Nancy East

Strong is the New Skinny
I’m reading a great book to my kids right now called Navigating Early. The protagonist is a 13-year-old boy whose mother has recently died. He laments the fact that he has forgotten what her voice sounded like. You empathize with others who have experienced the loss of their mother, whether fictional or real, and I found myself barely able to finish the page without my voice wobbling, saddened that he had lost this essential part of his mother’s being.

Mama used to sing to us as she rocked us to sleep in our nursery. I remember her so clearly singing “Go Tell Aunt Tabby” to my younger siblings. She would always start her voice mails to me, “Hey girl, it’s me….” (my nickname was “Big Girl” since I was the oldest but the “Big” part was dropped when I became old enough to care about such things). I loved the way she laughed when she thought something was genuinely funny.

Thankfully, her voice is still crystal clear and I don’t suspect I’ll ever lose it after knowing it for 37 years. Just like I won’t ever lose the sound of her bedroom shoes, quickly slap, slap, slapping down the hall past my room in the morning as she made her way to the kitchen before the sun rose. Or her hands and feet, as beautiful as any model’s. Her strong arms that lovingly held me as I labored with two of my children. Or her sweet scent. I slept with one of her t-shirts for months after she died as it held faint remembrances of it. She was a beautiful woman, but most of what I remember so fondly about her physicality has absolutely nothing to do with her appearance (aside from her hands and feet–they really were stunning).

Lately, it seems I’ve been exposed more than usual to the vulnerability of young girls concerned with body image and self esteem. It’s troubling to watch yet I remember all too well being that age and wanting to look like those girls in Seventeen magazine–usually tall with long, beautifully styled hair, thin, flawless skin, gorgeous smiles. You know the ones. Little did I know then that those very girls were looking at other girls our age and wishing the same thing I was.

Our culture hasn’t changed all that much since then, and I am thankful that Lou hasn’t fallen prey to it (yet). It’s nearly impossible not to eventually unless you live under a rock. But I find myself still desperately wishing I could protect her from falling down that deep, dark rabbit hole. Once you’ve fallen, the strength it takes to climb out is nearly insurmountable. I’m not sure I’ve ever known a single woman to avoid it much less escape it entirely.

I’ve lived long enough now to know that no matter how much weight I lose, how much muscle I gain, how I style my hair, or how much I try to slow down wrinkles from appearing, I won’t ever be completely satisfied with all of it from an aesthetic perspective. Perhaps it’s societal influences that contribute the most to the impossibility, but I suspect, as a podcaster I listen to regularly said the other day, it’s simply in our DNA to never be completely satisfied.

But what I’ve also lived long enough to know is that I’m okay with never being perfectly perfect, because it simply. does. not. exist.

Does it mean I should give up on being healthy and fit? Not for a second. But instead of wishing healthy habits would decrease the amount of cellulite on my legs, I’m slowly, ever so slowly, shifting my focus to how much I’m able to do because of that good health. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it’s impossible for me to look in the mirror and not find something to critique, but now instead of thinking I can fix it all, I’m aware that the only thing that needs “fixing” is what’s in my head. A lesson only gleaned with the benefit of age.

As this same podcaster preached, however, we must at least share this knowledge with the little women in our lives. It may not stick now, but if we merely plant the seed, perhaps it will grow and flourish as they do.

I joined a local CrossFit gym this past summer and am questioned often from friends and family what the big deal is about. I admit it, I was one of those people who thought it a bit cultish. It couldn’t be that amazing compared to any other gym. Consider me a member of the cult now.

What I love most is the mindset that everyone is treated like an athlete when they walk through the door, no matter how big or small. While your body will most certainly change if you stick with it long enough, to strive for strength and self improvement over the holy grail of physique are the primary goals. If you have thick thighs like I do, good CrossFit coaches will tell you to embrace them because it is their bulk that will see you through 100 wall balls in the gym today and from Springer Mountain to Mt. Katahdin years from now when you thru hike the Appalachian Trail. The weakest in the room are on the same playing field as the strongest, except the weakest are usually being cheered on the loudest for a change.

For me, it’s been an empowering and enlightening experience, both physically and mentally. Strong is the new skinny in this arena, and that’s a cultural paradigm shift I can get on board with and celebrate exuberantly.

And so at the end of the day what should I try to instill and model for my sweet Lou Bird? I certainly don’t know all the answers, but I do know I want her to realize that what she puts in her mouth is far more important than how much of it she eats, that positive self esteem will look much better on her than a makeover, and that the size of her jeans will never, ever be as important as the size of her heart.

I will share with her that I’ve witnessed enough heartache related to body image in someone I loved dearly to cry a river of tears. From this experience I know, without a doubt, that external beauty and strength can only stem from internal resolve and love of self.

I hear her as I write, with her cousin in my bedroom, putting on play makeup. “I don’t like the way I look with eye shadow. I look better without it,” she says as she walks to the bathroom to remove it. She isn’t scared to run around the house in nothing but her underwear, laughing at herself, not self conscious for a second. She wears the most outlandish outfits she can create with pride, never worrying that someone might make fun of it. When I ask her if she knows how beautiful she is inside and out, she smiles and nods. Yes, indeed, she still loves who she is. Let’s keep it that way.




Fill out the form below. Check your inbox shortly!