This past autumn brought big change for my family and I as we left our lives in Toronto and moved to the small village of Lakefield, Ontario for me to pursue work at Lakefield College School. This year of transition and change has got me thinking about why I pursued education as a career, why I research and why I am interested in the kind of work that I do. I wanted to share this with you today. Maybe some of it will resonate with you.
One of my committee members at the University of Toronto once told me that research is always intimately connected to the individual doing the research. This really stuck with me and the work that I do with girls surrounding body perception, self-monitoring and finding joy in movement. I was a competitive gymnast for most of my adolescent and teenage life. As I reached puberty and began to develop and gain weight, I felt increasing amounts of pressure to conform to the normative body size for my sport, characterized by little body fat and a petite, yet muscular body shape. Achieving this body required me to limit my food intake and partake in drastic training and exercise habits. I will never forget my coach yelling into the change room during a snack break that he could “hear me getting fatter.” Wtf!?
These early experiences, coupled with the sharp rise in exposure to social media has really stayed with me into my adult years. Recently, it has surrounded the messiness of pregnancy, and the transformative body (and emotional) changes that come afterwards. While women experience these changes, they also tend to feel massive societal pressure to get that perfect body back, and quickly. It’s all a little bit much.
Leaving this message behind and arriving at a place of self-acceptance has not been easy for me, but I refuse to let my daughters watch their mother obsess over imperfection. So, we eat the cookies, then we eat the kale, and it’s all good that I still have a little belly, almost 2 years after giving birth. I am not going to say I don’t still struggle with these changes, but I’m trying, and that’s all a person can do.
Most importantly, and for the purpose of this blog, I find that these past experiences really help me to empathize and relate to my female students who are negotiating a lot of pressures to conform to a specific, ‘feminine’ body. Helping young people to navigate this complex world is messy work, that sometimes requires the help of a professional; but if I can instill the values of intuitive eating (a whole post on this concept later) and the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ body in the girls I work with, I will feel I have made some small difference.
It’s an ongoing job that requires the uphill battle of helping young people push back against societal norms and ideals; but this is important work for future leaders and societal influencers anyways, so, two birds. I also don’t pretend to understand how difficult it must be to get through life as a teen unscathed in the era of social media. They teach me about this.
One fact is for certain when it comes to these experiences; the body is far from neutral and biological, and we should never treat it as such; it is a complex entity, multiplicitous, and experienced within negotiations of power controlled by various structures. Who said my belly had to disappear two months after I had my children? Why is it that I felt the need to hit the treadmill 3 weeks after giving birth? and why do my students regularly mention ‘thigh gaps,’ and their ‘summer bodies’ to me in meetings and interviews? These early experiences and realizations form the foundation on which I work with young people in practice and research. I wanted to know who had the power to control messages about the body. And I wanted to help, in any small way I could, the next generation of girls to negotiate this messy terrain they find themselves travelling along.
The act of writing these experiences out is therapeutic in a way, but most importantly, it solidifies my commitment to help others negotiate messages about the body, especially in the face of the curated and perfected images that we each display to the world on our social media accounts (and we’re all guilty of this!). I can’t say I have all of the answers, but I think talking about it and changing the dialogue is a real first step; maybe even posting a picture that isn’t the most flattering but where I look happy.
We have been thinking more deeply as a staff about mindfulness recently. Taking that moment in our everyday lives to direct love and kindness not only towards others but towards ourselves. If I had one wish for our girls after constructing this post, it would be for each of them to look into the mirror and think “I am beautiful.”
Thanks for reading,