The year was 1994. The OJ trial was in its full, divisive swing; Kurt Cobain killed himself, leaving daughter Frances Bean to be raised by Mom of the Year front runner Courtney Love, and yes, Ace of Base inexplicably held three out of 10 of Billboard’s top spots. I was not long out of college, and working as an assistant editor at American Photo magazine.
The company that owns Parenting, the magazine I now work for, just bought American Photo. My old boss Dave is still there, and now sits just across the way from me. We caught up and he threatened to bring in old staff photos of me dressed in grungewear. He also reminded me how big my hair was back then. I have a lot less hair than in 1994–that happens to lots of women over time, and no one tells you! He still has the same amount. Is that right? That just doesn’t seem right. I’m the girl.
Seeing Dave reminded me how black and white life was when I was in my 20s. I remember getting all pissy when American Photo featured Kate Moss–who had yet to figure out how to convey a fork to her lips with any regularity–on the cover. This was in her waif heyday, and she was wearing a mesh top and her hipbones jutted out like brackets on which you might mount one of those display ledges from Pottery Barn.
Recovering from an eating disorder myself (Kate simply seemed to be having too much fun to slow down and swallow) I was in full-blown anti-diet mode. Skinny was bad, diets were the devil, as was the industrial weight loss complex and all that contributed to the perpetuation of disordered eating everywhere. Oh, and female nudity of almost all varieties was sexist! You didn’t want to get me started on airbrushing nipples.
Nowadays, things are a bit different. I live in a haze of gray, and while that might seem like a cop out, I find it a much easier to get along with myself and the rest of the world.
I still think Kate Moss was too skinny then (although she looks incredible now). But in retrospect, only some of my ire wasÂ about sexism or the propagation of an unhealthy body ideal. I was a little jealous. Not because she was emaciated–truly, even then I thought she looked awful–but of the fact that she seemed so effortlessly skeletal and was paid scads of money for it, while I and most every young woman I knew were forced to undertake the impossible task of daily questioning the entire beauty ideal in order to feel barely okay about our bodies (and, of course, got paid nothing for doing so).
“Curves are beautiful,” I’d tell myself, wanting to believe it way more than actually I did at the time. I hoped that I could repeat it (or some variation) to myself as many times a day as I was bombarded with images that conveyed the exact opposite. That was my master plan to counter the culture.
Shocker. It didn’t work so well. No matter how hard I tried to embrace every roll and pucker, I still liked my body better when I was on the low end of my weight range. I could barely admit that to myself. I was too ashamed. That would mean I’d failed at being a feminist who didn’t buy into the cultural norms–on top of being a chubster! My anger at the Kate Moss cover was in direct proportion to how hard I was trying to feel good about my own body, given that it was never going to be thin.
Now that I’m a Formerly, living in the gray zone, things are completely different. For one thing, I don’t give nearly as much of a shit. I eat when I’m hungry and exercise and hope for the best. Considering I’ve carried twins (hell, even not considering that!) I look pretty good. And the one (my husband) or two (that potbellied abuelo who sits on the milk crate outside the bodega on our corner) who pay any attention seem to agree.
What’s more, I really believe what I was trying to convince myself of–that there are many ways to look beautiful. That’s not to say “All bodies are beautiful” or “I will love my body no matter what,” which is what I tried so hard to espouse when I was younger. Those all-or-nothing statements are just as untrue and pie in the sky (mmm…pie!) to me as “there’s only one way to be beautiful.”
My Formerly way of thinking: Many bodies are beautiful, mine included, most of the time, depending on the light. Which isn’t bad, really, considering I started from bulimia.
On the all diets are evil tip, that’s not quite true either. There are people who should probably watch their weight. Folks who are on the fast track to diabetes and heart disease shouldn’t eat too much crap. Long term dietary changes are probably a better way to think about them, rather than diets that you go off of, but either way, cutting back here and there is not necessarily part of some patriarchal conspiracy to make women disappear, as I used to think.
Bad body image plus time equals peace. It’s not a bad equation. I’m grateful to have had the time.