Body image lessons by way of my children

I learned in 3rd grade that I was ugly. I may have suspected it before then, but it was confirmed in the sing-song tones of childish torment that told me I was fat. And I needed no one to tell me that fat=ugly.

Humans come in so many different shapes and sizes. Some people are angular; some people are curved; some people are a mixture.

I am round. I have round arms and legs, round belly, round butt cheeks. No matter what I weigh overall, my body is curved. From very, very early on I learned that I didn’t fit, that I spilled over in ways that should rightfully embarrass me, that my body was shameful and something I should not inflict on other people any more than I had to.

And not too long after that, I learned that it was my fault. I was greedy. I ate too much. I was morally inferior, and it was showed plainly in the shape of the body I inhabited. By the time I was in 7th grade I had come to hate my body. Anyone who told me different was obviously lying, either from spite or in a misguided attempt to make me feel better about myself.

A high school relationship not grounded in consent or good communication did further damage, and by the time I got to college I literally could not feel touch or receive love or appreciation. Stomach churning with my terror of intimacy, I vomited during or after more than one date.

Now, at the ripe old age of 48, I have, by dint of ongoing work, come light-years from that place. I can look in the mirror at myself, and not only not recoil in disgust at the sight of all that fat (as I did for long, long decades), I can see beauty, vitality, evidence of the way I love and move and act in the world. I can see thick wavy hair, dark eyes, strong legs, capable hands, a bountiful chest, and even, sometimes, a belly that stretched and increased in capacity to nurture three human beings in two pregnancies, and whose skin is a map of those gifts.

My two youngest are twins. They are very different from each other, though when we brought them home from the hospital we put fingernail polish on J’s nail so we could be sure that we didn’t get them mixed up. At that time they were alike in their tiny-old-man wrinkled hairlessness, very similar in weight. Now, they are growing into very different bodies and temperaments.

J is taller, slender, lighter-haired, elfin. E is shorter, rounder, darker, powerful.

Looking at E this morning, I realized that her arms are a smaller replica of mine. Her limbs are sturdy, like mine. J’s arms and legs are longer and not just thinner, but a different shape altogether. She has lines where her sisters have curves.

There is a part of me which has really struggled, seeing H, my older daughter, develop a body like mine, too. That self-hating, fat-phobic piece of me which is desperate to see thin rather than thick legs, a flat belly rather than one which is round. I must have compassion for that piece of me, wounded so early and so deeply.

They all eat the same thing, a pretty healthy diet which prioritizes vegetables and protein over carbs.

They look different. They have different bodies. This has nothing to do with failure or weakness. They are different. I was the plump person in a family of thin people. I was not worse. I was just different.

This morning I had an orchestra rehearsal. Walking back to my car carrying my cello in the sunshine, I could access gratitude for my body, with which I make music, hug my friends and family, cuddle my children, make love with my partner, see blue sky, hear birdsong, feel the textures of my clothing, make and taste food. My body, which tells me when I need food or rest, which carries me and nurtures me. My body, which I can decorate. My body, which houses my heart and mind and spirit. My body, which is beautiful with life and vitality, tenderness and expression. I need to keep listening to my body, caring for my body, appreciating my body rather than taking it for granted.

I owe myself just as much love as I wish to offer my children. And while my children do not owe me love, they offer me loving lessons every day. I am grateful for their presence and their authenticity.

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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.

transitions, art, and body image

Transitions are hard. Hazel’s been having a difficult time with the transition back to our home routine, especially at night. We had to walk her back to her room many times this evening, and she cried and screamed and stamped a lot. It’s tough on all of us. We gave her a lot of hugs and snuggle time, but for the entire duration of our trip we all went to bed together, and she doesn’t want to go back to going to sleep on her own. Also, our neighbor’s dog had to be put down a day or so after we left on our trip. We found that out literally as we were leaving for the airport. That, combined with the death of my friend’s dad make for some challenging topics on Hazel’s mind.

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Today our nanny got out the face paints at Hazel’s request, and when I saw her after I got home from work, she had a rainbow kitty face on, complete with multi-colored nose and whiskers. She wants me to do more tomorrow.

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Helping my student with some orchestra rep this evening was fun. My body remembers pieces even when my mind has forgotten them. I enjoy the experience of coming back to something I learned when I was at a different technical stage. There is the pull toward the old way, long since changed, and then the careful, deliberate process of re-learning the notes with the new way. It is quite satisfying to be able to do something better than I did it before.

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Here’s some commentary I like on the recent Dove ad. I am tired of seeing thin white women as the only exemplars of beauty in the media. This commercial would have been more powerful if “I’m more beautiful than I thought,” didn’t directly translate to, “I’m Caucasian with blue eyes, and I’m thinner than I thought.” How about beauty having a broader definition? How about breaking the steel linkage we’ve created between fat and ugly? How about celebrating our bodies? I recently found my way to another site whose purpose is to cultivate and view positively the shape of a mother. I have been getting quite down on myself lately about the things that have happened to me physically as a result of my two pregnancies. I have that flap below the belly button, and my belly is rounder and larger than it used to be. I had even started to contemplate surgery to correct those issues. While I have no wish to judge anyone’s choices, mine included, I want to refocus on appreciating what my body has done, how it continues to let me interact with the world around me, and all the things about it I enjoy. I want to pass those positives on to my daughters, instead of the wish to cut bits of myself off so I can get a little bit closer to an acceptable form. This is an ongoing struggle for me and for so many other women.

Rough night, snuggling, mother-love

We had a rough night last night. Emily was up screaming on multiple occasions, and when she did have a good three hour stretch of sleep, Joanna woke up. I came to collect Emily a couple times during the night. When I got her at 4 am, she didn’t even want to nurse. But within 5 or 10 minutes she’d fallen asleep on my chest, exhausted. She is very congested, possibly teething, and quite expressive about it all. She gets enough volume that I feel her scream vibrating my eardrums. But she’s a trooper just the same, giving me big smiles when I joggle her, calming down when I sing to her, and playing with her sisters when she’s feeling a bit better during the day. Right now she’s nursed herself to sleep, and is breathing more freely in my lap. Hopefully tonight it’ll turn around.

This morning I fed them separately, snuggling with them in bed one at a time. It was heaven. I almost never do that, because I really try to keep them on the same schedule. And looking down at two sleeping faces is another kind of bliss. But I do love being able to cherish just one baby by herself once in a while. It’s good for me, and good for them, too.

Now I understand why people use such hyperbolic language to describe their children. Sometimes it hardly seems sufficient. Mother love is something else! Now I understand why my mother always told me I was beautiful, even when I could not believe it, and thought she was just saying it because she was my mother. She really did believe it, because that is one of the best gifts of parenthood, to see the beauty of your children as a radiance that shines always, lighting the world around them.