Age 4: I sit on the floor at my friend Lindsay’s house, playing with Barbies. I am not allowed to have these dolls at my house, so I am awed by their perfect blond hair which we can comb and all of the many accessories which they can wear. I marvel at Barbie’s naked shape, which is so much more curvaceous than any body I’ve seen before. We spend most of the afternoon playing dress up with these dolls.
Age 5: I insist on wearing nothing but dresses. Even though I love to run around and have not yet learned to “sit like a lady,” dresses are my favorite attire of choice to clothe my body.
Age 6: I strap on shinguards and cleats for the first time. My new coach teaches me how to dribble a soccer ball by waddling like a duck and kicking the ball each time. I become preoccupied with my feet, and become so focused on pointing them outwards at the perfect angle, that I forget to kick the ball. I learn to pass the ball to my teammates, and later on, I learn how to shoot by running and kicking the ball VERY HARD. I feel very strong and accomplished when my shot rolls past my coach-goalie (he may have let it slide, let’s be honest) and into the net.
Age 10: My family has moved from Texas to Indiana. I feel shy and have not been able to make many new friends yet. I spend most of my summer days curled up inside reading a book and snacking. I begin to plump up. I get a new, short haircut that frames my face and makes it look rounder and boyish. My grandma takes me shopping for new school clothes, and says that I’ll need to look for larger sizes because I am a “big-boned girl.” I feel sheepish, and wonder if this is just a nice way of saying that I’m fat.
Age 12: I dread the time after Physical Education class when we are supposed to shower. The showers at our school do not have curtains. All the girls in my class ignore instructions to shower, and cower behind our locker doors as we change, so that no one else can catch a glimpse of our little naked bodies.
Age 13: There is a boy at my school who likes to pick on girls. He is always trying to make them feel uncomfortable. One day, while I am waiting for my carpool, he comes up beside me and slides his hand along my bare leg. I tell him to stop and that it makes me uncomfortable. He laughs and calls me uptight. The next day, it happens again. I report him to my teacher, and he is given a verbal warning. The next day he calls me a tattle tale and tells all his friends not to talk to me. I feel strangely dirty, and always try to avoid making eye contact with him when we pass in the halls.
Age 14: I attend a slumber party where there is a spontaneous dance party to the music of the Backstreet Boys. I love the Backstreet Boys. I think Nick Carter is the cutest human being pretty much ever. I’m getting my groove on, dancing with reckless abandon, until one of my friends points at me and laughs. “That’s how you dance,” she says. All the girls around me dissolve into laughter. I become extremely self-conscious about my dance skills (or lack thereof) and try to move my body in only minimal ways from there on out.
Age 15: I attend a local Christian youth rally. We are broken up into groups of boys and girls. The leader of our group has listed a continuum of physical activities on a white board, ranging from holding hands to having sex and lots of steps in between. In front of the other people, we are asked to come up to the board and mark down the furthest level of physical contact we have experienced. I am young, and have only ever held a boys’ hand. I watch though as other girls tearfully approach the board and confess all of the things they have done, and ask for forgiveness. There is a time of prayer and repentance. Afterwards, the leader tells us that we must always be careful to dress modestly, or else we might become someone else’s stumbling block. I learn that my body, and the things it does and urges I feel, is something that I should keep hidden away and feel ashamed of.
Age 16: My youth group decides to bike from Goshen, Indiana to Nashville, Tennessee for the Mennonite Youth Convention. We train and practice riding our bikes. The week before the trip, I begin to get nervous. I tell my sponsors that I don’t want to go. I don’t think I can do it. They encourage me to give it a try. For seven days, our group bikes. Each day, I can feel myself getting stronger. I watch my legs pump and work as I pedal furiously uphill, and I feel exhilaration as I can relax and coast down the other side. We arrive in Nashville tan and feeling buff. I feel invincible.
Age 17: My hair is long and in one perpetual ponytail. I am a senior captain on the varsity soccer team. I play defense, and can clear the ball long and hard. My legs fill out and my muscles become more defined. I become “famous,” along with my sister, for something called the “Kehr butt move,” which is a way of boxing out opposing players as we hustle towards the ball. I feel strong and confident. I am grateful to my body for the ways that it moves and the success that it can give me on the field.
Age 18: My friend is sick. In fact, she is dying. She has a tenacious form of brain cancer. Each time I visit her, she can interact with me less. I curse her body – and bodies in general – for failing in this way. For the first time, I feel like bodies are fragile and breakable.
Age 19: I am a member of the Bluffton Beavers soccer team. My teammates and I joke about how “large” we are compared to women on other sports teams, especially the volleyball team. We laugh about it, but behind our jokes, there seems to be some latent desire to be looked at the way that other people look at the volleyball team. We begin to call ourselves the “Lady Beefers.” We give ourselves nicknames, and make t-shirts. On the back of my shirt, it reads: “Big Fat Hercules.” Even though it’s a joke, my coach seems to watch what we eat, and especially what I eat, very carefully. When he sees me in the student center after practice, chowing down on a brownie sundae with a friend, he gives me a distasteful look and says, “Really, Hannah?” I lose my appetite. I return to my room in tears.
Age 20: I am worried about my friend. She has started exercising incessantly. At mealtimes, she eats salads and nothing else. Not even dressing. She thinks we don’t notice, but we do. Every spare minute seems to be spent on the elliptical, and her cheeks are getting a sunken, hollow look to them.
Age 22: I get married in only a few short months. Incredibly aware of the fact that my body will be on display in front of hundreds of people, I start a new, regular workout regime. Every other day or so, I resolve to no longer eat sweets or to cut out carbs completely. But usually my willpower fails in the face of dessert at the cafeteria, and I eat a cookie while kicking myself and promising to do better next time. I live in fear of the dress fitting that is just around the corner…
Age 23: I find the perfect dress. It fits me like it was made for my body. There are not that many dresses that do that. When I try it on in the store, I feel like I am meant to have this dress. I wear it to a wedding, and immediately my confidence goes up. I feel beautiful.
Age 24: I run my first 5K. To some people who are runners, this may not feel like a big deal. But to me, for whom running is like pulling teeth, it’s a BIG deal. My friend Lindsay and I meet four times a week after work to go running. We complete the race and feel utterly victorious.
Age 25: It’s the holidays, and we are sitting around enjoying a meal. The other members at my table are discussing weight and how much they have eaten over the holidays. At one point, a woman says, “Man, I’m going to have to stop eating like this soon or else I’ll be over 125 lbs and I’ll have to enter the Clydesdale division at the next [running] race.” I freeze. I try to act undisturbed and laugh along, but my head is spinning. I haven’t been 125 lbs since 8th grade. I spend the rest of the meal pushing food around on my plate so that no one can tell I’m not eating.
Age 26: I am on a work trip in a large city. It’s late in the evening, and I need to travel downtown to visit some volunteers and photograph them at their home. I decide to take public transportation. Before leaving the place where I am staying though, one of my hosts, an older man, looks me up and down. Taking in the (modest!) dress and heels that I’m wearing, he advises me to change before leaving. “You shouldn’t go out like that. It’s not safe for a girl your age to be walking alone dressed like that.” I realize again that my body makes me a target. It makes me unsafe.
Age 27: I am pregnant. My body is blossoming into something strange, new and wonderful. I revel in the fact that I can eat just about as much (healthy) food as I want. I revel in the fact that gaining weight is not automatically a bad thing. I rejoice when I feel my baby’s first kick. I get tired and ready for this baby to arrive in the summer. My body aches and I am tired all the time. And I marvel at the ways my body just seems to know what to do when it comes time for labor and delivery. I rejoice at the arrival of a new healthy body: my daughter.
Age 28: I don’t really recognize my body. Where once there used to be a tight, smooth sheet of abs now lies a sort of sunken fleshy area. My belly button, once a cute little dimple, now seems to be a giant cavern. I stare at myself in the mirror, and notice my wider hips, which I need to wiggle to fit into jeans these days. My reflection feels like a stranger. My husband tells me I’m beautiful. Sometimes I believe him.
Age 28 (take two): I am shopping at a local mall. I become disgusted as I look at the über-skinny mannequins with clothes draped over them. I walk up to one and put my hands on its waist, noting that my fingertips can almost touch. I measure its thighs, almost able stretch each hand completely around a thigh’s circumference. And I look at my daughter, riding along in her stroller and blissfully unaware of these unattainable beauty standards. I look at her little thighs, with their beautiful baby rolls. And I wonder what her reflections on her body will be when she is 10. Or 16. Or 28. Will she know she’s beautiful? Will she love her body?