A few weeks ago, a tweet came through my Twitter feed that went something like this:
I’ve gained ten pounds since my wedding. I feel like such a failure.
No stranger to the post-wedding weight gain myself, it was the last part that stopped me cold. Failure. At first I was so angry I couldn’t see straight. FAILURE?! Really?! How are we allowing a society to exist in which a ten-pound weight gain amounts to failure? I wanted to reach through the computer and shake the person on the other end and say, “You aren’t failing! The world is failing you!”
But then I was mostly sad. Because I remember that feeling. It happened to me when I looked in the mirror, not more than two years after my own wedding. I noticed the stretch marks that had settled on my body after a particularly grueling start to married life left me with fifty pounds of excess body mass and a chubbiness that had begun to show in my face.
Dog Days and Pizza Nights
For me, the change wasn’t gradual. I instantly gained back the twenty pounds I’d lost before the wedding when I decided to throw away our pots and pans mid-move in anticipation of getting a new set as a registry gift. Well, the wedding came and went. And the move came and went. And we didn’t get our pots and pans. So after we got married, we ate frozen pizza for three months until we could afford a new set and in the meantime basked in the glow of being newlyweds in a shiny new apartment with a newfound freedom and DVRed episodes of Glee to catch up on.
Then we got our dog. Saddled with sleepless nights and too much overtime, our routine—which was once made up of bonding over home-cooked dinners—quickly turned to running down the street for—ready for it—fresh pizza and scarfing it down before one of us passed out on the couch from sheer exhaustion. My Christmas present that year was our one-year-later honeymoon to Mexico and an extra thirty pounds of midsection. Gee, thanks, you shouldn’t have.
But it doesn’t matter how I gained the weight or even how much I gained. What matters is how I felt afterward. I’d lost and gained weight before, mostly the same twenty pounds in college, usually because I couldn’t keep my hands away from the cafeteria cookies and because I didn’t understand that one cookie is a serving, not seven (which is bullshit, if you ask me). But this time it was different.
F is for Fat and Failure
Before getting married, weight gain was always just sort of an annoying challenge I had to deal with on my own, much like a bad grade on a midterm I’d then have to make up with extra credit. But this time it felt—I’m not sure—heavier? Something about weight gain after marriage made it feel almost like I’d committed a sin, like I’d done a bad thing by carrying out a self-fulfilling prophecy about letting myself go and now the whole world was disappointed in me because I’d become just another once-pretty girl who got married too young and then let herself get (what did they say about Betty on Mad Men? Too comfortable?) too comfortable.
I started feeling bad about myself. Which was weird because I didn’t necessarily dislike the way I looked. Apparently I have a freakishly positive body image, even when I’m fifty pounds heavier (the weight gain did make my boobs bigger). But still, I felt like I’d failed in my responsibility to be a hot wife (I know, I know, I’m rolling my eyes too). I grew up in suburbia, I’d watched the sitcoms, I knew what people expect of women after they get married (hint: it involves Christmas sweaters, Crocs, and elastic waistbands). So in some twisted cavern of my brain, I felt like it was my job to rebel against this expectation and reclaim the definition of wife… with my body.
And I’d failed.
The scary thing is, this mode of thinking isn’t actually that crazy. Okay yes, it’s crazy. But it’s not that surprising. It’s being pummeled into our brains day in and day out with US Weekly covers showcasing photos of elastic moms who are down to their pre-pregnancy weight before the baby even crowns; with the celebration of pre-breakdown Demi Moore, who has a daughter my age and yet looks younger than I do; with the very existence of the word MILF, for shit’s sake. It’s everywhere, this cultural expectation that wives and mothers need to be not only nurturing and caring, but that we also need to be universally f*ckable. Not just to our partners. But to the whole goddamn world. (Mind you this responsibility was never reinforced by Michael, who only ever asks that I be confident, because he hates how mopey self-conscious Maddie can get.)
So I understand how easy it is to feel like a failure when our bodies do what bodies do and, you know, age and stuff. Especially living in a society where it’s not enough to be smart, kind, or funny (you also have to be arm candy too!), it’s so easy for our whole sense of self-worth as wives to get wrapped up in something as meaningless as our dress size.
F is also for Feminist
But the thing that kills me, what really breaks my heart, is what all of these cultural contradictions are doing to smart women. As smart women, we are that much more prone to feel like failures when our bodies change because we have been trained to know better than to care. I mean, that’s the great double standard, isn’t it? On the one hand, we are aware of the cultural importance of physical beauty in our society. And on the other, we’ve been educated time and again that our worth is greater than the sum of our parts. So when our bodies change in ways that we haven’t signed off on, our guilt is two-fold. There is the visceral reaction to what’s happening to my body (I’m uncomfortable with my appearance). And then there is the logical reaction to the visceral response (I am ashamed of the discomfort I feel about my appearance, because it is frivolous and makes me seem like less of a confident, intelligent woman). Great, now I’m not only disappointed in how I look, but I’m also disappointed with how I feel. AWESOME.
So I think we owe it to ourselves to stop it. To stop tearing ourselves to shreds over the natural changes our bodies experience when put under stress, or through the aging process, or because we like ice cream better than frozen yogurt. To stop berating ourselves when these changes do occur.
My body is a wonderland, dammit
Listen, the first two years of my marriage were horrible. They were more difficult than the year my sister passed away and more complicated than when my parents divorced. I didn’t sleep, I was stressed out all the time, and I was fighting with my husband—those two years could have easily broken me. I may have gained fifty pounds, but that’s because my body, this incredible piece of machinery, it weathered the storm on my behalf, freeing up my brain and my soul to do the hard work of putting the pieces of my life back together. Is it easy having gained the weight? Nope. Do I still sometimes wish I hadn’t? Sure. Am I beating myself up over it? No way. Because those stretch marks? I consider them my battle scars. So who gives a shit if they’ll never look good in a bikini? You don’t need a bikini when you’ve got armor. Will I feel like a sellout if I decide eventually that I’d like to lose that weight? Nope, because I’m done having a guilty conscience about the way I feel about my body, regardless of which direction I’m leaning.
I know I’m probably reducing a very complicated issue and making it seem impossibly simplistic. I know body image and self-confidence probably can’t be reconciled by simply staring at yourself in the mirror every day and telling yourself that you accept what you see. (Although, maybe it is that simple? I’m not saying you have to like your body. You just have to acknowledge that it’s yours and it’s better to accept that than to fight it.) Yes, it can be scary and off-putting when our bodies change seemingly without our permission. And yes, it is perfectly normal to be upset when your body doesn’t necessarily feel like your own anymore. But being married can be tough, and so sometimes all you can do to not quit your job and murder your spouse is to throw your hands in the air and eat pizza every night until things are right again.
In the meantime, we’re not doing ourselves any favors by letting our changing bodies dictate how we view our success or failure in this world. I just can’t imagine anyone lying on their deathbed at eighty years old saying, “Man, I only wish I’d lost that last five pounds.” What I want is for us to let ourselves off the hook for a minute and take pride in what we look like right now. Not what we looked like in high school. Or on our wedding day. Not what we’d look like if we just went to the gym each night instead of watching The Bachelor. Right. Now. Because this moment is yours. And your body is working. You heart is beating and you are breathing and that makes you a winner.
This post originally ran on APW in May 2012.