What, exactly, is the deal with how we tend to see our own body, and its capabilities?
I mean, there are lots of things my body is physically incapable of doing. It can’t pole vault, or dance professionally, or do head-spins. It can’t run and win medals, it can’t do a back-flip on a balance beam. It can’t do a triple toe-loop on skates (it can’t even do a single toe-loop on the damn floor whilst wearing socks!). It can’t do a round-house kick, a handstand, a back-bend from a standing position, or put its feet behind its neck. It can’t stand on one foot with arms extended overhead for too long, or do summersaults from a high-dive board or hold its breath underwater for seven minutes. The list goes on and on. And you know what? I am OK with my body not being able to bring home eight Olympic gold medals, or do 200 push-ups. Or, you know, do a graceful pirouette on my toes. So why – why, why, why – do I try to force my body into a shape and down to a weight that it simply cannot attain?
Here is the deal: I swam competitively for years and years, and practiced twice a day, every day, except Sunday, when I practiced once. I held an Ontario swimming record for the backstroke for two years. I was in tip-top, prime and fine physical condition. I had leg muscles upon leg muscles, shoulder and back muscles I’d kill to have again, and could swim 140 fast laps without even breathing hard. And I was still – by today’s BMI standards – ‘heavy’. When I was about 15 years old, and in the best shape of my goddamned life, I probably weighed in at about 145 solid and glorious pounds. This tells me a few things about my body:
1. It is heavy. According to my mother, all the women in my family have dense bones… and thank God! Brittle bones are scary, especially as we get older, and lose calcium. After a certain age, a broken bone is just a few steps away from sickness and death. The women in my family have heavy bones… great for my health, bad for the numbers on the scale. My Mom is much smaller than I am, with about half my shoulder width, and at the moment, she weighs 140 pounds. I almost fell off my chair when she told me that – she truly looks as if she weighs about 115 pounds. Moral: bone weight is deceptive, and skews the scale.
2. My body is large, curvy and prone to muscle, it is not slim, streamlined or delicate. I suppose I am more Amazon Woman than Willow-like Waif. Hear me roar!
3. According to my BMI – the Body Mass Index is pure evil, by the way, and I believe that it is utter bullshit – I should weigh around 120 pounds. One hundred and twenty pounds!! Let me just pause and get over my absolute, complete and total shock at this number, and the absolute, complete and total impossibility of me ever, ever, ever getting to this number on the scale. Ever. OK, maybe if I had some terrible illness, I’d get there. But is that the way I’d even want to see that number down between my toes? And besides, what I’d have to do to get and stay there would be so devastating to my quality of life, it would be pointless and empty.
I have to point out that the BMI calculates based on height and weight ALONE – nothing about shoulder width, hip width, muscle mass, bone density, etc. It does not take into account resting heart rate, cholesterol, oxygen in the blood, the balance of one’s body chemistry, if one is a smoker or not, if one consumes alcohol at a reckless rate or not, if one eats fruit and veggies or not, if one exercises or not. In short, it is NOT the best way to determine if you are in good health. After all, weight is just one indicator of health, and as more and more research is starting to show, weight is a very misguided and misleading indicator, in many ways.
So, OK. I hear you now: does this mean that I plan to sit around and stuff my face with chocolate and give up walking? Have I given up, given in, and decided to let myself go? Like hell I have.
This is where my head is starting to go on this whole issue: my body cannot do certain things, and one of these things is being slim and light. Even at my best, I was broad-shouldered, muscular and heavy. So why force my body to do something that it simply cannot and will not do? Why starve it to reach a goal weight that I’d have to stay starving in order to maintain? I mean, nobody expects me to force my body to do ballet professionally, or to become a tight-rope walker, do they? Imagine your mother or irritating Aunt Mabel saying something like that to you: “You’d be so much more popular if you just took up professional ski jumping.” Like, huh? So why do we force, contort, starve and carve our poor bodies into a shape they simply cannot attain or maintain?
So, I appreciate what athletes can do; I cheer for medalists and love watching the amazing strength combined with grace they embody. I love watching professional dancers and I marvel at how easy they make such hard work look. I can only imagine how many years of punishing practice it took for them to get to their skill levels, and I think of the dedication, commitment and sacrifice. I admire their talents, I cheer them on and I respect their amazing abilities… and I never for one second expect to be able to do what they do. And I am determined to learn to do the same with people who are slim. I will look at how nicely their clothes hang on them, and I will admire their razor-sharp cheekbones and I will smile when they grab the size 2 skirt – but I will not expect the same of myself, and I will not let that take away from my sense of self any longer.
What can my body do? Well, it can swim and lift weights and is pretty damn good at yoga. What does it like? Coffee, romaine lettuce, eggs, chicken, fish, pineapple and cream cheese. It likes potato chips and red licorice and green tea and pasta and brown bread and real butter. And since my body is prone to muscle and I won’t give up carbs ever again, what can I reasonably expect from it, starting from now? With regular exercise and better eating, I can expect it to tighten up, and get stronger. That’s about it. It won’t get much lighter, though it will get more compact, making me smaller. But will I get to 120 pounds? Nope. Never. And that’s OK.