The first time I learned I was fat was when I was six. That's right, six. We were in a fitting room, and my mother noticed that I was "getting a belly." Six. With a belly.
The next memory I have of learning what my body should look like was in middle school. I had gone to India over the summer, and while I was there, I got amoebic dysentery. Nothing helps you drop some weight like a few amoebas. When I came back to dance class that fall, the instructor noticed how much weight I had lost. She suggested I keep doing what I was because I was looking great. I was eleven. Recovering from amoebic dysentery.
Admittedly, I was never on the svelte and lean side. I did have a little bit of a belly, a helping of meat on my thighs, and well, this baby has always had back. If I could remember back to my birth, I hear that the nurses even commented on my round little bottom. Being a bit of a girlish tomboy early on, I never paid much attention. I loved to wear dresses and run around in the dirt. I went fishing and danced.
One day, I learned that I wasn't built like the other girls. I wasn't as pretty as the other girls. In dance and in sports, I was never encouraged, since I didn't have the ideal body type or the perfect stamina. I found my niche with a small group of friends as we walked through those awkward teenage years together. We compared the size of our thighs, the style of our hair, our womanly developments, and bemoaned our lack of dating prospects. In that time, I learned to hate my body because I had learned I was ugly and undesirable. Nerdy was not the new cool just yet.
If I were thinner, if my hair feathered perfectly, if I didn't have a unibrow... If, if, if. My weight fluctuated as I went through puberty, went to college, dieted and failed, exercised and gave up, dated and didn't. My body would be my best friend one day and my worst enemy the next. My size often reflected my psyche. I learned to comfort myself with food and alcohol. My waistline grew as I struggled with depression, with anxiety, with the normal trials of a late teen and twenty-something.
My thirty-something self wants to strangle my teenage/twenty-something self. I was not fat (most of the time). I look back and see that I was beautiful (most of the time). Surely I was awkward, but no more so than any other girl coming of age in the late 80s and early 90s. (Fashion industry - what did you do to us?) I wonder now, how can I save my children (and especially my daughter) from these battles?
As I continue to let the grace and mercy of Jesus wash over me and heal me, I am quicker to remind myself of the truth. Certainly, I need to care for myself. While I still soothe myself with food and beverage from time to time, I am quicker to recognize what I am doing and stop. While I still have days when I see no beauty in me at all, I am quicker to remember that I am created in the image and likeness of God, and God doesn't make ugly things. My imperfections, and there are many, are stories of my life. Those extra pounds came from joyous celebrations, hard struggles, and playing home to two little children. Those scars and stretch marks came from offering myself as a vessel to bring those beautiful new lives into this world. Even the scars from my recent surgery tell a story. The tired eyes tell the story of a woman who is learning how to live every moment and love ever harder. The thinning and greying hair share the stress of motherhood and learning to let go control. Sure, I would love to let go of some of that, but if I don't it is still all part of the beautiful story of my life.
In hindsight, I know my mother didn't mean any harm. She has struggled with her own image ever since I can remember, and still does. She wanted her daughter to be different. I understand. I have learned from this, though, that my baggage can be inadvertently passed on to my children. I want to lighten that load. This culture will undoubtedly attack them, so I want be as certain as I can that I don't add to it.
We make a conscious effort to tell our children they are beautiful just as they are. We remind them that God has created them wonderfully. When they are older, I hope we can instill in them a confidence that while their bodies will shift and change with the sands of time, their beauty is something that lies deeper within. I hope they will know themselves as beautiful in the eyes of their greatest Lover and not be obsessed with their dating life or lack thereof. (They won't be dating until they're 30, so we have plenty of time.) I pray that our children will be the people who will affirm what is beautiful in others because they know what is beautiful about themselves...and that it is okay to look different from everyone else. When they gaze through the looking glass, my hope for them is that they see the eternal truth about who they are and not a fleeting glance at the lies told by the vogue of the day.
The battle isn't over - when it starts at six and lingers for decades, it takes a little time. I am staging a coup on those whispers that try to fix my gaze on the lies about what is lacking. I want my children to remember me as comfortable in my own skin so that they can confidently own theirs. When I can look confidently in the mirror and see beyond the seeming faults staring back at me, I can better shift my focus to what is beautiful about the rest of the world too. The greatest gift I can give my children is to show them, not tell them, how to love better, beginning with our own selves, so to be vessels of grace and mercy for the world.
Until next time, let's get out there and love 'em like Jesus, my beautiful friends!
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