Press

Project Perfect

All she ever wanted was toned thighs and a slim derriere

By Christa Martin

good timesThe idea for this article sprouted eight weeks ago when I decided to go on a trip to Cozumel, Mexico. Concerned about wearing a bikini full-time for my four-day vacation, I was bent on having the “perfect” body. Things morphed from there. Why not turn my “superficial” quest into a deep exploration into women’s body image issues? What would happen if I indeed acquired the body I wanted? There was a catch to the story, which was defined by my editor: I also had to attend at least one counseling session and talk to a professional. Combining these physical and psychological journeys, would I really become satisfied with myself? This is the secret wish of many women. Get a trainer, work out like a fiend, obtain a hot body, and all problems disappear, right?

I went on a mind/body/soul adventure for five weeks, and departed on vacation as the possessor of a decently toned body (thanks to Pilates). But it wasn’t until after the entire experiment that I learned a life-altering lesson and fully grasped what my editor had hoped I would learn.

Endings and Beginnings

Soon after my return from vacation I had my second brush with death. (The first was my involvement in a freak car accident when I was 3.) On this particular evening for dinner I had eaten some cioppino, a tasty shellfish/seafood stew. About five hours later I awoke to a congested nose that hit me like an instant cold. Then my breathing became shallow, my throat began to constrict and within two hours I was unable to swallow without gasping for air. My housemate rushed me to the hospital where it was discovered that I had a probable allergic reaction to shellfish. After two breathing treatments, some pills and a shot in my hip, I was wiped out…but I could breathe again. At about 7:30 that morning I stumbled out of the hospital and into a friend’s car. Although I was fairly doped up, I had a severe reality check in those remaining moments before I officially conked out.

Here’s what I learned: I’m grateful I’m alive; I don’t care (too much) if I get a zit here or there or that my butt looks like a downsized J.Lo rump. In those minutes driving to the hospital, the thought crossed my mind that I could possibly die if my breathing problems intensified. It was a hard emotional slap and it put things in perspective—quickly.

After that emergency room experience, I have come to see that, like many women, I have had a twisted perspective about myself. I’ve yearned to be the imaginary airbrushed model with the “perfect” figure found in every fashion magazine. This seems to be an unending struggle for many women and a smattering of men who are obsessed with their appearances. It’s eating our lives away, consuming our thoughts—and our checkbooks. Personally, I’ve wasted too much time staring in the mirror, poking my thighs, turning in circles and cursing my genes. Believe me, I do know better, yet somewhere, somehow, I became lost in body image obsession. It was always a minor worry for me, afraid that I looked fat with my “child bearing” hips and pronounced gluts, a curvaceous physical shape that since puberty was far from looking like the supermodel physique. But it was a manageable obsession.

Still, it was an obsession, and it developed into a legitimate issue a few months ago when I turned 30 and my body changed, just like the books said it would. Formerly, a year ago, I was a lithe 112 pounds, 5’4”. When I departed my twenties I shot up to 120 pounds and my body fat jumped a few percentage points. I became paranoid and obsessed. (I now look back on all this and find it comical.) So I started working out aggressively at the gym, doing cardio and weights, an hour at least five times a week. (Prior to this I was an avid gym member but not committed to this degree.) Even with the increased workouts I was unhappy with my body shape.

When a local Pilates instructor, Dominique Lesperance of Body in Motion Pilates & Gyrotonic Studio, a swank place in Aptos, walked into the office one afternoon with her press packet in hand, I wondered if she might have the answers I was seeking. How could I downsize my bottom half?

We chatted. She said Pilates, which is an exercise similar to yoga, often results in people having toned, lean bodies. (It’s especially raved about by celebrities.) It sounded massively appealing—I was, after all, obsessed with my body image, especially the appearance of my hips and butt and I did have that vacation rapidly approaching. I pitched her a challenge: would she train me for about a month as I explored a story about women’s body issues?

Lesperance agreed to train me and we spent 17 sessions together meeting about four times a week. After different workouts I e-mailed my editor detailing the physical and psychological changes that I was experiencing on my journey, an excursion that began with a curvy body and ended with a curvy body.

Note the following excerpts:

Note 1: Today I had a hearty reality check when I worked out with Dominique. I sat down on a funky Pilates machine called the Cadillac (it looks like a medieval torture device) and told Dominique what I see when I look in a mirror: big hips, big butt, saddlebags, out of proportion bottom half of my body. Sweetly and honestly she revealed that she doesn’t see that. Yes, I have some curves, but she believes that the image I see is distorted. Basically, I don’t have the gargantuan hips and bum that I think I do … and she does think that Pilates can tone them up. (What also needs to get toned up, I’m realizing, is my mindset.) Anyway, as shallow as it sounds, it would be a dream to be more toned, especially since I’m going on vacation … I don’t know a single woman who enjoys wearing a bathing suit with flab hanging out of it.

Note 2: …At the end of a session, a woman was stretching and getting ready for her private workout with Dominique. She had on snug exercise pants that revealed her toned legs. I had a quick moment of wishing my gams looked like hers. And then something strange happened. We chatted for a minute about Pilates and she said something like, “I think I’m tubby,” meaning that she, the woman with the great legs, isn’t pleased with her body. Suddenly I understood Dominique’s position when she earlier said that she sees my body differently than I do. I realized the validity of that whole “eye of the beholder” thing. If I can just arrive at the place of being able to see my body truthfully, the way that Dominique sees it.

Note 3: Dominique is working me HARD. I never knew you could sweat doing Pilates, but it’s paying off. I shared again with Dominique about my tweaked body image—particularly my hips and butt, and often my legs. She told me that I am already fairly well toned and that much of what I’m looking at (my wide set hips) is my natural bone structure, and nothing can be done about that. That’s a bit disappointing but it’s good to know. The little flab that I do have on these hips can be dissipated and the muscles can be strengthened, with Pilates, to promote a more streamlined appearance. But the bottom line is that I’m not nearly as “big” or “wide” as I think I am. Now, I just have to get out of my analyzing mind and start accepting this truth.

Note 4: A few days ago you asked what I’ve been learning. … I’ve discovered many things. Physically: the importance of posture, strength and flexibility. Psychologically, I’ve learned that there is a link between one’s appearance (or perceived appearance) and how one feels about oneself … but the fact is that women are still dealing with body image issues and we should be able to talk about them openly. I think the majority of women deal with some kind of issue in which they are unsatisfied with their physical appearance. I recently met with a counselor who said that if you attend any party, probably 90 percent of the women are obsessing to some degree about their bodies. Clearly this is still an epidemic, even though we know better, even though we’re liberated. Women need to start talking about this stuff again, take action, physically, sure, if we want to change the things we’re unhappy about. But more importantly, we need to tackle the psychological issues that are eating away at our self-esteem. Since recognizing my body obsession, it has been cathartic to make physical strides in changing my appearance and see changes because of Pilates, but more so it has been healing to talk about my obsession and begin to reshape my thinking process. I’m seeing changes in my body and in my thought life. Perhaps when vacation rolls around I’ll have a healthy image of myself.

It’s one week after my vacation—yes, I did wear my bathing suit somewhat confidently—I’m now writing on the second anniversary of Sept. 11. Reality speaks from the television set as CNN recounts that horrible day. Many didn’t escape death. Big butts and flabby thighs didn’t matter when horror struck. I remember the words of counselor Andrea LoBue, from InnerSolutions in Soquel, a center that specializes in offering help for people dealing with eating disorders and body image issues. She said: “How many women in the Twin Towers were feeling fat that day? Probably a lot of them. Do we want to spend our life like that?”

LoBue practically had me in tears with her jarring perspective. I came to her as a reporter to unearth answers about why women are still struggling with body image issues, even though we know better, being the byproducts of a post-feminist era. We can vote, work, have babies, rush home, cook dinner, look beautiful, be fit. Although liberated and educated, I wonder if there’s a downfall to feminism: we think we can be everything to everyone. Have the scales shifted too far? I walked away from my session with LoBue very aware that I need to get over my obsession with imagining that I have a big butt and wide hips. I’m nowhere near fat. My butt looks nothing like J.Lo’s.

“If you’re feeling obsessed with your body size, there are deeper issues,” LoBue says.

Ouch.

“… How much [time] are you willing to lose?” LoBue adds. “Is this the deal breaker, the thing that is on your tombstone, ‘She spent 500 billion minutes in her life thinking about the size of her thighs.’”

The bottom line: If I continue to obsess about the size of my butt or thighs, I will, in essence, waste an enormous amount of my life. So, how do I change these thought patterns?

“Decide how much freedom you’re willing to lose over this,” LoBue says. “How much of your life are you willing to give up and is this worth your life? … Do you want to spend your life trying to be different than God made you? … Yes, there are things that some of us can do: eating healthily, moving our bodies, trying to meditate, doing yoga, whatever.”

I could benefit from further counseling with LoBue or another professional, yet I feel I am on the right track. But why haven’t I already learned this lesson?

“It doesn’t sink in because it’s a mixed message,” LoBue notes. “We hear ‘love yourself,’ maybe 10 percent and then we see a glossy photo of a stick thin woman who is probably anorexic. … And then we see Oprah saying, ‘Be loving to your body,’ and then she’s talking about her weight gain and dieting and her personal trainer in every episode.”

LoBue, who herself struggled with an eating disorder as a young person, shares that she has provided counseling to actresses and models, and relays a slice of a story that she was told: On a modeling shoot, the beauties would have a diet soda for lunch then puke it up because the bubbles caused bloating.

“Our culture basically has an eating disorder,” LoBue says. “There are cultures where a woman is supposed to have hips, breasts and a belly. They celebrate menstruation and cycles and round bellies. Here, we celebrate weight loss and our god is being skinny and our goddess is Nike. … So how could you possibly be an American woman and love your body?”

She’s asking the hard questions, but LoBue does believe there are answers that include a person seeking out counseling with qualified professionals who specialize in body image issues. And the lifestyle-changing answer to this epidemic: change your perspective.

What about Lesperance? As a person who makes her living in the fitness industry, how does she find balance between the mixed messages that society and the media are selling? She remains grounded, real and honest. She desires to help her clients meet healthy physical goals by being a good listener. What she doesn’t do is indulge in body-slamming dialogue or “fat chat.”

“You have to respect if that [an unhealthy body image] is someone’s opinion,” Lesperance says. “You can’t shoot them down. What I try to do is gear them away from that kind of speaking. Self-deprecation is poisonous. If you keep doing that it feeds on itself. Try to channel that energy into doing something positive. If people really feel that their stomach is poochie, we work on that area. If you work on it, then in some tiny way you end up feeling better about it. And, I try to reinforce the positive.”

Even for her, a woman with a great physique, she admits that she too sometimes struggles with body image concerns. Her answer? Not to obsess.

“I try not to let it get to me,” Lesperance says. … Hollywood celebrities—they get surgery and are airbrushed and have professional stylists styling their hair and makeup artists doing their makeup and couture designers designing their clothes so they fit just right. … It’s not real, not realistic at all. … I really don’t exercise because I want to have the perfect body. I exercise because it feels good and I want to live forever and I want to feel good forever. I want to get out of bed without any aches and pains.”

As my appointments with her progressed, the verbal pronouncements of my obsession began to decrease. No longer did I want to complain. Instead I wanted to make reasonable physical changes and intelligent psychological changes. Unbeknownst to her, I was encouraged and moved internally by some of her comments. Her words spurred me on to begin developing a new attitude about my body.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

The five-week experiment is finally over. My body is trimmer and I seem to stand taller, thanks to Lesperance and Pilates. The self-deprecating attitude about my hips and butt has severely decreased. Yet, somewhere internally, the insecurities are still present, ready to blossom again if I entertain them—if I entertain them.

I’ve been in the hospital, contemplated my own death, and after the second anniversary of 9/11 I’ve contemplated other people’s deaths. My perspective, I hope, has permanently changed. I have a few zits and I’m not exactly hard-bodied, although I’m more toned now than ever before, because of Pilates. I will always be a curvaceous woman—that is my bone structure. But I don’t care as much. I’m not obsessed anymore. What matters is that I can breathe and I’m alive.