Saturday, February 28, 2009

Listen To Your Belly

Recently, two neighbor bloggers, Dawn and Amy, have posted beautiful musings on body image issues. This is a topic that I have thought about a lot off and on throughout the years. I was a gymnast beginning at a young age—I even said, for several years, that I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast when I grew up—but my ability to defy gravity was seriously hindered by a twenty pound weight gain the summer that I turned 14.

There were many things that contributed to my own unhealthy body image and eventual (thankfully short) struggle with bulimia, and the actual weight didn’t have a whole lot to do with it. A great deal of it was just my personality. I’m a recovering perfectionist and people pleaser. And so when my gymnastics coach told me to try the cabbage soup diet so I could lose a few pounds, I did it. When my uncle told me to “watch it” when I scooped up seconds on ice cream at age 13, I began to watch it with microscopic concern.

Last week, as Luke was recovering from his virus, he had a couple of days of stomach cramps. He didn’t want to eat at all. And not eating made his stomach even worse. I told him that he needed to eat, and it became a huge power struggle.

“I won’t eat! You can’t make me!” he yelled.

And I couldn’t make him. And that was scary. For a few minutes, I thought about what it must be like to have a child with an eating disorder. And in so many ways, it must be worse than having a child who screams and storms around and sneaks out of the house. Because it seems to be the disorder of the people pleaser, and that is harder to combat. That is in the mind.

Once, when I was a freshman in high school, my gym class was doing a weight-training unit. What a wonderful opportunity my teacher had to encourage young teenagers to value their bodies and the amazing things they can do. My gym teacher that year was Mrs. S., the former gymnastics coach and current dance team coach. You can probably see where this story is going.

One day, we were being evaluated, and our grade was partially based on how much we could lift/press etc. in relation to our own body weight. So we lined up to weigh in.

“Good girl!” I heard Mrs. S. say to more than one young woman ahead of me.

When I weighed in, she was silent.

And that silence--not really just silence but the opposite of "good girl"--has been in my mind for over twenty years since.

I have boys, and so the chances of them developing eating disorders are quite slim. But I can try to teach them not to assign moral value to body features. I can teach them that exercise is great for stress relief and health. I can speak positively of my body in front of them.

Also—and this is one of the biggest struggles for me—I can try not to be controlling about their eating. My goal is to keep fairly healthy food in the house and my eating mantra with the boys (and a place I am getting to eventually with myself) is this: “What is your belly telling you?”

I hope I am raising boys that will never tell the women in their lives to “watch it.”


Cary Milkweed said...

Ugh. Comments like that are so damaging, and often the person making them has no idea. I love the idea of "listen to your belly." I'm going to steal it to use w/ Eva.

Jenny said...


I so relate to this beautiful post. I was just thinking about this actually, how fascinating it is to watch my kids eat. They don't always want the "right" things, but they seem to naturally eat the right amount, which varies from day to day. I am so glad they are learning this at a young age, even as I am trying to learn it as an adult.

Nancy said...

Thanks for this. As you know, I really struggle with this with E. particularly. It is a strange feeling sometimes to envy people who have enough control issues around food to actually manage to control their eating. I have no such issues, and the effects show. :)

so yung wilson said...

I hope eating disorders/body issue probs are a minimum because they're boys, but I dunno. I thought I had read/heard somewhere that anorexia is "common" among teenage boys? Also, I don't know if you've noticed, but the look for our young men these days is quite slim itself. Very, very slim. I wonder if boys get overlooked in this arena because it's "not as bad" as for girls? I know someone close to me, male, for whom body-image is an issue and probably bigger than I know because he doesn't mull over it aloud that much with me.

Not to cause more concern than necessary. It appears that Henry and Luke have enough confidence in themselves and their abilities, that hopefully, these types of issues will be non-starters with them.

This post seems in good timing with Lent. Our struggle with food - what other physical needs gets so much attention other than sleep? And that's where I fall. Those saints - so wise in their wisdom and truthful in their truthiness.

Beck said...

I was so nightmarishly anorexic as a teenager - 80 pounds, 5'7" - that I did permanent bone marrow and heart damage to myself. And now that I'm a NORMAL weight, what do I hear?
That it's a shame that I "let myself" gain so much weight. i was such a pretty girl!

Anonymous said...

my parents never made comments about my weight, nor did anyone else. but they also didn't teach me about making good choices and being active to keep my body strong. so i think about this with my kids: that i don't talk about diets, even if i'm watching what i eat, that i communicate that i work out because it helps me to be strong and feel good. i want both my boy and girl to get that the ways they are built (which, they have very different builds) are exactly right AND how to take care of their bodies in a healthy way.

there are so many other messages out there. i just hope the messages they get at home are stronger than the ones the media is pushing.