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Hilde Ostby's memoir 'My Belly' traces the root of body image issues and self-loathing

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Norwegian writer Hilde Ostby says she's never entered a room without thinking about her belly. She can't stand it.

HILDE OSTBY: It should be flat, completely flat, no bulks whatsoever. That's the goal for, I think, a lot of women.

RASCOE: A hard to reach goal, which can translate into a constant sense of personal failure. So Hilde Ostby decided to really examine why she spent most of her adult life hating how she looked. Her new short book is titled "My Belly."

OSTBY: The book started when I was 45 years old, and I tried to sum up my life to that point. And then I realized that I'd done a lot of things, like I do yoga. I love to do yoga. I love my child. So I've been talking to my child and hugging my child. But more than that, I've spent 30 of those 45 years hating my belly. And then I started to investigate, and I found out that this is normal. It's more normal than not.

RASCOE: How do you think you develop this loathing? In the book, I found it interesting - it wasn't like you were someone who was - like, as a kid who was being told you have to look a certain way or anything like that.

OSTBY: Yeah. It was surprising for me too because my dad was a professor in philosophy. What I did as a child was read and write. I've always wanted to be a writer. I never wanted to be a model (laughter). So it shocked me, really, how much all of these thoughts had snuck into my mind. I tried to read Roald Dahl's books for my daughter, and suddenly realized that all the bad characters in Roald Dahl are heavy. So it's kind of - it's part of a culture so ingrained that it's difficult to really find out exactly where it's from because it's everywhere.

We have a phobia of fat in our society that is - it's sick. I was anorexic for several years, and I was extremely thin, and I hated my belly then. I was very heavy. I hated my belly then. I have been what society calls normal and then I also hated my belly. It's very few incidents where I didn't hate my belly. And then when you realize that, how shallow that is, you realize that the one and only thing that is important for your health is the - your mental health.

RASCOE: That was interesting that you pointed out that even when you were thin, you weren't happy. I remember when I was much thinner - I was kind of underweight as a kid - I still wasn't happy with my stomach because I wanted it to look like the singer, you know, back in the day, Aaliyah. She had the flattest stomach. And even when I was thin, I thought I had a pooch. It's a very weird thing that we take in on ourselves. It's never good enough. It's never going to be good enough.

OSTBY: No. And this cause discomfort in your own body. I tried to get to the bottom of that, and that was when I found the research of Dr. Vincent Felitti. He set up a diet clinic in San Diego in 1985, and he started to diet people that were morbidly obese. And during that process, he noticed that a lot of people just fell out of his program. So then he started interviewing people. He talked to 200 of his former clients to find out why they dropped out of his program, and he talked to them about their lives. And then he found out that they have all these extremely traumatic experiences behind them, and food was just a way of solving a much bigger problem. So Vincent Felitti made a list of childhood trauma, and he found that the more of these adverse childhood experiences you have had, the more likely you are to develop an eating disorder or drug addiction. Or it's also linked to heart disease, depression, autoimmune disease and cancer even.

And I found out I have five of those traumas. One of them is that I was raped when I was 15, and that was the same exact time that I developed my eating disorder. And that isn't a coincidence. That is the normal. It's 20% of women in Norway have been raped. So why don't we see the connection here, how we hate our bodies, how the commercial system just feeds off this self-hatred? You feel uncomfortable when you go and buy a dress, or you go on a diet to kind of alleviate the pain of feeling so uncomfortable. But we have to get to the root of the problems.

RASCOE: I'm so sorry that you went through that. Did learning about this research change how you thought about yourself? Did it make you have more grace for yourself - anger at society, but more grace for yourself?

OSTBY: Yes. But then it's an ongoing process. I need to unlearn that self-hatred, and that takes a lot of time. So I really have to - I try to read my own book...

(LAUGHTER)

OSTBY: ...To remind myself of what I really think about this because it sneaks back in into my mind. But the things I do to kind of feel more happy with my own body is to be more playful. I started boxing. And I also go to this ballet class, and I'm really terrible at it.

(LAUGHTER)

OSTBY: And I laugh at myself, and I have fun with it. And last time I went to this ballet class, I just stood in front of all of these young, very thin women, and I thought, I'm going to show you my ballet. You're going to see my body, and you're going to think it's not a big deal. You can have fun with your body.

RASCOE: That's Hilde Ostby. Her new book is called "My Belly." Thank you so much for talking to us about it.

OSTBY: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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