I often wonder what it’s like for those who suffer from body dysmorphia, whether properly diagnosed or not. I remember while growing up it seemed that there was a standard for how girls entering their teen years and young adulthood should look.
There seems to be a standard of what is perfect — and I use that term loosely — and the race to get there is leaving a lot of otherwise wonderful young ladies in the dust.
I know this because I was that girl and have been her since I was 13 because somewhere it was ingrained into my head that my weight had to be a certain number. Some of which I will get to later was inflicted parentally, and some in part due to societal rules and what was considered the norm. Although many young women strive to be that norm, sometimes it just isn’t attainable. I think that in the last several years there is more acceptance, sometimes borderline hinging on obesity as being normal, regardless of the health issues that can come with that. Ah, but that is another story entirely.
Anyway, this conversation came up many years ago when one of my dearest friends talked about her sadness over the way her daughter was beginning to view her body image. Her daughter was athletic and muscular; quite a success in the club sports she participated in. Somewhere along the line she got the message that something wasn’t right if her legs didn’t fit perfectly into a size zero pant from the trendy store in the mall.
It’s frightening to me to think that a size zero is something girls would aspire to fit into. In my teenage years the sizes were: 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13. And if you didn’t fit into those clothes, you went and bought pants that had an elastic waistband. And that didn’t necessarily mean that you were large, sometimes it meant that you just hadn’t developed a figure yet.
When I was in college, I had a friend who had bulimia. One day she and I talked about it, and she said that she was in counseling. I had already grown suspicious because every time we were at a restaurant, she would immediately excuse herself after eating and go to the restroom. She was what they called a binge eater and one of her most tragic moments came when she ate the leftovers that were in the dog’s bowl; and then purged it from her body. I later learned that eating disorders can be attributed to a family problem and that it has a lot to do with control or lack thereof, poor self-image, and of course, the body message.
Earlier, I mentioned the part about the parentally inflicted weight issues. About five years ago, I was at a swim meet and there was this young man who had just completed the 1500-meter freestyle event. He got out of the pool. He was over 6 feet tall, and slender, and he wasn’t happy with his time. His mom berated him, and he said, “Maybe I don’t want to swim anymore.”
She replied, “If that is the case, find another sport, you’re not going to sit around and get heavy.”
I was mortified. She said this on the pool deck with no filter, no “let’s talk about this later. I can see you are frustrated.”
I looked at her. She was about 5 feet, 4 inches, and thin, and she was wearing the 13.1 baseball hat. I wondered how often she had treated him like that. And her contribution of what she said that day, I hope he didn’t let it define him.
Here’s a personal one I can share with you. When I was 16, I was treated to a weekend in San Francisco with my sister and stepbrother. My stepmother took us. It was very exciting to be able to go on a grown-up fancy vacation. We rented a car and toured the city. We did all the fun things like drive down Lombard Street, visit Fisherman’s Wharf, shop at Neiman Marcus and the hotel that we stayed at was beautiful. Just as I thought my stepmother was the coolest thing since sliced bread, she stopped the car and pointed to a restaurant and said, “Oh look, there’s Hippo Burgers. They must have named it after Jennifer!”
I was crushed. I was deflated. So maybe I wasn’t the thinnest girl in 11th grade, but I certainly was not a hippo! That comment ruined the weekend, because really if you think about it being called a hippo pretty much rules out having any normal feelings about going to restaurants and ordering food for the remainder of the trip.
What gets me the most is that I can remember that day so clearly and I can tell the hippo story as if it happened yesterday. I guess I’ve always thought that there is so much more about a person than the size of the pants they wear.
The lessons of what we take with us when we become parents are the driving force to not repeat things that can hurt a child’s psyche. Recently, I looked at myself and thought I could do better. My son and I have always enjoyed walking together and he keeps me motivated. I started to cut down on some of my nighttime treats. Almost every night I would have what I call Mumbo Jumbo. It’s a Jennifer-created dessert of frozen fruit and Cool Whip. But lately I was adding a little granola, a few gummy bears, some ice cream, or half an ice cream sandwich and reveling in my treat. The problem was I was eating it after 9, and then getting ready for bed. So, I decided to cut that down to three times per week. Then I changed my dinner to tofu and miso soup. I added more fresh fruit to my day instead of the little candies in the candy dish at work. And I stopped having a mini Coke or mini ginger ale at lunch every day. I cut those delicious pure sugar delightful drinks to three to four times per week. A month later, I got on the scale and found myself just about 10 pounds lighter. That in and of itself was very nice to see.
Just the other day my daughter was visiting, and I said, “I lost nearly 10 pounds, can you tell?”
She looked at me and said, “I never see you in that way.” A profound moment for me knowing that I had instilled in her what really matters about a person.
Sometimes when I want to feel empowered, I take out my photo album from high school, 11th grade to be exact, and I look at this girl I knew. She had a nice smile. I look at her long brown hair, and her hazel eyes that seem to go deep into her soul. Ah, yes, I remember her well, she was a straight A student, showed respect for others, cherished her family and friends, and she could always be counted on to do what was right.
I look again, trying very hard to see what her stepmother saw that day… Hmmm, nope, I just don’t see it. No hippo there, not even a hint of one.
Jennifer Danny is a Santa Clarita resident.