were, “We are all God’s children.”

My life is really good right now. I am happier than I was before. I have a great deal of peace and joy in my life. And even with the waves of grief I have, there is calm and hope, too. The skin I’m in has a lot of scars, but they are fading.

I looked into the mirror this morning. The woman I saw looked healthy, happy, and like she had a few good stories to tell. Health is beautiful. Life is beautiful.

Yep it's me in an actual swim suit, not purchased from an antique store! And for extra credit, I'm wearing no make up and squinting into the sun!

Yep it’s me in an actual swim suit, not purchased from an antique store! And for extra credit, I’m wearing no make up and squinting into the sun!