The other day, I was stalking myself on Instagram, as one does, and as I dove deeper into the nostalgic hole, something startled me about my present-day reactions to posts from high school. When looking at photos from vacations, school dances, or even graduation, I pinched the screen to zoom in on my legs and my waist, longingly admiring how skinny they were. Now, don’t get me wrong—I am a pretty slender gal today, but obviously, in comparison to my teenage self, my body’s shape has changed and matured. What struck me when revisiting these old photos was that I recalled how I was dissatisfied with my appearance at the time they were posted. I definitely knew that I was thin, I just didn’t think I was thin enough. This recent experience has left me to wrestle with the complex notion of body image in today’s society, one that is littered with mixed messages. With this said, I want to discuss my past struggles with self-image to defend my belief that we should teach our daughters to be fit, not to be skinny. There are so many cliché, yet uplifting articles about self-love and body image, and as much as I want to stray from those repetitive themes, they will undoubtedly make an appearance in some form because, at the end of the day, they are as valid as they are encouraging.
Ok, something to ponder: when did you first become aware of how your body looked in comparison to others’? It’s an interesting thing to think about, right? I think I first became preoccupied with my weight when I was 15, after I tore my ACL for the first time. When I underwent surgery to repair my knee, I couldn’t put any weight on my right leg for six weeks. As a result of this limited mobility in conjunction with reduced appetite, I dropped roughly fifteen pounds, putting me at about 90 pounds as a sophomore in high school. Although I was a stick before surgery, I began to view this new, sickly, skinny body as desirable and, as time went on, not thin enough. During this time my friends and I used to watch the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and rave about how we wanted to be skinny like the models. Consequently, I started to pick apart my physique and try to model it after the models (HA, get it?? I’ll stop now:). During my sophomore year of high school, I used to wrap my hands around my legs and waist, and if my fingertips didn’t touch or overlap, I would hate myself, thinking they weren’t thin enough. To prevent weight gain, even though I desperately needed to regain the weight I lost during surgery, I would eat half my lunch in an effort to limit my caloric intake. Looking back on those pictures, my heart aches for that lost teenage girl who was so consumed by body dysmorphia that she didn’t realize how unhealthy she looked.
Eventually, and thankfully, I gained the weight back, just in time to tear my ACL… again. This time, I was eighteen, a senior in high school. Although I lost weight after surgery, the loss was not as detrimental as the first time, but my body image suffered again. I was skinny, as I now realize looking back on my past Instagram posts (thank God), but, somehow, I didn’t think I was at the time. While the first time I tried to look like the VS Angels, the second I just wanted to look like I had abs in photos. I would only do squats and lunges in my room, and if I wore a shirt that exposed my stomach, I would do a rapid abs circuit to summon my tiny abdominal muscles, just for a photo. Although these patterns were on the right (not really) track, my motivation for sporadically exercising was to appear skinny, not to be fit.
What I’m getting at by bringing up these mildly (very) depressing past experiences is that they have influenced my outlook on body image and fitness. About six months after my second ACL tear, I started working out with my mom and taking boot camp, cycling, and barre classes at our gym regularly. At first, I felt weak and inadequate because my body wasn’t used to being put to work (let me tell you, it was hard work), but after several weeks of consistent morning workouts, I noticed considerable differences in muscle definition and endurance. Although my legs weren’t sticks, I liked how they looked better when they grew bigger because they were a manifestation of the progress in my fitness journey. I liked that my arms were a little bigger because they were toned and could actually support me while doing push-ups or pull-ups. What I’m trying to say is that I think society should teach its young women to be physically fit, not skinny. The dictionary definition of “skinny” is synonymous with negatively connotated words such as “scrawny,” “sickly,” and “bony,” while the word “fit” is synonymous with positive ones like “healthy,” “well,” and “in good shape.” I believe that perpetuating a message of physical fitness will incline young women to be more active and interested in holistic wellness, whereas mandating that they be skinny could drive them to pursue destructive methods to achieve a desired weight, such as limiting food intake or extreme dieting. Even social media slang that we use these days glorifies skinniness through phrases such as “skinny legend” and “skinny queen.” This rhetoric, although complimentary, normalizes a certain size rather than a lifestyle or a state of being that can take a variety of physical forms. Fitness is not just about the size of your body or the circumference of your limbs, it’s about what you can do with them. I love my body right now, a body with defined muscles and a more mature shape, but one that can run! and jump! and lift weights! and endure! So, stop zooming in on yourself in pictures! It doesn’t matter what size you are or how your body has changed since high school; what matters is that you set aside time to be active in a way that’s enjoyable to you and that you focus on your wellness, both physical and mental.
Obviously, this article will not solve the issue of body image and the effects of toxic physical expectations placed on women, but I hope it provides you with a new perspective and maybe serves as a reminder to not be so dang hard on yourself! Trust me, every day I look at myself and find a million flaws, but when I go to the gym, I feel empowered that my imperfect body can not only handle but love doing an hour’s worth of exercise, and that’s good enough for me.