Militant and Maternal

by Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle '57

No matter how beautiful a woman may look to you and me—on some level she still feels ugly. Psychologists have said this for years.

It was at Scripps that I first became aware of how deeply women fret about their bodies. I remember a classmate sitting by the pool telling me that her boyfriend, when asked, had told her that she had an almost perfect body. She was agonizingly stewing about whatever it was about her contour that was imperfect. In those days what boyfriends thought was not only important but defining.

Not long ago, a friend of mine took me for a walk and confided in me about her lifelong losing struggle with weight control. Diets she has gone on could fill a book, and yet the weight seems inevitably to return. She spoke movingly about how acutely she has suffered rejection and ridicule. When she was slender, she said, she had love in her life. But when she has been fat, she hasn’t—just that simple—and devastating.

I felt sick at heart to know that this beautiful, appealing woman with her creative mind and vibrant personality suffered such dire consequences for her size. Who she is inside gets cancelled by the body that houses her. I realized that long ago I too internalized our western culture’s taboos about fat and could feel the same judgment in my heart. I recognized perfectly well how my friend could come to the conclusion she’d reached that she was generally held in low esteem by society because she is a large woman. I realized that I had been unfamiliar only with the depth of her pain. It was a pain I had assiduously avoided—by exercise, monitoring what I ate, and occasional dieting.

The intensity of that conversation made me realize how deeply I, as well as she, have been conditioned to resist obesity both in myself and in others. As a professional woman, I’ve been fearful of growing fat, out of the conviction that if I do I will not be taken seriously. That hanging Damocles sword makes one scornful of one’s body, always checking and judging a ripple here, a bulge there.

I have talked with enough overweight men to know this isn’t exclusively a women’s issue. While men suffer with self image, they do not risk automatic societal condemnation. A man, though fat, can still be powerful and successful. It is we women who receive the brunt of societal ostracism.

Added to women’s innate feelings about our size is the very compelling information coming out of the medical field that being obese leads one to probable disease and early death. We women need to concentrate on our health as being the primary reason to stay healthy and fit. And we need to worry less about what the rest of the world thinks about us.

I love what Annie Lamott writes:”There are parts of me I don’t love—until a few years ago, I had no idea that you could get cellulite on your stomach, but I not only get along with me most of the time now, I am militantly and maternally on my own side…I still have terrible moments when I despair about my body. But they are just moments—I used to have years when I believed I would be more beautiful if I jiggled less; if all parts of my body stopped moving when I did. But I believe two things now that I didn’t at 30. When we get to heaven, we will discover that the appearance of our butts and skin was 127th on the list of what mattered on earth.”

The conversation with my friend leads me to promote greater sensitivity to myself and my sisters concerning this issue. Once I get to know someone, the size of our bodies doesn’t go away, but it tends to lose its centrality and allows us to appreciate each other’s gifts and the kindness and warmth that can ensue. I, for one, am committed to becoming militantly and maternally on my own side as well as on yours.