The perfect body

The perfect body

Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay, Katie Houston explores her relationship with her own body and how it’s influenced her daughter’s perceptions.

“There was a time when a female deity was credited with creating the world, when a woman’s body was perceived as a transcendent symbol of the power to give life and love,” writes Jan Phillips in Divining Your Body. “Religious art celebrating the sacredness of women’s bodies goes back 35,000 years.”

Wouldn’t that be nice. To celebrate the sacredness of my body. Yet it’s as tough as ever to celebrate this particular one, especially in the summertime. So it is with deep calming breaths and a focus on posture and pretty hair that I face swimsuit season. I have a swimsuit—pretty and flattering and costing more than most other garments I own. But it’s mid-July, and I have so far been successful in avoiding being seen in it.

I’m actually pretty happy with my looks in the summer. A little color on my face means less makeup and helps with the circles under my eyes. But that’s from the neck up. Below, mine is not what anyone would call a “beach-ready” body. Pale. Myriad textures and tones. Smooth and silky perhaps, moisturized. But oh, the shape. The ripples and lumps. Yes, there are some nice curves, and I need to focus on those and the other parts of me I am happy with—eyes, skin, shoulders, smile, hair, height.

My physical self takes me places and accomplishes things and cares for people, yet it inevitably makes me sigh and roll my eyes when it comes out from under winter wraps. I have even been known to proclaim hate for my ankles. If that’s what you want to call them. I’m also not too fond of my upper arms.

But you know what? Pressing my cheek up against the soft smooth expanse of my grandmother’s upper arm—back when I was upper-arm-high—is one of my strongest memories about being with her. Now, my other grandmother, also wonderful, was very proud of her perennial size six figure—or was it a four?

Mom-Mom Houston would regularly welcome us to her home with a bone-crushing hug, after which she’d hold me at arm’s length and inquire, “How much do you weigh now?”  Erm. If I tell you, do I still get the prime rib dinner that will make me groan like the table, preceded by little ham and cream cheese roll-ups, and followed by icebox cake with ladyfingers and chocolate mousse?

That kind of mixed message about the weight of a nine-year-old makes a lasting impression. Especially when the little girl is fully aware of her shape, shopping as she must with mummy in the “chubby” section of the clothing stores, or whatever they called it, that place with the “half sizes” for those of us short for our weight.

Truthfully, I have in recent years been grateful that J.C. Penney offered those half sizes to fit my own curvy daughter (thankfully without a large sign heralding the department). My darling daughter can pass for a couple of years older than 13. Sometimes this pleases her. In the hot weather, not so much. We’ve had good luck in acquiring a flattering new swimsuit this year, and cute shorts (if well-fitting pants are hard to find, shorts are the devil’s amusement). I have been grateful about the general good will with which she accepts her body. She has major style and for the most part, is not afraid to show her shape. But lately, to hear her say “Oh my gosh, these THIGHS! I hate them!” makes me just plain sad.

Why can’t we be grateful for the shape we are dealt—angular or curvy, muscular or not, round or flat, toned or plush? Me and mine, we’re curvy girls. Curvylicious, we say in solidarity.

My admonitions that she is perfect the way she is, or that nobody’s perfect, admittedly contradict and fall flat, but I keep trying. One of the recurring challenges I’ve articulated as a parent is the wish to help my children understand that they are special and unique—but not better than anyone else. When my girl talks about her body, I’ve been known to trot out a favorite lecture.

“In whatever way you want to measure, honey, there is a spectrum of people to compare yourself with. Whether you’re talking about rich or poor, fat or thin, smart or not, everyone is somewhere on that line. And it is such a waste of time to compare yourself to others, because there will always be someone thinner than you are, or richer. And there will always be others looking at you and wishing for what you have.”

What is it about our culture that has women spending—wasting!—time on the hopeless pursuit of perfect bodies? From such a young age? Oh, heck. We all know where the hopeless pursuit of perfection is spawned. Shoot the TV.

I think my daughter was eight the first time she asked me if she was fat. It was that point at which I vowed to stop making utterances—which I’d done for decades, around this season—about hating my ankles, or my cellulite, or my double tummy. (Think double chin, but this is the result of childbirth by Cesarean. Twice. Not that it was terribly flat or toned to begin with. OH, STOP ME! )

The statistics are so sad. Seventy-five percent of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance. In 1970 the average age of a girl who started dieting was 14; by 1990 it fell to age eight. Young girls are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of nuclear war, cancer, or losing their parents. One out of three women and one out of four men are on a diet at any given time.

I keep reminding my girl to look at her gene pool. Both her parents struggled with weight (and body image) from a young age. When she was a toddler, her dad lost 100 pounds on the now outlawed pharmaceutical combination known as Phen-Fen. The pictures of him from that time are kind of surreal, as it was the only time since childhood that he sported a streamlined appearance. The weight came back, as did his struggle with how much to care about it.

Shortly after my son was born in 1998, I joined Weight Watchers because I weighed 217 pounds, and my knees hurt. I lost 40 pounds, briefly. Relaxation (celebration!) ensued, as did some weight gain. But as I lost the weight, and enjoyed weeks and months of compliments, I remember really wanting them to stop after a while. I worried that my daughter–age four–would internalize the idea that losing weight and being “skinny” were really important, and the only way to garner an enthusiastic, “You look great!”

So I’m trying to mend my ways. My entrenched-for-decades and culturally supported ways of responding with mild disgust to the exposure of my middle-aged body necessitated by the delicious warmth of summer. I want to impart to my sweet girl the lessons I’m still trying to learn.