How many hours have you spent agonizing over your waistline, criticizing your stomach, trying to change something about your body, or just all around hating your body? How much of your emotional energy do you spend focused on your body as opposed to your mind? Considering my own experience body shaming myself, I’m going to go ahead and guess it’s a large portion of your time and energy.
Our bodies do so much for us, and we just ignore it. Even when we’re sick our organs are still working their asses off keeping us moving (albeit slower than usual). Our heart pumps blood, our lungs fill with oxygen, our stomach digests food to fuel our movements, our hair grows, our bones hold us up, and our muscles propel us through the world. All without us asking them to do it, and for the most part without our appreciation or thanks.
In fact, rather than appreciate the legitimate miracle that is the human body, we spend our lives criticizing it and picking apart its flaws. We look in the mirror and immediately find fault in our superficial selves. It’s human nature. I’m not totally sure why but it’s likely a combination of a myriad of factors. Perhaps it fulfills some evolutionary purpose — part of the constant search to be something better, the next thing. And society has sure done its part to tell us that this should be our primary focus in life. But for many women (and men, and everyone in between), what it amounts to is a life sentence. And it always has been.
This point really hit me hard as I was going through my grandmother’s house a few months ago. As I was sifting through her belongings, it became increasingly evident that my grandmother had maintained one consistent goal throughout her entire lifetime: to lose 15 pounds.
“As I was sifting through her belongings, it became increasingly evident that my grandmother had maintained one consistent goal throughout her entire lifetime: to lose 15 pounds.”
My grandmother has dementia, and her husband, my grandfather, died six months ago so my parents moved her out of her house in Cleveland to live with them in Chicago. I went to Cleveland to help my parents clean out her house so that they could put it on the market, and to sort through her belongings to determine what mementos should be saved and what would be forgotten for good. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a particularly fun weekend. For one thing, my grandparents had lived in that house for 32 years and they had A LOT of stuff. Technically I think they might have qualified as hoarders, but they had enough space in their house with only two people that they were able to hide that fact from anyone who didn’t bother to really look. But we looked. And I’m starting to think they didn’t throw away anything. And I mean anything. Every telephone they ever bought (my grandfather even had his first ever cellphone, one of those giant boxes that took two hands to hold to your ear), every remote control, every theater program…every single greeting card they ever received throughout the course of their 67-year marriage. It was all still in the house. Going through the cabinets we found no fewer than six chafing dishes (do people still use chafing dishes??), all received as wedding presents and all unused.
What can I say, my grandmother clearly didn’t cook, and the evidence was in the dozens of unused pots and pans in her perfectly stocked kitchen. But what she did do was diet. And the evidence of that habit was even more profound.
But before I tell you what I found let me first tell you a little bit about my grandmother. First and foremost, she is a truly beautiful woman. Even today at 89, wheelchair bound, and deep in the second stage of dementia, you can see it. She has a full head of perfectly coifed hair (yes, she still colors it), bright eyes, and a smile straight out of Hollywood. I can only image what she looked like walking down the street when she was 20.
Though the pictures we found — like the ones you see on the right of my grandmother at her sister’s wedding — seem to indicate that she was, in fact, a knockout.
She was dazzling, charismatic, and intelligent. The first woman in her family to go to college, she trained as a teacher and married her high school sweetheart (my grandfather, who you can see with her below). Then she set out to be the perfect 50’s wife back at a time when being a wife was considered the ultimate career achievement.
Going through her things that weekend felt like a bit like a bittersweet archeological dig. Among all the old gas bills and newspaper clippings, we also found all the letters that she and my grandfather wrote to each other when they were dating, the nightgown she’d bought for her wedding night, and my Dad’s bronze baby shoe (apparently that was a thing back then?). But the discovery that struck me more than anything was finding her collection of cookbooks — and the evidence of her lifelong quest to be have the ‘ideal’ body.
When I was a little girl visiting her house, I never registered the names along the spines of the dozens of cookbooks that lined her shelves. It also never occurred to me that it was weird for her to have so many recipe books, considering she’d never cooked me an actual meal before.
But on this trip, I took the time to read through the titles — Eat to Be Thin!, Lo-Cal Cooking, Jewish Food Light!. My grandmother may not have cooked, but she sure read a lot about how it might help her lose weight. Going through her books in the library I found more of the same — The Stillman Diet, The Grapefruit Diet, The Israeli Army Diet, The Scarsdale Diet…All lined up next to the novels by John Grisham and Danielle Steele that I knew she loved to read before bed, there was evidence of her true obsession. Her weight.
But she didn’t just read about dieting. She dieted. There were food logs and diet journals. There were notebooks filled with meal plans prepared by nutritionists, exercise regimes, and dietician’s worksheets. It seems she’d followed every fad diet at one time or another. There was evidence of every craze, from Atkin’s to Pritikin (a new one for me), each tried and discarded when they didn’t ‘work’ and she eventually regained the few pounds that she’d lost. The accumulation of her life’s efforts was both terrifying and depressing for me, a 30 year-old woman who I’m embarrassed to admit has definitely tried keto and been convinced to give a juice cleanse a shot.
I sat there thinking about my grandmother, a beautiful and intelligent woman, spending the bulk of her lifetime trying to lose the same 15 pounds, only to gain it back every single time. Instead of going to Paris, she went to what were then known as fat farms, duly returning with more diet workbooks and fill-in-the-blank meal plan journals. She ate only broiled chicken breasts for an entire month. She spent her 60th birthday at Canyon Ranch instead of eating birthday cake with her loved ones. She fasted, cleansed, and — no point denying it — spent the vast majority of her adult life despising her body.
Faced with the physical evidence of her efforts, I was appalled. Upset. And determined.
You might have read a recent article in the New York Times called ‘Smash the Wellness Industry’ (if you haven’t, you should, it’s fantastic). But the story begins with the author attending a networking lunch with a fellow female writer, noticing that they spent a huge portion of their lunch date talking about what diet they were trying rather than their actual work. The author claims that the crazy phenomenon that is the Wellness industry is simply taking the old adages of weight loss and giving them a new spin, then continuing to con women into buying into its claims (and, more importantly, its products). And frankly, she has a point.
My grandmother lived in a different time under different values and constraints. I have choices she never dreamed of. When she was my age women could be teachers, nurses, or secretaries. But what they should really be were wives. They took their husband’s names. They often abdicated their individual identities. They cooked with Jell-O.
But even in those different times, she and her friends were still the forerunners of our current Wellness industry. Coming back from my weekend cleaning out her house, I began to feel personally attacked by every email newsletter I received showcasing how one woman ‘Lost 13 Pounds in Four Weeks on a Low-Carb Diet’, or how another found ‘The One Lifestyle Change that Helped Her Keep Off the Weight For Good’. Why do we spend our time reading these stories instead of learning about our actual passions, or talking to each other about the latest concert we attended?
So in addition to taking home the turquoise princess phone (how could I resist?) and my father’s bronze baby shoe, I also decided to take a new promise to myself out of my grandmother’s house that weekend. A promise to stop letting other people’s voices tell me to hate my body. I can’t guarantee that I’ll never have moments that I feel insecure or bloated or intrigued by some new article that claims to have groundbreaking new information about how to effortlessly melt fat. But I can vow to make an effort every day not to listen to the thousands of voices yelling at me, telling me that those moments are all I should have. I can vow not to miss the best parts of my life because all I can see is a number on a scale.
Who wants to make this vow with me?