Archives for posts with tag: Body image

(Yes, I know. Two posts in one day. It happens.)

I woke up this morning, thinking, “Today’s act of self-care is getting myself to my regularly scheduled Weight Watchers meeting.” I know. I just got home from the hospital. If I hadn’t been up for it, I wouldn’t have gone.

I’m glad I went. There are some very supportive and refreshing people in that Sunday mid-morning meeting. Unfortunately, our regular leader, Jody, was away at a conference. Jody is really quite marvelous. It’s typically chef’s surprise when there is a substitute. The substitute leader had good energy and was funny. However, she did not incorporate group input very well. My husband noted that she talked over people and that the things she said sometimes contradicted themselves.

I wasn’t enjoying her talk and at one point she said that our bodies have “always been loyal to us” but we are not always loyal to them. She also said that we deserved to have “our favorite body”. I have worked really hard against my perfectionistic tendencies as well as the thought that I can control my health outcomes absolutely. One of the other women responded to the loyalty comment, “I don’t know about that.” She is 80 years-old and has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was a child. She is also very active and runs a group foster home for teens. I also piped up, “Yes, so-and-so (the 80-year-old member), has had a chronic health condition since she was a child. Those things happen but they aren’t fair. I’ve had cancer. I felt like my body had betrayed me but I came to look at disease as a natural disaster. Sometimes they just happen.”

In response to the “favorite body” phrase I said, “Although that might be a helpful frame for other people, it doesn’t work for me.” Then she said, “I’m going to challenge you on that.” I replied, ‘You can’t challenge me on that. “Favorite” is subjective and determined by me, not by anyone else. I work to be happy with the body I have. I’m 51. I’ve had cancer. I will never have my favorite body. I was healthier and fitter when I was 20 and that’s the way it is.’ She replied by saying that “favorite” didn’t mean comparing. I said, “But favorite is comparative.” She didn’t get it and I could tell that she wouldn’t get it. It was clear that nothing was going to come out of the conversation so I stopped challenging her.

One of the points she made was that she was really talking about attachment. You have a “favorite body” like a kid has a favorite stuffed animal, no matter what it looks like or how it wears out over time. The use of the word “loyalty” also refers to relationship and trust, just as attachment does. Maybe it would have made more sense to talk about having “The Velveteen Body” after the book, The Velveteen Rabbit. I’m not sure the analogy works for me but it at least gives me something interesting to think about.

I do like that a Velveteen Body is one that is much loved, one that provides comfort, and one that is real.

On May 25, 2012 I walked into the Swedish Cancer Institute for the very first time.  I had learned of my breast cancer diagnosis the day before and I was there along with my husband and my friend, Nancy, for a consultation with the physician who would perform my first three breast surgeries, two lumpectomies followed by a right-side mastectomy.

I remember a few things from that morning. One of the strongest memories I have is a feeling of surprise when the physician’s assistance asked me to step on the scale for my weight. To me the word, “consultation” meant “talking” and that’s what I had expected. To relieve the tension, I joked, “I have to get weighed? That’s worse than having cancer!”

Granted, I was joking but as you know jokes come from some where. Who among us have not felt defined by a number, our age, our weight, our grades, or our annual income? Most of us have at one point or another, defined ourselves this way.  And the definitions can come with a great deal of negative judgment.

As a researcher and clinician, I also know that numbers can serve as useful data. There are two properties of measures that are important in yielding meaningful data. One property is the validity of the measurement tool. A valid measure actually measures what it is intended to. When I stand in front of the ruler on the wall of the doctor’s office, the ruler actually measures my height. However, not all measures are valid at all. For example, when I walk out the door in the winter time it sometimes “smells like snow”, meaning that I am detecting something in the air that to me is the odor of snow.  This predictive measure, as it turns out is not very accurate. It is not a valid measure of snow potential. I don’t even know what I am perceiving that makes it “smell like snow”.

The scale can be a useful measure. But is it a valid measure of value as a person? No, a scale, a good one anyway, is a valid measure of weight. It is not a valid measure of general health because general health is not defined by just body weight. It can be a factor in health but it is not all-encompassing.

Just like people say, “age is just a number” it can be tempting to deal with the judgment that comes with weight and just conclude that “weight is just a number”. This implies that it has no meaning or usefulness.

My weight has been creeping up steadily over the past year. I am almost to the weight that I was before I lost my last 40 pounds, nearly 4 years ago. Based on the way my clothes fit, I can tell that I am not as large as I was at that time, I assume because I am more muscular than I was then. But I am noticing that I am able to wear less and less of my wardrobe. I’ve gotten noticeably larger.

I did a great deal of work on my body image when I was going through cancer treatment. I learned to appreciate what my body does for me. I have a positive body image. I feel strong. But I also know that having had estrogen and progesterone responsive breast cancer that it is important that I maintain a healthy amount of body fat. Right now, it is clear that I have too much.

I’ve known this for awhile. Behavior change, developing new habits, and re-developing old good habits is really difficult. Every once in awhile I get to a point at which it seems harder to continue doing what I am doing than motivating myself to change. Last week, I asked my husband to start going to Weight Watchers meetings with me. I had been doing their online program  on and off for the last 10 years. Since I have not been following the program for awhile, I thought going back to meetings might be helpful. My husband has been having a lot of back problems and I thought that his losing weight might be a positive for him, as well.

He agreed. We went to our first meeting the next day, which was last Sunday. Three days down, many to go.

Measures can help guide me to follow my intentions and commitments in life. They don’t define my worth.

 

As a mother of an almost 17 year old girl, I try to keep my mouth shut when it comes to what she chooses to wear. What girls and women “should” wear. Yikes, what a thorny question. As a feminist, I hate the way clothing is so sexualized even for young girls. I remember seeing a two year-old wearing a sundress with darts sewn in at her chest, as if she had breasts. Maybe it’s a small thing but seriously, why would a clothing manufacturer make the extra effort involved to do this? On the other hand, I understand that for teens, dressing in different ways is an important part of identity development and part of that development is sexual. As a feminist, I hate the way girls are shamed by adults and peers about what they wear because it is “distracting” to boys or is “slutty” or “whorish”.

Another thing I keep my mouth shut about is her weight. Yes, it is true that 1/3 of adults are obese, that she eats an unhealthy diet, and that she no longer exercises regularly. However, there are so many messages to girls and women about what they should way and how they should look that it is nearly impossible to have a conversation about weight. I admit that up until a few years ago, I would nudge the scheduling of my annual physical by a couple of months every year so that I could lose weight in time for the appointment and not get “THE TALK” from my internist. And honestly, she gives “THE TALK” in the best way possible. But I still dreaded stepping on the scale. And for the record, I never managed to lose weight during those couple of months between my scheduled and rescheduled appointments.

As I’ve written many times before, I have struggled to maintain healthy weight since my teen years. Although I am not a person who people typically think of as overweight, my BMI has entered into the obese range twice in my life, once in my late 30’s and the second time in my mid forties. Each time, I lost 40 pounds. When my weight was either declining or in the healthy weight zone, I typically felt good about my body. When I was not, I had some pretty horrible things things that I told myself every day, like a tic. And when I was at a healthy weight, I still had a habit of comparing my weight to the people around me, even people I encountered while walking down the sidewalk.

As I wrote in the post, The Skin I’m In, the tic stopped after I’d done a lot of work on my body image, a natural thing to work on after breast cancer surgeries. At the time, I was at a healthy weight. I told my psychologist that I was concerned that if I were to gain weight again, that the tic, the tape in my head that told me “you’re fat” and other messages would come back. She told me that it might not come back.

By March of this year, I had gained back 25 of the 40 pounds I had lost between May and October of 2012. This was also, incidentally, at the time I went to The Second Chance Prom with my husband. We had a wonderful time. As I looked at the photos of myself from that day, I thought, “Yes, I’m overweight but I look beautiful.”

I realized that although a substantial amount of weight had returned, the tape in my head had not come back. I intended to write about this in my blog. Then I found that it was really difficult to write about. I was ashamed of how badly I had judged myself. I was also too ashamed to admit that I thought I was beautiful. Women are only supposed to say that about their young selves, after all.

Shame is a powerful emotion and it results from a sense of having violated society’s rules. One reason women and girls have a lot of body shame is because we have failed to achieve perfection. We also fail to stay young. But another one of society’s rules is that women and girls are to be dissatisfied with their bodies.

What a trap. What a no-win situation, if winning is defined as having a healthy body image.

A couple of months ago, I started following Weightwatchers again. It was the first time I’ve gotten myself back on an eating program without “hitting bottom”, that is, being motivated by shame and disgust in myself. I started referring to Weightwatchers as “wise-minded eating”. I do watch my weight to reduce chance of cancer recurrence since my cancer was highly estrogen and progesterone responsive and adipose tissue (basically body fat) has glandular function and produces female hormones. Also, a healthy diet is just good fuel for my body. I feel better when I eat well. I am also losing weight at a slow, but steady pace. My motivation, instead of eliminating shame is instead, seeking health.

One of the antonyms for shame is honor. I like that.

I honor my body for getting me this far in life. I will continue to do my best to treat it well.

A rat’s ass is tiny, miniscule. And yet so many of us are disgusted and alarmed by the presence of one, along with the rest of the rodent body, in our homes. My Great Aunt Blanche, about whom several non-fiction works could be written and read, though regarded as fiction due to the unbelievable content, was a widow for nearly sixty years.

In her nineties, she had a not so secret admirer, an 80-something recent widower, who left flowers on her front porch. Aunt Blanche had been through a great deal in her life, poverty, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, caring for her dear husband who was bedridden for the last eleven years of their marriage, and being a widow by age 48, just a bit younger than I am today.

Aunt Blanche was tough, made excellent baked goods, and carried all of her precious and semi-precious gemstone jewelry in her purse “so they won’t get stolen”.  She was incredibly funny and had a way with words. Sometimes her words meandered to the hateful, unfortunately when she spoke of “The JEWS” and “The BLACKS”. My mother would break the tension of these moments with her seditious humor. “Blanchie, where is Turner from?” (“Turner” was Blanche’s husband’s last name.) “Jiminy! I don’t know”, Auntie would reply. Without missing a beat, Mom replied, out of hearing range of Auntie, “Is it from Ike and Tina?”

Auntie lived to be 105. She lived in her own home until age 103. She looooved gardening and she loved animals, including her little dog, Popcorn. However, one day, she walked into the bathroom of her home and saw not the ass, but the head of a rat peeping out of the toilet bowl! She quickly closed the lid and called the police!

A young police officer knocked on the door. He appeared competent and the kind of manly man an elderly woman who avidly reads bodice-ripping romance novels, expects when she encounters a sewer rat. He worked swiftly and purposely by coaxing the rat into a cage using his most authoritarian baby voice!

If I’d seen that rat’s head coming out of my toilet, I will not lie, I would have given a rat’s head and a rat’s ass about it even though, really, what could one little rat do in all likelihood?

These day I find myself caring less and less about the “rat’s asses” of life, the things that produce real and palpable alarm but are really not that much of a threat. I have marks on my body that show, and I’m not talking about my cancer scars. I have a burst of spider and varicose veins on my right shin. It started out as a result of an injury I had at age 18 and grew over time, especially during pregnancy. Being a woman in a long line of generations of women with extensive, bulgy, and painful varicose veins, I told myself that I would have them “lasered” when I was done having children.

I am 49 years old. I am done bearing children. That network of spider and varicose veins is still abloom on my leg. I stopped caring enough a few years back to wear tights or long pants to cover it. I would be oblivious until some kid would point to it and say, “What is that???” I run warm with all of this middle aged hot flash stuff and I’d rather be vein-y than overheated. I saw a photo of myself with my mom on Mother’s Day. I could see the veins on my leg and I thought, “I don’t give a rat’s ass. Mom and I look happy together.”

I have another non-cancer related scar. Remember when you picked at your pimples when you were a teen and your mom told you that you would cause scars? I thought I had sailed through that time with clear skin, despite the picking. Then at age 37, it happened. I gave myself an acne scar, a small red dot, right above my right eyebrow. I have put concealer on it for years. Remember when I had my make up done professionally for prom? The make up artist put nothing extra over that blemish. She treated it like the rest of my face. As if it belonged there. I no longer cover it up. I no longer give a rat’s ass.

There are so many things that we apologize for. For having a voice that is not the same as everyone else’s, for existing, for “making” people uncomfortable with our cancer, for our perceived lack of perfection.

I am getting more and more comfortable with myself as I get older. I like this very much. Do I berate myself for not giving a rat’s ass sooner? No, because wherever I was in the past is the place I was at the time. And who knows where I will be in the future?

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My daughter is away at camp this week. John and I decided to go out for a nice dinner last Wednesday. I just happened to have a salon appointment scheduled that day so I knew I was going to have “special occasion” hair. I chose a dress out of my closet that was inappropriate for work but appropriate for a date with my husband. We had a lovely time. I recently bought him a new camera so he was taking photos of me. A LOT of photos. He said it was because, “You look so pretty.” Yes, he is very sweet and he is the only person I would let put a camera two inches from my face in order to take close-ups.

This is one of the best photos.

Photo by Elizabeth's hubby. 2014.

Photo by Elizabeth’s hubby. 2014.

When I first saw it I thought, “That’s a nice photo of me. I look really happy, relaxed, and in love.” And those things are all true.

Then I noticed that I still had hair dye on my forehead near my hairline but I thought, “Who’s going to notice?”

Then I saw my crooked cleavage. I thought, “Oh!” I said to John, “My cleavage is off center!” He said, “Pfff, you look great.”

Now I’ve known about this asymmetry for a long time now. But this was the first time that I’d seen the unevenness in a photo of myself out in public. I had been wearing a low cut dress, displaying décolletage in all its cattywampus splendor.

Then I realized something. I didn’t really care all that much.

I am happy.

My husband loves me.

I’m still in the picture.

There’s nothing wrong with this picture.

As you know, I participated in charity fashion show last week. I had mixed feelings about the fashion show part but strong positive feelings about the charity itself. The day started in the afternoon. We met at the venue for the show, practiced walking as well as entering and leaving the stage as a group.

There were about 30 female models and all of us were breast cancer survivors. Many of the women were pretty young. Some were middle aged women who had been diagnosed in their 20’s. Some women were recently diagnosed. One woman was obviously still going through chemotherapy. They were all friendly and appeared to have a good time. I enjoyed the camaraderie and the chance to meet some new people, a number of whom live in my neighborhood.

I am a bit of a ham socially, if I tell the absolute truth. I also enjoy public speaking and miss making research presentations at conferences. I am not the smoothest orator. As an “out loud thinker” I tend to revise what I am saying on the fly, sometimes mid word. And sometimes I repeat myself. This is also the way I converse. Somehow I nonetheless manage to communicate well. And even when I get nervous when public speaking, I usually get over it easily by saying something funny. Once I get an audience to laugh, it is much much easier to present because the presentation is so much more like an interpersonal exchange when people are paying attention.

But walking in front of people and trying to look pretty? That’s a bit intimidating. I love beautiful clothes. But I like what I am wearing to be a garnish rather than the main entree. I thought about my wedding and how incredibly self-conscious I felt to have all eyes on me.

I have done a lot of work to feel more comfortable with my own body, imperfections and all. And the challenge of this fashion show was not lost on me. This chance to challenge myself was one of the reasons I agreed to do it. Not the main reason, but a small reason. I knew I could do it if I adopted the right frame of mind and did my job.

I am pretty good at doing an assigned job even if I don’t like it or would never do it under other circumstances. I remember the first time I went fishing and actually caught something. I was 12 years-old and my family had gone to the trout farm a couple of miles away. This is where I learned that there is a fish food called, “Purina Trout Chow”. It’s pretty easy to catch a fish at a trout farm, especially using trout chow as bait. I am a sensitive person by nature. When I caught a fish and needed to kill it? I started crying, not a little but a lot. I was upset. My mom said, “But Jesus was a fisherman.” My reply? “Then Jesus was mean!”

Eight years later I was working at a daycare. We took the kids on a field trip to the very same trout farm! But I was an adult who was supposed to be a good role model for children. So I helped them bait their hooks, take their fish off of the line, touch the fish guts, etc. I just did my job.

For the fashion show I told myself that I was playing a role of myself minus my unproductive self-consciousness. It was easy to smile because I am a generally happy person with a nice smile. People respond well to it. I planned a couple of “moves” including a goddess-like arm raise to accompany the dress I wore that had a bit of a toga feel to it. The arm raise was inspired by Rupaul so to me, it was funny because Rupaul cracks me up.

I was happy with how I modeled. I smiled, I walked comfortably in heels, I showed off the clothes, and I used a little hip action and a few Vanna White moves, when appropriate. My hair and make up was done professionally and I was wearing pretty clothes that I liked. I felt happy and pretty. The experience also led to some deep reflection about my cancer, my life, and the preciousness of my life.

So all in all, it was a varied and satisfactory experience. Yesterday, I looked at the video my husband took on the night of the fashion show. I didn’t recognize myself. I was shocked by my appearance.

And that was the point at which I forgot my job as a mother. I blurted out, “I look fat!” I said it right in front of my 15 year-old daughter. To my recollection, I had never before made a negative comment about my body in front of my daughter. Reminding me that she really is my daughter, she took me to task for being a bad model of positive body image but she did it in a nice way.  I am really proud of her. In contrast, I was disappointed in myself for not treating myself fairly or with kindness.

I have been putting on weight lately and I went back on Weight Watchers right before I left for New Orleans. And I know that I am back on track. Honestly, I am only about 5-7 pounds overweight. It’s really not a lot. But it’s about 15 pounds more than I was prior to the winter holidays. That’s over a full dress size, well kind of. I usually wear dresses. And over the years, I have become a master at choosing dress styles that accommodate my historically variable weight. When I’m not wearing dresses, I wear spandex work out clothes and spandex is stretchy. It takes me awhile to notice that I’ve gained weight. Oh yeah, I had also stopped weighing myself. And even though I’ve continued to exercise regularly, I was eating more and more.

Realistically, I looked pretty. That was that stupid negative tape in my head that was shocked into a reappearance. But I didn’t look the way I thought I did. And for someone who has a hard time keeping my weight down and further, is supposed to keep my weight down for health reasons, I scared myself a little.

I had mixed feelings prior to the fashion show and I leave it with mixed feelings. As Rupaul says, “You better WORK.” I still have a lot of that to do as I continue to work toward self acceptance.

FYI: This is the goddess pose I copied from Rupaul.

FYI: This is the goddess pose I copied from Rupaul.

A plastic surgery waiting room can be a very interesting place. I remember how uncomfortable I was the first time I visited Dr. Welk’s office in July of 2012. I didn’t want people to think that I was one of “those” women who are chronically unhappy with their bodies and will go to great lengths to achieve the impossible goal of physical perfection. Further, the plastic surgery office is unsurprisingly swanky. It’s not like the cancer center isn’t nice but in the plastic surgery office, patients dress better and so do the people who work there. For my first several visits, it was as if I could hear an imaginary cash register, “cha ching!” over and over. There were so many patients in the waiting room. Later, I would learn that this is only true toward the end of the year when people are trying to get the surgeries that are covered by insurance finished before the start of the new year when they have a new annual deductible. In other words, they are trying to save money.

I didn’t know until recently that my husband hated going to my plastic surgery visits with me. John didn’t want anyone to think he was one of “those” men, the men who want their wives to look better and are willing to pay money to get a prettier wife. He was ashamed on behalf of men who believe their wives to be defective after mastectomy. At the time I was making a decision about whether I would have reconstruction or not, John was pretty clear that he wanted whatever I wanted. He was absolutely sincere.

I haven’t felt uncomfortable in Dr. Welk’s office for quite some time. A big part of that is I made peace with the fact that I opted for reconstruction and as part of that, I made big strides forward in making peace with the imperfections of my own body, including my imperfect mind that wanted to have my lost breast replaced.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a woman in the waiting room. I immediately noticed the unnaturally tight skin on her face. She was greeted by a woman in a white lab coat whom I’d not previously seen. I thought to myself, “That must be the Botox lady.” (I think a more accurate and respectful title is “medical esthetician”.) The patient smiled at her across the room and said, “You’re my secret weapon!”

I immediately felt sad for her and if I am being completely honest, a tad superior. I know I had a tip off being that we were in a plastic surgery office but really, the unnatural look of her face was no secret. If she had a secret weapon, Botox is not it.

I think a lot of us kid ourselves about things we don’t feel good about. When I’ve been overweight, I’ve used long duster length cardigan sweaters to cover up lumps, bumps, and wide hips. But really, adding clothing doesn’t hide size. I may have been hiding a fat roll or two but I wasn’t hiding the fact that I was overweight any more than that woman was successfully hiding the fact that she wasn’t 25 any more.

I have some vanity. I dye my hair because I don’t want to be gray. I wear make up, stylish clothes, and moderately impractical shoes 3-4 times per week. I like it when people assume that I am younger than my actual age. When I find myself, as I was, judging people in a plastic surgery office, I find myself in a dilemma. There are lots of people who would question my values, how I live my life, and how I spend my money. With reconstruction, I find myself asking, “At what point does my seeking breast symmetry become elective surgery?” And I mean “elective” in the figurative sense. Insurance would cover subsequent surgeries if I were to decide that my breasts were not “matchy matchy” enough in my own view. Intuitively, I believe that I am done with this unless I have a complication that needs to be addressed. But I have been swimming in gray waters. Reconstruction is done when I say it is done and there is no hard boundary. I imagine that there are people who opt for surgery after surgery after surgery in the quest for putting things back to right.

Almost all of us engage in excess. When is the excess balanced out by sacrifice and altruism? When is a little vanity balanced out by respect for oneself or others? When is wanting to feel pretty self expression and when is it self-oppression? There are no formulas for identifying the precise tipping points for these questions. We have the extreme examples on each side. The rest of us live our lives in the gray areas.

Today I had a liberating thought. I just have to make my own decisions as a person, a mother, a wife, a friend, a psychologist, a writer, a consumer, and a voter. Worrying about a woman getting Botox is not going to help her. She may be using her “secret weapon” in an unhealthy way. I will likely never know for sure. But I don’t have to because I can focus my efforts where they count.

Minding my own business is the secret weapon that I am working on, to protect myself from the negative self judgment that ripples out toward other people.

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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!

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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