Baltimore Women and Body Image: Five Commandments for Self-Acceptance

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1920s female jogger

Recently I found myself wondering if the average American woman might not be evolving toward more self-acceptance where weight and body image are concerned — mightn’t voluptuous singer Adele’s wild popularity result in less rigidity in the media’s rulebook for how we’re all supposed to look? Adele is a world-famous sensation — and she’s a big girl. (True, she’s dropped some extra pounds since her throat surgery, but she remains full-figured, which seems to be what her body wants.) After Vogue editor Anna Wintour predictably ordered the singer’s spring cover airbrushed to slim her, fans were outraged and critics vocal globally.

“Confidence-Boosting Tips from Real Women 9 to 99,” a gorgeous photo essay in Shape, shot by Mary Ellen Mark, hoisted my optimism higher — walking readers through a diverse tour of physically active women, like yoga instructor Robin Wald, 42, who celebrates her fierce strength and consciously overlooks her perpetually flabby “Mommy” tummy, the piece reminds me that my body is, well, myself, my support system, my shelter, my stability and, in turn, my fragility. Bottom line: The body is a bodacious miracle whether you’re naturally a skinny mini or a zaftig diva.

My more specific question became: In our weight-obsessed culture, is it slowly starting to become mainstream-acceptable for a woman to encourage her body to exist in the shape and size it’s meant to be, based on genetics and personal nature? Someday soon, will fewer American women be obsessed with thinness and, on the other side of the hamburger patty, will fewer be dangerously obese? (Maryland’s obesity rate is 77 percent.)

Then an article published late last month in The Washington Post“Black Women Are Heavier and Happier with Their Bodies Poll Finds” by Lonnae O’Neil Parker — complicated my question. Seems a recent survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation has proven that African-American women generally have higher self-esteem and a better body image regardless of their size: The study showed that only 41 percent of average or “thin” white women reported high self-esteem while 66 percent of overweight black women pledged such confident status.

“The notion that all women must be culled into a single little-bitty aesthetic is just one more tyranny, they say. And black women have tools for resisting tyranny, especially from a mainstream culture that has historically presented them negatively, or not at all,” writes O’Neil Parker. “Freed from that high-powered media gaze, generations of black women have fashioned their own definitions of beauty with major assists from literature and music — and help from their friends.”

This all sounds great to me. And O’Neil Parker has funny fun quoting pro-curves song lyrics from “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot — “Give me a sister/I can’t resist her/Red beans and rice didn’t miss her” — but points out early in the longish article that black women who embrace bulk may be setting themselves up for consistent weight gain and eventual obesity — plus life-threatening complications. That doesn’t sound great to me.

On one hand, the idea that many black women are more accepting of their natural curves seems empowering and healthy, an approach many white women can learn from; on the other, it strikes me as a form of acting out irresponsibly, rebelling perhaps too far to the BMI extreme against a downright mean mainstream message. Gaining excessive weight definitely goes against honoring your natural form, your body’s “way.”

Sharon Nevins, VP of marketing for the Maryland Athletic Club, agrees that such a cavalier attitude toward weight can become “kind of dangerous.”

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Nevins says. “I like the idea that African-American women are less conscious about being overweight. It’s great to be comfortable with self…but…if their body fat is above 30 percent, it can be dangerous.”

Meanwhile the report’s discovery that a significant number of “thin” white women aren’t feeling too good about themselves derailed my earlier self-acceptance-is-selling-widely theory.

So my latest question is this: How can we all develop realistic criteria for personal fitness while simultaneously building buff body-esteem, ladies? Can’t we possibly learn from one another, black women, white women, and everyone?

Last spring, I attended a packed Pilates class in Timonium that kicked my butt — the jiggle-free instructor blasted fast music and dropped remarks meant to motivate, such as, “You can change the body you were born with! I did! I transformed my shape completely!” As I attempted to lift my legs off the ground like slow-motion slicing scissors, I realized I didn’t care to commit to radical transformation. But more recently I’ve begun to study Stott Pilates — developed in Toronto — with May-Sann Yee, an MD at Johns Hopkins and Pilates instructor-in-training.

Yee’s Pilates-infused philosophy echoes the thinking of several friends and workout buddies of mine — we say want to make our bodies fitter and have fun doing it; we say we want to love the bodies we’re meant to inhabit. (I believe we mean to manifest these things and also to banish our tendency to worry neurotically about thinness.)

“Stott Pilates helps people make the best of the body they have inherited by giving them an overall sense of increased self-confidence and well-being that are the result of understanding how the body moves and experiencing first-hand improved strength, endurance, and flexibility,” Yee says. I’m glad she’s teaching me.

In closing — girls — as of right now, my guidelines for personal fitness are these: 1) Have fun working out regularly. 2) Aim not to compare yourself physically to other women. 3) Listen to your body — we all know instinctively when we’ve gained pounds that don’t feel natural or right according to our body’s way; we all know when we’ve lost too much. 4) Learn more about nutrition, eat well, and incorporate treats. And I’d add a fifth essential one: Laugh more and seek advice from philosophical pals.

My hilarious copywriter friend Jessica Bizik can help. She worked at the MAC doing PR and has given plenty of thought to the female-body-image conundrum.

“When I worked at the gym, I noticed lots of African American women came in pairs — either with friends or family,” Bizik says. “So exercising became a natural extension of their social circle; something fun to do together. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of white women have kick-butt workout buddies, too. But there was just something cool about the black babes. They were fearless! I’ve seen 200-pound grandmothers Zumba dancing with reckless abandon — while wearing a Spandex tube top, no less! Clearly, these women feel sexy — and it’s a beautiful thing.

White women, on the other hand, tend to consider exercise as a form of punishment — like, ‘I ate a cupcake today, so I better go to spin class.’

But we’re working on it. My friends and I recently made a pact to enjoy judgment-free zones, where we support each other in healthy decision making, seek joy when we’re working out, and occasionally indulge in drinks or dessert guilt-free when we damn well please.”

Tell us: What’s your newest fitness pact or body revelation?



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4 COMMENTS

  1. Do men not figure — so to speak — into this body-acceptance equation at all? Just wondering. Meanwhile, long before Sir Mix-a-Lot declaimed “Baby Got Back,” Joe Tex declared, from the opposing standpoint, “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman).” He nearly cracked the Top 10 with that triple-negative-invoking record.

    • Tartlet, two good points. Joe Tex factoid, check. And certainly men figure into the body-acceptance equation. Many men suffer from eating disorders (though far fewer males than females); many men are obese. As a woman, I feel more qualified to discuss off the cuff the conflict for women, which is a significant one indeed. But let’s broaden the dialogue! And I’ll aim to post about men + the body sometime soon. Thanks, T.

  2. As a white girl who has struggled with body image and a mama who struggles with weight (yet doesn’t want to pass on a legacy of constant dissatisfaction to her daughter), I love your take on accepting your body, striving for health over perceived perfection and surrounding yourself with true friends and real support.

    I completely agree that you can love and accept your true body without looking like a media stereotyped ideal. My personal goal is to take the respect for that I have for this body that has safely carried me through so much, and turn that into determination to keep it healthy.

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