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Wednesday, January 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Our culture’s view on bodies needs revising

As I read the six inspiring local weight loss stories in Tuesday’s paper, I noticed a commonality that gives me hope for the way our culture considers the human body.

They all talked some about what they could do and how they felt instead of focusing on how they looked.

Rita Vigil completed a marathon. Jon Calvert is climbing trees and roofs. He’s riding horses and dirt bikes. Jennifer Balthrop rides her bike daily, walks her dogs and climbed to the top of a waterfall with her son. Grace and Byron Schluter can walk better and play more with their grandchildren.

When I read that Jenny Duncan completed her first sprint triathlon this summer, I grinned, not just because I also completed my first one, but because Duncan was still living the life she wanted.

Almost two years ago I interviewed Duncan after she’d lost 300 pounds.

She told me that one of her biggest reasons to lose weight was because she wanted to get on the floor and play with her kids.

“I love the level of activity I can achieve with my family,” she said then. It was good to read that she’s still healthy and active and enjoying Zumba, hiking, yoga and running.

In Monday’s story by Addy Hatch, JoLynn Yates had a similar reason to lose weight – she wanted to enjoy her children and grandchildren. And now she has the confidence to sing in front of groups.

While you can sing at any size, confidence is a big thing that’s often stolen by a body culture obsessed with form over function.

I’ll never forget when I was 15 years old and joined the cross country team, running more than mile for the first time in my life. About a month in, I was feeling stronger and faster and less like an awkward teenager.

Then, during warmups one day, two boys told me I shouldn’t wear running tights like the rest of the girls. I was too fat.

Mortified, I blinked back tears and found a pair of shorts to slip over the top of my tights. I was 5 feet 8 inches tall and 125 pounds. For years after that I only wore running tights under shorts and usually opted for baggy cotton sweatpants instead.

It wasn’t until I was quite a bit larger, though stronger and fitter, that I finally chose exercise clothes based on how they fit, felt and helped me move more than how they looked in a mirror.

Too many woman, at almost every size, have stories like that, but the bigger you look, the worse the stories get.

A friend was once berated in a parking lot by a man who felt he could pass judgment on her size. He assumed things that weren’t true – like how she ate, exercised and managed her health.

The pain in encounters like these are why there’s a body positivity movement that defiantly flaunts the full-figure and any attempt to correlate size and weight with health. It’s the pendulum swinging as far as it can from fat-shaming. Body positive crusaders assert that big is beautiful.

While well-intentioned, this misses the point almost as much as the articles hawking the latest way to buy a bikini-ready body. Both approaches emphasize looks.

But our bodies serve a purpose. They help us navigate the world and hopefully live a life that’s healthy and happy and long.

If weight or size impede that by triggering medical issues like high blood pressure and high blood sugar or lifestyle issues like not having the ability to get on the floor and play with your kids, it’s worth a visit to a compassionate doctor and a frank assessment of what changes could help.

When someone does that and makes healthy changes, like each of the people in the article, we’re much more likely to compliment the aesthetics of their gym-honed figure than praise the self-discipline, hard work and perseverance it took to get fit enough to finish a triathlon.

Articles like Hatch’s help, but we still need to work at moving our body culture into the healthy zone and inoculating our children against the insecurity that comes when the mirror matters too much

One step, I believe, is to watch how we talk about bodies.

Do we teach our children that our bodies are good and beautiful because of what they enable us to do – from getting around, playing sports and making music to showing love and having children?

Do we teach them to eat nutritious food and get moving because you can do more fun things a lot longer with a healthy body?

Do we compliment someone’s character or accomplishments more often than we dish up easy praise about how someone looks in a new shirt or haircut?

I’d rather my kids feel strong and capable than good looking. I’d rather they feel pride over a hard-won achievement than how they look in the mirror.

I’m glad I didn’t let a comment from a couple boys immersed in an unhealthy body culture cause me to quit cross country. Running eventually gave me back the confidence lost that day and taught me that all the things I can do with a healthy body are far more important than all the ways I hit or miss current standards of beauty.

Jill Barville writes twice a month about families, life and everything else. She can be reached at jbarville@msn.com.

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