A few days ago I was reading through my Facebook news feed and a friend shared a happy picture of herself holding her adorable new kittens. The smile on her face was contagious as she shared her new loveables with her Facebook friends. As I read her brief post, the words jumped off the screen, "Ignore my fat arms," and tears instantly welled in my eyes. I gasped to myself. "She thinks her arms are fat," is all I could helplessly and sadly think. I wanted to call her on the phone. I wanted to pull her near and hug her tightly.
I replied to her with the following: "I am saddened that you felt the need to comment on your arms. You are beautiful, inside and out. No need to point out something that you think is a flaw when others will see beauty. I understand that we are our own worst critic, but distorted body image is a real thing. You are beautiful no matter what your size and shape and I hope you are comfortable with it. Most people would have looked at this picture and not given your arms a second thought. Clearly, they are strong arms that are made for raising boys, maintaining a home, and carrying the load that goes with teaching a classroom full of students who are learning to carry this world forward."
I'm pretty sure you and I both know her thoughts don't stop with her arms, though. Mine didn't years ago. Most women and some men have, at one time or another, thought about their thighs, their tummy, their butt, their arms ... always too big, right? My grandmother used to tell me I needed to gain a little weight because I was too thin, but I clearly remember seeing myself in the mirror and I didn't see myself as too thin. There it is, right there, looking back at me: distorted body image. Why is it that we see ourselves as fat, no matter how we look? I'm not even comparing, saying "I was fat compared to ..." Nope. I saw a lie in the mirror.
My friend shared that hers started in high school when "some jerk boy" nick named her "AMA" short for Amazon. She was devastated!! I, too, remember the moment my image of myself changed. My mom had bought me a pair of pants that I wanted so badly. They ere too long, so I put them away for a while. Then I hit puberty. Surely those pants would fit now that I was taller (don't laugh, we all know I didn't get THAT much taller, as I'm only 5'.) I excitedly tried those pants on and couldn't even get them pulled up one leg. My legs had gotten wider! The pants were way too small. I was embarrassed, even though no one was with me, and I was mad and sad. I shoved those pants into the back corner of my closet to be forgotten about forever. Except they weren't forgotten. They were still the pants that I'd grown out of before I could wear them. Add to this the time a boy in high school asked me why my legs were so big and a girl close to our family used to call me fat just because we didn't get along. I barely weighed 100 pounds, but my thighs have always been strong and wide. These memories would haunt me for decades, just as my friend likely still hears that boy's voice in her head.
See, here's what we don't realize in our teenage brains: Some people are still growing, while some have reached their height, their bodies are still reaching maturity. Some people are taller or shorter than others. Some people are built to be more muscular and others will never have defined muscles no matter how hard they try. Some people have tighter or looser tendons and ligaments, which affect their shape. Most of these factors are genetic, like height, eye and hair color, bone size and strength, toe length, ear shape, and much more.
It didn't occur to me then that those thighs I wanted to be narrower would walk me through the streets of Chicago while in college and after. Why wait for a bus if you can get there just as fast while walking, or walk until you catch a bus or walk to the bus stop? It didn't occur to me then that those thighs would carry me up and down countless flights of stairs when I worked in the lab and ER and we didn't have time to wait for an elevator. It didn't occur to me then that those thighs would carry 4 babies, individually, to term and keep me moving and caring for my family through each pregnancy. I didn't have to build up strength or endurance; I already had it.
With each pregnancy I held on to a little weight after and I saw it. I still do. But something changed between my third and fourth pregnancies. I began to see myself as an adult woman. I'll never again have a teenage body. I'll never again wear those sizes. That's ok because this body is able to things my 11-year old body couldn't. This body can carry a 25-pound little boy on a hip for hours. This body can carry a 65-pound tween on her back. This body has produced milk to nourish and build immune systems for 4 children beyond the toddler years. This body has been able to walk miles and miles for fitness and sanity. This body can stand for hours washing dishes and cooking. This body doesn't need to be fewer pounds. With every year that goes by, my body changes. Guess what? It's done that since I was born and yours has, too. Your 10-year old body was different from your 5-year old body. Your 15-year old body was even more different. And 20? More different still. It's supposed to be that way.
I can now see myself in the mirror for who I am. I am content with my body image, my clothes being larger than they were a couple years ago.
What I really want you to hear, and lean in because I love you and care deeply about you, is this: I understand. I, too, have a memory of when I first became aware of body image. It stinks, but recognize it for what it is. A lie. Satan wants you to hang on to that lie and forget that you are fearfully and wonderfully made. He wants you to forget that you were created in the image of God. Second, that boy or girl, who said something that introduced you to the lie, had limited experience and vocabulary based on his age and education at the time. You'd probably recently hit a growth spurt, out of your control, and that person had no idea the long-term ramifications of the comment. Chances are he or she would feel terrible today if they knew that it affected you for so long, especially if they have a daughter or a son who has a distorted sense of body image. Forgive that person and let it go. Believe what the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." 1 Samuel 16:7
I'm praying today for everyone who will read this, for that memory to fade, for God to replace it with TRUTH and His image of you, and for that comment or memory or image or whatever grips you to be insignificant to you. "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight." 1 Peter 3:3-4