On Carole King, body image, and who I’m meant to be
I got an accidental lesson on body image at a folk music concert.
Carole King and James Taylor, each icons in their own right, played a steady stream of their greatest hits at the Troubador Reunion concert I attended. I was there for James Taylor—I’ve been a fan since grade school and Carole King’s presence was just a tagalong bonus for me, although I know she has the same caliber of talent and staying power as James.
I didn’t expect to be mesmerized by her, but I was.
Carole King is 68, but she was hopping around the stage in four-inch heels grooving along with James and the other guitar players with the energy of someone much younger. Her attire was classy and understated—blousy tunics and slacks, with no pretense of trying to appear sexy. (Trying would be overkill, I promise.) When she sang, it was with all the heart-wrenching soul of someone who has lived through everything and come out triumphant. And when she smiled—that smile!—the audience saw confirmation that every crease on her face has been etched there by years and years of beaming at music and life.
Carole King is beautiful.
The backdrop for this observation is my obsession with self-improvement. In 2009, four different people asked me if I was pregnant. I was not, but I was stung by the question. However the inquiry might be justified, I was embarrassed and hurt by it every time. The best way I could take it was as a nosy commentary on my family size or the ticking of my biological clock. At worst, it was proof that the bulgy belly that was my unflattering postpartum souvenir was not as invisible as I’d hoped.
Don’t get me wrong—I’ve got nothing against looking pregnant when I actually am. I don’t feel fat, I feel womanly and divine (as soon as I stop throwing up). My growing baby bump is shameless proof of exactly what I’ve been up to, spherical evidence my husband finds me irresistible, a silent announcement that even more excitement is coming my way, and all anyone can politely say about it is “congratulations.”
But being fluffy in the middle is not the same as being pregnant. And being falsely accused of pregnancy made me want to run my guts out.
So I have.
I’ve exercised regularly for several years, but at the start of 2010 I decided to take it to another level. No more reading while I casually strolled on the treadmill. No more workouts where my jaws got the majority of the exercise from chatting with friends.
In the past, my motives were mostly about health. Diabetes and heart disease both run in my family. One of my biggest pleasures now and as I age is reading interesting books and talking to other people about those books. Diabetes could interfere with my already-weak vision and make reading difficult. Heart disease could decrease the amount of time I have to read and discuss, and I’d miss out on reading with my grandchildren.
I’ve struggled with body-image issues in the past. I spent most of my teen years hungry and irritable. Growing up as a racial minority attending a high-pressure private school and daily dance classes where it was practically my job to be the big girl in the center of the back row is a recipe for insecurity that has been baking for 20-plus years now.
I thought I’d shaken off a lot of that baggage. Pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding my children have made me see my body for the functional wonder it is. Excellent health is both a goal and a journey.
Still, I could not entirely squash the desire to be beautiful as well as healthy.
I did not want to “look great for having three kids.” I wanted to be amazing, period.
No qualifiers, no excuses.
All my teen-age anxiety came rushing back so fast it was like it had never left. I bought a bathroom scale. I spent my Christmas money to hire a trainer. I rolled out of bed at 5 a.m. and was sweating on a treadmill by 5:30, six days a week. I didn’t give up cookies completely, but I did feel a lot guiltier about the few I ate. My goal, I thought, was to be amazing.
I have gotten stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life, and that feels great. But it took Carole King’s voice to remind me it doesn’t define me. I have already reached my real goals.
At the concert, she belted out her famous hit, Natural Woman. It’s a love song about how the singer’s love has given her a sense of confidence and purpose. In any other context the song is a corny cliché, but sung live by its writer, it’s positively spiritual.
The “you” in the song is open to interpretation, I say. Who’s to say it’s not a friend, a spouse, a child, or even a higher power who has rescued, redirected and inspired the woman to be herself, joyfully? I bask in all of that, every day. I am that woman, and I’m not alone.
Carole held out her microphone to the audience and every woman in the crowd of 15,000 leapt to her feet to sing along.
“You make me feel. . . You make me feel. . . You make me feel like a natural woman!”
I stood there singing along with Carole and thousands of my sisters whose hearts also bear the scars of love and grief and hope and aching to be different, more, than they are, and my eyes filled with tears. This was a powerful group of people, whether or not they knew it. This was a group of people who know being an amazing woman is more about feeling and doing than just being a pretty decoration.
When women let go of shallow cultural notions of beauty and surrender simple vanity to true purpose, they have more energy to love and serve and help and be a force for good in their communities. They can become who God needs them to be. It’s not about looking strong and powerful, it’s about actually being strong and powerful, in many invisible ways.
All those women I stood with– they were amazing.
I am amazing.
And so are you.