Body image. Interesting. I ate a bunch of junk during the Womyn of Color Conference this past weekend. As one of the organizers, attendees and fellow board members were feeding me—mostly what they had—since I could not really leave the building at Temple University. That consisted of donuts, pastries, fries, chips and the like—things that I do not typically eat. As each day of the three-day conference passed, I attempted to buffer this by bringing in fruits and broccoli.
(Down at the very bottom, I share the linkages between how I treated my body and how I treated my bamboo plants over the same weekend.)
While I was cordial, poised and glowing in smile, I was tortuous to myself. I swore I was the most gluttonous thing alive and that I must have gained five pounds or more. “How could I fall so off track with the wellness practices I had begun?” I thought, “See, if you would have worked out harder to lose ten pounds before the weekend, you would not be so off balanced from your goals.”
While I was touting the power of womyn gathering to bring about transformation in our work, personal, family, spiritual, socio-economic lives, I kicked myself around. While I chanted a-womyn as well as amen in the way Sister Sonia Sanchez modeled at the Inter-generational Brunch of the conference during her keynote address, I swallowed and dimmed my sense of beauty and worthiness.
The following Tuesday, I went to the gym. I spent all of Monday recuperating. I gave myself a verbal, psychological and emotional beating over the weekend. I had to recover my loving kindness.
I read passages from the book Anatomy of the Spirit where it breaks down illnesses (dis-ease) as associated with our chakras. My issue was in the sacral chakra—surrounding relationships and control over the physical world (money, survival, career, etc). I walked barefoot and in long dress onto my front lawn giving thanks and offering to Olokun and Shango and in the rising sun spoke sweet things to my soul.
When I walked into the gym, I was not going to step on the scale as to not disrupt the rebuilding I had accomplished. I would work out for the next couple of days and then step back on so that what I would see is my weight pre-conference.
However, as I passed the scale on the way to the bathroom, I was reminded of the words of Pema Chodron when she spoke of precision and letting go in her book Awaking Loving Kindness: “Precision is being able to see very clearly, not being afraid to see what’s really there, just as a scientist is not afraid to look into the microscope. Openness is being able to let go and to open.” She spoke of gentleness and being goodhearted toward ourselves. These are the tools with which we inquisitively should look upon ourselves. This scale was my microscope.
I was then set on getting on the scale, reading with gentle eyes and saying this is what happened but I am here now. I am giving my body NOW better attention although I did not during the conference. I am loving on myself NOW and that will not be taken away.
Couldn’t believe it, over the weekend I did not gain five pounds; I actually lost a pound!
I was left with deafening silence. “Had I tortured myself all weekend for a reality only in my head?” This rang within for a couple of minutes. I walked over to the dressing mirrors in the bathroom and said out loud what I am slowly letting others and myself know: “You are and will be always in recovery from body image issues. Management of it will be a facet of your wellness practices.”
Something was freeing about calling a duck a duck. I assumed that all that (my body image issues) were left behind upon exiting college. For goodness sake, I was a lead part of the Body Image Council in college! A close friend who is in recovery from alcohol abuse really checked me and shared that disorder or the effects of abuse never leave this body with its elephant memory. It is forever with you; it forever will need to be address.
In college, I wrote a response article in the college newspaper to a writer who shared that all who had eating disorders or body image issues were doing it to fit into one particular model; she was writing more of an opinion piece rather than a well thought out or substantiated article. My response article was titled: “We, Too, Have Eating Disorders.”
I wrote that culturally I was not attempting to fit into supermodel molding. Body image issues were much more layered than obsession with Seventeen Magazine. For, I began as an attempt to control my more masculine shaped body to fit into a curvier Caribbean or African-American frame. My gaze was the womyn on my block and not on the idiot box.
Further, couple this with living in an unstable environment, wanting to control something well, being a repeated rape survivor and the disassociation inherent in that layered assault and you have a much more dimensional picture than idolizing some upper-class posturing frail non-person of color womyn on a magazine I have never read or owned.
In kind, that same above reaction returned when reading this cogent and nicely structured essay on the site for the Barnard/Colombia’s Feminism and Women’s Studies site titled Chapter 3: Body Image and “Eating Disorders.” http://feminism.eserver.org/real-and-ideal-body-image.txt
It spoke of the corporate industry backing the flood of images presenting a supposed ideal for women’s bodies that is thin, fit, radiantly healthy, young, white and upper-class (by virtue of their expensive clothes). The author did not let the medical community off the hook in sharing the current height-weight charts are skewed and are being re-evaluated to increase “normal” weights by 20%.
The author argues against the prizing of American individuality—pulling oneself up by her/his boot straps—in the way it is fueling an ideal of thinness. She writes, “We are given the message that if we work hard enough at dieting and exercise, anything can be accomplished. Women especially are told that their efforts in perfecting their bodies will be rewarded by success in both their professional and personal lives. If we fail at achieving the ideal, we are told we must “try harder”. A fat person is seen as lazy or greedy or without self-control. ‘Obviously,’ we think, she wouldn’t be fat if she could just control what she ate or ‘if she bothered to exercise.’” This notion of self-help and individualization for the author takes away the societal and genetic fact that our bodies are impacted and influenced by numerous factors within and outside of the individual’s sole control.
Citing findings from studies that show 25 years ago the average model weighed 8% less than the average American womyn in comparison to the current average model’s weight being 23% below the normal average, the authors wants to draw attention to distortion—disjunction between what is profitable for corporations in terms of the product—yes, culture and image like information are commodities in this society—and what is healthy self-esteem for womyn (and men). The other day on WMMR, Rob Kardashian of the infamous Kardashian family talked about feeling pressure to be fit such that he was uncomfortable taking off his shirt poolside.
Yet and still, as a womyn of color who knows that body image issues go beyond desired thinness or may not even be directed toward that course, a womyn of color who knows the layered divorcing from one’s body intersects with issues in poverty, traumatic childhood experiences, repeated sexual assault, racism and sexism, as a womyn of color who is in recovery from her teenage and young adult bulimia, I could not help being slightly turned off by the article that challenged cultural bias but still framed eating disorders one-dimensionally in terms of only seeking some media-based ideal.
One African-American womyn in Aishah Simmons groundbreaking documentary on sexual assault within the black community, NO!: A Rape Documentary, shared that after her assault as a pre-teen and feeling “dirty”, she became bulimic—a way to expel and “cleanse”. It’s layered.
To add to this last layer on eating disorders being related to issues of sexism and genderism as well as other intersecting isms: What is often shared in much of the literature and discourse that discusses the ism-based roots of body image disorders is this valuing of a “masculinized” female form as a tool of upward mobility. Here is where the limitations of this exist: (1) As a womyn of color, seeking a more shapely feminine form is what began my bulimia; (2) I faced much discrimination and exclusion growing up because my body was not voluptuous or hour glass rather than receiving access to socio-cultural capital allowing a socio-cultural upward mobility. It is all around complex. So, in pointing out holes, I am more so asking for them to be filled rather than to eliminate the whole fabric of discourse as it has been laid.
When I am using masculine and feminine terms what I am really saying is masculine of center or feminine of center, for, genetically, our bodies vary and often do not fall into neat categories. Truthfully, it is hard to draw the line regarding what constitutes a womynly shape or not.
Going grocery shopping with my roommate two days ago turned into an unexpected bonding experience that continued when we came home unloading things on the counter. While in the store, we were holding each other accountable in purchasing Kashi bars instead of the fructose based Fiber One bars or picking up the healthier bag of tortilla chips or allowing a bit of sin—organic chocolate.
Arriving home and unpacking groceries, we talked about insecurities regarding how our bodies were shifting with age and how we have to spend this time to relearn what our bodies need without an unfair comparison to the days of our youth where we both shared being able to lose weight with a single thought, it seemed.
On the counter was my bamboo plant, roots out, lying in a pool of water in a large aluminum pan. I was cleaning out its vase. This was no routine action. It was an emergency. Over the weekend of the conference, I noticed that the leaves on the very bottom of my bamboo plant to the far right—I have one to the far left—of my windowsill were turning autumn yellow. Its water was black. I left it there.
I left my bamboo plant there in clear and visible distress, saying I did not have time to handle this right now. I was too busy running around doing this or that. I felt overwhelmed and almost angry at this plant for being distressed at a time when I was already dealing with so many different conflicting demands. Well, of course, the plant got worse. The yellow was spreading and the water blackening.
After the restorative work I did on Monday and Tuesday for myself internally, I began looking at the bamboo plant as an extension of how I was referencing myself and my needs. The universe will provide many mirrors to echo what our inner selves are screaming, what we are refusing to hear.
The bamboo plant’s water was becoming murky because I had left an incense stick in between the rocks used to ground the plant and hold its roots. Thus, whatever was used to coat the stick leaked and became poisonous to the bamboo. Powerful. What is left, what is left undone, what was left unaddressed, a past remnant that needed to be discarded long ago had now turned poisonous. Is that a lesson or what?
In the same way, the Pema Chodron piece of looking with scientist eyes, inquisitive eyes, kind and gentle eyes at that which is troubling rose again in my hear. I picked the plant up, took it downstairs, apologized to it (because it looked really ugly) and spoke affirming things to it as I poured the pebbles into a basin while running water into the vase to reduce shock and keep the roots moist. I placed the plant into a large aluminum pan of water, covering its roots, and began trimming. With spray bottle in hand as to mist the trimmed leaves, I snipped and snipped and snipped the yellow, the browning the blackening.
My roommate walking in and out, looked on. She was, again, holding me accountable: “With soil plants, yes, not with bamboo or plants just taking water. It’s a sure problem.” I replied gently, “I am learning. I have learned.”
When I was finished, I was so proud of this plant, which has been with me since I moved into my apartment a year and a half ago, for its lessons, for hanging in there long enough to teach me, for its sensitivity, for revelation of its distress.
As I move onto to the next chapter in this forever workshop called life, I am being humbled and gently nudged to look left, right, up, down at my bounty, at my distress, at the consequences, at the solutions. Whether it’s a roommate or plant or bathroom mirror in the gym, I receive the amplification of my inner words, feelings, needs reflected in the world around me. From this I will not shy. I look on through the microscope.
This Wellness blog is to share the author's trials and triumphs in becoming more present and centering her daily routines around health practices that build from the inside out.
It is her hope to spark dialogue and resource sharing as well as encouragement for those newly embarking on their journey toward healing all over.
(This is a personal blog with resources for educational purposes only.)