Many years ago, when my cousin had her first baby, her husband, as he held this gorgeous nine month old baby, squeezed on of her plump little thighs and said, “I can already see that this is going to be a problem area for her, we’re going to have to watch that…” (don’t worry, my cousin divorced him).
Problem area. I asked him what he meant by “problem area,” he said, “her thighs are fat, and they’re going to be a sticking point for her…” All the women in my family have thighs that are thick, strong, and sturdy. Including his wife. And he said it was a problem. SHE WAS AN INFANT!!!!! I have been thinking about this moment 15 years ago for days now. Because I know how these eating disorders get started. A baby girl is born perfect and her dad, her mom, society, a boyfriend, a teacher, whomever, says she has a “problem spot.” And then, she sees what she was born with, what is naturally in her DNA as a problem. And she diets. She starves, she gets sick, she binges, maybe she purges, takes laxatives, maybe she runs miles and miles and miles and miles and miles to make that “problem” go away. And she blames herself when it doesn’t. She blames herself for having no willpower, she blames herself for not exercising enough, for eating too many carbs, for the birthday cake she ate at her best friend’s birthday party.
Like most every woman in my family, I was born with “problem” thighs. I knew they were a problem because my mother had the same thighs and she did everything under the sun to make them go away. Her mother also believed that she had the same problem. I know that because after my mother died, I found this book upon her stacks of books. It was published in 1952, when my mother was 4 years old and my grandmother was about 30. This deceptive book was created to make women believe that the size of their thighs was their fault.
Here, let me cite the first sentence of the intro for you: “The woman with shapely legs and attractive curves is more likely to get ahead socially, in business and in love. Heavy legs, regardless of other attractions are a handicap that is hard to overcome….” So here we begin, if you have thin thighs, you will get ahead in life but with thicker thighs, your life will (and should) suck. If you have body image issues, don’t blame yourself this myth has been perpetuated by misogynists for years. Now, let me continue with this brilliant piece of literary master… “Hollywood legs, for which some of the screen stars are famous, attract a large audience. Many movie actresses take systematic exercises to develop shapely limbs because they realize that the beauty of their legs may make the difference between success and failure…” If you have thin thighs you can become famous! And most movie stars make sure to exercise their legs because genetically, this does not come naturally– you are responsible for the DNA you were born with.
Here’s an interview with Marilyn Monroe where she says “I never really gave much thought to my body, I just tried to make sure I was eating enough… I never bothered with exercise, but now I exercise for about 10 minutes each morning…” Genetics. Marilyn had no hours at the gym trying to tame her body into submission– it just was what it was. Now, let me continue with our fine piece of literature… “We may also mention tennis legs, meaning that shapely limbs of the women who compete at Forest Hills every year for the championship of the United States. Many of these contestants have become famous for the beauty of their legs…” Finally- a statement I can get behind– with our very own 2016 Wimbledon Champ. Though, somehow I have a feeling that the author of this book was not picturing our gorgeous Serena Williams when he wrote those words.
And finally, here is a real gem- the intro of the book, where the author describes in a factual way how we should view women with heavy legs… “Women with heavy legs are not to be admired… In the minds of many men, such limbs are associated with the peasant type and are commonly called ‘piano legs.’ The woman with heavy, clumsy legs makes little impression on the opposite sex. One need only mention the popularity of certain movie stars who are famous for their beautiful legs. In fact, some of them have traveled to Europe and Korea as part of the war effort to keep up the morale of our troops… yet we see so many women with stout (heavy limbs) everywhere we go: on the street, at parties, in the theatre and in church. Some of them have beautiful faces, but their over-sized legs make them look clumsy. If they would only realize what they are losing in life, these women would gladly take the exercises described in this book for slenderizing heavy legs…” There’s much more, but I won’t bore you with it. He then goes on to discuss his amazing credentials as a Physical Therapist and a man who appreciates thin thighs. Again, this was 1952.
So let’s see, what does he do here? He first tells women that it’s better to have thin thighs because if you do, you get to be virtuous and entertain troops and do something valuable with your life. He then goes on to say that he doesn’t quite understand why if it’s so easy to have thin thighs, then why do most women go around thick legged. Surely it’s their fault for being lazy and slovenly and not doing the (bizarre and unnatural exercises) described in his book, he then goes on to describe that men will not care for a woman with thick thighs. Though I’m sure our friend Sir Mix-A-Lot would disagree with Sir Henry Milchenstein (the bright box who authored this book). So, although our society has changed a lot in the last 65 years since this stupid book was published– these messages, though not spoken out loud and with such candor still permeate the collective unconscious. But most of us cannot look this way, yet we are made to believe that not only can we, we should and it’s our responsibility to go out and make it happen.
It seems that my Mom had her moments somewhere between the ages of 4 or 5 years old where she told Milchenstein to go screw himself as seen in these pictures…
Unfortunately, these horrific messages became strong starting with whatever possessed Milchenstein to write this piece of crapola then down to my grandmother and to larger society and then down to my mother. She struggled and struggled and struggled with her own thighs, doing every exercise that she could to slim them down. She really felt that she had a problem — she felt that she had a problem and she told me that I too had the problem. The inherited curse. So I tried and I tried and I tried to make them go away. I went days, weeks, months without eating. I ran 10, 20 miles at a time several days a week, I lifted weights, I stopped lifting weights, I ate no carbs or sugar ever. I ate no meat, chicken, fish, eggs, or dairy ever, I went on juice fasts, I went on master cleanser fasts, I wrapped my thighs in seaweed, I sat in saunas, I sat in steam rooms, I did leg lifts every day from the time I was 9 years old. In fact, I owned the book Thin Thighs in 30 Days as a 3rd grader. It was my bible. I did the exercises faithfully in hopes that my “problem” would go away. I was so ashamed of myself. Why couldn’t I beat this? Why couldn’t I have legs like other girls in my school? It eluded me and so I tried harder and harder and harder. I tried as hard as I could to get thin thighs. To rid myself of saddle bags and jeans that fit loose in the waist but tight in the legs. I was built like, like, like… like a woman!
The truth of the matter is, I have never had thin thighs. Even at an anorexic weight, even when I was running marathons, even when I wasn’t menstruating. My body isn’t a problem and my thighs are not a problem. But I was taught to believe they were and I was at fault.
And most of you were probably taught to believe the same thing. How normal is the cultural discourse about “problem areas.” And if you have bought into this belief– it’s not your fault. We all fall for it. We all believe we have “problem areas.” But a problem area is a cyst on your ovary, a tumor on your breast, a splinter under your fingernail. Yet the collectively accepted conversation is that we have “problem areas” that aren’t actual problems. Now that is a FUCKING PROBLEM!
When I was at the most recent International Eating Disorder Conference (ICED 2016), there was a lot of discussion on body image. I sat with several body image experts and I asked them how they helped women deal with body image issues and how they helped them to change their mindset. Many of the answers I got were similar, “In someone with poor body image, you cannot change it, it’s the message of the culture they grew up in and live in. It’s too late. The only thing we can do is help them heal from their eating disorders, and help to empower the next generation of women to accept and love their bodies. Though we cannot save those who already hate their bodies, we can empower them to change the status quo and work to help change the cultural discourse around the tyranny of thin.”
Maybe this is true.
But I accept that answer as much as I accept the answer that once you have an eating disorder you will always have an eating disorder and that it’s unchangeable. I have seen so, so, so many women recover 100% from their eating disorders and I’ve seen them go on to lead full lives without the tyranny of diets and weight loss and purging and bingeing beckoning at them. But best of all, I have seen women make the decision to let go of the thoughts that keep them there. So many of those thoughts are, “you have to be different, you are not enough.”
But I have a little truth for you– and that is: Who you are right now in this very moment is enough. You are enough. You might not think that you’re perfect. You might not think that your body is beautiful, you might think that you have “problem areas” and lots of “flaws,” and that’s okay. If you can take one moment, one second each day to think to yourself, “who I am is enough,” and maybe make that second last a little longer each day. And let yourself feel it, you might start to believe it soon.
I will never have thin thighs. I can read every book, do every exercise, go on every diet, lose my period, vomit everything I eat, and my thighs will never be thin. And I can blame it on myself, for not being enough, not doing enough for doing everything wrong. I can do that. And I have done that. I’ve done a lot of that. But I am done. That is not a life that I want for myself.
That is a life that I do not want for YOU.
That is a life that I don’t want for any woman or any young girl or boy or young man or anyone growing up right now believing that they are not enough.
I want you to know that you are enough. I want you to know that the way you are shaped and built is not your fault and it’s NOT BAD! YOU ARE NOT A PROBLEM. You are a human. And your DNA is what created you. You are enough. And you have so much to live for and so much to do in the world that has nothing to do with the size of your thighs (or belly or arms or tush)… You are not flawed. The world is flawed. Your body did not fail you, society failed you. You did not mess up, the social norm messed up.
Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do? Anything at all that you just never did? What would it be like to focus on that? What would it be like if you could take your focus off your “flaws” and focus on something totally arbitrary? Like I don’t know, learning how to play the saxophone (that’s totally my next venture) or writing a children’s book, or painting with acrylics, or taking a chemistry class, or learning about black holes, or collecting rocks, or doing pottery, or learning how to salsa dance, or doing nail art or blowing glass, or playing tennis, or going to medical school, or learning furniture design, or taking a martial arts class, or starting your own pet grooming business, or reading tarot cards, or learning to sail, or going to beauty school, or knitting socks, or playing guitar or starting a garden, or or, or…. anything! Anything other than spending all your time and your mind and energy thinking about what you should be doing in terms of changing your body into something that society deems acceptable. Because the truth is, according to a 1997 Body Shop ad, there are 3 billion women who don’t look like super models and only 8 who do. So find a habit that you enjoy more, that you can really go forward with, that is meaningful to you– because chasing the illusion of the perfect body will keep you in a state of sadness for as long as you stay in it.
I love you people and I want you to love yourselves or at least try to enjoy this one life you’re given.