My experiment got a little sidetracked, TBH.

By Anna Svoboda
September 16, 2019
Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images

I didn't see my body through the lens of self-worth until I was in sixth grade and still wearing clothes bought at Kids R Us. A mall outing soon revealed that my peers didn't wear size 12 girls and instead shopped at stores for teens.

I decided I needed to do something about this disparity. So the next Sunday at church, I balanced on my knobby knees and looked at the crucifix hanging on the wall, begging God to give me a body that could fit into juniors clothing: height, hips—I'd take anything. I wanted to fit into the clothes, but mainly, I wanted to fit in with the other bodies wearing them.

Then, I hit puberty and my boobs "came in." Meanwhile, I was doing sit-ups in my bedroom to get abs like Britney's. In college, I discovered queso and cheap beer—along with long-distance running and the occasional habit of binging and purging. I also learned that men could have opinions about my body, too. When a guy I was dating poked my stomach and said, "you should do something about that," I laughed it off but later tried to wick off his words with each bead of sweat. (Related: People Are Tweeting About the First Time They Were Body-Shamed)

So, no, my relationship with my body has never been healthy. But I've also found that unhealthy relationships are popular topics for me and my female friends, whether we're talking about bosses, ex-boyfriends, or the skin we're in. It bonds us. Saying things like "I just had like four pounds of pizza. I'm a disgusting monster," or "ugh, I need to haze myself at the gym after this wedding weekend," were the norm.

I started to rethink this when novelist Jessica Knoll published a New York Times opinion piece called "Smash the Wellness Industry." She used the Bechdel test as a point of reference and proposed a new kind of test in 2019: "Women, can two or more of us get together without mentioning our bodies and diets? It would be a small act of resistance and kindness to ourselves." I had spent so many days taking on other challenges—a 30-day yoga challenge, giving up sweets for Lent, a keto-vegan diet—why not this one?

The rules: I wouldn't talk about my body for 30 days, and I'd gently try to shut down others' negative chatter. How hard could that be? I'd simply ghost a text, run to the restroom, change the subject...Plus, I was away from my usual crew (my husband's job recently moved us to London), so I figured I'd have fewer opportunities for all this nonsense to begin with.

As it turns out, this type of chatter is everywhere, whether it's dinner parties with new faces or What's App convos with old friends. Negative body image is a global epidemic.

Over the course of a month, here's what I learned:

People of all shapes and sizes are unhappy with their bodies.

Once I started paying attention to these conversations, I realized everyone was having them—regardless of body type and size. I talked to people that fall into the 2 percent of American women who actually have runway bodies, and they have their complaints, too. Moms feel like there's this ticking clock dictating when they *should* be back to pre-baby weight. Brides think they *should* be losing ten pounds because everyone (myself included) says "the stress makes the weight fall right off." Clearly, this problem is about more than size or the number on the scale.

It's hard to avoid social media conversations.

I've never been one to put up pics of my body, mainly because I've never been proud enough to flaunt it. But it's still hard to avoid all the conversations we have about our bodies on the internet. Some of those convos are truly body-positive (#LoveMyShape), but if you're trying to avoid the chatter altogether, Instagram is a minefield.

And a deceiving one. Before this challenge, my sister showed me apps that let you nip your stomach in and pull your hips out and get a Kardashian silhouette in just a few taps. While visiting my best friend Sarah in the U.S., we downloaded one that made our frames look svelter, teeth brighter, and skin smoother. We ended up posting our unedited pics, but let me tell you, it was tempting to post the more flattering ones. So, how do we know which pics on our feed are real, and which are photoshopped?

Checking your *thoughts* is another story entirely. 

Even though I wasn't talking about my body, I was thinking about it constantly. I kept daily logs about the food I ate and the conversations I heard. I even had a nightmare in which I was publicly weighed on a giant scale, showing in glowing red numbers that I was 15 pounds heavier than I had ever been. Even though I've had my body image issues, I've never dreamt about my weight before. It's like I was obsessing about not obsessing.

It's not just about what you say—it's about how you feel.

I wasn't feeling great. This silenced topic was like an awkward weight-conscious elephant in the room. By trying to find balance, I was teetering out of control. I was working out every morning. I was trying not to overthink my diet but unconsciously taking stock. I skipped breakfast; for lunch, I'd eat a salad and vegan chocolate peanut butter cup chased by a double-espresso; post-work I would entertain visitors over 10 p.m. pub grub, and when the clock struck 5 a.m. I'd jump out of bed to punish myself with another workout. Of course, a regular workout routine is a good thing for a lot of people, but I was feigning casualness while pushing my body to do the highest incline and fastest MPH at Barry's Bootcamp. And I wasn't enjoying it. Somehow, this experiment started messing with my head—and my health. (Related: What It Feels Like to Have Exercise Bulimia)

Speaking up about your health is a different thing.

I noticed what I thought was a heat rash after yoga one day. I ignored it for a few days until pain at the base of my skull and electric-shock zaps beneath the rash brought me to the GP. I felt silly when I told the doctor that it all seemed related. But I was right. He diagnosed me with shingles at age 33.

My immune system had crashed. My doctor told me I couldn't work out, and I started crying. This was my sole form of stress-relief, and I was trying to make new friends by scheduling workout dates. Exercise and wine were the only things I knew how to bond with women over. And now I could have neither. My doc said to eat healthy foods, get some sleep, and take off of work for the rest of the week.

Once I dried my tears, I felt a sort of relief wash over me. For the first time in my life, I was talking about my body in a meaningful way—not as a physical extension of my self-worth, but as a vital machine that makes me walk upright, breath, speak, and blink. And my body was talking back, telling me to slow down.

I decided to reframe the conversation.

In the middle of this challenge—and my diagnosis—I went back to the U.S. for two weddings. And while my goal was to not talk about my body, I found that silence maybe wasn't the best elixir. What started out as a covert mission to shut down conversations became a way to start positive dialogues and make people more mindful of these negative habits that lace our histories and have been passed down through the media, our role models, or mothers via their mothers' mothers.

I used to get anxious if I missed a workout or ate too many carbs, but while visiting New York, I started wandering the streets where I lived for more than a decade. I'd wake up early and walk twenty blocks to an arbitrary coffee shop I'd chosen on Google maps. This gave me time with my thoughts, to listen to podcasts, to stare at the chaos and able bodies functioning all around me.

I didn't stop talking about my body and my health. But when conversations turned to diets or dissatisfaction, I'd bring up Jessica Knoll's article. By zeroing in on—and yanking out—the pervasive weeds that have overtaken the wellness narrative, I found we could make room for new conversations to grow.

So in the spirit of these new conversations, I'm piggybacking her challenge with a challenge of my own. Instead of commenting on your friend's physical features, let's get deeper: Thank your friend for letting you crash for a week when you thought you had bed bugs (just me?), tell your funny coworker that her twisted sense of humor got you through 2013, or let your boss know that her business acumen inspired you to get your MFA.

I'd like to pull up a seat at that table and fearlessly dive into whatever topic we're discussing—and the vat of olive oil we're dunking our breadsticks in.

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