There are just some words you don't want to hear on a Monday morning after a workout; but you can't stop people from opening their mouths.
I was leaning with my belly pressed up against the counter at the local rec center trying to check out some equipment from the late twenty-something behind the counter. She looked at me and asked "Are you expecting?" I instantly felt my face grow warm.
"No I am not." I muttered, trying to keep my composure.
"Oh" she responded, "it must be your pants."
"Yes" I said with faux confidence. And for whatever reason I felt the need to prove it to her, stepping back from the counter and lifting my t-shirt to reveal the worn-out, high wasted yoga pants, adding the extra girth responsible for my "fetus."
"Sorry" she said, with little sincerity. "I didn't mean to offend you."
But of course I was offended, if only briefly, and I know why. I know why those careless words stung the way they did. Because I had heard them before.
I have never been happy with my middle, always wishing for a washboard stomach, always sucking in for photographs, passing by a cute dresses that clung too closely to my shameful middle section. The truth is, for most of my life my stomach was just fine, but it never lived up to what I wanted... "perfection."
Around 15 years old, I experienced what many teenage girls do. Weight gain. Our bodies developed and changed and in those awkward phases they didn't always change in the way that we wanted them to. At 15 I wasn't blessed with beautiful C-cups, and a flat tummy, No, my "extra" weight went right to my tummy, and I was well aware of it. Baby doll dresses were in fashion at the time. (They resembled todays maternity style, if you are not familiar.) I was sporting the latest style, and will never forget a day in history class when our star basketball player (who went on to become prom king a month or two later) sneered, asking the girl next to me in a very audible "whisper" "Is that girl pregnant?" Already aware of my "flawed" body I felt my eyes sting and the tears come. I was so ashamed. So very ashamed. I was 15 years old, nearly 5'4 and probably 115 pounds. I hated my body.
Although my body evened out over time, I never did achieve the abs of my dreams, however, looking back, I should never have feared a bikini or felt the need to cover my "problem area." I wasted so much time worrying about that damn tummy.
Today, at forty, and after three C-sections, my belly is far from ideal. I have loose skin, a deep indentation where the scar is, and it is still my body's favorite place to carry any extra weight. It is so easy for me to feel shame. Shame that my body isn't perfect. Shame that I look nothing like the airbrushed beauties in Sports Illustrated's "Swimsuit Edition" or even the thirty year old women I see on Facebook. Shame that will rush full force in self-inflicted rage when an nit-wit girl at the rec center inquires "are you pregnant?" It's why I felt the urge to prove that I wasn't actually "fat." It was really just my clothes.
Luckily within moments of today's incident at the gym, I was able to calm the old feelings of self-loathing. I was able to rationalize that it was a really stupid thing for an ignorant young woman to say. (Note: unless she is wearing a "baby onboard" t-shirt,, holding a copy of What to Expect When Your Expecting and loudly discussing her due date, you do not ask. You. Do. Not. Ask.) And while those words could of ( and actually previously have) spun me up into a frenzy of self-hatred, it didn't this time. Perhaps because I am older. Perhaps because I know that my body made three kiddos. Perhaps because I was there, at the gym, doing what I can to stay healthy and in shape. Perhaps because I have heard my friends talk about their own imperfections.
I would be lying if I didn't add that Cindy Crawford's "leaked" untouched photo that recently hit the internet didn't give a little bit of additional confidence. If you have missed it, this picture is unlike any picture you have ever seen of any super model, ever. It's Cindy in her late forties in a bra and panties set bearing a middle that is far from the airbrushed "ideal." There are wrinkles, sags, and discolorations. She looks.... normal. She looks like women I know. She looks like me. And I wish. I wish at 15 I had seen more of this. More bodies that look like mine. Diversity of form. Less airbrushed "perfection." It makes me mad. It makes me angry what media has done to us, evening out skin, shaving off inches, erasing lines, scars, freckles and wrinkles. Making us feel less than for being human. For not being the manipulated fantasy of technology.
And I am not overstating this. It has ruined lives, and days of lives. Every day a woman sits wrapped up in a towel on the beach not wanting to feel the waves, because she is ashamed of her body. Every night a girl sits at home instead of going to a party because her skin isn't perfect, or her thighs are "too fat" for skinny jeans. Every mother who avoids the camera because of "flabby" arms. Every dollar that is spent by those of us aging, trying to disguise the evidence.
I'm a victim to it, I will not play holier than thou. I fall into the trap more often than I would like to admit. Only recently I dropped $500 on "filler" to try and erase my well earned laugh lines. (By the way, $500 later, I noticed zero difference.) But today. Today in the gym when I heard those trigger words "are you pregnant?" I was stronger than I once was. I did not break at those words. I credit in part the wisdom that has come with age, in part the experience of motherhood, and yes in part that beautiful Cindy Crawford photo, uncovering not only the lies we have been told about the female form, but also the beauty that lies underneath the lights and photoshop. The beauty that is you, me and humanity.
I'm learning. The media can help. The media can help by being truthful about aging, beauty, and the human form. Please. Let's see more of these untouched photos, it could in fact, touch so many, it could change lives.