On Body Image

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I am very lucky in that I didn’t even become aware of my weight until somewhere around college. Meaning that my body just so happened to fit societal standards during my childhood and adolescence; I was naturally tall and thin. I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted—actually, during middle and high school when I was growing like a weed, I remember eating FIVE full meals a day. I ate relatively healthfully, a good variety of food, always including vegetables/salads, but I would NEVER even consider eating just a salad for a meal. Dieting wasn’t even on my radar. Working out wasn’t on my radar. At one point, I was a size 0 Long in Abercrombie jeans, and it didn’t occur to me that that was good or bad; it was just my body. I had more important things to worry about at the time, like whether or not my latest “boyfriend” had IMed me back on AOL. 🙂 A big part of this, I think, was that my mom had always had a healthy body image, and never commented on her weight or on mine. So, ignorance was very much bliss when it came to my body image for a lot of my life.

Funnily enough, the one thing that I would have changed about my body when I was a teenager was that I wanted curves. I wasn’t rail-thin or completely flat-chested, but I didn’t necessarily feel…womanly. I remember reaching the point in puberty when I got pubic hair and I was actually excited, because it felt like I had checked off another box towards my journey of becoming a woman. It’s not that I necessarily felt unattractive, but always being one of the tallest girls in the room (especially during that awkward period of time in middle school when I was a foot taller than the boys) didn’t exactly make me feel super-feminine. I was jealous of girls that were cute, curvy, and petite. For a while there, being tall just meant that I always had to play a man in the school play (I went to an all-girls’ school, lol).

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So, when my metabolism started to slow down during my freshman year of college (right around when I turned 18), I had some mixed feelings. On one hand, I acknowledged that gaining weight was potentially undesirable, especially since I was a professional actress at the time, going on auditions every summer during college. And yet, I genuinely loved getting some new curves. Sure, I had my college friends show me how to use the gym (I genuinely didn’t even know what an elliptical machine was), and I reluctantly accepted that salad as a meal wasn’t the WORST thing in the world, but nonetheless, I wasn’t very concerned about my changing body—and in fact, I welcomed it. Finally, I felt less like a gangly teen, and more like a healthy, beautiful, fertile woman.

It’s worth noting that, around this time, Mad Men was the biggest thing on TV—and it was this show that launched the gorgeous Christina Hendricks to stardom. I’ll never forget how refreshing it was to finally see a very voluptuous, curvy woman as a fixture on red carpets. Listen, I have no hate for women that are naturally thin (or who choose to work to be thin), as long as they are happy and healthy. It really bothers me when people write, in reference to a bigger or curvier woman, that they are a “regular” woman or a “real” woman. In my opinion, hating on ANY body type doesn’t get us anywhere. I think thin women are beautiful. And yet, when I looked at Christina Hendricks and saw her sashaying down the world’s most important red carpets looking absolutely stunning (and standing out in a sea of size 0/2 women), my thought was simply: “YES.” I genuinely think that curves are so, so gorgeous—and I didn’t realize how much I was craving a role model in pop culture to remind me that (oh yeah!) other body types DO exist, and they ARE beautiful, and they ABSOLUTELY do deserve to be celebrated and dressed in Oscar de la Renta to walk the red carpet at the Emmys.

Sounds like I had a great perspective on body image, right? Well, of course, it wasn’t that simple. My objective opinion that curvy women are beautiful didn’t necessarily mean that I always loved my own curves—because, despite the fact that I love curves both on myself AND on other women, this insidious idea that every woman should be as thin as possible was (and still is) incredibly pervasive. Especially being an actress in my 20s, I became painfully aware of the fact that being a size 2/4 at 5’10” was acceptable, but being a size 4/6 was not. (More on that here if you’re curious.) I went through a particularly dark time where I would anxiously look at images of thin women and think to myself, “She’s thin. Look how thin her arms are. How did she get to be so thin? How would I get to be this thin? Should I be this thin?”

Thankfully, this kind of disordered, obsessive thinking didn’t actually turn into an eating disorder in my case. Once again, I credit my mother for raising me in a way that rooted my relationship with my body in a healthy place. My default mode was just to eat a variety of food when I was hungry (I LOVE FOOD), and not think too much about it. As I mentioned before, my mom never spoke about her body, or mine, in a critical way, and I think that was one of the biggest factors in me being able to avoid too much self-loathing as my body changed and my weight creeped upward. But even this resistance to dieting gave me anxiety at the time. “Why can’t you just lose five or ten pounds, Tara? Your career depends on it. Why can’t you just get it together?” I got married at 23, and I actually gained weight during my engagement, because I was happy and busy and figuring out my life, and I actually forgot to diet and work out leading up to “the big day.” This is a GOOD thing—and hey, my dress zipped!—but for the first year or so of my marriage, I wasted time criticizing myself for not losing weight. “It was the biggest day of your life, these photos will last forever, and you couldn’t just lose five pounds? Seriously? What is wrong with you?” (For the record, I now cherish my wedding photos, and I think I look healthy and beautiful, like I always dreamed I would.)

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When I got pregnant at 28, I felt so dumb and vain when I struggled to keep a positive attitude about the weight I was gaining, especially because I was absolutely thrilled to be pregnant after losing my first pregnancy to miscarriage. It’s funny; even though gaining . weight (aka growing another person in your body) is literally the point of pregnancy, there’s still this expectation in society that you’re going to “do pregnancy right:” gain as little weight as possible, not show for a long time, not look “pregnant from the back,” and lose it all as quickly as possible. Well, you know what, that was just not me. I had bad morning sickness until 18 weeks; the kind where you feel car sick whenever your stomach gets close to feeling empty. The kind that makes you stuff your face with egg and cheese bagels because the only thing that settles your stomach is the combination of carbs and protein (and lots of it). I gained weight quickly, and with gusto. I gained at least 70 lbs, but then I packed on extra water weight due to being on lots of IV fluids during my 36-hour labor. I’m covered in stretch marks to prove it. But, you know, I was growing a big and hungry boy, and for the most part, my instinct was that I had to follow my body and give it what it needed. My kid needed the nutrients, and I needed the fat stores to nurse him successfully for 1.5 years. Those things were just more important to me than losing baby weight—and you know, I’m glad they were.

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So here I am, two years postpartum. It’s nice to kind of be back to “my old self”—but also, I’ll never be my old self, and that’s ok. The ups and downs of postpartum hormones and breastfeeding are real, and I don’t think that we give our bodies enough credit for what they go through. I finally got down to my pre-baby weight at about 1.5 years postpartum, and then I finished weaning Jack and started a sedentary office job, and immediately put 10 pounds back on. And so it goes.

Listen. I am not some kind of body image warrior. I may be a size 10/12, but it’s not like I’m breaking down barriers in terms of challenging society’s standards for beauty. What I will say, nonetheless, is that it’s still a challenge, pretty much every day, for me to love my body when a size 0/2 is still held up as the standard that many of us women feel that we “should” be at, or be actively working toward. I’m so thrilled that more and more curvy and plus-size women are being celebrated in the media and by brands, but we’re still a long way away from truly accepting, as a culture, that all bodies are beautiful. I specifically seek out women of different sizes to follow on Instagram, because if I don’t consciously make an effort to make sure that I’m seeing lots of different body types on a daily basis, I am still mostly seeing very slim women being celebrated as “ideal.” I have to talk myself down when I zip myself into high-waisted jeans that put the curve of my belly (or, as some charmingly call it, my “fupa” 😉 ) on full display. “Am I allowed to wear this?” I think. “Is it okay for me to be out in the world, in this body that’s still ten pounds from where I could or ‘should’ be after baby, not covered in a shapeless sack but actually owning the idea that my body is beautiful and deserves to be seen, as it is right now, wearing exactly what I want?”

I actively choose, every day, to look in the mirror and see Renaissance-painting curves rather than flab, fat, and stretch marks. I challenge myself to wear things that are not necessarily that “flattering,” aka things that don’t make me look as skinny as possible (gasp!). I remind myself that my body grew a child, sustained him with my milk for a year and a half, and is now, literally, a soft place for him to fall as he throws his little body into my arms over and over again.

I’m not saying that I’m not trying to lose a little bit more weight. Losing five to ten pounds would probably be a good idea for me health-wise (and breathing-in-my-jeans-wise). I loved what Gabrielle Union told me years ago when I interviewed her for Refinery29: she decided what her “fighting weight” was, and tried to generally stay within 5 pounds of that. What’s important to me is not being skinny, but being strong, both for my health and because I love when my booty/tummy/arms are both curvy AND toned.

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But my point here is this: I deserved to be loved and thought of as beautiful, as I am, right now. And you do, too. In the words of the great Amy Schumer: “I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story — I will.” You or I are not more or less deserving of love and admiration because we do or do not fit an aesthetic ideal, whether it’s an ideal that society at large is holding up as a standard, or one that you or someone in your life dictates. It strikes me as ironic that in my early 20’s, I was actually mad at myself for not being more disordered about my body type. For not caring enough about being thin. Because it seems like these days (or, like, for the past century or so), it’s simply part of being an adult American woman to be consumed by being as thin as possible. But you know what? That’s nuts. I’m going to say it, loud and clear:

WOMEN WASTE TOO MUCH TIME AND ENERGY THINKING NEGATIVE THOUGHTS ABOUT OUR APPEARANCES.

And, on top of that: when our inner dialogue is that negative, it can absolutely cause us to think negative thoughts about other women, either criticizing THEM for not getting it together enough to be thin, or criticizing them for being TOO thin, because how dare they?

Guess what? Our bodies are MORE than eye candy for ourselves, or for the world. Our bodies are strong, our bodies are resilient, our bodies are miraculous, our bodies GROW LIFE. And, yeah, sometimes it’s really hard to ignore the negativity surrounding weight gain and body changes. But, my dear friends, I want to challenge us all today: what if we truly decided what our “fighting weight” and size was, and truly committed to blocking out any noise that tells us that we should look different? What if we truly gave ourselves permission to live and eat and move in the way that makes us feel and look our best, and redirected any anxiety about our appearances elsewhere? Honestly, if us women spent even 50% less energy on negative thoughts about body image or beauty, I think the world would change. And, man, would we be so. Much. Happier.

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So, there’s my speech. I’m sure there will be more on this topic on the future, but I’ve been working on this essay for about a billion years and I’m just ready to put this out there and get the conversation started. And, the holidays—with all of their food and drink and “being bad” and whatnot—are as good a time as any to get our heads straight on our bodies, right? So, in conclusion, for you and for me: there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to your body. There is just us, and OUR decisions to look however we like, however makes us feel healthy and strong and beautiful. Breathe in, breathe out. We’ve got this.

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