Erica’s Story: Embracing Body and Soul
When Erica reached out to participate in The Layers Project body image series, I was thrilled. I’ve known her since we were pre-teens and I have always been in awe of her grace, optimism and generosity. I was very curious to know how she would frame her personal experience with body image, and how her sweet personality and positivity would influence her perspective. She did not disappoint.
She began her story through the prism of health. Erica explained that when she was a child, “From the time I was about 5 years old, I was overweight, but there was no medical reason for it. My mother had my levels tested and everything was normal, but the pediatrician informed us that I was too heavy for my age and they were concerned that I would have health issues. However, I never had health issues due to my size.” The doctor’s comments were the first time that Erica heard from an outside source that she might be different than other children.
In response to the comments of the medical professionals and then comments and bullying from other children, Erica’s mother ensured that at home Erica would experience a validating and supportive environment. “People made sure that I knew I was bigger than them, heavier than them and that it was a bad thing. In our society, they were told being fat is bad and if you are fat you can’t be happy. If you were thin, then you could be happy. I would come home and cry to my mother and she always had to work that much harder to build my self esteem because she had to counteract the negative things that I was hearing. She validated my feelings and told me how beautiful she thought I was. She would try to explain to me that my self worth should not be defined by the beauty standards of others.” Thanks to her mother’s love, Erica was able to emotionally protect against bullying and develop a centered and accepting attitude about her body at a young age.
Erica shared that her mother’s constant mantra was, “you are as beautiful on the outside as you are on the inside” and that to her, it was not a cliche but true. Into her adolescence, Erica was able to create a deeper understanding of what that meant. “I concentrated on the idea that we are a neshama (soul) put into a guf (body). It is important to care for and keep healthy the body G-d gave us, but our essence is our soul, which is what I think we are supposed to focus on and develop through performing good deeds and working on character development. I struggled to keep in mind that my worth is more than my appearance. I directed my attention on my inner self and hoped that would enhance my outer qualities.”
When her friends would make disparaging remarks about their own bodies and insecurities, Erica became their “cheerleader,” always encouraging them to love their bodies that she viewed as “average” and “normal.” At the same time, there were days where she became frustrated by other people’s attitudes about their own bodies, “Sometimes I would think, ‘Why are you complaining? I wish I could be like you.” Erica explained to me that though she firmly believes that one’s character is most important, “I was like everyone else. My confidence and self consciousness waxed and waned. I was critical of my weight and my appearance at various points, but I tried my best not to let it get to me. It was very hard when magazines, TV, and society said otherwise.”
As she ventured into adulthood, she developed a heightened awareness about the body conscious world in which we live. “I could focus inward as much as I wanted, but that didn’t change the world around me that still placed extreme importance on physical appearance and passed judgement about how I looked. I understood that I needed to put an emphasis on my physical appearance and I was like any young woman who cared about how she looked. I always did my hair, wore makeup, and always tried to have stylish and nice clothing. I think in some way, I felt like I had to try harder with the things I had control over in order to compensate for the body that “I didn’t have.” I couldn’t have the “thin desirable body,” but I could dress what I did have as nicely as possible, and make sure my hair and makeup were always done.”
As Erica began college she did not feel good emotionally or physically. Despite the deep seeded values she had developed, she began to look towards the rest of her life.“I had developed confidence for my values, but in the world we live in, that didn’t feel good enough. Those who took the time to get to know me, already accepted me. I knew that not everyone was willing to look beyond the size of my body to see the person that was within, and I feared it would be an obstacle for me in the future.” Erica then decided to begin a weight-loss and exercise regimen and subsequently lost a significant amount of weight.
Always having been a very private person, Erica was surprised at all the attention she received due to her weight loss. People were responding to her differently and even people she knew commented frequently on the change. What Erica thought was most remarkable was that she felt that she as a person had not changed at all. “That’s when I really understood what my mother had been trying to convey to me. I was the exact same person when all that weight was on and then off.”
Erica dated only for a short time, and quickly found the man who was to become her husband. “It went well from the beginning, and I knew I needed to be comfortable talking to him about my appearance and the experiences I had gone through with my weight loss. When I brought it up to him, it was an important discussion for us to have. He reassuringly responded, ‘So? There is nothing that you can tell me that would make me change my mind about wanting to marry you.’ It was just the kind of response I needed and knew I would hear, which is probably why I was comfortable enough to address it with him.”
Erica’s journey to understanding her relationship with her body again changed when she became a mother. Now it was not just about how her body looked, but it became about what her body was capable of doing. The experience of pregnancy and labor highlighted for her how strong and capable her body truly is. “I wanted to focus on what my body can do, which is growing life and giving birth. For me, I wanted to value my body for its strength, and that strength I think is beautiful.” Fully wanting to experience her body’s strength, Erica is passionate about having the least amount of intervention during childbirth when possible, and has found a new appreciation of her body in those experiences.
In between the births of her sons, Erica suffered a miscarriage. “When I found out that there was no longer a heartbeat at 8 weeks, instead of having medical intervention in the form of a D&C, I chose to see if my body would respond naturally. I basically had a mini labor. My body passed the fetus on its own, with contractions that I had to breathe through. I found the experience to be parallel to a birth. As soon as it was finished, the pain went away just like it did after I had given birth to a live child. My body knew what to do and took over.” Erica felt after that experience that she acquired insight into the intuitive nature of her body, and she was amazed at the way that her body knew that the fetus within her was not viable and took control of the situation.
“At the end of the day, I’m a real person and I struggle with my appearance like anyone else. I consider how I look, weigh or physically present myself. But it’s not something that defines who I am or what I’m worth or am capable of doing. Yet, it has shaped who I am and my general approach to life, particularly now as a mother. My children watch and learn from me about how they are supposed to view themselves and their bodies. If they see me disparage and criticize myself, then they will do the same to themselves and with others. I want them to respect their bodies and the bodies of others. I want them to develop their self worth independent of their physical appearance just as I was able to do.”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.