A few nights ago, I watched Embrace, a 2016 documentary by Taryn Brumfitt, on Netflix, and I cried within five minutes. I sat in the dark of my living room, my daughter and partner asleep for the night, and I watched a woman who looks like me on the screen. She looks like me and not because she is there for a gimmick, or because she’s someone’s best friend, or because she is quirky, or sad, or about to turn into a beautiful thin person--she looks like me because she chooses to love her body and not buy into an unrealistic ideal of the female body.
This documentary chronicles Brumfitt’s pursuit to answer her questions about our bodies. The website for The Body Image Movement asks “why poor body image has become a global epidemic and what women everywhere can do to have a brighter future”. She travels the world, interviewing women about their body image and reveals a disturbing look at how focused we are on “thin”. Most importantly, she says that she wants a better future for her daughter. As a high school teacher and as a mom, I worry about the same things the film discusses. On the film’s website, the movement says “We Say No To” and lists the following:
I’ll give you a brief look at my own experience with this rabbit hole of dieting. When I was in junior high I was teased relentlessly because I was “chubby”. I wasn’t overweight; I had full cheeks, but I wasn’t thin. Then somewhere between junior high and high I grew a few inches and suddenly I was “thin” for the first time since childhood, and I still thought I was fat. I was 5’4” and 115 lbs and I thought I was ugly and fat. I spent the rest of high school trying to maintain this new weight loss that I’d achieved through a growth spurt. There were no other narratives for me to look to besides “thin, thin, thin.” And so I worked at keeping myself that way.
I’ve weeble-wobbled with my weight over the years ever since. I have been thin again a few times over the years (although never as thin as my post-growth spurt self because the “growth-spurt diet” has yet to be invented). I know exactly what I need to do to get my body to my thin weight: I need to eat about 500 calories a day, and work out about two hours a day--no breaks. I know this is my “thin diet” because I did it twice in my twenties. It worked great! But I wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t something I could maintain.
The last time I did this extreme dieting I was twenty-nine and recently single. The breakup was a hard one. I didn’t talk about it much, so I threw myself into exercise and diet. I was the most unhealthy in all my adult life, but probably the thinnest. I still remember my exact diet and exercise regiment. I still remember the compliments. But I felt like an imposter. I was thin, but as a teacher I was supposed to be a role model. The extreme conditions I placed for myself to be that thin were dangerous and unrealistic. The moment I started to live again I gained some weight back, and I was healthier. Instead of obsessing, I worked out to get strong, and I ran because I liked it. I wasn’t thin, but I was healthier than ever. Still, I idealized my past self regardless of how great I felt.
Now, I am approaching two years postpartum. I am about twenty pounds heavier than my pre-baby weight. I am also healthier than ever because I walk my toddler, play all day, eat more fruits and veggies than ever in my life, and we do yoga and pilates together. It has been a fun summer and a healthy, active one. I lost zero pounds. I naturally lost some in the first year, but I didn’t embrace a diet that I knew would drop that weight because I needed energy to feed my baby, and work, and live. I also couldn’t work out two hours a day--or even daily. I had a baby who never ever slept. Still, with all of this logical information in my brain about how detrimental an extreme diet and exercise plan would be for me, I feel ugly and fat. I am thirty-five years old and my old junior high fears shadow my thoughts.
Sometimes I look at my daughter and think: I hope she doesn't get fat like me. Other times someone remarks how much she looks like me and I think: Thankfully, she isn't fat. Over the past month I started to worry about something else: What if she catches on? What if she hears someone tell her she looks just like her mom and she knows her mom hates her body? What will that tell her about her own body? It has to stop with me. With the birth of my daughter, I started to wish for something more than being thin, I started to wish for her to grow up in a world where thin is not the ideal of beauty.
So I have a choice: show my daughter what it is to love her body. Show her how to eat great food, and be active for FUN! And for strength! Or, I can limit myself to 500 calories a day, and a two hour daily workout just to be my perfect “thin”. I think after taking a walk with my toddler this weekend while she yelled “Running! Jumping! Walking!” that I will take the LIFE route.
Embrace starts to rewrite the narrative of the female body. Brumfitt’s message isn’t that we need to say goodbye to physical fitness and healthy eating, but that we need to let go of an unrealistic, unattainable ideal. We need to know that thin is not the only way to be healthy. We need to do this for our daughters, for the students in our classrooms, and for ourselves. Watch the film (it’s on Netflix!). And then watch it again with your mothers, your friends, your children, your partners. The beginning monologue is all too familiar for me, and I suspect it will be for you or someone you love.
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.