Reflecting on self-image

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Raise your hand if you resolved to lose weight or get skinny this year. The messages out there are clear, skinny women are “beautiful” and women with any curves at all are the subject of shame. Heavy women are heavy women, always spoken of in the context of their weight. The fact is we judge women on looks. Our entire culture does. And we judge ourselves most harshly.

How can my generation succeed at giving our daughters a decent concept of self-image when we’re such a mess ourselves? A few years back, my now ex-husband’s friend told me on the phone that my entire job was to stay pretty for my husband. He hadn’t met me yet, didn’t know I was overweight, and I let that message get to me; I pulled it inside and used it to beat myself up even more than usual. I’m a semi-brilliant woman with a master’s degree and a whole head full of creativity, and here I was being told my only worth was in how I looked. And I believed it. And I didn’t measure up.

I was a pretty healthy teenager, not perfect, but I didn’t give it all a lot of thought. There was no Internet to show me images 24/7, and “the look” back then wasn’t nearly as skeletal as it is now. Once I was in a musical and my mom took me out after the show. She didn’t live with me, but she came down to see the show, and I was excited. Then after the show she took me aside and said she and her partner had noticed in one scene when I did a cartwheel onstage that I had cellulite on my upper thighs. Now, I know she was worried for my health, and whatever else moms worry about. But the fact is that’s what I remember most about being in that show. I remember shame, and rejection, and pain, and not because I messed up on stage (I didn’t), but because of my thighs. I would love to have those thighs now by the way.

It didn’t help that growing up I was told I’d be hurting the cook’s feelings if I didn’t eat more. Clean plates mean respect to those who care for you. Yeah, it’s messed up, but that’s what life is like sometimes. I was riddled with guilt, and I apologized for everything, most of all taking up space. So I learned to clean my plate apologetically. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I realized some people just eat until they feel right and leave the rest. It was a window into an entire alternate universe, and I liked it. I didn’t make my kids clean their plates, but I sure set that example.

On my 19th birthday I went out with some friends back home, and ended the night being drugged and raped by two fraternity brothers who seemed to enjoy pretending I was a willing partner. The drugs made my body comply. But my voice kept asking out loud to go home. I wrote a story about it once, barely fictionalized, and I won national recognition. It was the last “fiction” piece I ever published. But my story isn’t really unusual. Rape is common. Kids joke about it. It’s to the point where finding a woman who hasn’t been raped or assaulted seems nearly impossible. It’s almost mundane, but nobody ever talks about it. Well we need to talk about it, and I have so much to say, but this isn’t the time.

This is about how it changed me. I just wanted to disappear, to slip into utter anonymity, to become nothing. Nobody hurts you when you’re nothing. Men don’t want you, but they don’t hurt you. They just ignore you. Some women starve themselves to disappear. But I ate. I wasn’t monstrously huge by many standards, but the few pictures I allowed to be taken embarrass me and make me instantly sad. I was hiding in plain sight. It took almost 20 years for me to come out of that shell again. Losing weight, for me, was an awakening. I had finally realized I deserved health, and after fearing men for decades, I also realized they weren’t all bad and that looking good and being noticed feels great. I wasn’t even truly thin, I was just fairly healthy and I felt amazing. Seven years after losing a lot of weight, I’m dealing with trying to lose some again. Depression, stress, even falling in love, it all adds up.

But this time my daughter is watching. She’s been watching as I regained, and as I let the mean voices back in to my head – the ones that whisper horrible words to me in the mirror. And she has her own whispers now. I’ve been working so hard to accept myself. It’s a struggle to do so when I’m so obviously imperfect, and my struggle has sent so many terrible messages to her. The cycle needs to stop. I should have done better, should have noticed all the subtle things I was doing and saying when I wasn’t paying attention, should have never gotten TV or Wi-Fi, I don’t know, I just know it’s all a mess. Blame society, blame mom, who cares who’s to blame; I just want to fix it.

I want my beautiful daughter to look into a mirror and see the wonder that is her, and to know she is loved and lovable for the beauty *inside*, forever and always. She is beautiful outside too, always has been. But I guess this isn’t just about beauty. It’s about pain and rejection, wanting to be invisible, feeling like you’re not good enough, coping with terrible feelings, and some other awful things I can’t even figure out yet. And just under the surface of our cultural awareness, there is a world full of girls out there who are starving, binging, hurting themselves, and telling themselves that they are unworthy until they succeed at becoming nothing at all. They all feel alone, misunderstood, and horrible. They share pictures of starving girls and say they can’t wait to look that way. And our culture helps them celebrate their losses.

We need to pay more attention here. We need to wake up. There’s so much to learn. I want to get healthy again myself, but I also need to know I’m good enough right now. Coping with overwhelming feelings isn’t ever easy. By being depressed myself, I’ve been a terrible role model for dealing with emotions and stress. By being mean to myself based on how I look, I’ve demonstrated bullying of the worst kind. We all need to know that we’re worthy of love. Why is that so hard for us to see when we look in the mirror?

4 Comments

  1. Punky Coletta

    This is a very powerful post. After receiving negative attention in my youth, I enjoyed being ignored by men after I gained weight. Now, I am trying to just get healthy, and have been lucky enough to meet a good man and marry him. Often, though, when I am out of the safety of my own home, and out in the world, I feel like our society will only value me if I am twenty-something and have a hot body.

    Reply
    1. it's nothing really

      I think, even though we can be our own harshest critics, the rest of the world certainly seems to feel free to rank women on looks alone. Smart seems to go best when attached to “beautiful and…”.

      Reply
  2. Rely on Me

    wow, you are strong. i would love to hear more of your daughter. what’s mean whispers are you talking about? Skitsafrinic whispers or just those questioning whispers.

    Reply
  3. it's nothing really

    Just questioning whispers. I think we all have those sometimes. I hope my daughter is doing better, she seems to be, thanks.

    Reply

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