Wednesday, May 7, 2014

On Fit, aka Baby Got Back

 Someday, friends. Someday I will be on the cover of Butt.

Allow me to make this clear: I wanted a bigger butt. My mother's clan is a flat-butted folk, as is my father's, so there was never a question of me having anything that might qualify as "booty." This worked fine throughout the '90s, when the collective goal seemed to be to stay as tiny as possible, and throughout the aughts I simply didn't allot much time to considering my rear end. It was functional, not decorative, in my mind, and as long as three-way mirrors revealed nothing unsightly I was prepared to live with the prairie-like Whitefield-Madrano derrière the rest of my days.

I'm still not sure what prompted my recent malcontent with the state of my behind. Some might blame Kim Kardashian; some might blame an ever-shifting lexicon that gave way to words like "bootylicious"; some might, after a bit of cultural archaeology, blame a delayed response to Sir Mix-a-Lot or even Freddie Mercury for making me believe that were I a fat-bottomed girl, I just might make the world go round. Me, I'm just as willing to assign responsibility to my relatively newfound interest in strength training. After seeing how, by simply raising and lowering weights for a certain amount of time, I could make my biceps suddenly, proudly appear after a lifetime of ignoring their clandestine service, I may well have just wanted to develop every muscle in my body to the best of my ability. And can I help it if the gluteus maximus is one of the largest muscles in the human body?

There is much to say about the above possibilities, both about cultural dictation of "in" body parts and about the relationship between strength training and one's vision of the ideal body. That is not what this post is about.

My plan to transform into a baby-got-back type worked, in that my posterior is now, instead of board-flat, curved like the Ohio countryside. Which is to say, still basically flat, but with more curve than you might expect from, say, Nebraska. (Hey, you can't change your genes.) I do notice a difference, but it's more tactile than visual, so you'll just have to trust me when I tell you that my buns are as steel-like as can reasonably be expected of a thirtysomething woman whose livelihood involves sitting in chairs in front of glowing boxes. I can tell a difference in how my butt looks on yoga pants, but the casual observer of my butt (and to my knowledge, there are no studied observers of my butt) probably wouldn't. This was good enough for me.

Speaking of yoga pants, I hadn't left mine in months. At least, I hadn't left the general sartorial realm of yoga pants for months, through book-writing and surgery-recovering (and book-writing-recovery). So when I took my first in-office gig in nearly a year a few weeks ago, I was actually sort of eager to leave stretchy materials for a while and put my closetful of work dresses to use. But to my surprise, some of those dresses didn't fit right anymore. Specifically, the dresses that I'd had tailored to fit my body didn't fit right anymore. They still fit fine in the waist, which is where I tend to store excess body fat, and everywhere else, but sure enough, around the hips—which is to say, around the butt—the fabric clung. Enough so that one dress that used to perfectly skim my body now has to be tugged down, which means it rides up when I walk. It still fits, it just doesn't't fit well.

Anyway. The minute I put on this dress in particular, I knew exactly why it didn't fit perfectly, and Reader, I was proud. All my hip thusts, my single-leg Romanian deadlifts, the act of repeatedly stepping onto and off of a box while clutching iron weights—they had worked, and knowing that my body was stronger because I chose to make it stronger felt fantastic. It felt so fantastic that I even noted it didn't matter if my rear end didn't look any different; this was tangible proof beyond my own tactile assessment that things were getting firmer down there, and that was just as satisfying as becoming as bootylicious as I'd hoped, and recognizing that was even more satisfying. To say that I was pretty self-satisfied might make me a bit smug here, but it's also the truth. I kept the dress on—it fit okay, after all, and it's a lovely blue vintage dress that makes me feel all Mad Menny in the right way, so why not keep on this talisman of my satisfaction?

Here is what happened: Throughout the course of the day, my satisfaction melted. I felt wrong every time I tugged at the dress to bring it down over my hips; I felt wrong every time I caught a glimpse of my body in the mirror and saw the slight strain of the fabric where there had once been a clean line. You might say I felt "fat," but by now I've learned that when I "feel fat" it means I'm feeling something else that's harder to identify, though in this case it wasn't so hard to identify at all. I felt physically uncomfortable in my own skin; I felt cumbersome to my own sense of movement; I felt restrained, pinched, where I'd once felt ease. All because my dress was a little tight around the hips.

You see the joke here: I felt uncomfortable in my skin because of something I'd consciously done to make myself feel better in my skin. There was a disconnect—I'd worked to develop muscle, but when my muscle did what muscle does and created space for itself, one of the consequences was a sense of wrongness for having that space taken up. It didn't matter that I'd worked for it, or that I'd achieved my goal in some sense, or that my initial reaction to noticing that my dress didn't fit well was pride. The result—discomfort—overrode all of that.

My point here is startlingly simple: Wear clothes that fit, for chrissakes. My cognitive dissonance between my hours at the gym and the sensation of feeling "fat" was dismantled easily enough, with no lasting effects. (It was solved easily enough too, by putting my tailored dresses away for a bit.) Still, it was startling to find how instinctively I linked physical discomfort—even if it stemmed from something I'd specifically wanted—to the particular sort of wrongness I usually associate with more conventional body-image issues. Knowing the cause didn't matter; the result was that same topsy-turvy sense of self-image that so easily gets funneled onto my body, even my looks in general.

Our bodies make for convenient scapegoats for unrelated anxieties, and part of why it's hard to separate actual body image from all the stuff we heap onto body image is sheer habit—once you've learned to displace dissatisfaction in such a catch-all way that's societally expected of women, it's difficult to break that connection. And in a way, that's what was going on here—habit. I wasn't in the least bit dissatisfied with the state of my rear end, but I'm so used to linking physical discomfort to "body image" as it's most often discussed on body image blogs and the like that it was instinct to connect an unpleasant physical sensation with an unpleasant mental sensation.

I'm used to framing the "wear comfortable clothes" thing in either a purely physical way (if I wear clothing that's more comfortable, I'll be...more comfortable) or in a feminist way (if I put myself into physical pain to fit a certain standard, to a certain degree I'm giving in to "the man"). This made me frame it in a more holistic way: If I'm physically uncomfortable, I'm going to be mentally uncomfortable. That might be displaced onto appearance-esteem stuff; it might not. Either way, I'm back to stretchy fabrics, all the better to be bootylicious, my dear.


  1. That's a fascinating insight. I hadn't known women do it, but it makes perfect sense.

  2. I often have that conversation with myself, especially now in my post baby body. I never have negative body thoughts until I have a disastrous clothing situation, so I always remind myself that it's the clothes, not me.

  3. "Our bodies make for convenient scapegoats for unrelated anxieties, and part of why it's hard to separate actual body image from all the stuff we heap onto body image is sheer habit—once you've learned to displace dissatisfaction in such a catch-all way that's societally expected of women, it's difficult to break that connection."

    This is so, so painfully true. I once read an article in which a woman photographed herself wearing the same bikini every day for a month, and wrote a little every day about how she perceived her body. Her perceptions varied a LOT, despite the fact that her body looked the same in every photo.

    I've been meaning to write a post about all the times in my life I've been embarrassed by clothes that didn't fit. Fit makes such a difference, doesn't it?

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