Friday, March 24, 2023

I still remember my favorite dress from my childhood. It had these zany looking buttons, reminding me of wheels in a factory, and it was red, yellow and green plaid. I wore this dress often, especially for special occasions like a Shabbat away. I remember when it stopped fitting, which led to a whole lot of sadness and to my keeping the buttons, a way of remembering this dress beyond the one or two photos that existed. This feeling, this sadness about growing up and needing to let go of a favorite dress or sweater, has a major role in the formation of our body esteem or how we think or feel about our bodies.

As children become teenagers and prepare for adulthood, there is a stage of magical thinking—the belief that one is immune from danger or has more control over aspects of life than is possible. This time in our lives is often turbulent and confusing, even if for some it can be looked at like the “golden years.” Adolescence includes preparation for separating, considering existential questions, wondering about future and purpose. This is a time when we wish to hold on to some semblance of normalcy and predictability and years later, when we look back on this time, there is also often a wish to return to those years. Before concerns for taxes or relationships or “real life issues” may have been introduced.

It is for this reason that so many people expect that they will always look the way they did when they were this age. Because there is a wish, during our chaotic lives, to—in some way—remain the same. And in a culture obsessed with dieting and remaining small, this fits in perfectly. It should be noted that dieting—while perhaps portraying health as the main goal/advantage—completely endorses our desire for youth; if we look small we will be connected to that experience of being a kid, our bodies will act as a vessel to hold onto the feelings of safety, innocence and predictability that people typically experience.

And this promotion of the body remaining unchanged is not only dangerous, but is nearly impossible. When I’ve worked with teens or young adults they or their parents will often say, “I’ve always been X size; I want to remain that way,” and I try to explain, with compassion, that their bodies are supposed to change and that their eating disorder—whatever behaviors that may include—has likely interrupted their bodies from developing the way they need to, naturally. We are not meant to look the way we did as teenagers. We are also not meant at the age of 35 to look as we did in our 20s. Some people do, and this is either natural or the person is actively working, likely while experiencing strong negative internal dialogue, to remain stuck. Stuck in so many senses.

Our bodies naturally need to gain weight; this is expected. We all seem shocked that our bodies change, wondering if this is hormonal, blaming ourselves as if we’ve done something wrong, missing our “old bodies” or the myth that our size will bring true self-acceptance or feelings of self-worth. Change is so unbelievably difficult. Bodies changing is not truly about the body, but about the feeling of the world around us feeling threatening, not feeling as if we have agency, choice or control. Dear reader, you will not obtain any control by manipulating yourself. You are damaging your relationship with yourself (and the relationship toward one’s body that you may be role-modeling for a child or those around you) by trying to shrink yourself.

You are meant to take up space in this world. We are meant to change and grow and grieve and thrive. We are not meant to hijack our own lives by trying to fit into a childhood dress or a dress from our 20s or 30s. I’m not saying it’s simple to have to buy new wardrobes or to abandon the loud messages we receive from society—and those around us—promoting smallness. But you are not on this earth to be small; you are here to be mighty.

So save a button, let it remind you of an old memory from when you wore that plaid dress, and revel in the smile it brings you from that childhood anecdote. But do not shrink yourself. Continue to grow. Be mighty.

Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 18 and older in New York and New Jersey who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a Metro-New York supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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