Full esteem ahead
Julianna Conley | Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Two summers ago, I spent my days as a camp counselor, first at Notre Dame’s Summer Scholars Program and next at my local church camp. During my time at Notre Dame, I counseled 14 high school girls. Only a couple years younger than me, these girls were smart, funny, beautiful and much, much cooler than me. I spent the first half of the program panicked that at any time they would realize their power, smell my fear and overthrow me as their supervisor. Thankfully, my worry was unfounded; I finished the three weeks without any semblance of a coup d’etat.
Still, I assumed that because I viewed these young women as unstoppable, they, too, must see themselves the same way. Sure, I knew that I was ridden with insecurity, but I was deserving of doubt. I was flawed and imperfect; these girls were awesome.
During one of our nightly chats, we did an activity meant to reveal how similar we were to each other in an effort to break stigmas about personal struggles. To my disappointment — but admittedly not my surprise — when the opportunity arose to signify whether anyone felt held back by insecurity, each of the girls raised their hands. Theoretically, I’d known, of course, that everyone suffers from their own worries. But still, I felt sad when all but one girl admitted she actively disliked the way she looked. It made me sad to hear a natural leader tell me she struggled with an eating disorder. It made me sad to listen to one of the most athletic girls in my section tell me she quit swimming because she couldn’t handle wearing a swimsuit. It made me sad that these powerful, driven changemakers couldn’t see themselves in the same way I saw them.
When I started my role as counselor at my church camp, this time counseling elementary schoolers, I braced myself for a similar situation. Once again, though, I was surprised. My 10-year-olds were fearless. They wore stained shirts, compared underwear sizes out of curiosity but never self-judgement and sported dirty hair with pride. My tall and my short girls, my twiggy and my more solid girls, my tomboys and my girly girls — they all carried themselves with such confidence. They spoke their mind (admittedly too freely sometimes). They sang and danced in front of the whole camp, eating up the limelight. They approached strangers without fear, strutted around the cabin in only bathing suits and never brought up weight, bodies or food once. If any shortcomings were discovered, they were shrugged off and the conversation quickly rerouted to an area they could brag about.
I was so so proud of my brave girls. They made me wonder, though, at what point between fearless 10-year-old and self-doubting 16-year-old do we stop dancing for joy and start running for calorie loss?
For me, it was age 11. The first time I remember actively stressing about what my body looked like, I was 11 years old.
I was always very skinny as a kid, and as icky as it sounds, for lack of a better word, I loved it. I loved when my grandmother called me “Slim Jim.” I loved being able to wear my toddler shorts well into elementary school or squeeze on my friend’s old ballet costumes when we would organize fashion shows. I felt special when I was selected to be the “human baton” 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 tummy.” Suddenly, I was acutely aware of the fact that I could no longer play the piano on my ribs and we didn’t have to “take in” all of my pants by wadding up the waistband with a pin. Worse, I was even more aware of the fact that a few “lucky” girls in my class seemed to reach middle school unscathed, no tummy in sight.
So used to being twiggy being my normal, I thought that there must be something wrong with me if I were no longer drastically underweight. Realizing that on an upcoming school trip, I’d be forced to wear a bathing suit in front of my peers, I panicked. Every afternoon I didn’t have soccer practice, I would go into my backyard, crank my Miley Cyrus “Breakout” CD on my electric blue boombox and hula hoop for hours, hoping to tone my midsection in time for the fated field trip. This was not the last time I would spiral from stress about my body in the coming years.
It feels important to note here that I’ve been incredibly lucky to have never had an eating disorder. I am in no way attempting to equate my experience to the very real illness so many people suffer from. But I still have cried in more dressing rooms than I can count. I still ruined a fun lake trip by comparing my body to other girls’ and spending the entire weekend languishing in the shame of my decidedly not-flat stomach. I still missed out on beach days with friends the summer after freshman year of college because I felt a sense of panic at the thought of not running seven miles and doing yoga sculpt every day.
My first year of college, I had an epiphany. For much of my young life, I felt embarrassed by my lack of flexibility. Whether this insecurity stemmed from dance when I was younger or the sit-and-reach section of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test in fifth grade, I always felt a deep sense of shame that I couldn’t do the splits.
So you can imagine my relief when freshman year, during a Zumba class in Duncan, I realized my ability to do the splits bore no impact on my life whatsoever. 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 changed nothing. No matter how flexible or inflexible I was, I wouldn’t really change; I would still be the same Julianna — and that realization was liberating.
Why then, can’t I have the same revelation regarding 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 shake the feeling that if I look like the women in magazines, I really will be a more confident, better version of myself?
Intellectually, I understand the problematic, manipulative roots of beauty standards. As a sociology major, I know the gilded corset I feel trapped by is socially constructed. But as a perfectionist, it’s hard to accept the way I look — to embrace my body, flaws and all — without feeling like I’m giving up. As a feminist, I believe women should have the right to be any size, shape and design they choose. So when I try to embrace the version of myself looking back at me in the mirror, why is it so hard I shake the feeling that I’m stopping short of the finish line? That I’m settling for what I am instead of pushing for what I could be?
For so long, I’ve associated the idea of thinner with better, of leaner with stronger. I’ve tricked myself into 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 rewire my brain to stop thinking that way.
What I do know is this summer I decided to stop using exercise as a form of losing weight, and instead focus on it as a means of feeling good. What I do know is I’m trying to value my legs for the miles they let me run every week, my arms for the loads they carry every day. I’ve been saying yes to FaceTime calls or hangouts that last so long it’s too dark to run by the time they’re over. I’m saying no to putting my life on pause while I try to make my body “ready” for it.
Quarantine gave me more than ample opportunity to reflect on the time and energy and emotional turmoil I’ve channelled into making my body “perfect,” and I’ve thought a lot about the other ways I could be using that energy. I’m not giving up on a healthy lifestyle, but I’m working towards no longer letting my fixation on body perfection hold me back from my other goals. From being a better sister, a better daughter, a better friend. I’m working towards harnessing that energy to do good in the world instead.
I am thrilled to report that this year I did not return to campus with abs. My arms were not sinewy. My legs not freshly toned. For one of the first times in a long time, I didn’t approach a break from campus as my “chance” to transform my body into a smaller, more svelte version of the one that left South Bend, a better, prettier, 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 have a long way to go, but I’m trying to realize, instead, that the version I am right now is just fine.
Julianna Conley is a senior studying sociology and pre-health studies with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Though she is forever loyal to Pasquerilla East B-team athletics, Julianna now lives off campus. She can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @JuliannaLConley on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.