“There will be no “New Year, New Me” bullshit this year” I mutter to myself as I crunch down on a gluten free mozzarella stick and take a slurp of sparkling wine from the jam jar tumbler in my other hand.
Which is at least half a lie. I may not be starting a diet, but I did sign up for 30 Days of Yoga. And I did order two new cookbooks. And I still regularly lament my softening middle. My holiday sale impulse buying resulted in three new pairs of elastic waist lounge pants and some wrinkle-smoothing patches.
I haven’t arrived at Radical Self Love yet, but I’m reading the how-to manual.
If you haven’t read “The Body is Not an Apology” by Sonya Renee Taylor, gather up your gift cards and head to your local indie bookstore or library and get your hands on this gem. It is taking me weeks to read it because it is so intensely challenging that I read it in small doses. I need time to chew on each chapter and the author’s joyful and expansive vision for the world: full of people who have embraced radical self-love, and then extend that love out into the world.
I certainly was not the first person to ask this question, but it does roll around in my brain a lot: How are we supposed to love others as we love ourselves if we don’t actually love ourselves? A lot of the un-love (apathy, violence, hate, bigotry) gushing out into the world is really, at the root, a scorching and debilitating lack of self-love.
I can already feel the hackles rising on some of you. We are not supposed to love ourselves! We’re sinful. We are supposed to love God and love our neighbors!
Yeah. Love our neighbors “as we love ourselves”. I don’t think God really intends us to only love others so far as we currently despise ourselves. Doesn’t sound very on-brand to me.
Where could our love radiate out into the world if we embraced radical self love? Could radical self love transform the way we love disabled people? Or people whose bodies are bigger, smaller, queerer, darker, less healthy, more poorly dressed than our bodies? I hope so. That’s my prayer.
So this is how I’m entering 2022: No diet. No exercise regimen (aside from the goal to do yoga every day this year, because holy cow, yoga has helped me immensely throughout this pandemic). If I have a resolution, it’s to meditate on my chosen Word of the Year.
I will seek the light – in myself, in others, in the world, in the face of the suffering.
I will try to be the light – to my family, my neighborhood, and out there in the world.
I will trust the light – it is already out there. I don’t need to ignite anything, only seek it and recognize it. The Light in me honors the Light in you.
I’ll embrace the steady, gradual dawn. Light takes its time.
And I will try to live LIGHTLY – take myself less seriously and more buoyantly. Consume less. Demand less. Part ways with objects or habits that weigh me down.
That’s my New Year’s prayer. Radical self love, eyes trained towards the light.
My six year old daughter and I are walking our frenetic hound dog round the neighborhood. She looks at me while I pause to let the dog’s nose investigate a mound of something unseemly in the grass and says “Mom, you’re not fat or chunky.”
“Ok, what made you decide to tell me that?” I stammer out after a pause.
“Well, I was just thinking that your body doesn’t look fat or chunky to me. Do you think you are fat or chunky?”
“I used to think I wanted my body to be smaller, but now I like my body just the way it is. It’s healthy and it can do all the things I need it to do.”
“Do you think my body is fat or chunky?”
“BooBoo, I don’t. But let’s remember that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Fat, thin, short, tall, medium. Most people can’t really do anything about how their body looks, or what size or shape they are. People’s bodies are not the most important or interesting parts of them, you know?”
“Yeah, like you could be beautiful but a bad person. Like Hans in Frozen”
The next day I admonished her to stop feeding the dog her meal scraps because people food isn’t good for dogs, and added that Daisy could gain too much weight and that wouldn’t be good for her.
“Don’t dogs come in all shapes and sizes? Is it bad for dogs to be chunky but OK for people to be chunky?”
Girl, I am trying to unravel decades of self loathing over here. Cut me some slack.
“Well, dogs can’t tell us with words when their bodies aren’t feeling well or aren’t working like they should, so it can be dangerous for dogs to get bigger than their bodies can handle. Especially if they get bigger because they are eating human food that they should not be eating at all.”
WHEW. That was some inspired blither blather. Not inaccurate, per se. But man. This kid puts me on the spot.
I’m still unraveling the body size = health entanglement. I wish I had more stamina and more flexibility, and I think those are reasonable goals. I feel nostalgic and sad to know I ran a marathon once a thousand years ago, and used to go on long runs in the Chicago winter FOR FUN and I used to be able to twist into some binds in yoga class. Now I get winded on a swift trot behind my daughter as she scooters through the neighborhood screaming Let it Go at the very top of her lungs and some days I can barely touch my toes without tweaking my back.
There is a group of three ladies in our neighborhood, maybe 5 years or so older than I am, who walk at a quick clip down the middle of the road every single day, rain or shine. They pass our house around 10:30 am on the weekdays. They chat and laugh and are going much faster than I could sustain for an hour. They have lived-in middle age bodies, but I bet you $100 they are in better shape than I am. I envy their friendship and the routine and the strident arm swings of women whose hearts are getting stronger every day.
I’m about to head back to full-time work, and I’ve been scribbling draft schedules that will cram in some exercise every day. I’ll be doing a lot more sitting and some commuting, and the old raspy-voiced fear has started whispering in my ear that I’m going to gain weight. I whisper back that I will only eat salads for lunch and get up at 5am to exercise, but immediately my stomach starts to growl and my eyes start to ache.
The griefs and heartbreaks of the world are so much bigger than my pants size. I feel shame for even THINKING about new clothes or cute lunch containers when the world is on fire in every direction. I’m grossed out by my own privilege – to even have the spare emotional space to ponder the best way to pack veggies for lunches in the office or wonder whether I will need to buy actual “dress pants”.
And yet here is this fresh season with its upheaval of my routine and eating habits, and our family schedules and my perceived control over how I cook and eat and move my body, packed on top of the health anxiety of the perpetual pandemic that still stalks us all. This is where I am. Caring and praying and donating and reading about Afghanistan and Haiti and Lebanon and breakthrough infections and wildfires and floods, and still investing a lot of head space in my first day outfit selection.
My LinkedIn profile photo was taken 12 years ago at my surprise engagement party. My now husband orchestrated the whole party so he could surprise me again the same night he shocked me by getting down on one knee in a snowy courtyard in Chicago. After I accepted his proposal, he told me that he had arranged for some friends to go out with us to celebrate the happy news. In fact, when I arrived at our double dates’ apartment, it was full of all our nearest and dearest and flutes of champagne.
The hostess of the party just happened to be a professional photographer, and she had her pro camera clicking away throughout the night. These candid shots of delight, surprise, and joy are some of my favorite photos of all time.
I waited a respectable five minutes after this talented friend posted the party photos on Facebook to crop my brand new fiance out of my favorite snapshot of us and paste my beaming high-res face into the little LinkedIn circle. That little circle has represented me to the professional world ever since.
I’m on the job hunt now for the first time in over seven years and my photo needed a refresh. Look at “engagement party” me and look at “now” me, and you can definitely tell that the old photo was about thirty pounds, a dozen years, a kid, a pandemic, and several thousand gray hairs ago.
I texted my ride-or-die Roxanne, who is also a pro photographer (How fortunate am I that I know and love so many talented, creative people?), and booked a creative portrait session. She was delighted to work with me for this photo refresh, and we set a date for an outdoor “business casual” photo shoot during the week my daughter would be at camp all day.
That date got rained out.
Of course I had waited until the night before to start trying on outfits from my former life as an office professional. And of course not one of those tops, blazers, or dress pants fit. Not one.
When Roxanne and I texted about rescheduling the shoot for the next morning, I offered up an actual prayer of thanks for the rain delay and talked Les into agreeing to sit in the car with a book after our belated anniversary lunch that day so I could shop for a new outfit immediately after indulging in my favorite tapas and red sangria.
After leaving my beloved to his own devices in the parking garage, I walked into Ann Taylor and started loading blouses and blazers over my arm. The sales associate started a fitting room for me while I scoured the clearance section.
Sue was an excellent sales woman. She was honest and helpful and sympathetic. “I don’t fit into any of my professional clothes anymore”, I told her with tears eeking out the corners of my eyes. “Oh honey, you and every other woman who walks into this store these days.” I’d like to tell you that I found one perfect professional-looking combo and it was on sale and that I felt totally relieved.
Not so, my friends. I panic-bought $400 worth of new workwear (Sue assured me that I could return what I didn’t use for the shoot), tried it all on in different combinations at least a dozen times at home, and tossed and turned all night that night while my anxiety screamed into my ears that I would look ridiculous, that only realtors and bank tellers wore blazers, that the new pink top was still too tight, and that my career had probably peaked four years ago.
I feared that once I saw the photos of myself there would be no denying that I had aged and softened dramatically. I would have to face it. And not just face it myself, but thrust my profile photo and my resume and my roller coaster work history into the hands of potential employers. And let’s be honest, it can feel cringey to think about having photos taken of just you and your own face. Not family photos. Not a couple’s session. Nobody else’s torso to hide half of yours. Just you.
So yeah, I didn’t sleep much the night before our rescheduled shoot.
I arrived at our rendezvous point wearing my favorite goldenrod linen dress and my denim jacket and had hangers with my all time favorite burnt orange poplin top and jeans, and a pink chemise with a black blazer at the ready. Roxanne greeted me with her ubiquitous beaming smile and a huge hug. I was still trembling with the roil of anxiety, but it started to ease when I remembered I was in good hands.
Roxanne and I have been friends since we both had a crush on our French TA in undergrad and we have been close to one another through SOME STUFF in the last twenty three years. In addition to being the #1 person to call for driveway margaritas in a pandemic, she has also been our family photographer since she started her photography business a few years ago. She has captured everything from my daughter’s baptism to our Christmas card photos to our emergency family + elderly dog photos taken in the last days of our beloved chihuahua’s life. It seems entirely fitting that she would be the one to coach me through the chin tilt and hand placement awkwardness of a portrait session as I queasily launch myself into a new career wilderness.
I wasn’t at all worried about the quality of the photos because I knew for a fact that she would get some great shots. The anxiety was feasting on my self consciousness and existential angst.
Roxanne had scouted some remarkably flattering brick wall backdrops – yes, flattering walls are a thing – and cheered me on through hundreds of clicks and outtakes and wind-swept hair. She had a Girl Power playlist for inspiration. She kept me laughing and moving and smiling real smiles. It was – dare I say it – SUPER FUN. I even got to experience the rare thrill of changing into a different shirt outside with no cover – “Cheers!” to anyone who happened to drive by the parking garage side of the alley where I was posing. The biggest, weirdest rush I have had in public in a while.
Note: You do not need to risk a Public Indecency citation to have a successful portrait session. We were rushing to beat the rain that had started to sprinkle again and didn’t want to risk a new downpour in the time it would take me to duck into a restroom to swap outfits.
Roxanne sent me the edited batch of the best shots from our shoot, and I am so happy with them. Of course, you’re not going to love 100% of the photos taken of you, but there were a lot that looked professional AND really looked like Right Now Me. Me with the gray hair and bigger clothes and cheek dimples and bright lipstick. The person who is about to run after new job opportunities and is still processing her quickening creep through middle age. She’s strong, she’s wobbly, she’s rounder and crinklier than the person glowing in the engagement photos.
She’s a hell of a lot more experienced. And she has plenty to offer the world.
When I look at Right Now Me, today, through those photos, I’m thankful. Imperfectly, self-consciously thankful. Have you looked at yourself recently and really taken the time to see yourself? To thank your body for getting you through this past year? To notice things like how well your legs have aged, actually, and how you can wear a whole new color palette now that your gray hair gives you an almost platinum-blonde look?
To think back over all the creme brulees you’ve let yourself savor, and all the moments you’ve said YES to a delight you would have denied yourself in your orthorexic youth? (I’m looking at you, gluten free lemon blueberry muffins from Blackberry Market).
You do not need to wait until you feel like a model or a rock star (or, ahem, a published author?) to get a photo session. I recommend it. You may even get to do some shopping and whip your shirt off in an alley. It’ll be fun.
“You may not return this item if the hygiene strip has been removed”.
The hygiene strip, dear reader, was indeed detached from one of the $100 swim suits I had ordered to try on. The strip stuck to the underwear I wore to shimmy into the pricey suits and fluttered to the bathroom floor as I peeled one of the candidates from my body. I tried to smooth the tacky strip back into place, but the dog hair and lint it had accumulated on its brief brush with our tile made reattachment impossible.
That night, I stared at the ceiling rehearsing the speech I would give to the Customer Service rep first thing in the morning. “I promise I was wearing underwear! I know how bathing suit shopping works! I didn’t mean for it to come off or land in a swirl of hound dog dander and become unusable! I don’t think it was very sticky to begin with, if I’m perfectly honest. I need to get a refund for this suit. My boobs looked like sad beanbags in it, and it gave me one of those weird belly button ghost shadows in the middle. I cannot keep it. Please give me my money back.”
When I rolled out of bed, I called Customer Service. The 800 number opened for business at 7AM Eastern Time, so I spoke to Cheryl on the phone and told her my hygiene strip sob story before I even made coffee, before I had said more than three words to my kid. I could hear her keyboard clacking as she listened. “I made a note on your order that the hygiene strip on the navy blue suit was not very sticky and it came off during try-on and could not be reattached. I’ve made a note to please accept your return and process a refund.” I thanked her profusely and assured her that I had, in fact, found My Dream Suit from among the four contenders. “I’m so glad you found one that worked out for you! Enjoy!”
For the first time in my adult life, I think I actually WILL enjoy wearing a bathing suit. I found my dream suit, and I am still in shock. I haven’t taken it for a real test drive at the beach or the pool yet, but my daughter clapped and squealed “You look FAB-U-LOUS, mommy!” and Les gave me a thumbs up, followed by “Yeah! You look great!” when I stepped out of the bathroom wrapped in brilliant purple.
“Do I look $98 great? Because that’s how much this suit costs.” He looked a little shocked, but replied that if I felt good in it, and I knew I would wear it, I should keep it. He could see the look of genuine pleasure and confidence on my face. I clipped the tag immediately and yanked the hygiene strip from the crotch. The suit is now nestled like a treasure in my dresser drawer, just waiting for its debut at the lakefront or the pool.
I’ve never spent an adult amount of money on a bathing suit. Throw me whatever Target clearance rack mismatched tankini pieces you have handy. But this year – THIS YEAR – I vowed to buy a bathing suit that fits my actual body and that cost more than $29.99. I took inventory of my summer wardrobe a few weeks ago and felt the elastic of one of my old swimsuits disintegrate within the seams as I attempted to try it on. I moved on to the tankini I bought two years ago. That suit still has functional elastic and technically, it still fits. It fits in the aggressively snug manner of a bathing suit that should be at least a half-size bigger.
Did I really need a new bathing suit? A reasonable question. Historically, I haven’t done a lot of swimming or poolside lounging. But there’s a lot of pressure on this summer to make up for the utter garbage of last year’s cabin fever COVID summer. I have been imagining steamy afternoons at our favorite northside beach and the neighborhood pool with my kiddo. I’ve even entertained the idea of a road trip to my in-laws’ vacation condo in Florida, visualizing myself draped across an oversized pool float with a margarita in each hand.
I decided not to let Snug Suit get in the way of my water fun summer dreams. I did what any rational person would do and I ordered eight bathing suits. Four bathing suits in different sizes and styles from a brand that I love but could never gulp down the price tag, and four from more modestly priced brands. I assured Les that I would only be keeping one of the eight, if any, and that I would return the rest before the credit card bill came due. And that is how I found myself with hundreds of dollars of nylon and spandex in boxes in my bedroom.
As I clicked “Add to Cart”, I asked myself what it could be like to find a suit that I really love. What if I found a suit that sparked joy, even if it was not the suit that made my body look the smallest, or had the strongest spandex forcefield across the midsection to constrict all that wayward flesh into a more acceptable silhouette? Would it even be possible to love a suit that didn’t deliver a body shrinkage illusion? I was determined to find out. “It’s research. You know, for my writing!” I chirped as I eagerly jabbed “Checkout.”
First, I ordered four tankinis. I believed that dark colored tummy-hiding tankinis with sturdy push-or-pull up bras were my best option. I had tried those “Build Your Perfect Suit” combinations where you buy whatever top and whatever bottoms you like, but the results were just…awful. I’m trying to think of a more writerly way to say it. One brand offered “Tummy Control” tops, so of course I tried one. Go grab a fresh tube of toothpaste, take off the cap, and squeeze the tube from the dead center. That’s what a tummy control tankini top does to your midsection – it just rearranges the plush. And also, you can’t breathe. The other tops were either billowy and unflattering or too tight and unflattering. The shorty-style bottoms were too tight in the waist and the material was somehow scratchy? Positive visualization is important for stressful situations, so I visualized feeding all four of these tankinis into a wood chipper.
After the tankini debacle, I went wild with hope and desperation and flew to the posher brand’s website and added four chic retro-vibe one piece numbers to my cart. I haven’t worn a one piece since my 20s. One piece suits, I believed, were only for the athletically svelte, not for those of us with bellies or bosoms in need of support.
A few days later, the box with the splurgey suits appeared on my doorstep. I sprinted to the bathroom and chopped open the box with some rusty old manicure scissors I found in the vanity drawer. I grabbed my top-pick suit and tore it from the plastic wrap. This was the suit I was just SURE was going to be the winner. Feminine, some fashionable ruching that didn’t scream “BELLY CAMOUFLAGE”, pretty pattern, and the same general cut I remember wearing when I last wore a one piece suit 15 years ago.
I slid into that suit and instantly realized the difference between a $30 bathing suit and a $100 bathing suit. The material was buttery soft and not one inch of that suit pinched or smashed or strangled. No sagging or riding in the butt. It was a beautiful suit that, sadly, I had ordered in the wrong size AND had failed to appreciate the plunging drama of the neckline. I could have exchanged it for the proper size, if not for the fact that my boobs needed a lot more than an elegant nod to support, and definitely cannot be trusted around a v-neck that stops at the bottom of my sternum. Back into the wrapper.
I grabbed the next suit, which had glowing reviews online from other women my size and build. Thank you, swimsuit reviewers of the internet, for being forthright with your size and measurements so we can all benefit from hive-mind consensus over whether an article of clothing is realistic on a size 12/14 middle age body when the brand model is a willowy 20-something. I started to step into this simple but feminine navy blue suit and immediately noticed that the hygiene strip was crunched and suspicious-looking. I was wearing my undies for this try-on sesh anyway, because I don’t trust anything that comes in contact with another person’s business, hygiene strip or no hygiene strip. I smoothed the strip and carried on with the try-on. No bust support, nothing in the midsection or other details to endear it to me. Not a winner. I peeled out of the suit and gasped in horror as the plastic strip fluttered to the floor. In that moment of fashion frenzy the lost strip was Future Jill’s problem, because I had two more suits to try.
I had ordered the same suit in two sizes, each in a different color. The reviews for this ruched bandeau-style suit were too good to be true. I don’t wear strapless ANYTHING. I need straps – the thicker the better – to keep the girls hoisted into position and to avoid wardrobe malfunctions. But virtually every woman who reviewed this suit said a version of “Stop wondering if this suit will work for you and just buy the damn thing. IT WILL WORK.” It’s listed as a Best Seller on the brand’s site. It comes in pretty colors, and both of my preferred sizes were in stock. I bought a bright purple in my hopeful size and a dark green in my often-more-flattering larger size.
When I put on that purple suit, I felt a strange sensation ripple through me. There, in the mirror, was my body in a bright bathing suit. A beautiful, flattering color. My bust looked spectacular – well supported, and shockingly, not at all like an indecency waiting to happen. I jumped up and down. Everything stayed in place. The silky soft ruched fabric created a lovely blurring effect throughout the torso without trying too hard for an optical illusion. No compression, no hidden corset panels. Other suits may have been better at visually slimming my waistline, but none of them made me feel so eager for a pool day. I felt beautiful in this suit, in my own body. Bright and happy and confident. I didn’t even take the dark green suit out of the wrapper. I just bolted into the bedroom where my husband and daughter awaited my fashion show and did a twirl.
I know that $98 is a lot to spend on a suit, and it’s not in everyone’s budget. It’s probably not really in my budget, to be honest. I don’t think you need to spend that much money to find the perfect suit for you, but try some shapes and styles that you’ve never tried before. And COLOR! For the love of all that is soft and fluffy, at least TRY a color other than black. You never know. You may find yourself naming your new suit (Iris) and tucking it into bed in your dresser drawer with a sigh of disbelief. For the first time in forever, I can’t wait to wear a bathing suit in public. And there’s not a “tummy control” panel in sight.
Your comments this week about my posts and Instagram questions have been SO GOOD. So good. I am so thankful for each of you. Your willingness to be open and vulnerable about our very personal and often fraught relationships with food and eating and diet culture has been motivating and humbling. I wanted to share some of the comments I received, anonymously, in case you see any of your own twisty, bunchy, scratchy eating-stuff (or calm and balanced approaches!) in any of these experiences.
Here is how some of you replied to my prompt about whether you remember your mom dieting as a kid, and if so, how food was talked about in your home growing up:
“I think I always wished they noticed something about me besides that I ate the food in front of me.”
“I remember relatives commenting how “the Smith* girls are always clean platers!” *not their real name.
“I don’t remember diet, but remember lots of unhappiness with how mom felt about how she looked. No shorts, no bathing suits.”
“We strived for balance in meals, not a lot of soda/packaged snacks; eating together as a family, having treats when out sometimes but later in life when the fat craze was happening, it was about eating more of those to replace other things (we know better now, but didn’t like the rest of America at the time).”
“My mom dieted. I specifically remember her using Slim Fast shakes and bars. She was also a dietician…”
“Mom once told me she felt accomplished if she went to bed hungry.”
“My family went through feast and famine. Grandma or the church would roll up w groceries.”
“She started Jazzercise at age 40 and really cut out sugar, fried foods, etc. I feel like she did it correctly!”
“I can’t even fit that can of worms in this box.”
I’ve also heard from several of you via calls and text messages with longer stories and examples of your childhood food life and how that has bubbled over into your adult eating habits. And a couple of you called me after my post about my doctor’s appointment to share your experiences with your doctor, or the experiences of a spouse or other family member.
And one of you, after reading my post about my doctor’s appointment, texted me this:
“I’m glad she [my doctor] could show you God’s love for your body today.”
Which reduced me to a blubbering pile of sobs. Whooo-boy. There’s a lot to unpack there. (Thanks, decades of “our bodies are inherently sinful and our “fleshly desires” will pull us into all manner of disobedience” teaching). I’m not even going to touch that today, except to say that it has been a trip to think about all the ways growing up in conservative Protestant churches have shaped my body image and conception of food and eating. Book project?
THANK YOU, friends. I’m grateful for you. Let’s keep talking and thinking and unpacking, shall we?