Struggling to Find Balance

by Ursula Griese '86

Body image is a loaded subject. As I matured, it has had different meanings.

Initially,”my body is my temple” logic prevailed. I was a healthy child, active, and ate nutritionally sound. By junior high, hormones had kicked in, and my body struggled with the many changes—weight gain, loss of 20/20 vision, and an inconsistent appreciation of my own body image. I was not fat, maybe husky; yet compared to other teenagers and young adults, I was not the walking “hourglass” sensationalized by television and magazines. Senior high offered some respite as my body adjusted, and, comparatively speaking, I once again looked similar in size to my peers.While living at home, the concept of not eating or starving was unacceptable and definitely not necessary; as one of five children, meals were family events, and I ate and was active.

Somehow the shift from correlating positive body image as a child with activity and health moved to associating body image to include comparisons of beauty and weight.

College was supposed to be an opportunity to celebrate adulthood, gain knowledge, and embrace life. Fortunately, much of that occurred. However, attending an all-women’s institution meant I was bombarded with the body images of many beauties also attending. As long as I remained physically active, I felt great about my own body. I was more social, more relaxed, and definitely in prime physical condition.

In my second year, I discontinued team sports and regular exercise. Once my level of physical exercise dropped, my positive attitude declined. I did not feed my “body as a temple” (discovered ice cream for breakfast) and began skipping meals, indulging in food for comfort and more sedentary activities. I was, however, blissfully unaware as I hit a wonderful academic stride and enjoyed feeding my brain with continuous tidbits of information.

During the Gulf War, I enlisted and found I could become leaner, and toned with hours of physical exercise, restricted availability to sugared foods and carbonated drinks. Preparing to enlist was an endeavor in a return to better eating habits and daily exercise. Body image, for me, is really a mental concept based on my own perception of health, movement, activity, beauty and hygiene.

During my active duty tour, I had surgery on both my legs, and my participation in my activity changed dramatically. I could no longer run, take long walks, and hike. Since 1993, secondary medical conditions have presented themselves as a by-product of my very inactive, sedentary lifestyle. Of course, my body image has taken a big beating.There was no mental preparation to perceive my inactivity and fair, not excellent, health as positive body image. I continue to struggle with body image concept. Although I have not gained or lost any weight since one year after my Honorable Discharge, I am constantly badgered by well-meaning doctors to become more active and lose weight.

My body image does not detract from my ability to love, but it has hindered my expression of participating in community activities and seeking a long-term relationship. It is a vicious cycle—I am not able to be physically active like I was before; I am in need of more than eight hours of sleep each night, which I am unable to obtain due to constant pain and fatigue; prescription medication makes drinking functions a no-no; and fatigue makes spontaneous activities disastrous because I “hit a wall” when I expend my energy. More sleep means skipping meals, oftentimes dinner, and on the weekends. Planning gettogethers is equally tiring, although the rewards are great. I just have to space out these taxing events. Planning exercise such as pool exercise is dependent again on my energy level and type of movement. I am also resigned to acknowledge that children are not in my future—I am not able to carry a child to term without aggravating many of my medical conditions, and without a spouse to help raise a child and relieve me of the more physical aspects of parenting, this is not a viable option.

Mentally, physically, and even spirituality, I cannot lock into a positive body image. There is lots of negativity, and I admit I internalize much of the feedback, in addition to ruminating and grieving about what could have been. I know that a positive body image is more mental than physical; although one cannot exist without the other.