Physical flaws – accepting yours and handling uncouth opinions from others

In middle school, we often walked our P.E. laps around “Big Bertha”, a heavily wooded lot adjacent to the main campus, with just enough of an incline on the last leg to really get your blood pumping.

As we got into a good rhythm, classmates moving at a similar pace would naturally fall into smaller sub-groups. One of these days, a girl that I thought was so popular and so together and so generally “it” (in every way that matters when you’re an insecure teen) fell into my group. Right as we rounded the corner in front of the teacher parking lot, she paid me a compliment I never would’ve have expected.

“Rebecca, you have really pretty legs.”

Um, what? My legs are veiny and they were in the ‘90s too. Pssst! This is why I am always harping on you not to cross your legs so much! Even back then, my legs weren’t particularly muscular or shapely, certainly not at all like the “gams” that Seventeen magazine would celebrate in its articles, or the “stems” that Christian admires when he retrieves the pink frilly pen that Cher drops on flirtatious purpose in Clueless. My legs were and are spectacularly average-looking.

“Um, thanks,” I said aloud, while in my head the monologue was more like, “Erin Mitchell just said I have pretty legs! Someone popular said I have pretty legs! OMG!” I made a mental note to check them out later in the girls’ bathroom, in hopes of seeing what Erin apparently saw. #dumbthingsmiddleschoolersthinkabout.

The fact that I am almost 45 years old, can’t remember what we ate for dinner two nights ago but distinctly remember this throwaway remark from someone I haven’t seen or thought about in decades should tell you that it was indeed a big deal at the time.

Not so many years later, it was the summer of 1996, and I was preparing to go off to college. Most every morning, I’d rise and grind, walking the considerably steep hill down Lime Rock Road to the high school track, where I’d run, walk and do stadiums before hoofing it back up that hill.

Teeny tiny Patagonia shorts were all the rage back then, and they didn’t freaking fit me – not even the largest size they sold them in. I was determined I’d fit into a pair before Bid Day, because that’s what you were “supposed to wear.”

I’d also heard the same awful urban legends every other girl going out for rush had heard, that the older sorority girls would have these Circle the Fat ceremonies, where they’d make you strip down to your undergarments, parade fraternity boys in front of you, and have them circle the parts of your body that didn’t pass muster.

I have no idea who started such a cruel story, and I am thankful to tell you nothing of the sort ever happened, nor did I ever hear about it happening to anyone else. But when you’re 18 and impressionable and about to go off on your own for the first time, you’ll believe a lot of the stupid stuff you hear.

Through exercise and portion control (always my nemesis), I did (barely) squeeze into some size 10 Patagonias on the day that I “ran home” to the sorority of my choosing, Pi Beta Phi. I look at those pictures now and think, “Damn I wish I’d realized then how good I actually looked.” I probably couldn’t fit one thigh into them now.

I was a regular at the Rec Center, not that it made much of a difference. Jiggly thighs are unfortunately part of the gene pool, babe, though I will tell you strength training, which I was very late to catch onto, makes a much bigger difference than spending umpteen sweaty hours on the elliptical.

A few years later, I was in my first real relationship. My first actual boyfriend, a truly wonderful fellow, and I know he didn’t mean to make me feel the way he did when this happened. We’d left Tuscaloosa super early one morning, en route to Atlanta for a visit to Six Flags with a bunch of his fraternity brothers. I remember exactly where we were on the interstate, because it was approaching the Lorna Road exit by the McDonald’s that leads to my parents’ house.

We were in his little white Saturn 2-door Coupe, bouncing a bit from the road. I was wearing a super cute pair of light khaki shorts and a sleeveless blouse from the Gap. On my very limited college budget, this was one of about three “Can’t you tell I’m effortlessly chic and laid back and fun to be around?” outfits that I had to my name.

Right as we passed that exit, I saw him glancing from the driver’s seat over at my left thigh. It was jiggling, partly from the road bounce and partly because I didn’t have a lot of muscle there. He pointed at it and smirked.

“It’s the road,” I countered, immediately squeezing my hamstrings and tightening up my core, hoping he wouldn’t notice. “And I should work out more.”

He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to; I was humiliated, and sat there quietly for a good stretch, until enough awkwardness had passed, the conversation then returning to something completely banal.

It didn’t send me into an emotional tailspin or anything (high fives here for having a strong sense of self, which I hope and pray daily that I am instilling in you), but I will never forget that moment, or how it made me feel.

Thank goodness for the wisdom and self-acceptance that comes with age and life experience.

Since then, I’ve matured enough to embrace a version of The Serenity Prayer, if it were written about our physical selves:

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the parts of my body I cannot change (veiny boobs and legs, and that “dog ear” by my DIEP flap scar)

The follow-through to change the things I can (weight, muscle mass, and overall strength so I can open the peanut butter jar without a gripper)

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

So far as physical appearance and weight management go, I’ve done (almost all) the stupid things we try when we are young. Don’t bother with SlimFast shakes. And that whole yarn about ‘if you can’t tone it, tan it’ only works to a point. On this note, spray tans weren’t an option when I bought into this idea. Please never, ever, ever use a tanning bed. Love, Your Mom circa 2000-2001.

I’ve also worked out like a madwoman and turned away desserts as a blushing bride determined to rock all the outfits, from bridal tea to rehearsal dinner to wedding to honeymoon.

And I’ve eaten with wreckless abandon, ballooning up into sizes I never thought I’d wear (it was a dark day when I had to break down and buy a size 16).

The year before I turned 40, I got serious and have kept up for almost five years now the lifestyle change I made for good. But if you ask me, a life without carbs is no life at all, so I’ve found what I think is a reasonably happy medium where I feel good and enjoy what I eat (and sometimes drink), while also understanding how to address the things about my body that I don’t love.

Even if we’re not talking about it, I know you’re right in the thick of that season where girls compare their looks with each other. Maybe you talk about it with your peer groups. Maybe it’s just the soundtrack in your head. Regardless, my daughter, please start each day feeling thankful for the body God gave you. Appreciate the brilliant mind and loving heart and peaceful soul that it holds.

Take good care of your body, with what you eat and how much you sleep and how often you exercise and what you ask of it.

As you see things you don’t like – and you will – let’s talk about it. There is no single, linear path to making the most of “what your mama gave you,” but I am here to make sure you stop any body shaming in its tracks, and to spare you from some of the ridiculous “beauty tips” that an uninformed teenager sometimes believes will actually work.

For the record:

  • Washing your hair with mayonnaise will not make it shinier.
  • Shaving your arm hair just makes it grow back thicker.
  • Stuffing (anything into) your bra is as uncomfortable as it is ineffective.

Oh, and me and my jiggly thighs will love you until the day after forever!

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