I’m borrowing the title from the ever-inspiring, Mary Lambert, an artist I saw this past Valentine’s Day. I was thoroughly moved by her presence and sensitivity as a songwriter and if anyone handles the topic well, it’s Ms. Lambert. I was about 13 when my body love took a back seat and I began to have weight concerns. I was completely healthy physically, slender and tall, but thanks to Oprah, my mom, and the select and opinionated friends and family dealing with their own weight issues in my life, I became gripped with terror that obesity was inevitable.
My close and overweight friend around this challenging transition into woman-child suggested with certainty that skinny people were bound to be fat adults and chubby kids always slimmed down in time. Little scientific evidence was needed for me considering every older heavy person in my inner circle would boast of how slender they once were (just like me) and when I was older I’d get fat and my metabolism would screech to a halt. Oprah didn’t help much either. In the 90’s, she was on every fad diet to come around and as a teen responsible for preparing the family dinner each night and counting calories, suffice to say I became completely neurotic.
Calorie counting went by the wayside when I realized that turning 20 (or 30, for that matter) didn’t mean I would blow up like a hot air balloon. I led (and lead) a very active life and reward myself with a cardio class or extra few miles of walking in Central Park whenever I overindulge in a caloric vice. But that said, weight maintenance and a quest for physical perfection marry into a haunting little voice that follows me around everywhere. I religiously take yoga and in spite of the non-competitive nature of the practice, I can’t help but compete with myself and aspire to the next double-jointed pose and capacity for fifty chaturangas (the equivalent of a yoga push-up).
Today I ventured to Coney Island on a solo beach escape on a perfect, sunny day. The beach was less crowded than one would expect during the height of the season and I set up camp near the shoreline. Within an hour, a group of friends in their twenties parked their towels and umbrella close to me. I was deeply immersed in “The History of Love,” a book I read with intent as a library notification popped up on my phone declaring it was due imminently. As I was reading, two of the ladies to my right raised their voices and waved in my direction.
“Ma’am. Excuse us! Yes, hello? Excuse us,” they implored.
I felt myself recoil a bit. “Ma’am.” It always feels like I’ve aged fifty years instantly the moment someone calls me “ma’am.” My boyfriend, a native Texan, insists its the only proper way to address a woman and it is a courtesy, not a signifier of age. I set my book to my side, peering over my shades and expecting the group had outgrown selfies and wished for me to take a photo.
“We just wanted to tell you. You’re so hot. You just have a hot body,” the ivory-skinned girl under her newly purchased umbrella replied. I had witnessed her haggle down the price of the umbrella for 20 bucks to 12 after an entrepreneurial beach wanderer came by with his bag of tchotchkes. She was brazen.
“We were just thinking that you don’t even realize how hot you are. You’re just sitting there and reading and we thought you should know you look amazing,” her friend chided in.
I’m lousy with compliments. “I was really just thinking how pale I’ve gotten from being out of the sun all month and feeling a little fat.” It was true. I had been negotiating my planned consumption of Nathan’s cheese fries with a determination to leave the beach in time to make it to “vicious Pilates,” a class that lives up to the hype of the pseudo-name coined by the drill sergeant of an instructor.
“You look gorgeous. Don’t even think that,” the umbrella girl responded.
“I’ll be sure to remind my boyfriend. Thank you. That’s very nice to hear,” I said, trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to accept their kind words with grace.
“You can go back to the book. Sorry for the interruption but you look great. You’re in amazing shape. Carry on!”
I did carry on. And when the initial uneasiness wore off I began to feel really happy and warm all over (maybe the intense sun helped with that a little). While I was picking away at all my mortal flaws, complete strangers were sending me a contradicting message. I texted a close female friend and she quickly replied that of course I had a great body and just who were we comparing ourselves to?
I realize that’s another component of the problem. My friend, who also works in the entertainment industry, is used to the comparison to photoshopped ads, runway models with frighteningly low BMIs, and a lifestyle that prohibits physical flaws. It also prohibits loving the bodies we are in.
A few hours later, before I skirted out the door to “vicious Pilates” with a sticky dusting of sand and sunscreen on my arms and the lingering memory of over-salted cheesy crinkle cut fries I enjoyed guilt-free thanks to my beach neighbors, I recounted the random compliments I received to my boyfriend.
“Oh I bet they were lesbians. Were they hitting on you?” he inquired with a playful smile.
“No, I heard one of them venting about her absent boyfriend.”
“Sure. But they were probably lesbians,” he said, half-joking and half serious.
“Why would you think that?”
“Because girls are always competing with each other you don’t think a straight girl would compliment another girl?”
“Well, pretty much,” he responded, his interest in the entire topic waning.
In my ensuing Pilates class, ninety percent occupied by strong and aspirational women, I looked around and realized how much we should all be complimenting one another. How we should all be enjoying our bodies and physical strength and beauty. And how I feel obliged to pass it forward to other women, no matter how physically stunning they may be or may not be, that in their own way they are amazing and beautiful forces. Compliments of this nature can cause a dramatic shift in thinking, as the self-loathing and critiques are suddenly not so profound or valid. And I can only imagine the seismic shift of consciousness that would occur if as women, we really all took the time to appreciate the amazing physical capabilities we’ve been given.