Unlabeled.

“Rachel, you’re getting too skinny!”

“Um…what?”

“Look at your arms!! You look anorexic!”

Surely they weren’t talking to me, and clearly this wasn’t someone who knew me very well – that observation was seriously ridiculous. I’ve never been anything within ten miles of too skinny in my entire life. Had they not noticed my thighs? And the rolls in my belly? Come ON, people.

Then I remembered the weird effect of losing weight – it makes other people see you as skinnier than you are, all while you see yourself as weighing the same as you always have.

I awkwardly answered a stumbled “Um, thanks?”, or something.

But what I wish I had said was this…

When I was in high school, I wore a sleeveless dress to an event. An adult told me that I really shouldn’t have worn that, because “You’re just not built for it – you have too fat of arms to wear sleeveless dresses.”

Although they were trying to be constructively “helpful”, I was seventeen years old and, albeit a bit later than most, just starting to form my own body image.

I carried that statement with me for an entire decade. I had sleeves on my wedding dress because of it, and I had a wardrobe full of sleeved shirts and dresses – until just a couple of years ago, when I finally let it go and accepted my arms as they were.

At the age of seventeen, I weighed 138 pounds. Today, I weigh 128 pounds. There were a lot of ups and downs (mostly ups) in my weight between then and now, but I still can’t imagine how 13 years and 10 pounds could swing one from having too fat of arms to wear a sleeveless dress to looking anorexic.

And that’s just the point.

There’s something I’ve learned in those 13 years – everyone has an opinion, and most of them are vastly different. And my body should not, will not, and cannot be defined by other people’s opinions.

Okay – this is not true.

I have learned that this is how it should be, but putting it into practice is another battle entirely. I thrive on words of affirmation, which also explains why I am motivated to blog my soul’s contents for the world to see. I live and die by other people’s words. They lift me up and they destroy me.

But that should not be so. Opinions always have and always will be as unique and wide-ranging as the people that are creating them. If I allow myself to internalize each and every one of the words spoken to me and about me, I will become a scarred reflection of everyone else.

The bottom line is this: I was healthy when I was seventeen and I’m healthy at thirty. There were times in between then and now that I probably wasn’t so healthy, but the important part is, I adjusted.

But even at my healthiest and certainly at my unhealthiest, I have enough of my own tendencies and self-consciousnesses to fight without owning other people’s ideas and perceptions as well.

My goal is this: to become unlabeled.

And even more importantly, to teach Ali how to stay unlabeled.

I sincerely hope that it doesn’t take my daughter thirteen years to figure out this crucial concept for herself. I want for her to be able to keep the complete unawareness of body image that she has now, at five years old, until she is thirty and beyond.

Impossible, probably. But it’s most certainly worth the effort.

Unlabeled

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Comments

  1. I remember on my 25th birthday the first thing my mom said to me when she saw me was, “you arms are getting so big, you should really watch what you eat”. Happy birthday to me! She has always been critical of my weight even when I was a stick in middle school. Looking back, she has always been overweight and it’s her way of not wanting the same for me, but going about it in a totally wrong way.

    • Oh my! Yes, definitely not the right way. What do you think is the right way to do this? Because I certainly want to teach my children about good health, but never want to insinuate poor body image. Any tips from your experiences?

      • I have four daughters and am very concerned about this issue as well. We all know that even the “beautiful people” we see in the magazines aren’t perfect, but the airbrushing sure does make it look that way, and so we fret over our own imperfections. I try to help my girls to think about food and their bodies in terms of glorifying God in all things. To be gluttonous and eat more than they need is making an idol of food, but neglecting to eat enough to nourish their bodies is making an idol of food, too. My oldest is nearly 14 and is hungry ALL THE TIME. She’s growing super fast and needs all those calories. I try to keep the kitchen well-stocked to meet her needs, but remind her that it’s okay to feel hungry sometimes and not be able to do anything about it. A large portion of the world lives like that all the time.

        • Great thoughts!! I am scared of dealing with this issue when I have teenagers – I know it’s a fine line to walk. It sounds like you have it figured out pretty well, though!

      • I really have no idea! I have a distinct memory of my mom coming to observe my tap class when I was 12 and afterwards she told me that my thighs were jiggling and that I needed to start watching what I ate.

        I think the best thing to do is lead by example. My MIL is constantly on a diet and always eats a different meal than the rest of the family. When we have children, we will all eat the same thing. I’m not making a kids meal and then something meager and “healthy” for me because I want to be thin.

        • I agree. And after all, you want your kids to eat healthy, too, so why fix them something unhealthy?

          We still give our kids separate foods sometimes, just because it’s easier than fighting them to eat something they hate the whole meal. But I do make them eat a little bit of what we’re eating, even if it’s spicy!! Can’t hurt, right?

  2. I think you look fabulous (in every picture above!) Raising girls is going to be hard enough without fighting our own labels, self imposed or otherwise… I struggle with this constantly.

    • Yes. It’s scary business, and it only gets scarier every year. Kinda makes me want to move to a remote cabin in the middle of the woods. Unfortunately, that’d create other problems, like social awkwardness. And mosquito bites.

  3. Truth…you look great now and you looked great then. You are so lucky to have lost that weight, it has been a struggle for me. I remember (and we are talking many moons ago) when I was in high school and could hardly get to 100# and now I won’t even tell you what I weigh. What’s the secret for a non gym rat?

    • Chris and I used the Lose It app on our iPhone and just counted our calories. We didn’t mind the “paperwork” aspect of it, and it definitely worked great. I never exercised at all – I hate it. But I was nursing Noah, and that helped tremendously, I think.

  4. So true. And it’s awesome that you’re making an effort to teach Ali to love herself.
    I grew up hearing my tall, slender, gorgeous mother complain almost obsessively about her body. Although she always complimented me, I’ve found that liking my own body is ridiculously hard sometime and I have the same hang-ups she’s always had. I’m determined to NEVER criticize my body (or anyone else’s) in front of my kids. I look at my daughter’s beautiful and perfect little body and it hurts me terribly to think that she won’t like it someday. But I also wonder if I’m fighting a losing battle.

    • Thank you for this reminder. Sometimes I still think Ali’s not listening or not paying attention, and I know that Chris and I had many conversations about our weight when we were on our weight loss project. I need to be more careful about this and not talk about myself in front of her, either.

  5. I remember being pregnant with my first daughter and everyone’s comments were “She’s going to get so fat…she’s kinda chubby as it is.” This was so hurtful, but I ended up losing the weight and being thinner than I ever was after having my first child. Being 4’11” every little pound I gained showed on my petite little body, but I cut out a lot of bad foods and sodas which made a huge difference. It is hard to not be labeled because sometimes you don’t realize how much you’ve gained until you see a picture of yourself or someone “casually” mentions it. I try to eat healthy, control my portions, and run regularly. I don’t always achieve all 3, but I try. I make it a point to never comment on my appearance for the sake of my girls. It’s painful to me to hear little girls say they’re fat. So far, my girls are unlabeled. I pray it stays that way and they realize God created them beautiful in His image. It’s our choice to care for our bodies so long as it doesn’t consume us. Great post.

    • Oh no! That is terrible. And I was the same way – having babies helped me lose weight, somehow. I was at my heaviest a couple of years before I had Ali. And you’re definitely right – the key is having a healthy lifestyle without being obsessed about it. It’s a fine line to walk!

  6. 1. You were and are gorgeous.

    2. Whether someone is fat does not matter as much as if someone is nice or generous or considerate or funny or a good listener. Fat is not a character flaw. It merely describes a body type. I want my friends to be sweet and fun and interesting and giving – all the things I want to be. I don’t care what they look like.

    • Yes, the inside is definitely what matters!! You’ve hit the nail on the head.

      • Eleanorjane says:

        But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Sam 16:7 (The second half would make a good memory verse, methinks)

  7. I agree! My opinion is that society is a harsh taskmaster on women. We have to be this and we have to be that because what we are is not enough. Heaven forbid that we’re fat, old, skinny, have jiggles, etc. According to everything we read or see, we are judged by what we look like. I just want to be a healthy woman who is given free rein to grow old gracefully. I don’t like my grey hairs, I don’t like my wrinkly neck, but, ya know what, I’m 52 and have seen life ,and I refuse to be ashamed. Exercising is another matter I’ve come to grips with. I hate it. With a passion. I decided “no more for me”. I will exercise the way I want to exercise. Which is two days a week, on a treadmill for 30 min (slow enjoyable walk) with an exercise in between every five minutes. The exercise breaks up the monotony of senseless treadmill walking and helps to burn the calories better. I learned this from a former job at a gym. We called it circuit training. Doing it this way is actually not half bad. I even lost the 5 pounds I gained in February. Ten more to go. :) But no stress.

  8. In reading my post, by the time you reach the end, you may think I’ve waivered in my opinion and have sided with the pressure of society. To clarify, I never want to take my looks for granted and appear slovenly. I want to always look my best. I just don’t want to live by the unrealistic pressure of society.

    • I totally understand where you were coming from! It’s a balance that we all have to find, for sure. I’m certainly not planning on quitting the attempt to be fit and trim – I just don’t want to take on other people’s perceptions of me, because they’re all different.

  9. I can’t believe someone said that to you! What a horrible thing to tell a 17 year old. Especially since you look great in that picture!

    I have often worried about how to keep my girls “unlabeled” and I make sure to never say anything about weight, dieting, fat, etc. around them. My mom is super skinny and always has been but my whole life it’s been something that she focused on…staying skinny, until I’m totally obssesd with it.

    Then I finally rebeled against the “image” and am what I am now. I’m definitely 15+ pounds overweight but I can’t seem to reach a healthy weight without becoming totally obssesed with food, exercise and the scale. I don’t want it to take over my thinking, like it has so many times before. I don’t want to think about it every second of the day. So I stay at this weight, but I do know I need to get back to a healthier weight. :{

    • I know what you mean. It’s a hard balance to find, for sure – especially with kids, since they keep you so busy you don’t have time to do all that you need to do! Plus, once you’re on the wagon of being focused on weight, it seems like it just gets more and more focused.

      This is the first time that I feel like I’ve kept a (relatively) healthy focus on my weight without letting it control me. I still have my days, but overall, I think I’m kinda balanced – at least for now!! :)

  10. Ali is lucky to have such a proactive mother who wants to keep her unlabeled. It is very hard not to allow others to label us and harder still not to label ourselves. As everyone else has said, you were and are beautiful in all of those pictures. Ali looks so nmuch like you. I suspect her heart is as kind as yours as well.

    I do struggle in this area though….I think Ali and Noah are absolutely adorable and would definitely tell them so. I found my own son to be more handsome than I can believe and as evidenced by his saying, “So handsome!” Every time he looks in the mirror I have told him this a few times. I don’t want it to be a bad thing for him to look in the mirror and be happy but at the same time, I want to teach him that true beauty/handsomeness comes from within. How do you strike the balance?

    • I agree – it’s all about balance. I think it can be just as damaging to never tell a little girl she’s beautiful for fear of making her focus too much on it than it is to focus too much on it. I definitely still want to tell Ali she’s beautiful – I just want to balance it with compliments about how smart she is, and how hard she worked on that, and how dedicated she is at doing something, etc. We just have to make sure that we portray a balanced perspective to our kids.

  11. I came to the conclusion a few years ago that people are obssessed with other people’s bodies, regardless. I was always very thin growing up. I couldn’t help it. I out-ate all my friends & sometimes my own dad but I was still very thin. In junior high a couple of girls made fun of me, then 2yrs later a friends mom squeezed one of my arms & said “oh! You’re finally getting some meat on your bones!” this made me feel awful. I was self-concious of being too skinny & getting fat all in the same moment. I think a solution to being “unlabeled” is for ALL people to refrain from commenting on anyone else’s body. Even if you think it’s a “compliment”.

    • I can definitely see that – it’s a hard balance to strike. But on the other hand, I definitely think that little girls crave to be told that they’re beautiful, especially from their parents. Clearly, though, this is very different than say, “Oh, you’re so skinny!!” – I agree that needs to be refrained from in all cases.

  12. So true about the power of words and how things stick with us, positive things too. My grandmother commented once that I had a nice neck — I must have been 10 or 11 at the time — and I’ve been proud of my neck ever since.

    Kudos to you for being conscious of these things and trying to instill a healthy self-image in your daughter.

    • That’s so cool! I think giving specific compliments like that are very effective because they do stick with you. I’m all about giving my daughter compliments – as long as they’re balanced, and not focused on weight.

  13. Qoumidan says:

    “it makes other people see you as skinnier than you are, all while you see yourself as weighing the same as you always have.”

    That is weird. I noticed that when I was loosing weight. I went from 180 to 136 and when I looked in the mirror I saw the same thing I saw 44 pounds back. Objectively I can look at photos and compare clothing sizes but it’s still unnerving to look in the mirror and wonder if maybe another 44lbs would make a difference. On the other hand, that might be liberating in some ways, since I can’t seem to tell the difference very well, maybe the difference really doesn’t matter.

    But my goal was to look good in a bikini!! Now how will I know?

    • I know what you mean. It’s as if our mirrors get stuck, isn’t it? The only way I can tell is to compare photos, or catch an unexpected glimpse of myself in a store window or something – if you’re caught off guard by yourself, you actually can see the difference.

  14. Love you both. So proud of you.

  15. GO YOU!!! You are beautiful and always have been.

  16. Meridith says:

    Perhaps we need to focus on being healthy rather than thin? I have to say being pregnant gave me a greater appreciation of my body than I’ve ever had..I made a whole person from scratch! Then have been lucky enough to be able to nourish that person with the same body i hadn’t liked for years, now I love it!
    Our bodies are amazing and miraculous and wonderful and we should be proud of them and what they do for us instead of criticizing ourselves or others!

  17. LOVE this, Rachel, and LOVE your healthy arms :)

  18. Angela in Arizona says:

    What a horrid thing to say to a person! You are beautiful, and your arms are perfect. In the interest of RESEARCH, I think you and Chris need to plan a vacation to Europe. Specifically in the summer, to a locale with a beach, along the Mediterranean. Those European ladies ALL wear bikinis. No matter how old or how many children they have had! =) Again. For research.

  19. Eleanorjane says:

    Great post, Rachel! And just to back up the importance of parental compliments – my Mum told me I was pretty and beautiful with a lovely figure etc. all the time as I was growing up. I wasn’t a popular kid at school and no-one else thought so (or said they thought so) until I got some new friends around age 15, but that base of encouragement from her meant I had a bedrock of self esteem to fall back on.

    • Thanks for sharing this – I think it is very important to still compliment your children regularly, and it’s nice to hear a personal testimony of such. Some people, in the attempt to not make image important, completely shun the idea of complimenting at all, but children crave this. I just want to steer away from any compliments with regards to weight, in particular. But I tell Ali she’s beautiful all the time!

  20. Love this post and the comments as well. I don’t have a girl (yet), but I do have two boys. I guess it’s just as important to build their self-esteem and help them remain unlabeled as well since boys can struggle with body issues as well. Another point to consider when raising boys is that we want to teach them to be sensitive to girls and not be so judgmental. If little boys grow up hearing their parents be critical of others or themselves, they are going to grow up being critical of others as well. And we all know that comments from boys can be the most damaging.

    Just some things I’ve been thinking about.

    • Yes! I agree. Although I would say that I received many more hurtful words from other girls than from boys, although I can remember a few boy incidents…

  21. Sarah R in WI says:

    I have struggled with poor body image issues my entire life. It’s so ironic – I look at your pictures, and think, “Wow, what a beautiful woman. I’ll bet she’s never had to worry about her weight” and then you post about how you’ve struggled as well. I wonder who hasn’t struggled! My mom (whom I do love) did leave me with some serious body image issues. Now I’m pregnant with a little girl, and I think my biggest struggle will be to make sure I do not pass my issues on to her.

    With our son (3 years old), we focus on which foods are healthy for our bodies and give us the vitamins we need, rather than focusing on “bad” foods.

    • Chris and I have both struggled with our weight for quite a bit of our lives. His struggle started in the third grade, and although I was never necessarily skinny as a child or teenager, my real struggle started right after we got married. I believe that mine was strongly linked to the birth control pill, which is one of the reasons I will never take it again (the birth control pill also caused me to have extreme anxiety, which led to the need to take other medications for a while, which also adversely affected my weight).

      Although I’m sure my struggle also had to do with the deep fryer that we kept on our countertop the first couple years of our marriage!!

      I’ve attached a couple of photos of us at our unhealthiest, if you’d like to see. I had a bunch of these photos scanned and ready to post last year when I wrote about our weight loss journey, but I just didn’t feel right about posting them, for fear that it would sound like I was horrified at our old photos. I didn’t want to make it sound like I was putting down anyone that was our size or bigger, but on the other hand, it probably does help to see that I’ve been there too. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the impact of blogging about this, since you didn’t think this was something I’d ever struggled with.

      • Sarah R in WI says:

        I’ve also wondered about the birth control pill too. I will not go on that again either, so hopefully, after this pregnancy, I will have some success living a healthier lifestyle.

        I think it’s great that you are blogging about this and allowing for other people to see this side of you. It also makes me feel better to know that people who I think are gorgeous also have the same struggles I am working on.

        I also think you blogging about this makes other people realize how powerful our words are. I wonder if the person who told you at 17 years old that your arms were too fat ever realized how much that affected you. It also makes me realize how careful I have to be with my daughter not to be too critical about my body. It’s such a good reminder for all of us to treat each other with care.

  22. Standing ovation! Isn’t it a wonderful feeling to accept your beauty. I hope more women will follow your lead. At my age, we are more competitive about our lab values than weight! So, you have THAT to look forward to:)

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