Find me a Jewish woman without body image issues. She’s likely as rare as shrimp on an Orthodox diner’s plate, since there aren’t many of us that can boast we have no weight concerns. Accustomed to looking at ourselves through a male lens that insists petite and dangerously thin are the norms to which we should aspire, we can’t help but regard our tummy rolls, back fat and stretch marks with disdain.
They are signs of our over-indulgence, our excesses, our love of sweet treats and carbs rather than our fitness schedules. When we shop for clothes, it’s an exercise in hiding. Which pieces of apparel best conceal our large thighs, ample breasts, larger-than-we’d-like-it-to-be tummy?
As the list of items to hide gets longer, so, too, does the search for the “right” clothing. But even when we find it, it doesn’t change how we feel about ourselves. Most of the time, the number on the scale reigns supreme, determining our mood for the day, as well as how we feel when we look in the mirror and how we think others feel when they look at us. In a culture where there’s so much emphasis on looking good, it’s hard to avoid this mindset or to keep at bay the negative voices in our heads, those destructive murmurs that insist we don’t look as good as we could or should.
My friend Karine is the perfect example, and her destructive murmurs are so vocal she can’t keep them silent. In company, she’s always full of praise for other women in our group, complimenting them on their figures, their makeup, their clothes and their fitness.
In the same breath, though, she denigrates herself over and over. “Look how disgusting I look,” she’ll say. “I’m overweight, I’m a mess, I don’t take care of myself and it shows.” Her despair is completely transparent and distressing to those of us who witness it. We know that nothing we can say to this warm, generous, caring woman will change her mind. We don’t judge her on how she looks, but her self-judgment is so vindictive, so unforgiving. I wish she could love and accept herself just as she is. And yet.
Can any of us? The success of companies like Weight Watchers is evidence of how many of us share Karine’s dissatisfaction with our bodies. Over the past 25 years, I’ve been at those Weight Watchers meetings myself, presenting a credit card, walking away with another little booklet and showing up at various church halls for the weekly weigh-in.
Each time, I’d join the throng of women awaiting caloric judgment after a week’s worth of battling food cravings. Those around me would range from reed-thin to normal-weighted women, with a few obese or visibly overweight ladies among them, all of them shy about their exposure as a weight-worried woman, all of them anxious about what the digital scale would reveal.
Ah, the world of Weight Watchers. I’m never nostalgic for that period, where food is measured in points and distinguished by numeric values rather than by flavour, texture or taste. Weight Watchers and other companies like it are the home of women – and sometimes a few men – laden with weight complexes, beaten by the social yardstick of sexual appeal into believing they are fat.
Deep down, everyone in line suspects they’ll be more lovable if they rid their body of its excess baggage, replacing fatty rolls with bone-baring skin. It’s what keeps these companies in business: people on a never-ending quest for the perfect number on the scale. The number that will say, unequivocally, “You’re thin, and you’re gorgeous!”
I thought when I reached my Perfect Number, body issues would be banished and I’d look in the mirror with pride rather than disdain and criticism. Admittedly, the moment of victory was anticlimactic, because while the scale clearly stated I’d reached my goal, the bathroom mirror said otherwise.
“Look at those bulges,” it leered deprecatingly. “Maybe it’s time for a new perfect number, 10 pounds lower.” But the other voice in my head – the one with a little insight and maturity, argued differently, and this time, loudly. “There’s no such thing as a perfect number,” it insisted. “It’s about accepting you, as you. Surely you knew that all along?”