Most Americans would rather have dental work than go bathing suit shopping, according to a 2011 survey by Anytime Fitness. Thanks go to Pope Francis for inadvertently taking the heat off this bikini season, otherwise known by the quaint, nonjudgmental, unisex term “summer.” The Pope can’t seem to speak without causing controversy but I think we can all get behind his homily given on the Jubilee Day for the Sick and Persons with Disabilities, which contained the following nugget of wisdom: “In an age when care for one’s body has become an obsession and a big business, anything imperfect has to be hidden away, since it threatens the happiness and serenity of the privileged few….”
Whoa. That really resonated with me, although not in the way the Pope intended. I agree that our culture’s current worship of beauty and physical perfection has gotten out of hand, glorifying and making celebrities out of people who do little but work on their physical appearance. It’s a little weird that a speech written for people with physical disabilities sounds like it could apply to the majority of us who struggle with body image, too. It is the perfect message to be reminded of this time of year, when young girls are being urged to worry about whether or not they have a thigh gap. Moms everywhere are dreading playing with kids at the pool or beach due to their anxiety of appearing in public in a bathing suit. I myself drive past two beautiful pools in our neighborhood to seek refuge in my in-laws’ backyard pool, primarily because I can relax with my kids and no one can see me. Pool party? No thank you. Swim burqa? Yes, please.
Vanity? Sure. Before you tell me just to get over it, I would like to introduce you to last week’s Facebook sensation, Lesley Miller. I felt like cheering when I saw my fellow-Houstonian’s post about her bikini body. I felt like I was looking in a mirror and then I read her story about what she has gone through, essentially just trying to look good in a bathing suit. Eating disorders, lap band surgery and self-harm – all from an incredibly bright young woman who attends Rice University. She’s no dummy! My experience is not unique. Bikini pressure in Western society can drive intelligent women with perfectly healthy bodies crazy.
The heavy judgment of society on those of us who are not physically perfect has real and harmful implications. The message is clear: if you are not physically perfect, you are doing something wrong. You must not be exercising enough, eating correctly or seeing the right plastic surgeon. Throughout my life and starting at about age 10, I have had family members, friends and total strangers feel free to come up and criticize my body because it has not measured up to one ideal or another. Note to fathers: do not tell your 11-year old daughter to engage in athletics to get “rid of the lumps,” maybe emphasize health and fitness instead?
It is odd to be sitting poolside with a perfectly healthy and able body but be paralyzed nonetheless. The shame of physical imperfection has followed me throughout most of my life and has gotten worse as my formerly slim figure has given way to the ravages of time, medical issues and poor genetics. I can’t even blame it on having my kids, since they’re adopted. These hips? They aren’t making it through the narrow gate any time soon. No matter how much exercise or dieting I do, I will always be lumpy and pear-shaped. Like Lesley, physical perfection is just not in the genetic cards for me. I wish I could close this piece by saying I have magically arrived at a level of acceptance and confidence with my body, like Lesley. However, that is not the case and I will venture to say that I am probably not alone in this. What is most upsetting is trying blindly to steer my adorable, bright 7 -year-old daughter away from this particular psychological snare. The Pope’s words were a wake-up call to re-examine priorities.
I think it is shameful for me to worry more about spending time in a gym than in adoration. Am I more concerned about the steps taken today or the prayers said today? Is my primary motivation to be healthy and Christ-like or is just about looking better? I would do well do to remember the words of Pope Frances about the Church and that they apply to us individually as well: “For that body, in the image of the risen Lord’s own, keeps its wounds as the mark of a hard struggle, but they are wounds transfigured forever by love.” I’ll take that to the beach. Wonder if I can get it printed on a towel?
See you after Labor Day,