I was wearing the tightest clothes I could find in my closet, no small feat when baggy t-shirts are my style. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the “Pure Barre” class based on what Anne had told me: I think it’s like ballet; there’s a barre and “tucking” and please-for-the-love-of-pete-take-these-classes-I-already-paid-for-so-I-won’t-have-to-do-them. Despite my best efforts, when I walked in, I knew immediately I hadn’t achieved the desired level of tightness or bare skin. My relatively form-fitting t-shirt was still a t-shirt, and tank tops and spaghetti straps appeared to be the order of the day. The yoga pants I considered thigh-hugging looked more like loose maternity clothes (which is, in fact, why I had bought them while I was pregnant) than the painted-on spandex everyone else appeared to be wearing. Still, the combination of mirrored walls and the tightest clothes I own gave me a glimpse of my full body, a rare occurrence on account of the boxes stacked in front of the only full-length mirror in the house, which I still haven’t bothered to go through two years after our move. And the first thought that crossed my mind upon seeing my full figure was,
Dang, I look good.
I tried not to stare, but it was hard not to. After months of not sparing even a second to look in a mirror, I had forgotten about how my waist always seemed to be just the right size, with the pouch below adding what I like to call “character.” (It goes without saying that love handles also add “character.”) I forgot about the sleek thigh muscle that made an ever-so-slight appearance when I tightened my knees. And don’t even get me started on those knees, which were hidden by the flare of the pants, but I could imagine were probably looking fantastic under there! Even the arm flab that Addison had so exuberantly played with the week before while shouting flappy, flappy, flappy looked just about right. Life with a toddler can certainly underscore every bodily imperfection. What IS that?, Addison likes to ask about my every skin tag and mole (which, my friends, are many and varied). Or there’s my personal favorite, when she grabs a pair of tweezers and comes at me saying, Let me get your beards. Hold still; this might hurt a yittle bit. But when I finally take a moment to study my body, I am struck by the way every curve and muscle looks practically perfect in my eyes. If only my body worked half as good as it looks, I would never need to worry about a workout, I think.
As we started said workout, it soon became clear that (1) this was nothing like the ballet I grew up doing for hours each day and (2) it sucked. But hey, it was free. I’ll even do sucky things for free! So I tried my best to follow along, anxiously looking right and left to see which leg I was supposed to be lifting and if I was supposed to be exhaling with the lift or the tuck. Occasionally, the instructor would say, “Now close your eyes while you do this exercise and picture what you want your thighs to look like.” Instinctively I would look down, puzzled. What the?! It’s a thigh. What’s it supposed to look like?
While we were lifting weights behind our backs (very unnatural, if you ask me), the instructor shouted, “Picture what you want your back to look like. Lift it! Push it!” I looked around the room. What does a back even look like? Should I be striving for the instructor’s sculpted back? What if my back already looks like hers, I just don’t know it because, after all, it’s behind me? Which brings up another good question — how does one even look at their own back? I’ll have to ask Neal when I get home; he’s always ready to spout off an opinion. Internal monologue notwithstanding, I did my best to lift it! and push it! despite having no clear vision of a future back in mind.
Three months and ten classes later, I’m starting to get a handle on all these exercise class conventions (except not the exhaling; I still have no idea when I’m supposed to breathe): you picture what you want your body to look like as motivation to keep going. What a peculiar idea, no? Who has the energy to both examine their current physical appearance AND contemplate a future appearance that would be more pleasing, all while lifting, tucking, pushing, and burning?
Neal’s answer to this question, which he has tried to explain to me many times before: Everyone. EVERYONE has the energy to contemplate — and in many instances, obsess over — their appearance. Especially every single woman you know or have probably ever known. He’s insistent about this, estimating the percentage of women who worry about these things at a minimum of 90%, possibly closer to 95%. It’s not like this is entirely new information to me; I remember once in high school I made a jesting comment about a good friend’s appearance, which I later learned wounded her deeply. At the time I made a mental note: never joke about ____’s appearance because she does not seem to realize that she is both incredibly beautiful physically, and also possessing so many other outstanding qualities as to make her appearance completely irrelevant. I still regret that comment almost 20 years later (and I am grateful she forgave my terrible thoughtlessness), but I also regret that I did not realize sooner that that mental note had more widespread application. I suppose I concluded then that she was just unusually sensitive; perhaps that insecurity was one of her unique crosses to bear in life. Then I went to college and lived in a dorm with 100 wonderful young women and it turned out that a lot of them seemed to be “sensitive” about this. So I added to that mental note: keep in mind, young women are sensitive about their appearances.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to a Relief Society meeting in which the average age of attendees was probably 65 and someone made the comment that it was “hard to look at herself in the mirror and like what she saw.” I looked around to see how others were taking the news, stunned to see so many nodding heads. So apparently, older women struggle with this, too. And then in a feminist book group I once attended, the topic of insecurity came up and it turned out that these self-proclaimed feminist warriors are also sensitive about their appearances.
And so Neal goes on insisting, It’s kind of a universal issue for women. There’s this pervasive societal neurosis that you are inexplicably unaffected by. (Sometimes, if I’m in a good mood, he adds, Also, I wouldn’t complain if you “fancied” yourself up every once in a while. Or threw out a few of your 35 XXL t-shirts.) And now that I think about it, I’ve gotta admit that my last several years on Facebook have confirmed Neal’s assertions that these are ubiquitous issues. Lately, not a day goes by without a friend or two posting about body image or fat-shaming or women’s negative self-talk.
I am trying to get all this through my head. Sympathy is a great thing, but I have always wanted empathy: to be able to understand and share the emotional states of others. If I can’t really feel where others are at, how can I hope to help bear their burdens? Having a daughter three years ago also raised the stakes. How will I know how to empower her if I don’t understand what so many women struggle with? I can’t just accept that an emotional state that appears to be so widespread is simply beyond me, so I look for common ground. I remember there was this one time when I looked critically at my appearance. It was about a week after I weaned Addison and as I got out of the shower I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Hmmm; I think I look different than I used to. My breasts look flatter, saggier. Yeah, saggy, that’s the word. I’m not sure I like that . . . For a moment, I could sympathize with the woman I met that month who looked at her post-baby body and imagined a surgery that would give her back the body she once had.
But when I left the mirror, the moment was over. It was as though I had momentarily stepped into a cloud of anxiety, disliked the feeling, and simply stepped out of it again. I never think about it now, except to use as a protest whenever Neal tells me how fundamentally unable to understand the female experience I am.
“But don’t you remember that time I looked in the mirror after I was done breastfeeding and . . . “
“I know, I know. You were critical of your body for about 4 seconds. You totally get it.”
I concede I’m still far from “getting it.” In fact, I am beginning to see what an uphill battle it may be to internalize what other people see when they look in the mirror. When I look in the mirror, I see a friend. Sometimes I notice her “flappy” arms, but they seem like just one more endearing feature, all the more valuable for the few minutes of entertainment they can bring to a child’s life. When I look at my friends, there’s no voice in my head assessing weight fluctuations — which, by the way, is actually inconvenient when your friend has lost 30 pounds, and your husband has to prompt you to compliment her on it — or chin hair. I’m not sure I know how to look at a friend with an eye critical of her appearance. Why should I see myself any differently?
The irony in all of this is that as I’ve read myriad articles, blog posts, and advice columns about how to teach our daughters to love their bodies, I find myself subtly more susceptible to that cultural fog that I was inexplicably unaffected by for thirty years. When I look in the mirror, I still see someone who is beautiful in every way that matters and even in some ways that don’t (like how she looks in form-fitting t-shirts and thigh-hugging yoga pants). But I’m more keenly aware of how “society” might condemn the features that seem so lovable to me. In that way, I am sometimes a little sorry I undertook this exploration in the first place — it feels like unnecessary aggravation to worry about how someone else would deconstruct my appearance. At the same time, I am learning a valuable lesson: if society is going to pressure Addison to see only her body’s flaws, then maybe the best thing I can do is to put words to the atmosphere of simply confidence I’ve been floating through all these years. Without the willingness of other women to share their experiences, I would never have known that we aren’t breathing the same air. So now I know better than to just think these words; now I will say them out loud:
Dang, I look good.