Full esteem ahead // L’Observateur

Two summers ago I spent my days as a camp counselor, first at Notre Dame’s summer fellows program and then at my local church camp. During my stay at Notre Dame, I advised 14 high school girls. Only a few years younger than me, these girls were smart, funny, beautiful, and much, much cooler than me. I spent the first half of the program panicking that at any moment they would realize their power, sense my fear, and overthrow me as a supervisor. Fortunately, my concern was unfounded; I finished the three weeks without any semblance of a coup.

Still, I assumed that because I saw these young women as unstoppable, they too must see each other the same. Of course I knew I was insecure, but I deserved the doubt. I was imperfect and imperfect; these girls were awesome.

During one of our nightly conversations, we did an activity designed to reveal how similar we were to each other in an effort to break the stigma surrounding personal struggles. Much to my disappointment – but certainly not to my surprise – when the opportunity arose to signify if anyone felt held back by insecurity, each of the girls raised their hands. Theoretically, I knew, of course, that everyone suffers from their own concerns. But still, I felt sad when all the girls except one admitted that she didn’t like the way she looked. It made me sad to hear a natural leader tell me that she suffered from an eating disorder. It made me sad to hear one of the most athletic girls in my section tell me that she had stopped swimming because she couldn’t stand wearing a swimsuit. It made me sad that these powerful and driven change makers couldn’t see themselves the same way I saw them.

When I began my role as a counselor in my parish camp, this time counseling elementary school students, I prepared for a similar situation. Once again, however, I was surprised. My 10 year old kids were fearless. They wore stained shirts, compared underwear sizes out of curiosity but without judgment on themselves, and sported dirty hair with pride. My tall girls and my little girls, my twiggy and my stronger girls, my tomboys and my girly girls – they all got worn with such confidence. They said what they thought (admittedly too freely sometimes). They sang and danced in front of the whole camp, devouring the spotlight. They fearlessly approached strangers, strutted around the cabin in swimsuits, and never lifted weights, bodies, or food once. If any gaps were discovered, they were ignored and the conversation quickly redirected to an area they could brag about.

I was so proud of my brave daughters. They made me wonder, however, at what point between a fearless 10 year old and a self-doubting 16 year old do we stop dancing for joy and start running to lose calories? ?

For me, it was 11 years old. The first time I can remember actively emphasizing the appearance of my body, I was 11 years old.

I was always very skinny as a kid, and as gross as it sounds, for lack of a better word, I loved it. I loved it when my grandmother called me “Slim Jim”. I loved being able to wear my toddler shorts all the way to grade school or tighten my friend’s old ballet costumes when we were hosting fashion shows. I felt special when I was chosen to be the “human stick” thrown into the pool during church camp. I was skinny and I was proud.

When I was in sixth grade, I developed what my mom called the “10 year old belly”. Suddenly, I became fully aware of the fact that I could no longer play the piano on my ribs and that we did not have to “tuck in” all my pants by tightening the belt with a pin. Worse, I was even more aware that a few “lucky” girls in my class seemed to reach college unharmed, with no bellies in sight.

So used to being twiggy being my normal, I thought there must be something wrong with me if I was no longer underweight. Realizing that on an upcoming school trip I would be forced to wear a swimsuit in front of my peers, I panicked. Every afternoon, I didn’t have football training, I went to my garden, I ran my Miley Cyrus “To burst” CD on my electric blue boombox and hula hoop for hours on end, hoping to tone my stomach in time for the field trip. It wasn’t the last time I got stressed out about my body in the years to come.

It is important to note here that I have been incredibly lucky to have never had an eating disorder. I am in no way trying to equate my experience with the very real disease that so many people suffer from. But I still cried in more locker rooms than I can count. Still, I ruined a fun trip on the lake by comparing my body to other girls’ and spending the whole weekend languishing in shame about my decidedly not flat stomach. I still missed beach days with friends in the summer after freshman year of college because I felt a sense of panic about not running seven miles and doing sculpt yoga every day.

My first year of college, I had a revelation. For much of my young life, I felt embarrassed by my lack of flexibility. Whether that insecurity came from dancing when I was younger or from the sit-and-reach section of the presidential fitness test in fifth grade, I’ve always felt a deep sense of shame that I couldn’t do the splits. .

So you can imagine my relief when, in grade one, during a Zumba class in Duncan, I realized that my ability to do the splits had no impact on my life. I realized that at no time in the future would I need to move my feet to opposite ends of my body, and even if I could, this skill didn’t change anything. No matter how flexible or inflexible I was, I wouldn’t really change; I would always be the same Julianna – and that realization was liberating.

Why then, can’t I have the same revelation about my body? Why can’t I apply the same logic to the concept of a flat stomach or lean legs or sculpted arms? Why can’t I get rid of the feeling that if I look like the women in magazines, I will really be a more confident and better version of myself?

Intellectually, I understand the problematic and manipulative roots of beauty standards. As a sociology major, I know that the golden corset that I feel trapped in is socially constructed. But as a perfectionist, it’s hard to come to terms with my appearance – embracing my body, my flaws and all – without feeling like you’re giving up. As a feminist, I believe that women should have the right to have any size, shape, and design they choose. So when I try to embrace the version of myself looking at myself in the mirror, why is it so hard for me to get rid of the feeling that I’m stopping before the finish line? That I am content with what I am instead of pushing for what I could be?

For so long I have associated the idea of ​​thinner with better, thinner with stronger. I was wrong in thinking that making myself smaller is the only way to become more confident. And if I’m being honest, I don’t know how to reconnect my brain to stop thinking that way.

What I do know is that this summer I decided to stop exercising to lose weight and instead focus on it as a way to feel good. What I do know is that I try to value my legs for the miles they let me run each week, my arms for the loads they carry each day. I said yes to FaceTime calls or hangouts that go on for so long it’s too dark to pass by the time they’re over. I say no to putting my life on hold while I try to get my body “ready” for it.

My forties gave me more than ample opportunity to reflect on the time, energy, and emotional turmoil I devoted to making my body ‘perfect’ and I thought a lot about other ways I could use. this energy. I don’t give up on a healthy lifestyle, but I strive to no longer let my fixation on body perfection hold me back from my other goals. To be a better sister, a better girl, a best friend. I work to harness this energy to do good for the world instead.

I’m delighted to report that this year I haven’t returned to campus with sit-ups. My arms weren’t nervous. My legs not freshly toned. For one of the first times in a long time, I didn’t envision a campus break as my ‘chance’ to transform my body into a smaller, slimmer version of the one who left South Bend, a better, prettier one. , improved version of myself. Instead, I tried to focus on transforming the way I think about my body. It’s not easy, and I know I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m trying to realize, instead, that the version I’m on right now is just fine.

Julianna Conley is a sociology and pre-health studies student with a minor in journalism, ethics and democracy. While still loyal to the Pasquerilla East B team athleticism, Julianna now lives off campus. She can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @JuliannaLConley on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Tags: body image, camp, eating disorder, fitness, growing up, self-image

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