One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is body image and body acceptance. I read a really interesting blog post yesterday (read it here at Captain Awkward) about the body shaming bonding ritual that women do when they talk to each other. “My thighs are huge.” “Oh, mine too, and look at this muffin top,” etc. It’s a way that we connect to each other — aligning on a common enemy (fat), commiserating, and finding common ground. But I know there are ways we can connect as women and as people that are more empowering to all of us.
As a fat woman (and I say that without judgement — empirically, I am obese, and I am not beating myself up), it is really hard to hear skinny/average sized women make these kind of comments. Not just because it’s hard to believe, because they look great the way they are, but because when a woman half my size complains about how she’s so worried she’s getting fat, at a certain level, what I hear is, “Oh god, I hope I don’t become YOU. Your fat/body is my worst nightmare.” Now, I know that those women aren’t thinking that. They are too obsessed with their own thighs to worry about me, and they aren’t trying to be mean to me. But do you know how many women complain to me about their fat, because they are sure I must understand? (Hint, a lot.) And how many women tell me proudly about how much salad they are eating and how hard they are trying to lose weight, or suggest that I eat salads too? (As if salads are the ultimate answer. I’ve eaten so many salads in my life — if that worked, I would be a size 4.)
I end up participating in those conversations even when I don’t really want to, because it is a way to connect. But it is always uncomfortable, for a lot of reasons. Some of it is that it’s just mean-spirited, and just because you’re talking smack about yourself instead of someone else doesn’t really make it better. Some of it is because I don’t hate my body. I love it. I would like to be more fit, true. I would like for parts of my body to support movement rather than impede it. But I have powerful legs, capable hands, a strong back. My arms and hips support my babies. I grew them in my round, soft belly. My breasts fed them. (My son adoringly tells me that I am “the squishiest.”) I don’t have any hatred toward my body. But I’ve had too many conversations where I agree, “Oh, I know. My belly fat…” as if agreeing with someone about our flaws is somehow going to help any of us be better people. I don’t think it will.
I also don’t think it’s valuable to talk about being “good” or “bad” about our eating habits. “Oh, I’m being so bad, eating this cupcake.” “I’ve been so good this week. I’ve eaten salad every day.” Food doesn’t have a moral value. It just has nutrition, in varying degrees. Some of it supports our fitness and health goals. Some of it doesn’t but supports our mental health or our desires. All of that is ok. Salads aren’t morally superior to cake. There’s a time and a place for all of it. (Note, I do think it’s totally appropriate to say that you feeling like you are eating well, or supporting your body with healthful choices. I just don’t think anyone is a good person or a bad person — or sinful, etc. — based on what foods we choose to put in our mouths.)
So my goal for this year (and the rest of my life) is to stop participating in that kind of conversation. If someone starts it, I’ll either try to change the subject or, if I feel comfortable, explain why I won’t participate. I told my husband that I want him to call me on it and I am telling other people in my life, too (including you!). I want to keep loving my body (and working and sweating it, and feeding it the best things I can — including some chocolate — so it gets to its true potential!). I want you to love yours, too. So if you (the general “you” — I am totally not pointing any fingers at anyone here) start to shame yourself for your body or your choices, I won’t join in. Because I think we are all better than that. There are plenty of other ways we can connect, as women, as people, as warriors of our own lives. Let’s stop tearing ourselves down and start building ourselves and each other up!
All week, every interaction I’ve had in public has been so pleasant. People hold doors a little extra long if you’re heading toward an entrance, servers are more patient, cashiers chattier. Even coworkers have been a little extra appreciative and lenient. It’s nice. I’m feeling it too. I’m more patient, more gentle. It’s the spirit of the season, the season of joy and giving. Right?
But it also kind of makes me a little crazy. Why do we save all our goodwill for the season of… goodwill? Why aren’t we a little more interested in spreading a little more goodwill all year long?
I know it sounds Pollyanna to even talk about this. And I’m a cranky optimist at the best of times, so I want to roll my eyes at my own self the more I think about it. But you know what? I really mean it. I really think we should be challenging ourselves to be our best holiday selves all year long. And with that:
People of Earth! You know how you’re being extra nice this week, in the spirit of the season? Guess what? We could do this all year! Let’s try it and see what happens! I bet it feels awesome and uplifting to be a good and kind person to the people you interact with. I bet it makes every day feel a little more like Christmas… A little more like you might feel if you were really celebrating what Jesus taught, all year long. The last time I looked, the Bible doesn’t put an expiration date on our tidings of great joy… Why are we adding one?
Maybe you don’t believe in Jesus. That’s cool. Whatever spiritual practice you follow probably doesn’t put a time limit on being awesome to people. In fact, you don’t need religion or a spiritual practice at all to be good and kind, generous and understanding, compassionate and gentle. Those are human qualities that are available to all of us, in every moment. We just have to pause and reflect before reacting, and we can spread those good feelings any time we want. Let’s remember to take some moments, all year, to celebrate the spirit of this season, by bringing that spirit along for all the other seasons.
Most of this is written as a challenge to myself as much as it is to anyone else. But if it moves you, play along. Let’s see what happens!
Peace on earth, goodwill toward all…
Last year my MIL got us a gift card for one of those photo places where you go have a photo session and come home with a thousand wallet size photos (who has pictures in their wallet anymore) and a bunch of Christmas cards and prints for the grandparents. I was prepared to hate it, and then we had the photos done and the kids were unbelievably cute and everyone was nice and I even looked good in the Christmas card photo, and I was pleasantly surprised.
So we went back this year. Now I think the first year is really extra nice to reel you in, and once they’ve got you, you are just part of the mill, churning out more and more photos that are probably feeding some demon’s energy somehow. Maybe I was just in a bad mood. Or maybe the combination of waiting 20 minutes for any employee to even acknowledge us, and then another 25 before our shoot, even though we’d made an appointment, and the photographer being unable to get Fiona to smile at all (last year there were two people working with us: one would get the kids to smile and look and the other would snap the picture — 1 person was no match for my kids), and then looking through 80 photos that weren’t much better than the ones I take, and then the “manager” telling me that I shouldn’t have waited so long if I wanted to have better service, and then the same manager printing my receipt and then walking away without telling me thank you or letting me know when my prints would be done. But I wasn’t completely loving it this year.
I guess maybe it is my fault that I waited this long into December to make an appointment, but I didn’t realize that you got better service on certain days or times. I assumed I’d get the same service no matter when I booked an appointment to pay someone money to perform a service for me. But that’s just me being crazy, apparently. I told the manager that I wasn’t very pleased (although I think our photographer actually was great with us; it just wasn’t what I was expecting and I didn’t feel like it was quite up to par) and he shrugged. While I was there, I also saw someone come in to pick up pictures, only to be told they hadn’t printed them because they were a reprint and no one had put the date on them, another family get turned away because their appointment wasn’t in the computer, the same family come back after the employee realized she had just spelled the name wrong in the computer, and a third woman told that she is so sorry, but all of her Christmas cards that she was there to pick up would not come with envelopes, because they “just ran out. I guess a lot of people are buying cards right now.” The week before Christmas? You don’t say! I don’t think I’ll be going back.
But we got a picture for the Christmas card, and a few other cute pics of the kids. So it’s not a total loss. But it’s disappointing. I shouldn’t be disappointed that a photo studio that’s run by high school kids is not really that professional, but I am a little disappointed none the less.
Looking at my cute kids helps though. I am biased, but they are adorable.
I was thinking about my first Christmas tree this week, as we decorated our 16th tree together and my 30-somethingth overall.
When I was 4, we bought a farm and moved to Lebanon. My parents started converting the hundred-foot barn on the property into a house. That is an awesome story for another day. But we spent Christmas there that winter, and that is the first Christmas I remember. We went out into the woods across the road on a cold wet day and found a tree, and we didn’t chop it down. We dug it up. I remember my dad hitting a large root and eventually having to just sever it because he couldn’t dig any deeper. He was doubtful that the tree would live after it had done its duty as a Christmas tree.
We brought it home and decorated it, and when we woke up on Christmas morning there were more presents than I’d ever seen in my life. It was unbelievable, and that tree was the most beautiful amazing thing I’d ever seen. I was full of wonder and awe.
There have been lots of trees since then. I don’t know if my tree this year has any of the original ornaments on it, though some go way back now — I have some of my grandmother’s collectibles that she got on her travels, and some from when I was a kid, and a few I made in school.
After Christmas was over, we planted the tree in an open space near the barn. It seemed a likely spot, and we said we’d plant others there if this one survived. It did, and we did. Most of them made it, and they all grew year after year. We’d go check in with them and see how they were growing — when they started making fir cones, how much new growth they had. Then I moved away to college, and never moved back. My parents sold the farm, and I haven’t seen that tree in years. But I looked it up on Google Maps today.
The barn is 100 feet long. That tree is taking up a good amount of space there. It looks like it’s doing just fine.
(Technology is cool, by the way. Being able to check in on a tree that we planted in our backyard almost 35 years ago, from a hundred miles away? Awesome.)
This year when everyone started talking about their holiday baking, I remembered my grandmother’s stollen. She made it every year, along with fudge and some cookies called Lebkuchen. When I was young, I didn’t like it, and over the years it sort of grew on me. It’s a sweet yeast bread with dried and candied fruit it — a little bit like fruitcake, and a lot like panettone, not that I knew what that was when I was a kid. We toasted slices of it and buttered the hell out of them and ate them for breakfast. It’s a once a year kind of treat that you wouldn’t dream of making except at Christmas time. And this year I was missing it.
But I’d never made it, and I wasn’t even sure we had the recipe anymore —no one else in my family had made it, that I knew of. I asked my mom and tagged my aunt, as they were the likeliest suspects. My mom had the answer: “It’s on page 110 of the 1964 Betty Crocker cookbook.” OF COURSE. Everyone’s long lost family secret recipe is right out of the cookbook, or the back of the package, isn’t it?
My aunt sent me some more information by email later that day. Apparently my grandmother recruited everyone for her stollen project each Christmas, when they were kids. Everyone had to help press the candied fruit into the dough, and later, to help wrap them in tinfoil tied with red ribbon. She said toward the end, my grandma, who was a school lunch lady back in the day, was mixing up the dough in the school’s big industrial mixers — up to 50 loaves’ worth!
I knew I wasn’t going to make that kind of quantity, but I also knew that many hands make fun work. So I gathered up the team (mom, sister, 2 nieces), the usual ingredients (candied cherries, lemon zest, currants, and citron), as well as some my grandma never would have approved of (gluten-free flour!) and the cookbook (my mom still has it, and brought it over), and we got to work.
We made 8 loaves, half of them gluten free. I mixed up the dough in my green Kitchen Aid, and then my nieces and sister helped press the nuts and fruit into the dough, and shape the loaves.
While we worked, my nieces asked why were were doing this. I tried to explain that my grandmother made it, and it’s special because it makes me remember her, and because we would have made this with her, except by the time we were old enough, she was just making a few loaves alone at home to bring to Christmas. And because my grandmother baked a lot of the love that she didn’t quite know how to say to us into her stollen, and her fudge, and her Lebkuchen, which she made in October and then stored in tins with an apple so they could age just right in time for us to pry open the tin and ask for just one more after walking on the windy beach at Christmastime. And because my mom was there with us, to tell us how it used to be and just how grandma would have done it.
Fiona sat on her lap and patted her and my mom beamed at her, and as I often do, I was overwhelmed and grateful that my kids have the kind of relationship with her that I wish I’d had with my grandma. So the way it used to be gives way to the way it is now, and now we can reflect and realize that we’re both so lucky that we have some new ways of being close as a family, and so blessed to have had the history that brought us here.
We talked and laughed, and we worked the dough and set it to rise, and the house was warm and full of love and laughter and silliness.
The regular loaves raised up beautifully, and both kinds baked up pretty and brown (though the gluten free adaptation needs some work — next year, we’ll get it right!). This morning toph and I toasted some and slathered it with butter, and he said it was really good. It was pretty much just like I remembered. A little strange, a little sweet, a little packed with memories.
I iced the loaves this afternoon and then wrapped them up in tinfoil and tied the ribbon just so, and I wondered how different my wrapping is from how my grandma would have done it, and what she thought about when she packed up all the loaves and wrapped them to give as gifts every year, and if she was overwhelmed with all the love she had put into the loaves. Or if she just quietly patted them and nodded, just so.
So we try the old traditions, in our new ways, and we succeed and fail and try again. And all the while we laugh, and we love, and we remember.