Appearance & aging: self-hatred & self-love

When my first baby was born I was 40 years old. I had increasing numbers of grey hairs appearing at my temples, scattered amongst the brown. I didn’t want to be mistaken for my kid’s grandmother, and I decided to get my hair dyed. I have liked my hair color for a long time, and indeed, liked my hair for a long time. That’s a significant thing, given that for a long time I actively hated my body and my appearance.

I have thought about the reduction for a long time. Not really for medical reasons:  yes; I have strain on my back, but honestly, I’d love to be able to wear clothes that fit my upper body, including button-down shirts. And the focus below the neck is real, and I experienced it a lot when I was younger.

A C-section and twin pregnancy later, my body is not the same shape it was before. It never will be. For a couple of years after the twins’ birth, sunk in the pit of self-directed fat hatred, I considered having surgery to correct nature’s deficiencies. In that time I realized that I actually believed that if I were thinner I’d be a better person.

But I have daughters. And have read a number of compelling pieces about how my self-image will impact theirs. And so, (m)other-love has given me a route to a firmer foundation of self-love. Now I’m looking at better bras, learning to look at myself in the mirror and consider my shape with loving and compassionate eyes, and tell myself I’m beautiful so that I can fight the internalized self-hatred that insidiously blossomed in elementary school with the taunts of other kids.

I’m going to keep dying my hair for while, because I like the color. I want to be real about my choices, to be honest with myself. But I reject purity-founded guilt about them.

Differences within families

Families often have one member who’s different from the rest: an artist in a family of sports fans, for example, or an enthusiastic member of debate teams in a family of book readers. Most commonly occurring, perhaps, are personality pattern differences. A really big challenge in families (and other human groupings) is learning to observe a family member’s behavior patterns without calcifying them into judgements about “who” that person is. When that happens it becomes impossible to truly see those close to us. Instead, we paste a projection onto their faces and attempt to interact with it, instead of engaging with real people in open and thoughtful ways. Focusing on the ways in which a family member is different from the rest also makes it impossible to see differences in other family members. Then everybody loses: nobody is properly seen, and no one in the family gets their needs met or the emotional validation which is so important for every person’s well-being.

In our family, two of our children are twins. This exacerbates issues already common to families with siblings: twins are relentlessly compared to each other. Since our twin daughters are very different from each other, and developing at different rates and in different ways, the potential for developing conflict, jealousy, and limiting, stereotyped views of each of them is high. Ted and I have been conscious of this from the beginning.

Additionally, there is a great deal of personality alignment between Hazel (our oldest daughter) and Emily (the other twin). So comparisons are easy to make between Emily and Hazel, on the one hand, and Joanna on the other.

Our family is composed of two extroverts (Hazel and Emily), two introverts (Ted and Joanna), and one introvert with an extroverted wing (me). Ted and I, being adults, have learned how to handle functioning in the world (at least to some extent). Joanna doesn’t have our decades of experience. She is thoughtful and curious. She is quiet. She likes to take her time to experience the world around her. She very often gets run over by her sisters, who tend to dive in with verve and enthusiasm (especially Emily). Because things go so fast, she winds up just copying Emily a lot. Partly, this is a totally genuine appreciation for others’ enthusiasms. But partly, it is because she needs space made for her in our family, space and time to think and feel and decide without pressure.

She also winds up asking for help and assuming a certain degree of lack of capability on her own part. This is partly because everyone thinks Joanna is cute and sweet and wants to help her. This is also partly because she has had the tendency since very early on to reach out for help. Ted and I (and our wonderful nanny H) are making a conscious effort to encourage Joanna to try first, before we help her. As Ted pointed out today, our expectations of our children will have a tremendous impact on their own perception of themselves and their abilities. We know Joanna can do many things: we need to provide gentle and consistent feedback and support for her to learn this about herself too.

Sometimes people will say that they parented all their kids the same way. I find this extremely improbable, and also not even a goal to shoot for. Everyone is different. We all have different strengths, areas of challenge, tendencies. We need different sorts of support in order to grow and thrive. We all need to learn how to be leaders and how to accept direction. We all need to learn how to take care of ourselves, and how to ask for help. But we will all learn and acquire those skills differently.

So, today a Wonder Woman costume arrived for Joanna. We’re all getting super hero costumes; I ordered a plus-size Super Girl costume I was extremely excited to find last week, Joanna chose the Wonder Woman costume, and Emily chose a Batgirl costume. Hazel wants to be Super Girl too; I am not sure yet what Ted is going to choose. Anyway, Joanna’s arrived today. The girls have been very excited to get their costumes, and the box was an object of very enthusiastic attention. Hazel and Emily immediately rushed over to it, and Emily reached out to open it.

I called a halt, told the girls to step back and give Joanna some space. This was so hard for them to do that ultimately I made them sit on the benches next to H and me, so that Joanna could open her box unimpeded. I enforced no talking to Joanna other than to offer things like, “Oh, that’s cool!” No suggestions, no questions, no “help”. Hazel twitched. She kept trying to offer suggestions/orders to Joanna. She drummed her feet on the ground. She got really mad. She said she was bored. Emily started to copy me; I told her not to jump on the bandwagon (a common issue in our house, something we work on a lot.) She relaxed and watched Joanna.

Hazel, to her credit, did not throw a full-blown fit. She wanted to try on Joanna’s Wonder Woman “boots” (knee-high leg coverings). After I told her no the second time, she dropped it.

With this firewall in place, with a space in which she could explore and know her stuff was just hers, with time to process, Joanna smiled. She poked around. She asked for help: we told her to try it herself. We offered silly suggestions when she seemed stressed by the idea that she could find the packaging flap and open it herself. She puttered. She initiated conversation. She gradually found everything, gradually put it all on. She enjoyed herself. With a big smile, she said that her costume had come first; she told Emily that hers would come soon. When there were things Joanna genuinely needed help with, we asked her whom she wanted to help her. She pointed at Hazel, and said, “You!” Once Joanna was all dressed up in her costume, she sat on the floor, and Emily came and sat down in front of her. They stretched out their legs and put their feet together.

Afterwards it was time for Ted and I to go have our downtime. We walked down the street together, talking about parenting. We want to help our kids learn to consider the needs and boundaries of everyone in the family. We want to help them understand and appreciate each other’s differences without turning each other into caricatures. For example, we want all of them (Joanna included) to understand that Joanna needs time to experience and process the people and things in the world around her, without reframing that as, “Joanna is slow.”

We all fall prey to making those characterizations, and to being the object of them. The story about me, from when I was little, was that I was emotional, impractical, and unrealistic. “Touchy-feely woman”, and “sees life through rose-colored lenses”, were two associated descriptions used about me. In actual fact, though I have strong emotions, I am quite analytical. It took me decades to realize that the characterizations of me were not, in fact, the definition of who I am. Even more importantly, that who I am is less important than what I choose to do: that the behavior patterns I choose to establish and the skills I choose to acquire are at least as important as the tendencies I was born with.

I want each of my children to have the space and support within our family that will help create a foundation upon which they can discover themselves, gain needed life skills, and learn that to a large degree we are what/whom we make of ourselves. Very little is set in stone, and there is always more about a person (including oneself) than we think.

Attempting to sleep, parent, and be a musician

I have been dreading this year. From a place of “should”, when we set up the 2016/2017 schedule I decided that I had to be available to the kids (or at least to Hazel) at 7:15 in the morning, while also practicing cello (or rehearsing) frequently past 10 pm the previous night. Since the school bell schedule has also changed (is earlier), I had set aside the twins’ nap for Mommy-Hazel time too, meaning that I’d be on with absolutely no break from 7:15 in the morning until 10:15 at night. Imagine having meetings for 15 solid hours.

I can’t do it.

Last night I was at a rehearsal, after which we had an organizational talk. I got back home around 1:30. I was asleep at 2:30. When the alarm went off at 7:15 I knew two things. 1) I cannot stay up that late. I just can’t tolerate it, cannot be functional and reasonably cheerful the next day, cannot physically stay healthy. 2) I cannot do mornings. I cannot burn the candle at both ends for years and survive the process. To be a more functional person, a better parent, and a professional cellist, I have to prioritize my own well-being as well as the necessities of my family.

So, Ted will do mornings with Hazel; an hour later I will do mornings with the twins (whose alarm is set to a later time than is Hazel’s). Except in case of emergency, I will stop working (whether that’s doing dishes, practicing cello, working on the business end of my job, rehearsing) by 10:30 pm, and I will have the lights out by 11 pm.

Ted and I have discovered over and over that setting aspirational goals tends to bite us in the ass. Goals are great. But goals that loftily ignore the realities of circumstance, body, mind and spirit tend to drive us down instead of lifting us up.

This has been repetition # 1,406,2840,948 of this particular lesson. Thank you, universe. Really.🙂

Mistakes vs failures

I have been noodling around about the difference between mistakes and failures.

Mistake:
“an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong”. (via Google)
“1. an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc. 2. a misunderstanding or misconception.” (dictionary.com)

Failure:
1. lack of success.
“an economic policy that is doomed to failure”
synonyms: lack of success, nonfulfillment, defeat, collapse, foundering
fiasco, debacle, catastrophe, disaster; an unsuccessful person, enterprise, or thing.
2. the omission of expected or required action.
“their failure to comply with the basic rules”
synonyms: negligence, dereliction; (via Google)

“1. an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success:
His effort ended in failure. The campaign was a failure.

7. a person or thing that proves unsuccessful:
He is a failure in his career. The cake is a failure.” (dictionary.com)

I think in some simplistic corner (or neighborhood) of my mind, I believe that making mistakes is either indistinguishable from failure (they are one and the same); or that making mistakes leads inevitably to failure as a crack in the containment of a warp core leads irretrievably to the destruction of a star ship via a warp core breach. (sorry, not sorry)

(This is turning into a parenthetical post. Possibly that’s because I had a couple glasses of wine and played cello quartets with friends tonight.)

The bottom line is that I’ve spent a lot of my life investing both making mistakes and experiencing failure with moral judgment in one way or another. I’m not alone in this tendency: it is to a degree a familial pattern as well as a narrative inculcated by our culture. Look at the way we judge those of us who are not thin. Barring some inarguable medical condition making weight gain unavoidable, we believe that people should survive on cucumber peelings alone if that’s what it takes to tame their baser urges (for food) sufficiently to get as close as possible to a healthy slender and appealing figure.

I think I grew up believing that there’s a tipping point: a certain number or degree of mistakes drags an experience into the realm of failure, from which it cannot generally be redeemed.

I have heard all my life, of course, that we learn through our mistakes. I have never really gotten that at a deep level, never really believed it. I have taken it, more or less, as a sop offered by those more fortunate souls who are not tainted by failure, who are successful. Being successful, I have believed, really means never failing too hard, too visibly, or irredeemably.

Watching my oldest daughter in her journey with piano has changed my mind.

Sometimes I want to apologize to my children for taking so long to learn this shit that I had to learn it from them. And sometimes I want to thank them. And sometimes both. But really, we learn when we are ready, and sometimes that takes decades.

My oldest (sometimes) reacts to mistakes during practices as though they are evidence of failure. Watching her do that, I am starting to gain a clarity I didn’t have when I was a kid.

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO LEARN WITHOUT MAKING MISTAKES.

And that is not only because with repetition the probabilities for error increase. It is because mistakes can catch and hold our attention. Mistakes teach us the parameters of our world. They let us know what danger and possibility feel like. Without mistakes how could we feel desire, or elation, or the intense satisfaction of having learned and/or accomplished something?

I pray that as I parent my daughters I can help them find a sense of wild challenge in the face of their individual mistakes, to accept the consequences that may flow from those mistakes, and to live through the storms and suffocations of failure with an intact heart and vital spirit.

And that is also the gift I am making myself, again and again, as often as necessary.

Ghostbusters!

I saw the new “Ghostbusters” tonight. I came out of the theater glowing, so happy I felt it sparking through my body, off my skin, lighting me from head to toe. Four women. Four women! FOUR WOMEN! Leading the film! Not talking about relationships! The dramatic tension in the movie was NOT about a relationship with a man! Four funny women taking out the paranormal trash!

Was the movie perfect? No, of course not. But I laughed out loud many times. I got my jolt of nostalgia through listening to the music and the visual style of the ghosts. And I was incandescently happy about the lack of sexy-woman-ness in the movie. Oh god, it was so wonderful.

NO FAT JOKES! Not a one. Women eating, joking, getting to know each other. Women screwing up, women being smart, women running but not in an unrealistic superhero way, women getting shit done, and nary a bikini in sight.

It is literally impossible for me to convey how much all that meant to me. It’s like being told, finally, that I get to be a real person. That will be impossible for many people to understand. But the total and complete absence of anyone of my gender who looks like me NOT being the butt of jokes through the movie, or of pity. Oh my god.

I loved “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in a lot of ways. But even Buffy stayed pretty hip by nice tight jowl inside the universe of our screwed up beauty standard. And a lot of the tension in that show was built with more or less standard tropes, having to do with Buffy’s feelings about the various boys and men in her life.

Melissa McCarthy is only 2 years younger than I am. Kristen Wiig is 3 years younger than Melissa. Leslie Jones is my age. My god. Middle-aged, competent, funny, brave, interesting, smart women kicking ass.

Nostalgia is powerful. The patriarchy is yet more powerful, enormously so. Seeing this movie starts to show me how deeply I have absorbed the message that only men can be authoritative, funny, creative, believable, and *real* in that authentic, representative of the human species way. I can feel that programming resisting the data in front of my eyes. When humor, language, physical presentation, emotive expression, and style are all placed inside small, predictable boxes, it becomes hard to even recognize anything else. I remember the first time I had milk fresh from a cow. I was 14 years old. We were staying on a farm B&B in Cornwall. I didn’t like it. It tasted nothing like what came out of our plastic white jugs at home. It was warm, and so strong-tasting. Ew, I thought. It took a few days for my taste-buds to start adapting, for my expectations to change, for my mind and body to open to new experience.

Watching this movie, watching the few others I have seen where the female lead is not driven by romantic love or sexual trauma, and especially where the female lead is doing comedy, has been a similar experience. I almost cannot recognize the material. It is immediately filed away in my brain as not-right, less-than.

In fairy tales, the heroine is (at least in the books of my childhood) almost exclusively the youngest and the prettiest and the sweetest girl. Those stories were always about someone else. The rewards were unreachable, and the lessons learned directed at others. I never imagined myself as the heroine. How could I? I was none of those things.

Movies are even worse. There is visual evidence that people of interest, people to whom we are meant to relate, are in a category and class entirely unreachable by me. I’ve written about that before on this blog.

And so the reaction I describe above seems to me to be to be a societal definition of girl- and woman-hood that excludes everyone else, creating self-hatred, which is then directed outward again at any sort of cultural/artistic expression which counters it or provides an alternative vision.

The sexist backlash against this movie has been predictable and disgusting. Some people act like the makers of this movie and desecrating an altar, reaching into their minds and ruining their memories. And the racist backlash has been even more awful: Leslie Jones felt it necessary to leave Twitter due to the horrific things being tweeted her way. (http://fusion.net/story/327103/leslie-jones-twitter-racism/) The violent, violating, infantile fury of people who want a white world of strong white men and sexy white women is a thing that damages people every day. It must be resisted every day. I think many people forget the necessity of resistance, because it’s the water we all swim in, and it’s made that way, to corrupt and divide and vanish into the murk when challenged.

And so, we give into self- and other-hatred, we dismiss, we acquiesce, we judge.

But I have had experiences where I feel the scales falling from my eyes, where I stretch and breathe and get a different sort of oxygen in my lungs. Spending time in dyke bars does that for me. Spending long and intensive time with women does that for me. Sometimes in a great while a book does that for me. And I am going to watch this movie over and over until I can chuck the societal definitions screaming in my head, and take in what is before my eyes, let it sink in.

A place where someone like me can be fully human.

I saw the movie with a friend who is 22 years my junior. I have known her for 15 years, since she was in elementary school. When the original movie came out I was in my mid-teens, 10 years younger than she is now. The world was a different place then; I was very different then. Being a private cello teacher, I’ve had the chance over the past couple of decades to watch quite a number of kids grow up. I have been so happy to see how many of my female students are involved in sports, reaping the benefits of a more vigorously enforced Title IV. My friend has had since she was a kid a stronger sense of herself and her capabilities than I did when I was a kid, partly due to family environment, and partly to personality. But also, though it’s not linear and there are definitely ways in which things have gotten the opposite of better (gender expression polarization, for example, and the toxic explosion of pink-beauty-princess-defined girlhood), there have been real gains made too which I see manifested in her life and the lives of my students.

Being able to have a feminist joy-fest with her, to share the laughs and the joys with her, was a special gift.

My 7-year-old has been picking up on the pretty significant gender disparity in media and books. She notices. And that is a great thing. I tell her what I think about it, but I cannot tell her what to think about it, not really. What I want is for her to notice. She’s starting to notice the media white-wash, too. I told her this afternoon that I was going to see the movie. I told her I was really excited about it, because it was a remake of one I’d seen when I was a kid, and this one was 4 women. She said, “Oh, and it was all men before?” I said that yes, it was. “And,” she said, “was it all white people?” Yes, I said, it was.

Right now, though I am terrified, horrified, agonized about many things happening in the world, I do believe that change is possible. It is possible to re-learn. It is possible to prioritize justice and love and collaboration. And to do so one has to live it every day. And one has to forgive oneself for the thousands of times one fails to do so.

This movie makes me want to shout and punch things and dance and laugh and conquer and learn and grow.

Thank you to everyone who made it.

Accepting our shared human nature

Fear and anger are two human emotions. We cannot legislate them out of existence. We can’t laugh them out of existence. We can’t banish them, in ourselves or in others. They are so much, much easier than love and vulnerability.

Love is a human emotion, but it is also a discipline. And it is a discipline of inclusion. It will do us no good, help us in no way in our evolution as a species and in our cultures, to despise and ridicule those who are expressing fear and anger when confronting the changes in their world. Such feelings are rarely expressed gracefully. It is so, so easy to respond so the ugliness of that expression with disgust, and a return of the fear and anger.

In that sense, hatred while also being a human emotion, is also a discipline. It’s just such an easier discipline than love. It is the discipline of exclusion. It is an attempt to control. It often comes from a sense of powerlessness.

Our species is violent. People are fundamentally self-centered. I am beginning to know that without the sort of despair it engendered in me in previous phases of my life. To accept these realities of the human condition is not, in my mind, to become complacent, but to move toward positive change from a more centered and grounded place.

And so, I think we make a fundamental and destructive mistake when, in the effort to improve ourselves and to repudiate the violences of the past and present, we say to people with whom we do not agree, “You should not have a voice; you do not deserve it”. This is really an attempt to excise part of our shared humanity. It does not work. And we so often double down when we simultaneously (often subconsciously) attach unassailable virtue to the arguments of people with whom we do agree.

I repudiate with everything in me the racism expressed by Donald Trump. The eagerness with which some of his supporters have taken up the overt and aggressive expression of that racism terrifies me. But if the response by those of us who oppose him is to judge and laugh at his supporters and wish we could vote them all off the island, we will be digging our own political graves.

We must attempt to understand, to hear. Everyone deserves a voice, even if that creates an incredibly ungainly and messy and sometimes unworkable system.

When I attempt to put my rage in a box and throw it away, that is an act of violence, the only result of which is to toxify and twist and magnify that rage.

I am not suggesting that racism be coddled or not challenged. Challenge it! White people have to challenge it with consistency and energy, and persistence. Similarly, I expect my feminist-ally male friends to challenge sexism, and to be willing to listen to me when I challenge them.

But do not make a virtue out of your beliefs and priorities to the extent that you find yourself dehumanizing anyone who disagrees with you, that all you can see is their stupidity or blindness. Do not assume that other people hold different priorities from malice or some sort of debased character.

Believe passionately. Live your values. But mock and degrade other people at your peril. Doing so will bite you in your ass.

Self-affirmations as a path to self-love

At my latest hair appointment, I was feeling sad and overwhelmed for various reasons. I’ve been going to that stylist for a number of years, and we’ve had a number of reasonably substantive conversations. I can’t remember what the segue was for this question, but I asked her how she approaches self-image and not being thin in our society where that is so prized, so perceived as necessary by so many people.

I have written about this before, but one thing that has been a source of sadness and frustration for me is my reaction when my boyfriend (or anyone else, for that matter) tells me I am beautiful: that is, I simply cannot relate myself to the word, and it slides off of me as though just under my skin there is a paper-thin but impenetrable shield. I wish to feel pleased by the compliment. I have felt that to be impossible. Sheer effort of will is not enough to flip the switch that has been cemented in place since I was very little, the switch in my self-identity set to fat/ugly/repulsive/loser.

On the other hand, of course, a negative comment or expression directed my way has a thousand channels into my psyche, where it can enter freely and pick at the wounds from previous encounters. Over the years I have worked hard on healing those wounds, and I have made a lot of progress. I used to feel repulsed by my body; now, most of the time, I do not. I have even made progress in softening and walking away from the identification with the self-hatred described above.

But believing that I am beautiful? That has really felt impossible. The best I could hope for, I believed, was a lack of self-hatred, an alliance with my body based on mutual positive intent, respect, appreciation for function, teamwork. My mental calculus has been, beauty = x, and I am y, so it is impossible for me to be beautiful. It doesn’t feel like self-hatred: just a logical acceptance of reality.

But really, a denial of love is at the least neglect, if not really hatred in another form. And, whether I would like to be or not, I am not indifferent to my body.

So, after that conversation with my stylist I decided to try the self-affirmation tack that has been recommended to me before, but which I have felt resistance to. That is, I look at myself in the mirror every day and say, out loud, “I am beautiful.” I also list details about my face or my hair, or my body. And lo and behold, it is working! I am shifting how I feel about myself, and now beauty is not something which seems to belong entirely to other people. I have also added, “I play cello beautifully” (though I want to change the wording of that), and, “I can be angry and still be a good mother,” because those two items are often equally problematic for me.

Of note, however, is how insidious our thin=beautiful societal definition is. I noticed that when I feel better about myself, I look different to myself, and what that actually means is that I look THINNER to myself. I see the shape of my body differently. When I am feeling bad about myself, I see myself as fatter. So, my goal now is to look at myself, at all of me, at what I really look like, and state that my body, as it is, is beautiful. And that is an act of rebellion. But for the first time, I believe that it is possible.