This is part of a series of posts on body image.
“Right. I look fine. Except I don’t,’ said Zora, tugging sadly at her man’s nightshirt. This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman’s magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki’s knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies– it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.”
― Zadie Smith, On Beauty
While I never thought self-disgust was in any way how human beings were meant to experience themselves or the place from which we are intended to experience the world around us, it has, simultaneously, almost always been how I assumed everyone functioned to some degree or another. At some point I realized that the majority of men do not experience themselves and the world around them through the dark, welder’s goggle lenses of self-loathing and that most women do. I am quite aware that this is a broad generalization and make no particular apologies for it except to say yeah, I know but I’m saying it anyway. I could cite many studies that relate to my experience and most all would support it but I am not bothering to do so because that’s not the point. This isn’t a sociological essay with any scientific value. It is my experience and my reflection.
I grew up in a home that affirmed me as beautiful, smart, pretty (which isn’t the same thing as beautiful) and valuable not just as an individual but also as a loved and wanted member of the family. I was never once—not one single time—made to feel inadequate or “less than” by either of my parents because I was a girl.
That was, of course, only true within my family and only until I came into contact with the outside world, at which time my father’s near paranoid fear of the world’s evils, which were certain to be lurking around every corner waiting to snatch his precious child off to a Neverland Hell, and my mother’s certainty that some characteristic or habit would prevent others from taking me seriously, began to cloud that sense of self. Their desire to protect, love and prepare their daughter for the world collided with the world’s desire to transform every human into a base, consumable item and, just as it has been true for many a woman, a perfect storm of self-disgust was born.
I learned to dislike myself, that is to say specifically my physical body, early in elementary school because I was big, both in height and weight, and different from everyone else and could not hide from the cruelty of other children. My body was the ideal target for dodge ball, played both with the big half-inflated gym class balls and with words flung carelessly, and I hated it for its inability to cooperate, to shrink and be less obvious, to be normal. I also began to think of my body as an “it” and not “me”. That began a lifelong denial that rivaled Peter himself. I know her not. A daily practiced betrayal of the body.
I developed a woman’s curves very early, hips and breasts rounding and shaping a classic female shape out of my little girl body. By the sixth grade I was the tallest girl in the class and while other girls were reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, praying for their periods to start and begging their moms to buy them training bras they could then stuff with Kleenex, I was already in B cups, perpetually folding my arms across my chest and begging my mother for something other than Tylenol for cramps.
The pediatrician told my parents that this 5’1” eleven year old was destined to be a very tall woman. A big woman, much like today’s WNBA athletes. They searched desperately for role models as the doctor suggested. Every tall woman we came into contact with would be held as an example of beauty. “Look at that beautiful, tall woman! Her long arms and legs… someday you’ll be tall like that. She’s so beautiful and graceful and tall.” Linda Carter, the actress who played Wonder Woman, was a favorite example held up for me in the most love-filled and misguided attempt to root my body image in something powerful, feminine and good: Wonder Woman.
I never grew another inch taller and remained a 5’1”, chubby, uncoordinated girl with short blonde hair. Not Wonder Woman. Not powerful. Not good. Not beautiful. Though decidedly feminine and because I only got one out of the whole list, I hated that one. I hated my fat, my increasing comparative shortness, my ever-enlarging breasts and ever-widening hips, my thick legs and tiny feet and hands that, by their diminutiveness, even further accentuated my self-perceived enormous physical landscape.
The other girls hated me for my rapid development and I hated my body for it as well. But I could not seem to hate them because somehow I knew they hated their own bodies, too. We taught one another, long before the boys came along to teach us, how to hate our own flesh.
Both in love for another and hatred of ourselves do we hurt each other.
Much time has passed in my life since those days. I have come to see Wonder Women in every size, shape, color, age…. even my own. I’ve come to believe that hating the body to the point of denying one’s own personhood is hating oneself in both a deeply personal, whole identity way and in a broad, far-reaching way that spreads beyond the boundaries of our own skin and into the lives of others. We do not hate in a vacuum; it is contagious and poisonous. To heal our body image is to see ourselves as whole people and, therefore, to begin to heal the world.
This is the first post in a series on body image. If you have a story or wish to write an essay about your own experience with body image to post on this blog, please contact me. I would love to read it!