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When Exactly Did We Start to Hate Our Bodies…?
I can precisely pin-point the moment when I started to hate my body. I was twelve years old and my dad was a professor at UNLV, Las Vegas, Nevada. I hadn’t thought much about my appearance until the summer I would turn 13. The first three things to grow on my body were my nose, my arms, and my legs, and they all grew long. I looked like a gangly scarecrow.
But, I wasn’t the one to notice that or point it out. I was just a tom-boy who spent her days riding bikes, swimming in various neighborhood pools, climbing trees or rock walls, running races, playing tag, or skateboarding. I kept my hair short like a boy and I was very involved in the physical world. I had natural confidence because of the things my body did for me. It was strong, it had tons of energy, it took me all of the places I wanted to go, and it allowed me to swim or ride or hike for hours on end. I was having fun in the world just being me.
Then one day, I was crossing the street to go to my girlfriend’s house, and her older brother yelled out to me. “Hey, Big Nose!” he said. I looked up. He continued, “That’s right, Sarah, you have a Big Nose and it’s really ugly. You are the ugliest girl I have ever seen”.
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I was stunned. Those words knocked the air out of my lungs. I felt instantly self-conscious and fell silent.
I hadn’t quite ever thought about it because I wasn’t interested in my appearance. I was having so much fun with just living and just ‘being’ that I hadn’t thought about how I looked and, up until that point, I didn’t really care, either.
I didn’t answer the boy back. I did not stand up for myself. I was terribly ashamed of myself, and of my nose, and I went home.
I told my parents that Danny had said I had a big nose and that I was the ugliest girl he had ever seen. They told me that was nonsense and that my nose had CHARACTER. They told me that Danny didn’t know what a nose with character looked like and Danny didn’t know a beautiful girl when he saw one. My parents believed what they were saying. They were always and continue to be my greatest champions.
But that didn’t matter. What my parents told me and thought of me didn’t matter, because MY ENTIRE WORLD HAD CHANGED. I was now “The Ugly Girl”.
Not only was I “The Ugly Girl”, I was also turning thirteen, the age when a girl first becomes a teenager. Thirteen is the age when you usually start to notice boys, and they start to notice you. Thirteen is when you and your friend’s bodies start blossoming and changing.
Thirteen is a critical year for you. It’s usually the year when you first deeply desire to be beautiful. And when you’re not beautiful, the internal torture you suffer can practically destroy your ENTIRE SENSE OF SELF.
I hoped Danny would go away and that would be the last time I would hear from him. But, that was just empty hope on my part. Danny had already told all of the neighborhood boys, who were usually my friends, about his harsh physical assessment of me.
When I came outside the next day, there was a group of my male friends standing around. One of them immediately started in, “Hey, Big Nose- Yeah, You, Big Nose!” The other boy said, “She has a big mouth too- big mouths are so ugly!!” They laughed. I was no longer just ‘one of the boys’, as I had been until that moment. I was now a girl, and an ugly girl at that.
And that day marked the beginning of the end. That was the end of me being included in the neighborhood clique of boys. That was the end of me being a confident tom-boy. That day marked the beginning of the end of self-esteem, self-worth, and the beginning of the end of my natural self-confidence. That day marked how the rest of my years on this earth were to play out. It was the day I became aware of how I looked to other people, and the day that I made the decision to allow other people to shame me because of their assessments and judgments about my appearance.
Now, I do not mean for this story to be a sob-story, because it’s not. And, after graduating high school, and going to college, I began to build my self-esteem up again, and I also ended up growing into my appearance. But, I still allow others to deeply influence me, especially when it comes to my appearance. Even to this day, in my mind, my appearance can never be good enough. And I struggle with this daily. I can always find something to nit-pick about. But, things are getting better.
And, I have learned that I am far from alone. Every woman I know struggles with her appearance. Many women report that they live internally tortured lives– like there’s a broken-record commentary playing over in their minds constantly chastising them over their thighs, or their butts, their breasts, their sagging jaw-line.
The author Thomas Hardy once quipped, “A woman would rather visit her own grave, than the place where she has once been young and beautiful, after she is aged and ugly.” Boy, his thoughts just deliver some real rays of sunshine to us women. Shame on you, Thomas.
And my question is, why is that? Unfortunately, there is some ugly truth to what Thomas Hardy says. Why is it that beauty controls us so much?
Well, I do have a theory, and this is only my opinion, for whatever it’s worth. I believe that one of the deepest desires of humankind is to feel loved, to feel part of a group, to feel deeply connected to others, and to feel validated.
Beauty has become the popular tool in society to validate or to INVALIDATE women. And sometimes I feel like if I am NOT beautiful, I am not part of the group, and therefore I am not lovable. And, if I am not lovable, then I am worthless, and I am alone. And then, a great fear takes over and I stand face to face with the abyss.
The thought of NOT being beautiful is somehow equated with this dark, never-ending abyss in my mind. I will say quite frankly that this is not logical thinking and is not based in reality. But, logical thinking or not, it is a thought that can dominate my choices and influence me to some extent, especially when I am caught off-guard by it.
And when I talk to other women, I find that the fear of not being beautiful also dominates their choices. Sometimes they choose not to go to social events, or go to the gym, or even date, if they are single. Because they have hang-ups about themselves that none of the rest of us even see. Yet, they are haunted by these beauty hang-ups, and sometimes even immobilized by them. To us, these women look gorgeous, but to them, in their minds, they believe the world only sees their (perceived) flaws.
And sometimes, it’s even worse for women who are mothers. Many of us hold this thought that we have to go on a crash diet soon after giving birth, or we have to have mommy make-overs to feel good about ourselves again. Some of my friends don’t breastfeed because other women have told them they’ll ruin the appearance of their bodies if they breastfeed. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about women choosing to breastfeed to not. They need to do what’s best for them. But, I know the wonderful bonding experience I got from having nursed my children, and I would not give that experience up for the world. How I would look afterwards did not enter my mind when making that decision.
There’s an expectation that I hear all the time from fellow mothers in my peer group. There is this unconscious, even conscious expectation, that after she has a child, she will need to magically fit back into her pre-mommy wardrobe, and carry off the same high heels and business suit, and hair-do and make-up that takes hours out of her morning routine. And, of course, she’ll still be responsible for all of her prior duties around the house, too. The baby on the way will just ‘blend into the background’, after all. And soon, everything will be back to normal, and her child will be a mere accessory she carries on her hip.
Courtesy of Sydney Morning Herald
For most of us mothers, that couldn’t be FARTHER from the truth. First off, it takes some of us years to fit back into those clothes, and some of us never do. The fact of the matter is, many women’s bodies change after child-birth, yet we still hold onto an illusion and an EXPECTATION that we should look as we did prior to having children. These unrealistic beauty expectations just keep getting heaped upon us, and when we don’t meet the expectations, some of us feel like giant failures.
Unfortunately, we ourselves are the culprits for heaping expectation upon expectation.
I remember looking in the mirror about a week after giving birth to my second son. I could not stand the sight of myself. I had never seen my body look so ‘deformed’. Deformed was the only word that came to mind. I immediately told myself, “Come on, Sarah, you just went through a tough pregnancy and tougher labor. Your son was in the ICU for three days. You can cut yourself some slack”.
Yet, the truth of the matter is, that didn’t change the way I felt about myself. The emotions I felt came in like a flood. I saw my body and just cried. I felt so ugly at that moment and even felt ashamed to be around my husband. This was extremely unhealthy thinking on my part. But, the truth of the matter is, I felt this incredibly deep, visceral fear that my husband wouldn’t love me anymore simply because of the way I looked. Sometimes, I felt so ashamed of myself during the weeks and months it took for the weight to start coming off.
Sometimes, I felt like half a person. And the reason I felt like half a person was because there’s always this deep-seated fear that IF I am not pretty enough, I will not be loved. And if I am not loved, I will be alone.
Now, to my husband’s credit, he was so loving to me during this time. His eyes just lit up every time he saw me cuddling the baby, which was often. He took tons of pictures against my protestations, and he insisted I looked great. Now, looking back at those pictures, I can say I looked good and the love I have for my child really shined through my face. I didn’t look anything like the image I had of myself in my own head, and that love that was lighting up my face gave me a certain glow that made me beautiful.
So, how do we, as women, start getting out of this beauty double-bind once and for all? How can we be at peace with our appearance?
In my next post, I am going to share some of my own personal affirmations that have been helpful to me. I am also going to present a different perspective on what beauty actually is and how we can feel more beautiful ourselves.
Stay tuned for Part Three and keep those comments coming!!