Does self-discipline equal virtue for you?

Does depriving yourself make you a better person?

Posted Dec 04, 2009

I had a chance to catch up with Harriet Brown, assistant professor of magazine journalism at Syracuse University and author of Feed Me: Writers Dish About Food, Eating, Weight and Body Image, on my You'd Be So Pretty If... blog recently. Brown had stopped by to talk about "Project BodyTalk," an ambitious project aimed at gathering real stories from real women -- all talking about how they feel about their bodies.

It's a fascinating project. But even more fascinating to me was something Brown said during our Q&A. I'd asked her about her own body image history and to reflect on what she might say to her 13-year-old self about her body today. Brown responded that at that age, she'd bought into the idea "that depriving yourself made you a better person."

Whoa. Talk about an "ah-ha" moment.

In my teen years, I was all about impossibly high standards -- whether it was grades, boyfriends or -- of course -- appearance. Achieving those standards was a point of pride for me, and when I failed to live up to them (as I often did), I was devastated. Yes, I was willing to starve myself to fit into those tiny jeans. But the worst part about it was that I didn't mind. In fact, I was downright smug about the level of "willpower" I was able to display.

My body may have been tiny...but I was bigger than food.

For me, that dark time was all about control, and about proving to myself that if I wanted it, I could get it. When I step back to my 13-year-old self and look forward, knowing what I know now, I see the value of that level of drive and self-discipline. It is, after all, a huge factor in building a business and writing a book. But left unchecked, those same qualities can lead to crushing disappointment and merciless self-criticism. My mother loved to tell the story of how in third grade, I would throw away every single paper my teacher gave back that wasn't a grade of 100.

Less than perfection, it seems, wasn't an option -- even for my third-grade self.

Time and the wisdom of adulthood has taught me that not everything will unfold as I want it to or wish it would. Not everything -- body included -- can be molded as I want it to be. But the biggest and most valuable lesson of all has been the realization that that's OK. Happiness, it turns out, can be found nestled right there in the middle of all that imperfection.

As I head off to my daughter's parent-teacher conference today, I already know what I'll hear: Smart, good student, cares very much about the quality of her work. Driven.

Nature or nurture? Both, I suspect. Either way, the seed planted has begun to grow...and, as with the tomatoes I attempt to grow in my garden, I know it's up to me to provide the support she'll need to not only grow strong, but to head in the right direction. As an adult, I've chosen to take a detour off the "denial as virtue" perfection path on which so many women find themselves...and I'm taking my daughter with me.