Saturday, July 26, 2008

Long-winded Rant on Body Image

Sometimes, it seems like the Army almost encourages bad eating habits and negative body image. When I was in my Anthropology class on food and culture, the text book had a short section on eating disorders, and mentioned briefly that they were more prevalent in certain institutions, such as the military.

It's not that the Army has a higher standard than the rest of the society. However, the height and weight standards don't always seem to take natural body types into consideration. We have people in the company that can't pass height/weight, struggle to pass the tape test for body fat, but work out more and are more physically fit (and I don't just mean weight lifting, these people can run, too) than many of the more slim and fit-looking people. I think this may be the only place in my life where I've really heard men talk about how they really need to lose weight, and can't eat certain meals because they have to maintain weight (I didn't hang out with any wrestlers in high school). Every other time I've heard men go on about their appearance, they've discussed the desire to get big, and there is some of that going on here as well.

When I was a cadre member at camp, the cadets got weighed and taped as necessary two or three days in. Anyone who failed got redone two weeks later. One of my cadets went from failing his tape to not even needing taped within two weeks because he'd lost that much weight (about 15 pounds)*. On the one hand, good for him, he didn't have to worry about it for the rest of the summer. On the other hand, we're encouraging horrible dieting habits.

Back in college, a friend of a friend was in ROTC at a different university. Apparently, the week before a weigh in, he would only eat “onion soup” - meaning, onion boiled in water. He also wouldn't drink the day before the weigh in. Obviously this is an extreme example, and it's more of a crash diet than a life style.

I remember everyone in ROTC, especially the women, always dreaded getting taped. Especially for shorter women, the standards occasionally seemed a little extreme, so there wasn't any shame in it, but there's still a little voice saying, "damn, I'm fat." For most of college, I didn't have to worry about. When I gained weight, it happened to be at the same time my weight allowance went up due to age. I was still always very close to that line, and always fought for my half inch (half an inch means they have to round up and an inch makes a difference of about five pounds). Now, I'm definitely at the point where I need taped and I'm not exactly happy about it.

For the most part, I think I have a more or less healthy attitude about my body. However, I hate the idea of getting taped, and I am unhappy about the fact that I gained around fifteen pounds this deployment. On the one hand, I don't think I necessarily look that much worse (it's noticeable, don't get me wrong, but I'm tall and I have a build that can hide weight relatively well), but I know my jeans aren't going to fit comfortably. I don't want to kill myself trying to lose a few pounds, and I'm afraid if I start trying to diet, I'll get obsessive. Additionally, what exactly would be wrong with having a few extra pounds? Why should I feel some need to conform to society's beauty standards? To quote one professor's T-shirt (I always wanted that shirt), "Fuck your fascist beauty standards."

And yet, I liked where I was at before I came here (I admit even then I wouldn't have complained about losing five pounds, but I was comfortable with my body). Also, I think I still tend to be slightly superficial as far as what attracts me in men, so can I really expect them to date me when I don't meet a certain ideal if I wouldn't really be interested in them? Obviously, personality is important and all, but I've actually dated some rather traditionally attractive men.

I wouldn't say I've ever been completely happy with my body, but I've definitely learned to be comfortable with it, and would even go for long periods without obsessing about my weight or looks. It took me some time to get there, but I had reached that point with the occasional regression here and there in college. I think part of the reason it may have taken me longer to get there than it should have is because I was one of the "chubby" kids in elementary school and I didn't actually notice when I'd grown out of the baby fat, and continued to think of myself in that way for quite a while. Also, as a teenager, I was still under the impression that I needed to be a size 4 or 6.**

I went through a few diets in elementary school, junior high school and high school, some more short-lived than others. The worst one was my freshmen year, when I was taking my lunch to school and packing exactly ten Saltine Crackers every day (120 calories). My senior year I lost almost twenty pounds, somehow. I regained about 15 pounds by the time I started college.

I was basically happy with my body for the first two years of college. I worked out regularly with ROTC, and occasionally, I'd also do extra things on my own. The second semester of my junior year, I really started focusing on getting in shape for camp, and while I didn't lose too much weight, I toned, and my jeans definitely became looser. Yet, after the first month or two of working out at which point I was proud of what my body was doing and my improving PT scores, I started becoming more frustrated with my appearance than I had been before. I liked the muscles I had, but noticed flab in spots I hadn't even considered before. And I was unhappy that certain muscles weren't larger and more defined.

During summer camp, I gained about ten pounds, and it never came back off. I wasn't exactly feeling too confident about myself when I got to school, but I didn't obsess or spend too much time trying to lose it, either.

My first year out of college, I remained at that same weight but I finally stopped feeling uncomfortable about it. As bad as it sounds, it helped that more guys were interested in me that first year out of college than my whole time in college. Apparently not being around a bunch of perfect looking college women helped. And, admittedly, there aren't many women in the Army so that always increases opportunities. I guess I figured that if they found me attractive the way I was, I probably didn't need to conform to society's standards. Also, I realized that no matter what, I wasn't going to completely change my life over a few pounds. I like going out to eat, I like junk food, and even if I'd like to lose five pounds, I'm not going to give up eating something I want because of calories. I recently was watching The Biggest Loser on television, and this one woman had won a pass to go visit her friends and got a break from training temporarily. She went out to eat and ordered a pizza with no cheese and a salad with the dressing on the side. She then dunked her fork in the dressing each time before stabbing one piece of lettuce. I'm sorry, but the perfect body isn't worth that. I have no desire to revolve my life around what I'm not eating.

When I first got to Iraq, I was working out more (I had a work out partner), and once again while I wasn't losing weight, I was getting in better shape, and improved my PT score. However, I once again noticed that as soon as I started on an intensive work out program, I was obsessing about my appearance much more than I had before. I was getting pissed about the fact that I wasn't losing weight and generally felt like I wasn't seeing results soon enough.

I recently read Courtney Martin's Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and really loved her discussion on the whole body image thing. I've since given a copy to one friend, and lent it to one of my Soldiers (who says she keeps getting pissed off while reading the book because "it's so true"). In addition to discussing women's body images, she discusses men's actions and influence on women’s thought process. And I have to agree, it can be so difficult to understand what men exactly think.

On the one hand, they say they understand the difference between Hollywood women and real women, but it can be hard to believe when every time you're in their room, they have a different scantily clad size 0 model with huge breasts as their computer wall paper (at some point, if they are so surrounded by certain images, aren’t they going to expect and want that at all times?). Or when they mention women in Hollywood they find hot, and it's like they're reading off Maxim's most current top ten list. "Jessica Alba, etc." Can't they at least be a little original and say Tina Fey - at least she's also funny and smart. Or Kate Winslet – she’s slightly more real looking, chooses interesting movies and appears to have a personality. Or when a guy says, "I'd get a divorce if my wife ever gained twenty pounds," how exactly am I not supposed to develop a complex about my appearance when I put on fifteen? Or when I say, "I would like to lose some weight," meaning five or ten pounds, and the guy of the moment responds with "if you changed your eating habits, you could easily lose twenty to thirty pounds," how the hell am I supposed to react? By the way, this was before the fifteen pound weight gain. And I haven't been below 150 since high school, and I can't even remember being below 140, so fuck you. 30 pounds, my ass.

Basically, I hate that my weight and appearance occupy as much of my thoughts as they do. And that I somehow feel like I should conform slightly more to society, and at the very least, lose the weight I gained. I know fat and fat acceptance is also a part of feminism, and while I agree that people should stop judging people on their weight and appearance, I have internalized enough of the dominant beliefs where I have to admit that I don't want to be fat. The stigma attached to being "fat" and the obsession with weight in our culture are ridiculous but I, too, want conform to it enough to not be labeled fat.

*There is a height/weight chart. Based on a person's height, he/she is allotted a certain amount of weight. If he/she is over that weight, he/she gets taped to check if his/her body fat percentage is within regulation.

**Now my parents have always complimented my appearance, and told me I looked great the way I was, but even they made a few comments in over 24 years of parenting that weren't exactly helpful. Such as when I was in third grade and my mom refused to let me have another slice of pizza, telling me I would thank her later. Or the time in high school when my mom asked if I'd put on weight because my dad thought my butt was getting big and he was afraid to bring it up to me. For the most part, when I got into arguments about my appearance with my mom, though, it was more about my clothing - she wanted me to put more of an effort into my clothes rather than wearing baggy T-shirts (junior high). She was always the one finding the mini-skirts, telling me I should wear them while I was still young and able to pull them off. Naturally, I didn't agree with her about my ability to "pull them off" at the time.


Beautiful Women Project said...

You are an amazing woman - your weight is such a small part of who you are as a person. Reread your post - look at everything that you have accomplished in your life. These accomplishments fare outweigh a small weight gain. At The Beautiful Women Project - we believe that it is the sum of a woman's life experience that makes her beautiful. You are brave and bold. You are aware of the world around you and your place in it. Everything that you have done to this point in your life makes up your beauty. With your drive, you create the person you wish to be. That is your image - your body is strong and supports you and just a small part of who you are as a woman.

Katertot said...

I identify with that pain so much. Men don't understand the influence that they have. I too was a chubby kid, and I've struggled with weight, self-image, eating disorders, etc.

I realized lately that if there were no men anymore that I wouldn't even care much about my weight. That my self-worth is so habitually based on what males think (after all, they were the ones who harrassed me over it when I was a kid) that I would probably recover and never care about it again.

Women are so scared and insecure about becoming old and alone and it seems like being thin is some kind of guaranteed antidote to that, which it isn't really. Or is it? I would love to get past the pain, the obsession, the preoccupation that has driven my life but it comes in small steps. It seems like no matter what I accomplish, it is always the driving force for how I feel about myself. How the hell did this happen? And how can it be undone? I mourn the lost time spent with this horrible mind-disease.

Courtney said...

Hey Jen, I'm so glad you're writing about these issues in the military. I knew nothing about that specific context and how bad it can be for both women and men...
And thanks for passing the book along!
(author of Perfect Girls)

Liz said...

I had no idea weight was such a big factor in the military. As a mother of a child who struggled at one time with an eating disorder, I'm always interested in the topic, and in body image. Thanks for writing about the book.

I have another one that takes a humorous look at the topic of body image: Embracing Your Big Fat Ass. From fashion to working with a waddle, to romance with a big fat ass, this book is maga-valuable. It shows how body image affects every aspect of your life.

Tierce said...

I'm a new 2LT who's just heading off to BOLC II, but this was definitely an issue for me at LDAC last year. I failed the APFT, but lost about 15 pounds during camp, and eventually improved my score a lot. Also, I've been lucky because, being tall, I've never had to be taped. However, I've always been conscious of having "a few extra pounds", and of wanting a six-pak and/or biceps very badly. I've never talked with anyone about this, so I really have no idea how prevalent body image issues are among guys, but I think it's compounded by being combat arms.

At my ROTC program, there were always a number of females (mostly minorities) who were considered useless and ate-up, in part because of their weight. I'm embarrassed to say that my feelings towards these cadets were generally closer to contempt rather than understanding (at least before LDAC), even though I hardly interacted with them.

Outside of the Army, I remember one time when I said that I thought a girl with a more-than-Barbie-like figure was hot, my friends joked about it and said I had a case of beer-goggles. Obviously I'm not trying to compare my case with the pressures that women experience (perhaps I have learned something from lurking at Twisty ;) only trying to show how this sort of thing is reinforced among guys.

Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for writing about this and for sharing your own personal experiences.

xok said...

The post above says something like he finds a more than barbie figure attractive. What's wrong with that? On the same token what's wrong with a man or woman liking the 'hollywood' image and not being attracted to the non-hollywood image? Is he/she wrong because they like a certain body-type? What about hair color or skin tone? Is a man wrong because he is attracted to another man? Should they try to fight that attraction? Now, I would say that it is wrong if they try to compel someone to fit the image they desire as opposed to seeking out someone who already is that image.

I also agree that society places too much emphasis on weight but on the other hand some people take the 'feminist' stance as a justification of their laziness or poor health habits. I'm not talking about the 15 pounders out there but the men and women who are 100+ pounds over what a doctor says is a target and they say, 'oh, I'm happy with the way I look, I'm not going to conform to what society wants!' when they're just a health bill waiting to happen. It should be about health, not appearance. And if someone doesn't find your particular mix of appearance and personality attractive to them, fine, someone else will and you'll both be better off. As far as obesity and overweight goes I think that the way 'Western culture' has morphed our eating habits and marketed unhealthy processed foods is just as sinister as things hollywood have done.