I went on vacation to Greece as a spur-of-the-moment weekend away last month. One of the things I was really looking forward to was getting the typical “Holiday Album” photos of me lying on the beach, swimming in the sea, tanning poolside.
I even brought a special digital camera that could take pictures underwater. For someone who doesn’t go on holidays much, I was really psyched.
Yet I never posted a single full-bodied picture.
This was due entirely to my insecurity. I was shocked when I looked at the pictures later to discover that I’m not as skinny as I thought I was. I’m healthy (my doctor says—I checked) but I just don’t have the slim-ish body type I had four years ago. And suddenly, this summer, I started questioning whether or not I was OK with that.
Part of this questioning was because I live with four quite health-conscious women. Maybe it was just because I was sensitive to it, but when I came home I started picking up on a lot more talk in my house about "beach bodies" and getting in shape for upcoming holidays.
I’ve never approached a vacation this way (mostly because I don’t really go on a lot of vacations). But suddenly I was picking up that dieting/exercising to look good in the summer is something a lot of twentysomethings do. I’d always assumed until this point that it was just something gyms and magazines pushed as trends. But in my home, it was happening all around me, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
I don’t usually give a lot of thought about how my full body looks until these kinds of circumstances arise. When I realized I had gained weight, my actions were mostly reactive: I stopped eating so many desserts, and I joined a softball team. I tried to do more outdoorsy things (which is no small feat when you’re in a big city) like riding bikes and going for walks.
As I was doing this, I started instinctively clocking my roommates’ activities like the competitive narcissist I know I can be: this roomie has done 3 HIIT workouts this week. That roomie went to arm lifting class this week, and a yoga session. Are you sure you need all that dinner? Maybe you should eat some more kale.
You would think I disliked my roommates—but actually, it’s quite the opposite. I live with some of my best friends in London. Over the two years I’ve lived in this 3-story house, we’ve managed to get a fantastic group together: five women in their twenties, whose relationships span beyond cleaning rotas and sharing the laundry machine. These are girls who’ve given me sympathy when I’ve bitched, advice when I’ve been desperate, and hugs when I’ve been in need. They’ve included me in their plans, cooked for me, and opened their beds to my houseguests. And I’m no moocher—I’ve picked up groceries, carried luggage and leant books. We’re all there for each other when we need it.
I feel lucky that I’ve found people who, like me, want to go above and beyond to really connect with the people they live with. So why can’t I stop the internal competing with them when it comes to health?
I’m very aware that this competition exists only in my mind. We’re friends, after all, and not the kind who humblebrag or make snarky comments about each other. We’re the type of friends who talk about work, relationships, guys. We share. And part of the package that comes with sharing is the typical topics: what did you do today? How was the gym? What are you making for dinner?
When we’re sharing about not feeling great, we usually pull through for each other. Case in point: when they knew I was worried about my birthday—about people not showing up or having fun—my roommates banded together and went all-out to make it special. They made my favorite food for dinner, bought several bottles of wine, and baked a huge red velvet birthday cake.
My Irish roommate had made the cake, and was really pleased that I’d liked it. But she’d also balked at me when I cut her what I thought was a normal-sized piece, taking only half of the amount I’d offered.
When another roommate had a birthday the following month, I made her favorite flavor (chocolate hazelnut). I made not only the cake, but also the frosting—a very big deal for someone as uncomfortable with cooking as me. She later told me she loved it, followed quickly by a, “But don’t let me eat too much of it—I’m going on holidays next month!”
Even though she’s a very healthy eater, it surprised me coming from her. I had wanted my cake to be something she enjoyed, not avoided.
Of course, she meant nothing by it. No one does, and I don’t want them to stop sharing what they’re feeling. Like my oldest roommate, who jokes good-naturedly that I can’t cook while making veggie stir-fries and low-protein wraps (for the record, she’s right: I make two dishes very well, but I rarely make food that takes too long). Or our house’s latest addition, a blogger, who completes one HIIT workout a day then jokes about how she could eat my dinner of Nutella on toast.
Innocent comments, nothing meant by them. I know I pick up a secondary meaning only because of my own insecurity, and I wish I could turn off the little voice in my head that gives these comments power.
Part of my worry about being surrounded by super-health-conscious roommates is it seems to be effecting how I see myself. Should I be embracing my new shape? It’s not that of my 20-year-old-self, but I must admit, it has its perks. On a good day, I feel like Joan from Mad Men. But on a not-so-good day—a day of workout comparisons and tight jeans—I don’t feel great. I flip-flop internally a few hundred times a day between “I should eat less/exercise more” and “I should love my body no matter its shape.”
Although it’s not fair, I can’t help but wonder if I would have my answer if I lived with people who didn’t care what their beach bodies looked like. I know that women and body pressures aren’t a new phenomenon, but I feel like I’m just now tuning into a TV show that my peers have been watching for years—and living with four women who are seasons ahead of me makes me feel like I either need to catch up or change the channel. Would I know which path to take if I was living with less health-conscious roommates?
Probably not. Although I’m choosing to comparing myself on the people I live with, I doubt I’d be in a better place without these people. My insecurities about my body would rear their ugly head one way or another, with or without fit friends. And at the end of the day, it’s more important to me that I have people to share my day with than people whose healthy habits make me feel assured (falsely, I’m sure) that I’m somehow healthier than I think.