I am about to turn 37, and it has taken me the past year to begin healing a body image I’ve held on to since I was twelve years old. The “spur to prick the sides of my intent” was having a daughter. I saw the young woman I was, the young women my students are becoming, and the girl my daughter is and deep inside me erupted a rage against the unrealistic beauty standards of our world. I had never been one to shy away from a good diet tip or miracle cure for fatness, and if it came in pill form, I was in. When I really delve into my diet-obsessed teen years and early adulthood there are five momentous ways I gave in to thin culture.
At 33 I couldn’t do those things because I was pregnant and then caring for an infant. I discovered how great it was to just eat food and exercise in a comfortable way. At the same time I mourned my restrictive pre-baby body. It was around the time I was 35 that I started to see little ripples in society about body acceptance and fat shaming. I realised I’d rather be a role model for my students and my daughter instead of someone who only focuses on the shell.
I was embarrassed as I learned about body acceptance because I discovered that my reluctance to gain weight had put me at the top of the shamers. I had become the body shaming persona of those who tormented me in school and in the media. I fully take the responsibility for my own self-image. Still, I know that my body image issues stem from junior high school, a time when your body becomes the most picked apart thing in your world. Being smart and quiet and fat meant I was a target for bullies, and I never stood up to it. Here are a few formative moments to my self-loathing.
And then at 35 I gave up (or, started to). I thought: why am I doing this? Why do I care so much? And how can I fix this for my daughter and my students? I started seeing things online about body acceptance, I read posts on FB mom groups about body shaming, and I learned about fat acceptance. Then, I started to read. I read and read and read. And now I can’t stop.
Here are my top six favourite books that sent me on a path to retrain my brain and accept my body. I’m not there yet, but I am working on it.
My favourite go-to blog for body acceptance is “Dances with Fat” by Ragen Chastain.
My favourite instagram accounts to follow to help retrain those images in my brain are:
My favourite documentary about body positivity is Embrace by Taryn Brumfitt.
I’ve discovered a new purpose in my thirties, and that is instead of finding new ways to diet, I need to find new ways to love my body, and I hope to help others accept theirs. If the narrative changes, so that instead of being told there is only one way to look and to act and to be, won’t we do our children one better than the way we grew up? Admittedly, I am a work in progess, but that’s okay.
This is a post for those who’ve stayed silent when people make destructive comments about their body because we think we deserve it for not being the standard, and because there doesn't seem to be an alternative. There is a better way, and we need to retrain our thinking to move forward. I’d like to reclaim JB’s “talk like Tara” refrain to be one of body acceptance, because I’m not going to shut up about it.
*I am no way saying these aren't legitimate food choices, but I tried it to be thin.
The books I’ve read so far this month have inspired me in one way or another. All of these books were either borrowed or bought from my local library. Here’s the list:
At the end of May I hit my head. I was, of all things, shelving books in my classroom. Stubborn at first, I hadn’t realized that a bump to the head would result in a long recovery period. Concussions, I learned, are insidious, persistent, and require lots of time and care. So, I took a break from reading, writing, and updating my site. Only now, in July, do I feel I can type for about twenty minutes at a time. And much of my reading habits have changed to accomodate the recovery. I listen to audio books, give myself lots of breaks between chapters, read slower, and I am allowing myself to heal. Here are the highlights from the books I read in April, May, and June.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I read this book while reading others. I needed breaks, but I always came back to it. I discovered so much about a history I’d never learned about before. This family saga will stay with you.
Writing with Intent by Margaret Atwood: Why did I not read this when I bought it over a decade ago? I once thought I loved Atwood’s books, ideas, work--now I have an even deeper appreciation for her. Each essay taught me about books and writing, and my to read list was much longer by the time I completed the book.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: This was my first Anne Tyler read. She is most certainly now on my list of favourite authors. A family drama captured over the years is so in my wheelhouse that I can't fathom why it’s taken me this long to read one of her books.
American War by Omar El Akkad: This book is timely, terrifying, and so important to read. Go read it, now.
I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron: Again, my new(ish) love for women’s memoir made this book a must read when I found a pristine copy for a dollar at the library book sale. A wonderful life shared, Ephron’s memoir writing is more like being told a story by someone you know. I loved this little book, and so I gave it to my mother, who also loved it.
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum: A coworker recommended this book, and I immediately put it on hold at the library. Set in WWII, the narrative of past and present overtake the reader until the end. I promptly recommended it to everyone looking for a book, and especially for those who read Historical Fiction. Go to your library, and place a hold, because this book should be high on your to read list.
The Friend by Teresa Driscoll: This is the second book by Driscoll that I purchased through Amazon Kindle, and enjoyed so much. Mystery, suspense, and unputdownable: I look forward to following this author’s works.
Happiness by Heather Harpham: The first audio book I listened to while I recovered my brain. I so loved this book, made more powerful by the author’s narration. I have really grown a great love for memoir writing over the past year, and especially in hearing the stories of women. I feel empowered, and a kinship in these powerful memoirs, and Harpham’s story will surely stick with me.
Brain on Fire by Susannah Calahan: My second audio read and so powerful to hear. I am looking forward to watching the new Netflix film based on this engrossing memoir. This is the first book I borrowed using Overdrive for audio books. Borrowed directly from my library and listened to over the Libby app on my phone. I listened in the car, on the treadmill, and at home.
Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse: A student recommended this on her year-end blog for my Journalism course. I added it to my library holds, and I devoured this YA Historical Fiction. Set in WWII, this story was haunting, engaging, and beautifully written. I hope to purchase copies for my classroom.
The Seven Husband’s of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid: In an effort to read something light for more brain recovering time, I saw this book was recommended by a few coworkers on Goodreads. Again, I put it on hold. This book is so delightful, engrossing, and hard to put down. But, easy reading aside, the story of a strong female protagonist is equally refreshing.
A Stolen Life by Jaycee Lee Dugard: I spotted this book at the library book sale (have you sensed a theme where I find the best books?). A student had recently told me about her experience reading this memoir, so I bought it. I read it over a couple of days. I remember the story in the news over the years, because Jaycee is my age. And her likeness to me horrified me as I read, and yet I was left feeling uplifted. Her personal tragedy is written with honesty, and her triumph in how she views her life and her daughters's life is astonishing. Once again, women’s memoir has made it to the top of my favourite reads.
And my final review is for the New Brunswick Public Library. Most of the books above were placed using the holds feature and shipped to my local library from all over the province. When I go pick up my holds, I always check out the cheap books for sale. Often, I find a book for me, someone I love, or my classroom. I also used Overdrive and the Libby app to download a borrowed audio book. On rainy days, or hot and humid ones, I bring my two year old to play in the children's section. The library is one of her favourite destinations already--just wait until she starts to read! The diversity of options, the inclusive atmosphere, and the range of things you can get from your local library might astonish you. Go check it out!
I started my January reading on fire. I was unstoppable. And then the onset of a new Semester and new courses slowed me down. But, I did read some fabulous books. I decided that if I wasn't going to read a lot, I would read the best. And I did.
I follow The Girly Book Club, and their February pick, Blake Crouch's Dark Matter, is the plot driven, astounding novel you need right now--especially if you don't want to put it down, and you have some hours to spare reading.
I spent a dark evening without power reading Rupi Kaur's The Sun and Her Flowers. I'd finally settled my toddler to bed, and looked forward to an evening with Netflix when our power flickered maniacally--really, I became Winona on Stranger Things for about two minutes of power indecisio until it was out for the night. I sighed, picked up Kaur's book (and a flashlight), and I didn't stop reading until the end. The power came back on somewhere towards the end of the collection--but I barely noticed.
Earlier this year I read Nina Riggs' memoir, The Bright Hour, and she mentioned a haunted book she read called Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. While I read Riggs' memoir I took a minute to check my library and put the title on hold. THIS BOOK! It haunts me still. The voices, clear on the page, reach out at you from a horrific nightmare, and I had to keep reminding myself that this happened. This is not fiction. This happened in my lifetime. Look no where else for your post-apocalyptic tale than this true collection of an atrocity we know too little about.
I also picked up Brene Brown's Braving the Wilderness from my library holds, and although I'd read Brown before, this title unsettled me a bit. She pushes me out of my comfort zone. I disagreed with her for much of the first part of the book, but she brought me around in the end.
Long on my TBR list has been Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere. I so loved her first novel, Everything I Never Told You that I don't know what kept me from reading this beautiful book. I kept seeing Reese Witherspoon's Instagram newsfeed--@hellosunshine--popping with film news about this title, so I brought it to the top of my TBR pile, and I read it in two days. It is a beautiful book, just like Ng's first. She captures these characters and gives them such life. Her story of motherhood haunted me. Her ability to show people from all sides equally floored me. I look forward to more books by Celeste Ng, and to see what Reese will do with the film version.
Over the March break my partner and I took our toddler to Indigo so she could play in the giant tea cup. And while he watched her play, I went straight to the sale books because not only did I have a long forgotten gift card, but they were giving out extra points. I walked out with nine new novels for $43, and of course I've yet to read all of them. A few days ago I randomly picked up the book on top of the pile, The Evening Spider, and started reading. I could barely do anything else but think of this book. It has everything delicious I need in a book: tired young mom in an old house finds an old journal from an equally tired young mom from the nineteenth century? Yes, please! There are so many layers and extra-textual materials that this book just delighted me from page one. Thank you to author Emily Arsenault for such a wonderful read.
So, my two months of reading didn't add many notches on my Goodreads challenge and 50 Book pledge, but I did read a variety of wonderful books.
I’m currently teaching Hamlet in my senior English course. One of the exercises in writing I’ve assigned is the “Existential High School Student”. The assignment asks the students to reflect on the following questions: Who am I? What is my true identity? Where am I going? What is my greater purpose? How should I live my life?
It is a good time to ask these questions, when students are graduating high school and embarking on all new adventures. Think, I say, and really dig into the question: What kind of person do I want to be in this world? When I review the assignment with my students, I inevitably reflect on the questions myself. I am a new mom, I am a teacher, I am a reader, and I want to be a writer. It has only been recently that I decided I am old enough to drop the “want” and call myself a writer. And as I accept my new roles and my new self, it is the existential questions that I have been drawn to in other writers. At 36, I’ve found myself in a time of reflection that has me on a reading quest. In January, I started finding books that asked the same questions.
Let me take a moment to tell you that I am a book hoarder. I am constantly on the search for the great book. I like reading about books almost as much as I like reading books. As a result, I put a lot of books on hold at the library. I’ve memorized my NB Public Library card numbers (I have two). In January, four books appeared on my holds list, ready for pick up, and by happenstance the four memoirs were connected. Each story reflects the author's experience at my own age, and each story examines those very existential questions I ask my students. Ultimately, it was the reading experience that linked the four books for me: I felt as if the authors all reached out, grabbed me, and sat me down for a fireside chat. By the end of the month I’d read four books that came together in so many ways, but the driving force behind each was the beauty of the storytelling. The shared story so profound and inspiring that it has taken me some time to write about the experience.
I started with When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Reading this little book felt like I’d been given a tome of poems, and an evening with a wise old friend who I wish I’d known. Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 36. As I read this memoir--the weight of wisdom and philosophy and literature and poetry all falling out at me--I was sure he was a peer of the Romantic writers I’d come to adore. I could almost picture Kalanithi sitting alongside Byron and the Shelley’s talking about “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” and then setting out to write this masterful little book. But it was not under these sublime circumstances that Kalinthi wrote his memoir, instead it was at the end of his medical training, at 36, diagnosed with terminal cancer that he leaves us his story. Reading his book felt like taking part in a shared story. His is a story that demands to be told, and a reading experience like none I’ve experienced.
Next, on my library holds came The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs. Admittedly, I had ordered both books after reading this article in the Washington Post: ”Two dying memoirists wrote bestsellers about their final days. Then their spouses fell in love.” The stories not just of the two memoirs but of the coming together of the love between these two bereaved people just floored me. Reading Riggs book was its own experience. I fell in love with every word she wrote. She is funny and heartbreaking and poetic. I remember one moment reading her book thinking: this is absolute poetry. Where Kalinthi wowed me with his philosophy and expression of the sublime, Riggs’ memoir moved me with prose like poetry did when I first really read it at University. Like sitting down at 18 and discovering Plath and Roo Borson and all these beautiful greats, that was what reading this book was for me. And so I dug around and found she’d written a book of poetry and I set out to find it. Beauty. That is what this book left me feeling. The absolute beauty of life. All the messy things about running after my toddler, coming home to the messy bits left by a dog who’s rummaged through the garbage, all those tiny moments of life she slowed down for me and whispered: Just take it in. Just watch, listen and slow down. This book is pure beauty.
On my holds list came two more memoirs. I had so many books on my holds, but these four books came flying at me all at once and each author so close to my own age that I felt in some way it was meant to be. These stories needed to be read and sitting down to read a memoir feels like that. You sit and read and you take in someone else’s story in your hands. You give them your time. And that is how I came to My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward by Mark Lukach. I read this book over a Sunday, sitting on my sofa with my toddler, sitting at lunch, and into the evening, finishing it late at night. I kept reading. I felt like Lukach had words to share, had an experience that needed to be read, and he makes his audience a part of that.
The fourth memoir that came to me was similar to Lukach’s account of living with a partner suffering mental illness. A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal
by Jen Waite was again a read in which I sat down and listened like I would to a friend. She wanted her story to be told, to be heard, and that is how I approached it. I read about her life in New York City and her subsequent move to Maine. I followed along watching as her shocking breakup mirrored one of my own. I finished with the intent to reach out and write to her. I intend to still. I want to tell her: you’re not alone. I want to write to her and thank her for sharing her story, an inspiration to share my own.
Four memoirs, four voices, and four existential reflections on life. I recommend each one, so go out and take the story in, appreciate the beauty of a shared story, and then go write down your own.
These writings are comprised of my creative nonfiction, and books, books, books. This blog is a exploration of the books I read, the people I meet, and my life as a backyard homesteader.