Okay ladies, it’s time to talk about hard things. Yup, I mean swimsuit season. We need to have an honest to goodness heart to heart about what is going on below the surface…or at least below the water line.
I made the mistake of trying on swimsuits in a store last weekend. By myself. With no emotional support. There were three-way mirrors and fluorescent lights and way more cellulite than anyone needs to see ever. It seemed like a good idea at the time…but needless to say, I did not buy a swimsuit that day.
I did, however, spend the rest of the day feeling like the most disgusting woman on the face of the planet. My entire view of myself changed from that point on, and if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve quite recovered.
The downward spiral of self-loathing starts with believing our struggle is what defines us. If you are a woman alive today, you have wrestled at some point with the way you look. All of us have. It’s part of living in a world with a distorted definition of beauty.
Hear this: the world is lying to women about what makes us beautiful. And it’s time we stop listening.
Struggling with body image is not new territory for me. Unfortunately, it’s been the story of most of my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like I needed to lose weight.
My height made me naturally heavier than most other kids my age, and I remember crossing the 100 pound mark before most others in my class. As early as elementary school, I would force myself to complete strenuous workouts on my parents’ NordicTrack in hopes of slimming down.
My standard for beauty was always set by those around me—how I compared to other girls defined how pretty I was. When I was young, my classmates would frequently tell me how “big” I was because I stood at least a head above the rest of my class. They meant I was tall, but it felt more like being called fat and unfeminine. I began to think of myself that way.
In eighth grade, my club volleyball team wore spandex shorts as part of our uniforms. I would pull the shorts down to my knees and up to my belly button to cover as much as possible. Believe me, I looked really cool.
I just wanted to hide. I was ashamed of the way my body looked and felt exposed in anything tight or revealing—like spandex. Or bathing suits.
Awkward as middle school was, high school was not much better. My insecurity was crippling, and my relationship with food only increased my self-disgust. I started binge eating to deal with anxiety I didn’t recognize, which caused me to gain weight and hate myself even more. I tried to purge every once in a while, but I knew too much about the negative effects of bulimia so I talked myself out of it.
I hated the way I looked and felt out of control to change it.
Going to college catapulted me into a whole new level of stress eating. Unlimited desserts, late night Taco Bell runs, and more loneliness than I knew what to do with added about twenty-five pounds to a frame that was not petite to begin. I started Weight Watchers that spring and tasted the addictive power of weight loss for my sense of self-worth. When the scale was down, I was a success—but when the scale went up, I felt like a total failure all over again.
The number told me if I was disciplined, motivated, self-controlled—it told me how much the world thought I was worth. I hate how many lies the scale has told me over the years. I associated my value with how much I weighed on any given day, and I assumed other people did the same.
After college, extra weight started to fall off in the busyness of my new, grown up life. Teaching, coaching, and leading Young Life didn’t leave much time for anything else, including regular meals. I didn’t even notice that I had accidentally returned to a healthy weight until people started to comment on how good I looked. I had never gotten attention for my body before, but now it was a source of validation.
I felt like the fat girl pretending to be thin. I was sure it would just be a matter of time before the overweight version of me came back again.
She didn’t, for the most part. I’ve gained a few pounds here and lost a few pounds there, but my body has mostly stayed in a healthy, normal weight range since college ended. But the way I see myself hasn’t changed much. I still look in the mirror and struggle often with what I see.
I have come a long way in this journey of seeing my body through the lens of love. I know my value doesn’t come from my weight, my pants size, or how many calories I consume on a given day. I exercise mostly regularly and eat more foods that make me feel healthy than not. I’m even learning to ask myself what’s really going on emotionally when I find myself digging for comfort food. Most days I’m at peace with the way I look.
Yet seeing myself in a swimsuit up close and personal often throws me back into the downward spiral of self-loathing I thought I’d lost with my extra weight.
I’ve been asking several girlfriends recently about their perception of their own bodies. It seems to be pretty universal: beautiful women of every size are more aware of their imperfections than their radiance. Even my most fit, slender, and breathtakingly beautiful friends struggle to see themselves the way I do.
Our critical eyes so easily focus on the parts of ourselves we wish we could change instead of the beauty that comes from our hand-crafted uniqueness.
A stunning neighbor who is pregnant with her second baby told me recently how relieved she is to finally be gaining weight. I did a double take. “Did you say you’re happy to gain weight?” I asked her in disbelief. She told me how self-conscious she’s been her whole life about her body—thinness has been her struggle as unknowing comments from strangers have made her wish she could put on a few pounds.
No matter how our bodies look on the outside, every woman carries the burden of living in a world that distorts female beauty.
Some of the most breathtaking women I know are not the ones with flat stomachs, thighs that don’t touch, or legs free from spider veins and cellulite. The most beautiful women are the ones who give life where ever they go—they inspire beauty in others through their words, their sacrificial love, their whole-hearted commitment to God-given passions.
The most beautiful women I know are secure in their identity as imperfect humans who are perfectly loved by the One who made them just the way they are. They are the ones who train their eyes to look for beauty all around them and inadvertently discover it within.
Today, I’m thankful for a body that is strong enough to do hard work, healthy enough to run and play, limited enough to tell me to rest, dependent enough on food to remind me to nourish myself regularly, and resilient enough to rebound from the harmful choices I’ve made in the name of comfort or beauty. My imperfect body reminds me that I am still a work in progress in every area of my life.
Struggling with the way I look offers me a choice to either focus my eyes inward or upward—I can obsess about what I eat or how much weight I “need” to lose, or I can focus my energy on believing that I truly am fearfully and wonderfully made. All of me.
Stretch marks won’t last forever, but a heart overflowing with the love of God will radiate his beauty for eternity. Let’s give others permission to embrace their imperfect bodies by living thankfully in ours. Let’s make real the new pretty.