Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Personal Awakening: I may never be ideal, but I can be healthy

Ralph Lauren Apologizes for Photoshopping Mode...

Image by Tricia Wang 王圣捷 via Flickr

This week I’ve been reminded in a powerful way that a healthy body is an immense gift that we need to embrace, whatever it’s size or shape. Earlier in the week, a friend lost one of her newborn twin daughters. As I was walking my children to school this morning, we passed a nearby senior living home. An elderly man was being wheeled out to a waiting ambulance. As he passed very near us, my six and nine-year old daughters trembled, and we were all hit with the weight of our own mortality. His frailty and vulnerability were sobering.

Over the past year I have had a very personal walk through understanding the power of learning to love your body. I’d like to share it with you today. After having my third child, my metabolism and endocrine system decided to go a little crazy. I struggled with energy levels, weight gain, a lot of symptoms that family members with thyroid problems have faced. I knew that exercise was key in getting my body back on track, but my low energy levels plus having three children under the age of five really made that difficult. Eventually, I joined a local health club and started going to all kinds of fun classes. From kickboxing to dance to bike riding, the enthusiastic instructors were able to reintroduce me to the fun of getting my body moving. After 4 years of being a regular at these classes, I felt strong and energetic. Did my body look like it did back in high school? No, and I sometimes struggled with that emotionally.

As my 40th birthday approached, I started to think about the fact that I was getting older. I didn’t obsess over it, but I’ll be honest that in the back of my mind I was not enjoying the new wrinkles, gray hairs that would appear out of nowhere and so forth. And even with frequent exercising and a healthy diet, I still didn’t resemble the idealized body shape. I looked okay, but I wished that I were thinner. But that summer, I got a wake up call.  On a routine office visit, my trusted nurse practitioner, Elizabeth was listening to my heart. Just like normal, but then she kept listening. Then, she made a referral to a cardiologist. After learning to love the strength of my body over the past several years, I was now terrified to learn that even so, it was not invincible.

After months of testing and many visits with specialists, it turns out that I have a relatively benign heart condition that has to be monitored. It’s possible that it’s something that I’ve always had, and it doesn’t really impact me in my day-to-day life. Because of the new medications I started taking I began to get dizzy when I exerted myself and had to cut back on some of my favorite classes. For several months I was afraid to go to the high cardio classes that I had been enjoying for years. In the midst of my worry and cutting back on exercise, I felt my strength and energy levels dropping once again. I’m still working out how to monitor my level of exertion to make sure that I stay safe and increase my strength.

The discovery of this condition has renewed my determination to live everyday to its fullest, to refuse to spend one more minute wasting my emotional energy on wishing I looked like this or that. A healthy body, a strong body is something to be cherished. I read this post by Hugo Schwyzer about body image and photo shopping. It saddened me to see in the comments that some readers felt the need to criticize the healthy body of the girl who had been the model for demonstrating photo-shopping techniques. Their eyes have been so trained by media’s promotion of the Thin Ideal that they can no longer tell the difference between healthy bodies and unrealistic, enhanced images of extreme thinness.

This is why the promotion of the Thin Ideal is dangerous. It gives us all an unrealistic idea of what healthy bodies should look like. Research has shown that exposure to these thin images does lead to negative evaluations of one’s own body and can lead to disordered eating and depression. Life is too short to spend our precious time and energy obsessing over attaining a shape or weight that may be completely unrealistic.

By all means, get regular exercise. Enjoy the strength of your body and have fun doing new things that challenge you. Try rock climbing, cross-country biking, or a new dance class. Go for a daily walk or bike ride. Use your body to move and have fun and live life to its fullest! But I beg of you, stop beating yourself up over a few extra inches or pounds. Stop measuring yourself against a yardstick that is NOT REAL. And, if you find yourself unable to do this, don’t be afraid to get help either from trusted friends or trained professionals.

For the children and adolescents in your life, encourage a focus on healthy living. Here are a few tips you might try:

  1. Teach them to enjoy foods that nourish their bodies. Visit farmers markets or local producers if there are some in your area so they can see where their food is coming from. Choose food that is not processed for the majority of your meals.
  2. Try out healthy recipes together. Have fun trying new things together and make eating an adventure.
  3. In the US we have a strange relationship to food. It’s either overly processed and consumed in huge amounts or we attempt to control it and eat as little as possible. Newsflash: Food is good for you! It’s what keeps you alive! Try to treat your food like something to enjoy and nourish rather than scarf down or control. Getting our heads in a healthier place in the way that we view food will help us eat healthier.
  4. Get moving together and make it fun! I get really annoyed when I hear that the PE teacher at my child’s school has my kindergartener doing push-ups. Really? That seemed like a way to get a child connected to exercise? Kids are not going to respond to the military boot camp idea! Instead she’s bored and hates PE. On the other hand, she loves soccer and all the fun drills that her coach incorporates into practice. You can use the same motions but make up a fun game that involves running, jumping, pulling, pushing. Kids love to move when it’s for play and have fun. Ride bikes together, kick or throw a ball around, fly kites, play Wii Fit or dance games together if you can’t get outside.
  5. Encourage kids to think about their bodies in terms of health and strength instead of thinness. This is all about the language that you use. My nine-year-old was talking about how she didn’t want to eat too many sweets because “then you get fat.” True, but I want her to think about why it’s not healthy, not just how it makes her look. So, I said, “Eating too much sugar makes your body feel bad. We weren’t made to eat a lot of one thing. When you’re eating some protein, vegetables, fruits, breads, and some sugar throughout the day, your body works better. When you only eat one thing, you’re body tells you that it needs something different by feeling bad.”

Our health is a precious commodity. Don’t take it for granted. Embrace the strength and health that you have everyday and encourage your children to do the same.

One comment on “Personal Awakening: I may never be ideal, but I can be healthy

  1. Lindsay
    April 12, 2011

    Jennifer, this is powerful. Thank you for sharing this deeply personal insight into why our bodies are capable of so much more than being looked at and why we all need to understand that! I love this perspective. As a researcher of health perceptions and media depictions of “healthy” bodies, I second every one of your points about getting back to REAL measures of health that really have nothing to do with whether or not our bodies fit prescribed ideals of extreme thinness and curviness and otherwise “flaw”-lessness. We need to measure and enjoy health according to activity and abilities, and this post is a perfect example of that. Thank you!!

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