I first hated my body when I was eight years old. It wasn’t long enough, or strong enough. All I wanted was to be a little more muscular, with broader shoulders, and more powerful legs.
I am small and scrawny and struggling to stay at the top of my age group on my swim team. There’s a girl who keeps setting league records and getting the majority of the coach’s praise. We are the same age, but side by side, I look like her underfed, adopted little sister. There’s my friend Sara, who is already taller than my mom. As soon as we dive in the pool, she’s two body lengths ahead of everyone else. Especially me.
When I’m 13, I resent being short again. I’m angry at my parents for passing on the wrong genes. I watch Tara Crossbattle hit for the U.S. Olympic team and dream of playing volleyball like her some day. I stare across the net during my club games and see girls who are 6 foot 2 and 6 foot 3. In junior high.
I feel hopeless. and frustrated. Like I’ll never be good enough.
In high school, I experience a brief period of body confidence. “Skinny” is suddenly desirable, and highly revered. I still feel like an unworthy athlete, but my friends express envy about how my butt looks in my jeans. A boy, who relies on copying my homework to pass French 1, tells me one morning that, “my boobs are big for my size.”
I take it as a compliment, I think.
At 16, my body changes. There are curves in womanly places and my belly peeks out over the waistband of my pants. For a while, I appreciate feeling sturdier on the soccer field and barely notice the difference in how I look. Eventually, something somebody says, or does, or how I feel, or what’s going on in my life, or a combination of these and so many other things, trigger dissatisfaction.
And I resolve to be “skinny” again.
I stick to eating regular meals and a few, healthy snacks. I get a gym membership and occasionally run outside. My shape is narrower and my muscles are better defined. I observe the connection between my behavior and my body and feel fueled by the power of it.
The importance of my health is quickly overshadowed by the intoxicating sensation of controlling my weight. Suddenly, I feel stability and have leverage in a life that has otherwise been ruled by chaos, for the last three years.
I shrink around the middle and my collarbones are exposed. I can almost squeeze my fingers together when I place my hands on my hips. I run six or eight miles on the bike trail after school. When it’s too cold or too dark, I spend an hour and a half on the treadmill, trotting at my top speed.
I go to birthday parties and dinner dates prepared with an excuse about why I can’t eat. I am poised and believable. I limit myself to a single subway sandwich, then one bowl of cereal, then just a single protein bar, for the whole day.
When I fall asleep at night I tell myself I’m not hungry, and I salivate thinking about the seven inches of “Kashi GOLEAN” that awaits me in the morning.
“I can make it until then.”
My mom is worried and takes me to the doctor, several times. I smile confidently and answer all of her questions, with lies. “I started running to get in shape for soccer.” “I eat ‘more than a salad’ for dinner.” “I got my period last week.”
At rock bottom I binge on five or six mini powdered donuts while my friends and I are hanging out in my kitchen. I disappear upstairs, turn on the faucet in my mom’s bathroom, and force myself to throw up.
Starving myself felt normal, compared to this.
My downward spiral comes to an unexpected, but life-saving halt when my mom and I watch “Behind the Music: Karen Carpenter.” The same week, I see a picture of myself from the most recent school dance. I look like a skeleton, or a ghost, or a bobble-head.
Like the walking dead.
The eating comes slowly and not without set-backs. I sometimes still stuff down a Luna bar before going out to dinner and claim “I already ate.”
In the twelve years since then, I am not anorexic. I am sometimes a binger, but only a regretter, not a purger, anymore. I stop running in college and find my way to a yoga mat. I feel my body strengthen and watch my arms and abs take shape. The more I can do, and the better I feel, the more gratitude and admiration I have for what my body can do for me. What it’s always done for me.
Yoga helps me learn to nourish my body with healthy, whole foods and be aware of the sensations of being too full or too hungry. My relationship to my body changes.
But it’s never perfect.
I’m still married to a size 26 in my fancy jeans and a J.Crew double zero. I still panic a little when the folds of my tummy look extra juicy when I come into plow pose, at the end of class. I still think “I better stay thin” because I’m almost thirty, and still single, and how I look on a first date still matters, maybe more than anything else.
This is my story, some of it at least. And if you’re a woman, you have a story, or many, about your body, too. You have hated it and loved it and resented it. You’ve starved it and shamed it and celebrated it. You’ve wanted it to look different, or like it used to, or like you know it never will again. You’ve looked at other women and compared theirs, to yours. You’ve wanted to be a size two or squeezed into a size six or desperately prayed for bigger boobs.
I typically don’t like to draw hard lines, but ours is a uniquely female struggle.
When the founder of lululemon tells an interviewer, among other things, that “the pants don’t work for some women’s bodies,” the media, and maybe some of you, react. There are interpretations and misquotations and evaluations. I read one article where Chip Wilson “blames women’s bodies for defective pants.”
The thing is, he’s right. Women all over the world take all shapes and sizes and certainly not all of them are compatible with lululemon pants, size two through twelve. It’s a technical brand and if you’ve ever worn an oversized wet-suit, or too-tight ski boots, you know technical gear needs to be a perfect fit to be effective, and comfortable. And the perfect fit across the spectrum of shapes and features in a woman’s figure is, I would imagine, a logistical impossibility. It’s gotta be.
The other thing is, the man who founded a company that makes pants that look sensational on almost any woman’s body is hardly a villain in our story. Because if we set aside the flashy headline and the cleverly edited soundbytes, he sparks a discussion, I think, is worth having.
About all of the other things that don’t work with every woman’s body.
Like not eating carbs, or only drinking juice or giving up eating altogether. Like muscular arms and chiseled abs and the same waistline you had when you were a teenager. Like not gaining baby weight or not going out in public until you lose it. Like baking in the sun, or in a tanning bed because you like yourself better with “a nice, even glow.” Like judging yourself when you don’t “work-out” or finally feeling worthy when you do. Like looking in the mirror with a scowl, or a fast, deep, exhale, that signals disapproval. Like a wedding diet or a 21-day cleanse. Like every time we push food away and say “I can’t” in front of our daughters. Like when we look at other women and mentally scold them for being whatever thing we don’t want to acknowledge in ourselves.
Like every, single, message, every, single, day, that tells us how we should look and act and feel and express ourselves. How we should dress and shave and raise our kids. How we should be in the world, without taking into account who we are, already.
lululemon isn’t spreading these messages. In my experience, both as a long time consumer and user of the products, and as a new employee of the company, the message is one women actually need to hear.
One of self-empowerment and a purpose-driven life. One of possibility and courage and community and love. One of get out and sweat because it makes you feel good, not because of the pressure related to how you look.
Put these clothes on your perfect body, no matter the shape, and go out and kick some ass in this world.
It’s a message that is already uplifting my experience of being a woman. And a human.
And even if the pants don’t work for every body, the message is a perfect fit.