“When you get thin again, can I have your bigger clothes?”
Someone at a party asked one of my friends that last week. If I squint really hard and ignore toxic body shaming culture, I might be able to imagine that this person thought she was giving my friend a compliment. “That’s a great outfit! You’re such a fit person you’ll lose that baby weight just like that! You’re so pretty in that — I wish I looked like you!” I guess?
My friend is a fitness instructor, a former body builder, and someone who has fought disordered eating, body shaming and body obsession for a long time. Her mission is to support women to love their bodies for what they can do, whatever shape or ability that is, to help them build emotional and physical strength. She’s absolutely beautiful, luminous and kind, inside and out.
She had a baby six weeks ago. She worked out throughout her pregnancy in a careful way, had a healthy birth and gorgeous wee baby, and has worked hard to love and be at peace with her larger body. She went to that party feeling like she looked great.
And this one comment completely knocked the breath out of her, shredded the colourful, silken threads of self love she’d spun, painstakingly, one at a time.
Body shaming and body policing are so much a part of our culture that a lot of the time, we don’t even notice them, unless they are shockingly overt — like this gym in Connecticut that sent out an email telling its customers to grab their excess flesh and imagine what that would look like in summer photos — “god forbid, a side pic sitting down!” — or the dank pockets of the celebrity internet that define women only through their bodies and competition. I won’t link to these places, but one of this week’s headlines speaks for them all: With the spotlight strong, can Duchess Meghan outdo Kate Middleton’s success in restoring her pre-baby body?
Most of these moments are so woven into our day to day lives that they’re noteworthy only when they hit us right in the most tender parts of our souls. But whether or not we notice them, they twist how we experience ourselves. And even when we have huge feminist reflexivity about this, we still get entangled.
Over the past few months, I’ve been committing some of those body shaming microaggressions on myself. I’m 54. I’m not quite menopausal, but Things are Definitely Changing in my body. I’m fit and active — I’ve worked out 148 times so far this year, and am well on my way to hitting 300 or more again for the year. I’m loving feminist crossfit, and training on a sweet new bike for this trip I’m doing with Susan, Sam, Sarah and others in Newfoundland in two weeks.
But I’ve also gained weight this year. Even though several people have commented on how “buff” I look from the crossfit, have said I look fit — even hot — all I see is a heavier, thicker middle. My clothes don’t fit — not my favourite jeans, or a lot of my work clothes. I’ve become that middle aged woman wearing crossfit shoes, leggings, a flowy top and an Interesting Scarf to everything. It’s disheartening to have to shove piece after piece of clothing back into the closet. And I’ve taken to making comments about myself that chastise myself for the weight gain. Out loud. To others. You know the ones.
I know in my head that I’m fit and strong. I have a lot of joy from moving my body. I know that some of my weight gain is muscle, and some of it is being 54 and endlessly menstruating. Because I’m still having mostly regular periods at this advanced age, I seem to be always experiencing the PMS-y hormones that make me bloated. I also have some gut issues that contribute to bloatiness. (And god knows, I probably sleep with the light on).
And at the same time, I’m in the “menopausal transition,” which includes, as this study puts it, “unfavorable alterations in body composition, which abruptly worsen at the onset of the menopausal transition and then abate in postmenopause.” Those “unfavorable alterations” are basically an increase in fat mass in the average woman that doubles every year for the key time of menopause (about three years), and a loss of lean mass.
Our bodies change when we’re 12 or so, and it’s unnerving then. Pregnancy is a hormonal carnival. A few people’s bodies seem to experience birth and breastfeeding without any noticeable lingering effect, but most are changed in some way forever. The waxing and waning of hormones affects our mental health, our energy, our appetites, our sleep, our metabolism, our immune systems. Peri-menopause is another unpredictable extravaganza, and then there is all of the older life stuff. There is no “set point.” It’s dynamic, always.
That is life, and this is what my body is at this stage of my life. Just like my post-partum friend’s body is what it is. There is no “back to normal” — there is only forward, aging, changing bodies, and the challenge of loving ourselves as we are, finding our fierce warrior selves.
The force of all of this shows up in so many ways. My friend said this morning “I don’t mind my bigger body but I hate that none of my clothes look good, and I can’t afford to buy new clothes right now.”
Not fitting into my clothes is a big trigger for me, too. After she said that, I had a warrior moment. (Well, a warrior moment with a credit card. I’m privileged in that I can afford this, right now). I went on a mission to my favourite store that features affordable Canadian designers. I decided I was going to leave with a wardrobe of work and dressy casual clothes that made me feel good in my body, felt good on my body, inspired me. I realized I hadn’t actually bought new warm weather work clothes in about three years, always waiting for that moment when my other clothes would fit me again.
I bought five dresses, two pairs of leggings and two tops. They fit me well. They flare and cling in the right places. I feel strong and pretty in them. I feel grown up, not middle aged. (This is Emmylou, checking them out).
They’re a departure from what I’ve been wearing. And trying them on, having a good shopping experience, finding things that work for my body as it is — I tilted back up into liking myself again.
I think I’ll go get an ice cream cone.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto. She blogs here two or three times a month.