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Envious of Someone Else's Body Size? Read This

I’m finally learning to honor my own physique.

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illustration of 3 women sitting in pool
Elia Barbieri
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Long plagued by body envy, I found it recently taking a different turn. That this occurred at the gym, ground zero for body comparison, was revealing. Only this time it was not the Pilates-perfect physique of a 35-year-old that I was coveting.

While unwinding in the sauna after a swim, I was struck by the ease some older women have with their bodies, a comfort and acceptance that at the age of 68 has eluded me. I suddenly felt envious.

A woman several years older than I entered the steamy sauna unclothed. Standing on the damp, wood-slatted floor this self-possessed septuagenarian proceeded to do full body stretches, shedding any self-consciousness with the ease that she shed her threadbare towel.

Her ample body bore an abundance of scars and creases, puckers and rolls, testaments to a life lived, to bountiful meals enjoyed and children borne. Evidence of decades-old cesarean sections melded with her double mastectomy scars, which she wore with the valor of a survivor.

If her flesh was a narrative of her life, her level of comfort was too. Her immodesty made me acutely aware of my own body issues and, in comparison, I did not shape up very well.

Seated in the sauna, I was wrapped tightly in a thick terry towel lest my figure be revealed. The scars from old struggles, traumas, fears and shame may have been hidden from view but my body language spoke volumes. My stooped shoulders sagged with the weight of nearly seven decades of life.

While the average dress size for American women is a 14 or 16, my size 6 pants are roomy. I had what could be considered an enviable older body. Yet there was a distorted perception when it came to seeing my own shape, having struggled with eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

Decades of anorexia, bulimia and alcohol abuse took a toll.

This is not surprising for a victim of childhood sexual abuse by my father that began at age 3. What followed was a lifetime of scrutinizing my physical self with the precision of a forensic scientist looking for all inconsistencies and flaws.

While we might expect attitudes around body image to relax as we grow older, the reality is many of us struggle with body dissatisfaction throughout our lives.

“Our bodies never stop changing and neither do our relationships with our bodies,” explains Rachael Graham, a New York psychotherapist who specializes in trauma and eating disorders. “In a society where we are bombarded with implicit and explicit messages that conflate thinness with health, discipline, virtue and even intelligence, arriving at a place of body neutrality or acceptance is a lifelong process.”

My body consciousness began in second grade, thanks to the public weekly weigh-ins we were subjected to at my school. Painfully shy, I became self-conscious of my weight, equating that number with my worth. Never a skinny child, I always felt I was a mere candy bar away from being considered chubby. I may never have aspired to have Barbie’s unattainable anatomy, but I certainly didn’t want big Little Lotta’s body either.

Lining up in the gymnasium with my class, I would tentatively step on the creaking metallic sliding scale. As the bespectacled school nurse gradually slid the weight back and forth in increments to land on the correct number, I focused with the eyes of a hawk on her arthritic hands, silently praying the block would come to rest on the lowest weight.

As she read our weights out loud, her booming voice reverberating through the gym was mortifying enough but having the numbers displayed on a chart for all to see on our classroom bulletin board was a source of daily humiliation. How I measured up to others took on a literal and a figurative meaning.

By junior high, guided by the dictates of Glamour, Mademoiselle and Seventeen, in which we placed our fashion faith, we girls talked endlessly about diets. Nibbling on dry melba toast and scoops of creamy cottage cheese in the school cafeteria, we analyzed and computed calories and carbohydrates with a skill that eluded us in math tests. At home, I hopped on and off the bathroom Detecto scale, monitoring any slight fluctuation in my weight. Puberty would transform me, but so would dieting.

Dogged by a fear of fat, I spun into a cycle of body hatred. And with growing body dysmorphia, I lost any realistic view of what I looked like. For women like me, this doesn’t just go away.

“So many of my clients who are in the process of recovering from disordered eating vocalize a fear that the world will perceive them as having ‘let themselves go'," observes therapist Graham. “But how can we learn to be kind to ourselves, to respect our own needs, or to devote our energy to what we truly value without letting go of the Sisyphean task of controlling the size of our bodies?”

My mind keeps returning to that proud and puckered septuagenarian in the gym, whom I dubbed “the sauna lady." After I left her, I padded into the locker room to change. In the glare of the fluorescent light, I was surrounded by dozens of women of all sizes, taking their time to undress, with no inhibitions. And, here I was, eyes downcast, peeling off my wet swimsuit and putting on my clothes with stealth and speed, so my nude body was never fully revealed.

At long last, I yearn to simply feel at home in my physical self. Through many years of intensive therapy, the journey to being at peace in my body has been a rocky one. But my struggle is no longer secreted away. My husband and other loved ones have stood by me. And the fog that had long clouded my self-perception lifted ever so slightly after that day in the steamy room with the sauna lady.

Do you suffer from body envy? Let us know in the comments below.

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