Reclaiming our Bodies
by Lee Warren and Corinna Wood
First published in WNC Woman, August 2011
I was standing at the counter waiting to talk to Connie, the attendant, while another patient was asking her, “Have you lost weight?”
“Maybe,” Connie responded with a shrug, “I had a horrible tooth ache last week and didn’t eat much.”
The woman, in her late 50’s and very thin, responded cheerfully, “Well, whatever it takes.”
I stood there with my eyes wide, my mouth agape, and a tangle of thoughts running through my head. “Are women still that deeply stuck in that paradigm? This woman is much older than Connie, why couldn’t she model healthy self-love? Was Connie’s weight (which is quite normal) more important than her toothache? Why didn’t she ask about Connie’s toothache? Am I alone in thinking that line of questioning was toxic?”
As I’ve had a chance to digest that experience, I realize that because I’ve personally worked so hard to shed my body shame, I’ve been ignoring how trapped women of all ages are in this mess. It seems like some level of self- or body-hatred or eating disorder is ubiquitous – almost all women have it. As a typical modern woman, I too have struggled with food, love, weight, and self-image. I have been desperate for healing, both physically and emotionally, my entire adult life. The road I chose was many-fold.
Among the top priorities were:
- Body acceptance by giving up dieting, refusing to be dissatisfied with myself, and letting myself settle into my natural weight.
- Protecting myself from the media, which gives us up to 3000 messages and images a day about how we aren’t good enough (if we let them).
- Refocusing my life on what feels good and enjoying a deeper relationship with my body.
- Choosing self-nurturance and inner parenting with regard to internalized voices of worthlessness. This mostly meant relearning to eat when and what I was drawn to, as well as replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk.
- Surrounding myself with women who have real bodies and real issues, finding mentors and models of women with real relationships to their bodies, and developing solid relationships with women as “sisters” in the struggle for liberation.
In thinking of my recent experience, and in preparation to write this article, I took out my notes from my “Love Your Body” presentation. About ten years ago, as part of this lifelong journey to heal my relationship with my body, I decided I wanted to research this issue and to get important information out to women who were still imprisoned by body-hatred. What I discovered was vast and overwhelming. And the worst part—the very, very worst part—are the lies we are told. As I researched, I found that these messages were both out there and inside me:
- Women are in need of constant adjustment.
- Women are worthless (or invisible) unless perfect.
- Women are how they look.
- Thinness equals happiness, success, self-control, and wealth.
- Model thinness is achievable, and masochistic techniques are acceptable.
- If you achieve perfection, what waits for you is the ideal life.
- You must conform or die; if you don’t achieve the ideal, you are a failure.
This kind of thinking sinks in. Often we become unhappy and preoccupied with ourselves and our low self-esteem. Our relationship with food suffers, sometimes starting with girls as young as six years old. Eating disorders take the turmoil to a whole other level.
I knew that self-care was the way out. And body-smarts. Most of the time we are focused on how our bodies look from the outside, which is only one tiny dimension. I wondered how many of us know how to answer these questions. Which part or aspect of our body: is strongest? is most injury‑prone? are we most comfortable with? are we least comfortable with? do others notice first? holds tension or trauma or grief? Or joy or pleasure or ecstasy?
So I’ve spent the last ten years trying to actually live more fully in my body; to inhabit it joyfully. To eat well and to heal. And to discover more of the truth. The truth I found:
- That real women are all shapes and sizes (an average American woman is size 16).
- The definition of “desirable” changes with culture. It has spanned rotund to emaciated, with various ideals in between.
- Research has proven that there is little or no difference in how fat and thin people eat and that diverse genetic backgrounds contribute to body size and weight.
- Models are unrealistically thin and video imaging changes their size and shape even more unrealistically, leaving us comparing ourselves with computer-generated images.
- The purpose of our body is much broader than beauty.
- Body acceptance is not related to weight (you can be any size and hate your body, and you can be any size and love your body).
- A person’s character is not related to their body size.
As I discover these things, I become free, and I develop a deeper relationship with my body. I want every woman to be free. And we aren’t there quite yet. I want to revisit that woman at the counter and say to her, “Instead of encouraging each other to be or weigh ‘less,’ let’s help each other remember these truths:”
- Women and girls are powerful and can be fully at home in their bodies.
- They naturally love food and the strength and beauty it gives them, uniquely and individually.
- Girls and women are natural leaders and are naturally connected to each other through mutual respect, play, and friendship.
- Women are strong, tough, in control of their own lives.
- Women are loving, brilliant, brave, and creative.
I’m still angry with John Robbins, the author of Diet for a New America. I was young (in my early twenties) and looking for affirmation and direction in my life when I discovered his book. In it he talks about the problems with factory-farmed animal products (which I still agree with) and suggests a strict vegan diet for both environmental and health reasons.
He went on to suggest that when women on this type of diet stop menstruating, they become more light, pure, and good. I was relieved, and thought “Oh, that’s why my periods have been coming only every couple of months, and it’s a good thing! I should keep going, cutting out these bad foods!”
Later, through deeper study and life experience, I learned about the dangers of low body weight and loss of menstruation (amenorrhea). Without adequate protein and fat, women’s bodies don’t regulate hormones properly, which can lead to loss of calcium and other minerals from their bones, adrenal and kidney depletion, and exhaustion. I succeeded in having the skinny model body type, but I found my health declining rapidly.
After experiencing many of these symptoms myself, I focused on learning about food and nutrition to uncover the truth about the myths we’re taught. Especially the ones that link a sick and weak body to “light, pure, and good.”
My relationship with food and my body has been such a victory. I went from underweight and mildly bulimic, struggling with food and my body—to a happy, peaceful, and healthy relationship with food and my body. And to honoring the cycles of my monthly moontimes. I realized that when we are optimally nourished, our bodies are fertile. It’s an integral, if messy, part of the rich, full, deep experience of being a woman.
The biggest part of healing has come through the concept of nourishment. When the body is given what it needs, it’s not starving. It can regulate to our ideal body weight. We may not look like a teenage stick-person, but our bodies will achieve the balance they need to keep us well. Some of my favorite resources regarding food are Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, Eat Fat Lose Fat by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig and the Weston Price Foundation website (westonaprice.org). They are focused on nutrient-dense food and strong bodies.
I’m so grateful to be surrounded by women who can work hard and play hard because they eat well. We are changing the face of beauty as we do so. What would the world be like if we demanded real nutrition on our grocery store shelves or demanded real images of women from our media? We’d move from the deep-seated misogyny of our culture that leaves women feeling that they need to deny themselves, to a culture where women’s creative energy can be freed up to care for themselves. Women could find their sacred work in the world—the ways that they can contribute to the healing of the planet.
Lee Walker Warren and Corinna Wood both live in a Cohousing Neighborhood at Earthaven Ecovillage. Corinna is the director of Southeast Wise Women, and Lee is an herbalist, writer, and manager of a pasture-based, cooperative farm.