I’m not very happy in my body right now. Yes, I’m serious. Yes, I realize that being a size 4-6 still puts me in the slimmer-than-average category for USian women. Yes, I realize a BMI of 22 is still really fit, and yes, I realize that at age 44 I still turn heads. But you see, right now I weigh 15 pounds more than I did just a couple years ago, and 30 pounds more than I did not too long before that.
Perimenopause and aging aren’t for wimps. Just when you think you’ve got things figured out, something changes – bodies, relationships, needs, likes, dislikes, technology. I have a new appreciation for folks that are (ahem) more chronologically advanced than me because now I get it: constantly navigating change is daunting and exhausting, and the frequency of change seems to be keeping pace with my increasing desire for routine and predictability. The truth is that in life – just like in careers and relationships – what worked before ceases working when circumstances change. We must adapt or wither, become stuck, and start dying inside.
It’s one thing to know or understand something intellectually. It’s quite another to know something in your heart and gut, usually because you’ve lived it firsthand, or integrated a pattern that’s held true over time. I call this type of knowing wisdom. Gaining 30 pounds, an increase of 27% over my previous weight, has provided me with wisdom not only about aging and change, but privilege.
I always knew I was fortunate in the body category. I mostly inherited my father’s DNA – slim, wiry, muscular glutes and the ability to run for miles. Growing up, I saw my gorgeous mother struggle with her weight, and I watched my gorgeous sister (who inherited my mother’s body DNA) get put on a diet as a child because she gained one year’s weight in a short stint staying with our aunt.
Unlike my mother and sister, I never worried much about my weight as a younger person. I grew up eating my mother’s daily wholesome, home cooked meals, playing outside with the neighborhood boys (we didn’t have a TV) and running competitively starting around age 10. In high school I performed and competed in cheerleading, dance, cross country and track & field. Sometimes I’d get a Pepsi and a glazed donut from the corner store before walking home from school, or buy a shoebox-sized order of fries at Tops before heading home from my job at the mall working in retail. Such treats were pleasurable and produced no anxiety.
Even as a teenager, I knew about sexism and body image issues for women, and deeply disliked the notion that certain bodies were deemed more acceptable than others. I knew I was blessed with good DNA, good nutrition, and a love of physical activity — and I also believed that other people’s weight issues could surely be addressed with proper nutrition and more exercise. They just had to do like me!
It was following my marriage at age 30 that my weight started to climb. I didn’t like it, but I had bigger problems to deal with at the time, and figured weight gain was a part of the being in my thirties. I also blamed myself – I’d changed my eating and exercise patterns, so it was my own fault. It wasn’t until I left my marriage, my home state, and my former career to move to New Mexico and become a grad student at age 32 that things shifted. I lost a tremendous amount of weight without trying, and found myself eager to hold on to this new body that could fit into teeny bopper clothes, made me fit in better with my younger colleagues, and was so much more toned and fit-looking than the bodies of my 18-year-old kickboxing students. All of this provided a burst of much-needed confidence and joy in my life.
But there was a dark side. I’ve never been so preoccupied with my weight as when I was skinny. I was never so focused on my privilege as when I had privilege. It was like I’d entered a secret club of the elite, silently charged with holding onto perfection; to be a shiny example for others and super happy with my superior status. But I wasn’t super happy. I used to panic when the scale tipped from my normal 108 pounds to 109.5. I was extremely restrictive with my eating and constantly worrying about gaining. But over the years, my elite status slowly slipped away due to a combination of job stress, more lax eating habits, hormonal fluctuations and the growing insistence of a side of me that was no longer willing to live with deprivation and without more pleasure.
At one point while I was gaining, I belonged to an exercise studio where, along with 20 or so other über fit women, we regularly and voluntarily put ourselves through a gruesome torture call barre method. A photograph of us going through the series of grueling Pilates-like movements could easily appear on the cover of an Olympic magazine or SI swimsuit edition, yet I’ve never been surrounded with so many beautiful women so desperately preoccupied with their bodies, their eating, and physical perfection in my life. Including me. I had to get out of there.
When I was skinnier, I did compare myself to other women, but it was always to the super fit and the young(er). I paid attention not only to body size but to strength, stamina and muscle tone. I was like the silver or bronze medalist eyeing the gold. But when I gained enough weight to put me safely outside the “skinny” category, I started noticing things I hadn’t before. For the first time, I found myself comparing myself to other women in terms of looking OK or acceptable, instead of a new level of fabulous. I felt startled and slightly panicked to discover I no longer had the slimmest thighs or flattest belly in my exercise classes. I was horrified to find myself checking out the thighs of women on TV to see how I compared, and felt physical relief every time I identified one that looked more like me.
When I lost body size privilege, I experienced fear and loathing. I discovered a degree of self-loathing and shame I hadn’t experienced before, along with fear of others’ judgments. Even though I knew intellectually I belonged to a body elite and experienced privilege due to my body matching the images held up as ideal, I wasn’t prepared for the visceral feelings of inadequacy, exclusion, shame/guilt and less-than-ness that came along with my exit from the elite club.
This experience prompted me to be curious about the women around me who had never been a part of the elite club. I was a recent newcomer to – or perhaps taking a vacation in – the less-than-perfect club. What was it like for women to have been in that club their whole lives? What damage, and yet also what courage, strength, and resourcefulness did they possess that I hadn’t yet developed? Along with the fear and self-loathing I found compassion and respect – for them and for myself. I could no longer rely on external validation for myself: I had to create, maintain and tap into internal self-love in a way I hadn’t before – because I didn’t have to.
Losing my body privilege has taught me about privilege in general, whether it be White privilege, male privilege, heteronormativity, or any other way we assign “better/less” labels to groups of people based on their (often uncontrollable) characteristics:
- Being a part of the non-privileged/outsider group requires a greater sense of humor, community, strength, inner resourcefulness and self-love to counteract the constant and incessant messages of less-than. Not everyone is equally equipped to navigate this successfully.
- A common response of the non-privileged is to do everything they can to become a part of the privileged/insider group. Exercise classes and gyms are full of people who are healthy, but who desperately want to look a certain way their DNA will never – never – allow them to resemble. We all participate in this abusive dynamic by not questioning the standard, and towing the party line that with the right amount – and right kind – of effort, commitment, deprivation, etc. anyone can (should?) look like the ideal.
- The privileged are at least partially blind to their privilege, and think the non-privileged have it in their power to become a member of their club. They just have to want it badly enough, and if they don’t get there, it’s due to their own failings.
- Losing privilege/insider group status can be deeply unsettling and frightening at a visceral level that requires resilience, empathy and tolerance of the unknown. Not everyone is equally equipped to navigate this successfully.
- Privilege also causes the privileged to suffer. No one is immune from suffering in hierarchy. Having privilege does not inoculate the privileged from struggle or shame, it oppresses everyone.* Not only have some of the most body-obsessed, unhappy women I’ve met fit the ideal body image, there’s an additional layer of guilt added onto their suffering. There’s a sense, coming from within themselves as well as from the non-privileged, that they have nothing to complain about and their suffering is invalid, self-indulgent, or not even real. They are seen as not having a right to be unhappy because they are privileged insiders. I remember hearing something once about rich White women being in particular need of feminist support because they’re viewed (including by feminists) as neither needing nor deserving to have their grievances heard.
These dynamics feed the untruth that supports the entire structure of privilege – that the privileged have it all. This is why the non-privileged want to be a part of that group, and the privileged feel like there’s something wrong with them (or reject the suggestion they have privilege) because they don’t feel privileged – they don’t feel fantastic, fancy-free or special.* In my work with community organizations around social justice, I’m often struck by the common belief in those circles that someone else has the power, and those in power just need to hear them, or “get it” to then effect change. You can hear a pin drop when I say I’ve worked with some extremely powerful people in my career, and very few of them sees themselves as powerful, pointing instead to circumstances or more powerful others.
So if privilege makes everyone miserable, why do we continue to play along? I believe it’s because we’re afraid of our own power. We believe the lie that someone else has more than us because it feels safer. We deeply fear the responsibility and accountability that comes with stepping into our power. We’re also stuck in the hierarchical habits of the last 10,000 years. It’s more comforting to believe there is a Holy Grail in someone else’s possession and we just need to find it, earn it or steal it instead of face the void of our collective cluelessness. We spend our precious talents either trying to gain entry into the castle or burn it down, instead of facing the terrifying reality that there is no safe zone; no one else has the answers, riches or happiness we seek*, and that “everyone (we) meet is fighting a hard battle.”
What’s the solution? For me, it’s finding ways to accept, celebrate, appreciate and love the ways I’m non-privileged – this new body I have that no longer looks like the ideal. It’s learning from and emulating the strength and resilience of the non-privileged without over-romanticizing their experience – the women who have been in this club longer than me. It’s also holding space for my best, healthiest self and personal growth without making perfection the goal or self-loathing a driver. It’s about finding ways to adjust my internal and external talk to disrupt and dismantle the notion of an inherently “better” body – or anything else. And it’s about using this experience of losing privilege to identify my other blind spots around privilege and therein discover new appreciation, new learning, and humility in service of co-creating a world that works better…for everyone.
[** None of this is meant to ignore or minimize the fact that up to a certain level, income DOES impact a person’s degree of happiness, sense of ease, level of stress, and even IQ, and that we have a serious and growing problem with income inequality in the USA.]
An excellent cartoon about the “monstrous discrepancies” between what we think is happening and what’s really happening…(also see this excellent comic about body image from The Oatmeal!)