I have heard from so many of you, both here and on Instagram, about this topic of body image … and it’s clearly something that resonates with so many. Obviously we all face different challenges, but I find it so inspiring how open and honest you all are willing to be here; and it is so rewarding to see and read how our discussions here have helped or motivated you.
Following last week’s body image post, I received this very moving email from Hilary about her lifelong struggle with weight and body image. I thought some of you may relate to her story, so I wanted to share her very honest look into the body issues that have shaped her life.
Body Image: Acting Like I Don’t Care
by Hilary Elizabeth Winiarz
A lot of people say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me, this is who I am, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine.” I say it, too. And I put my money where my mouth is, because I don’t just give that platitude lip service, I act like it. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. Acting. Because the truth is that I actually DO care. Not about the person I am inside, I’m very confident about who I am, and I like who that is very much whether other folks do or not. But I feel very differently about what’s on the outside. I don’t like what I look like, I never have, and I care a lot about what other people think about it. I pretend it isn’t there, but my body image gives me daily anxiety. I feel like my body, my face, my cankles, my big arms, my six chins (ok, there’s only two) – all the visuals are like a great big secret that everyone knows and agrees not to talk about so that I can go on acting.
Now it’s not all bad; I have great hair, and I have great boobs. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s about it. The anxiety I feel about the rest of this package being a great, big plate of meh runs below the surface every single day, and it drives every decision I make.
The last time I saw skinny was age seven. So from childhood, my body image has been whispering at me, warning of what others will see. It heard the kids call me fat. It heard my vice principal tell me when I was ten that he didn’t cast me in the school play because fat girls don’t get roles. It made me a self-conscious teenager, positive that my looks were the reason I had friends who were boys, rather than real live boyfriends. And there was no way it was ever going to give me approval to wear something sleeveless. My body image served as my gatekeeper year after year, warning me about what people would see so that I could minimize the ugly as much as possible.
Today my body image doesn’t whisper so much as scream its warnings at me. From deciding what I’m going to wear, to where I engineer my placement in a photo, to how I stand in line, to which seat I choose in a restaurant, to even the way I walk, I am always thinking, how does this look? Usually, my body image answers me, Ugly, girlfriend, why do you keep asking? You know it’s completely homely and unattractive and fat and oafy. Wanna ask me again? No, I really don’t. Yet, I do it, anyway. I ask myself constantly, the answer is usually the same, and my anxiety about my appearance stays at the peak levels that I’m used to.
Now, immediately upon turning eight, I realized that there were two ways I could go with this. I could become an introvert and hide on the periphery of life so that no one would see me at all, or I could do not that. I think a lot of people like me who feel so conspicuous and negative about their body image tend to go the introvert route. But I was a born doer. I am outgoing and vocal, and I am naturally social. I want to walk around the room and meet everyone and find out who they are. I want to have the same experience everyone else is having so I can share it with them. I want to ride Space Mountain and race down the waterslide and go sleeveless on hot days and go to the college parties making the same general ass of myself that everyone else my age did. I want to get on that stage and be seen in my performance. I want to be in the picture with everyone. It’s been one hell of a dichotomy. I have always hated what I looked like as it all happened, but the one thing I’ve always hated more was being left out. When I look bad I’m upset; but when I’m not included I’m downright miserable. At eight, 18, 28, 38, and now here at nearly 48, that has never changed. That anxiety is always there, but the bottom line is that I refuse to give up my experiences in favor of sparing my body image.
So, even though I’m embarrassed and self-conscious and hope no one sees what I know darn well they all see, I fake it and pretend that I don’t give a flying peapod what anyone thinks of me. I use amusing self-deprication and my natural ability to make people laugh to diffuse any visuals they may have. That’s how I cope with how truly oppressive the daily body image-anxiety is. I put on my best method acting job and I channel Camryn Manheim and Melissa McCarthy and all those beautiful women in the Dove commercials and Torrid catalogue, and I PRETEND. I ACT like I look great. I know deep down that both my chins are on full display and that the horrible region above my bellybutton has strangers wondering when I’m due. But I act like I am just a normal looking girl like all the ones I feel surrounded by.
In daycamp I swam and pretended no one thought I was the fat girl, because I loved swimming. In high school I took dance and whipped off my clothes in the locker room and pretended no one could see my stretch marks, because I loved dancing. In college I rocked the big hair and low cut shirts so I could pretend people would focus only on my genuinely great hair and boobs.
As an actress, I bury myself in every part so that no matter how heinous my wardrobe is, I can pretend it’s not really me, it’s the character (I’ve never felt more unattractive than when I had to walk down the courthouse steps 1,400 times on camera for the world to see as my character on THE BAY).
As a mom I admittedly care less, because nothing is more important to me than that role. But I do still care, mommy politics is brutal, and there are some days that my resulting anxiety is dialed all the way up to 11. But I rarely back down on acting like I don’t care, because from mommy politics to stage lights to Space Mountain, I won’t miss out on … anything.
Now, all that said? In no way is this the end of my story. Yes, it’s been a 40-year battle with my body image, but I’m a tenacious, glass-half-full girl, so I’ve always seen this struggle more as a 40-year pursuit of my best self. Over time, I’ve figured out which clothing and makeup is going to make me feel good about myself. I now know what trends I can indulge in and which won’t work.
As I’ve gotten older, it became about not just my looks, but my health, too. I’ve tried lots of diets. They all work, it’s a matter of staying power for a lifetime change to a different healthy diet and fitness lifestyle. On the horse, off the horse … on the horse, off the horse … Oh, look, there’s the horse, I think it’s time for another ride. Gah! I am very, very acquainted with that horse, and I’ve tried many ways to stay on it. I’ve tried programs like Weight Watchers, and endless amounts of calorie and carb counting. This is also not the first time I’ve been brutally honest about myself. I recently started making videos documenting my pursuit to my Facebook followers so I’m forced to be publicly accountable. Here’s one video I posted that really represents how I feel about this pursuit.
I refuse to stop trying. I put a lot of time and energy into this struggle, and I think about how much I could accomplish if I used that time and energy for something else. So, I never give up. Instead, I’m constantly inspired by friends, family and the world I surround myself with – like Mary Beth’s Plank – to pursue the body and health that I really want. My husband and son and parents are always encouraging me. My friends are always there for me. I am quite sure that the copious amounts conversations with my oldest friends – Marla, Joanna and Mandy – on this subject could fill several volumes of books.
When I was eight, I was sure I’d be able to lose the weight before my next checkup. When I was a teenager, I couldn’t imagine turning 20 and still being overweight. When I was in my 20s, I knew there was no way I’d still be heavy when I got married. When I had my beautiful little boy, I said, “Ok, you’re a mommy now, so there’s no way you’re going to turn 40 and still be heavy.” Now here I am, at nearly 47, and part of me really wonders if I’m just destined to be overweight for the rest of my life … if my body image will be nagging at me from the assisted living apartment.
But the rest of me says no. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Plank, it’s that I don’t have to be complacent with how I feel about myself. My weight and resulting negative body image yammering at me has been an absolute life-long struggle, yes, but it’s not over yet. I want to overcome this – I need to overcome this. And not just by being skinny, but by liking myself on the outside as much as I like myself on the inside – whether I’m skinny or not. My family inspires me. My friends inspire me. Plank inspires me. And I’m not giving up.
Until then, I have to make a choice. Let the whisperings of my body image truncate my life or don’t. Allow how much I care about what people think of my weight prevent me from doing what I love or don’t. Give my body image power over my ultimate happiness or let it exist without any power at all. Today it’s somewhere in between, because it does have power. It makes me feel bad about myself no matter how much I try not to let it. But I like my life. I love my family and friends, and I want to experience my life with the world, not hiding away from it. So I choose to keep acting like I don’t care what anyone thinks so I can experience all that I want to experience. While I continue to try to pursue something better for myself. I won’t be relegated to the periphery by anyone, least of all myself. No matter what my body image tenaciously keeps telling at me about that sleeveless dress I’m dying to wear.