I have been at war with myself for so long that I don’t remember any other way of being. I can’t remember ever feeling thin enough, good enough, smart enough, popular enough, fashionable enough, witty enough, likeable enough, or hardworking enough. I have a deeply engrained sense that if I’m all done improving myself, well, I might as well be dead. I think this is an ethic promoted by our culture, in varying degrees, but my parents were very good at the backhanded compliment, designed not to praise current worthiness, but to encourage more self-improvement. My stepmom used to tell me, “You are so lucky to have such bright, natural blonde hair and blue eyes. Just think how pretty you’d be if you lost [10 or 30 or 50] pounds!”
And yet, I remember the Mae in high school, who was 130 or 140 lbs and seethed with self-loathing. I would lie on my bed and suck my teeny, almost nonexistant tummy-pooch in until it hurt and I saw stars, trying to will my hipbones to jut out like I knew they should. I wept at the disgracefulness of wearing size 10 jeans when I knew double-digits were the worst thing a girl could be. I fantasized about discovering a secret, magical way to give myself liposuction, like punching myself in the belly until the fat cell walls broke open and the fat melted out and was excreted. I contrived my own diets. Back in the mid-90′s the fat-free diets were very fashionable and for months I tried to avoid eating anything with fat in it, making myself lunches of sandwich baggies full of fat-free pretzels, fat-free animal crackers, and marshmallows (because they are also fat-free).
Now, when I look back at pictures of Mae in high school, I wince. She’s so slender and young and she did not spend one single minute appreciating that. I think, Do I want to be a grandmother one day, looking back at pictures of myself as a young newlywed, and wince, thinking of how I spent all my time loathing myself and my body instead of revelling in the youth, vitality, energy, and physicality I had then?
Its not just my body that I have never accepted. When my father married my stepmother, I was six years old, and almost right away I went to live with them, visiting my biological mother on alternating weekends (for only the next two years, when my biomom exited stage left). From the very beginning, my stepmother doggedly worked to prove to me that my biological mother was evil and that, as her offspring, I probably was too. I would get caught in some childish sin, like lying, or fighting with a sibling, or taking food without permission. My stepmother never forgot to include “I should have known you would turn out eeeevil just like your birth mother!” when lecturing me. She would tell me I had a “black streak” inside of me. I seriously believed, until I was much too old (like, oh, early 20′s) that there was something fundamentally, genetically, unalterably wrong with me. I was “born evil.”
I was told I was clumsy. My sisters– encouraged by my stepmother– nicknamed me “the Ox.” I was always larger-framed than they were, even though my younger sister (also the child of my father and biological mother) was similarly “chubby” and until about ages 15 and 16, we shared clothing with no trouble. My older stepsister was extraordinarily petite, with that bird-like frame that, even now that she is full-grown, feels so fragile when you embrace her. My ankles and wrists, thick and sturdy, were called “stumpy” and compared to trees. I was rhetorically asked, “how can you be so dumb when you are so smart [as in booksmart and schoolsmart, having been an A student most of my life]?” They couldn’t deny I had, at least, the raw processing power to be called “smart,” so they told me I had no common sense. I was told I talked and laughed too loud, couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance, had no grace, that I was too dirty to sit on the couch (while my stepmother’s children were allowed to do so), that I was too clumsy to drink out of glasses (plastic cups for the Ox). I was “too rough” to hold or touch anything fragile, like my brother when he was a toddler (I was 8 when he was born), or my stepsister’s cat, or my stepsister’s computer or any of her belongings.
Here’s the thing. Until I was a teenager, I accepted all these criticisms without question. They were the adults, surely they could see and know things about me that even I couldn’t see or know. Surely a “black streak” was a real thing, because my parents said so. Surely one could be “born evil,” as a child, that fit in neatly with my worldview of good and bad. It was only a matter of time before I became a thief, a drug dealer, an abuser, a slut.
I don’t know how or when the process started, but I was able to begin rejecting these things as I reached the age when children begin to pull away from their parents and explore on their own. It helped that I spent three months– all summer– each year with grandparents, 800 miles away from my parents. Unwittingly, I admitted all the emotional abuse I suffered at the hands of my parents to them, and my grandparents rushed to assure me there was nothing wrong with me, only with my parents. I was told by authority figures that I respected and loved, that I was beautiful, smart, capable, graceful. It didn’t change my mind right away, but faultlines in the chiseled figure of my parent’s perception of me began to appear. I had a friend in grade school whose parents treated me like another daughter, taking me with them to church and even on family vacations. They treated me with love and respect and attempted to act as counterweights to my parents. These people helped me along the way, but my parents were very effective.
Because those criticisms still have a home inside me. Even though my rational brain wants to tell me that they were wrong, that there is no such thing as being “born evil” or “black streaks,” some part of me still holds on to those. When I am feeling down about myself, for good reason or none at all, a voice pipes up, Well, what did you expect. You have faulty DNA. You are clumsy, you are fat, you have no common sense, you aren’t lovable, you aren’t kind, you’re lazy and undisciplined, why would anyone like you? You’re sneaky, you’re a liar, you’re a cheat, you’re a thief, you have no heart, you are selfish, you have an ugly soul, you were born evil. This was only to be expected. I’m surprised it took so long.
I don’t just reject my body as being unworthy of approval, love, and affection, I also reject most of the rest of myself. I have managed to hold on to the idea that I am intelligent, probably because my academic record– not ground-breaking, but clearly above average– is undeniable. But I still fear that I am “so dumb for being so smart,” and never trust my own decision-making skills.
In a certain sense, I think it is very difficult to accept your body if you have not already accepted yourself as a good and worthy human being. If you can’t accept that you have just about as much willpower as the next guy, and that the amount you do have is perfectly fine, then you’ll have a hard time believing you aren’t failing at diets because you are a crappy person without as much willpower as thin people. If you can’t accept that you aren’t lazy, you’ll have a hard time believing you aren’t failing at dieting because you’re too lazy to workout out more and everyone else isn’t lazy and works out alot more than you do. If you can’t accept that your attractiveness is comprised of more than just your shape, and that the other things about your body and personality are attractive, you won’t be able to get past the idea that must change the shape of your body to be considered attractive.
Some people like me have to start at the very beginning and accept things about myself beyond my actual weight to proceed with real and honest fat acceptance. I know that all these years of dieting have been accompanied with the Fantasy of Being Thin, that once I am thin, I will naturally be able to accept myself. Of course, right? Because once a person is thin, they are Redeemed, Transformed, and a Member of the Secret Club of Perfect People.
On a completely unrelated note, yesterday was the first day in probably at least two weeks that I didn’t cry. I came home and cooked a complex but satisfying meal (cooking is a good de-stressing activity for me). I had a quiet supper with my husband, and didn’t talk about my bad feelings and fears (topics I have been unable to get my mind away from lately). I had two glasses of wine (okay, not the best coping stategy), and then half of a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Karamel Sutra (caramel and chocolate). We watched a movie, Atonement, which I was able to completely escape into (annoyingly, these last couple of weeks, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to even concentrate on a movie or TV show, much less accomplish the complete escape). I didn’t even cry at the sad parts of the movie (oh my god, they shot some horses), but I was relieved that I didn’t cry that I didn’t analyze it further. And, when we finally went to bed, we [CENSORED], which was really nice, and better than I expected. I slept about six hours, waking early, which is my normal insomnia pattern, but six is much, much better than the three to five I’ve been getting.
I felt good enough this morning to do another hourlong workout with the Wii Fit. I am really addicted to the yoga. Even though I “know” my time would be better spent on the difficult strength training and aerobics exercises, I just really enjoy the yoga, especially first thing in the morning. I did about 10 Wii Fit minutes on the yoga, 10 Wii Fit minutes on strength training, 17 Wii Fit minutes on aerobics, and then did the downhill skiing balance game like 10 times in a row. I swear, that thing is the bane of my existence. You have to lean forward, like you would if you were really skiing, and basically crouch on tiptoe while leaning side-to-side to make it through gates as you go downhill. I’ve done that game like 25 times and just this morning got my first 2 stars (out of 4)– all other attempts have earned me only 1 star (which basically means FAIL). ARGH. Luckily its actually pretty good for your quads if you do it like I do, and actually squat the whole time. So sneaky, Wii Fit. So sneaky.
So. Today I have also not cried yet, but it is early. I am still feeling foggy, empty, and tired, but I am not on the edge of crying at any moment, I’m not feeling panicky or tight in the chest, and I am hopeful that the tide is turning. Please, let it be so.