I’ve been putting off writing about an issue that I’ve internalized over the course of a lifetime. I have no magic resolution, no pat answers. It can bring me to tears when I think of the misery and harm I’ve directed towards myself over the years. I didn’t deserve it. No one does. Much has been written about American women and body image. I am an average American woman. And eventually my daughter will be one, too.
There are wonderful books and websites out there about how to help daughters develop decent self-esteem. With misogynist politics as a backdrop, I must tell my daughter to feel good about who she is – against an army of people who want to tell her what is acceptable, attractive, moral and proper. My girl is magic right now – a tomboy who wants to invent things, wear rugged clothes (must have pockets) and dig muddy holes in our backyard. I dread the day someone tries to take that strong sense of self away from her. Attempts will be made and I must be there for her – a defender and a teacher. I have to deconstruct my own belief system, challenge the attitudes that I might pass on to her – look at myself with an unflinching critical eye, so that I am worthy of the task at hand.
Feminism was always about having equal rights under the law and the choice to be your best self until the term was politically hijacked and loaded with negative connotations. I am a feminist, but I’m a pretty shitty one, because I have been affected in my choices and belief system by advertisers, neanderthal ex-boyfriends, other affected women, negative family values and politicians. I’ve been equally affected by courageous women, respectful men and children who see the world as it should be. It’s a battleground in my head and I’ve not yet won the war. I want my daughter’s energies directed towards her potential, not the war of her “should be” self, with its petty daily battles worrying if she looks good enough, if enough people like her or if she is, god forbid, sexy enough.
My girl brims with self-confidence, so I was completely taken off guard when her 2nd grade self asked me “Am I thin, mom?” I had to immediately quash the massive freakout inside my head. I wanted to shake her, yell at the top of my lungs, hug her tightly and wail “NOooooooooooo, you can’t have this one!” Instead, I tried to look all-knowing, smiled and said quietly “You are just right.” Every fiber of my being hoped that every cell of hers would absorb this message. You are just right, my darling child, not perfect, not lacking….just right.
The message I got growing up was different. I didn’t physically take after my mother or grandmother who have, ever since I can remember, been rail thin. In my family, thin was a virtue. Round and short and muscled, I was just wrong. I’ve never been delicate, graceful or particularly feminine. I really, really tried – there was the makeup and the godawful miniskirt club years, and some fledgling attempts at spiky heels. Long hair, short hair, dyed hair. Glasses, contacts, entire days spent with the world in a blur. The reality is that I’m average looking with a decent brain and a twisted sense of humor. I’m the girl you want with you during a mugging, but not necessarily at the prom. And even now, with my knowledge, experience and maturity, I am still not okay with that.
Everyday I see other women who are not okay with that too. They’re the ones that say they’ve accepted themselves and feel so confident, yet they can barely keep their balance on their skyscraper stilettos (although I imagine those shoes would make awesome weapons). They’re the ones reading Cosmo in the checkout lanes. I’m sorry ladies, but unless you’re evolving at a different pace than the rest of us and have sprouted extra limbs and popped a couple new orifices, there’s no way Cosmo came up with 10 more ways to satisfy your man. Happiness doesn’t sell magazines, but sowing the seeds of dissatisfaction sure the hell does.
And that is really what it comes down to – dissatisfaction. We are groomed as consumers and as women to be perpetually dissatisfied with our bodies, our homes, our lives. Dissatisfaction sells padded bras, makeup with horse urine in it, and injections that paralyze facial muscles. And I don’t need to mention all the weird diets out there. I have a relative in her mid-80s and she is still trying to lose weight. Holy shit. You’ve got a couple decades, tops, of your life left and you want to still weigh yourself and drink some chalky shakes? I’d say bring on the booze, chocolate and some smokes. And Shape magazine can kiss my old lady ass.
Deprogramming is tough. It takes deliberate thought and effort to untangle and challenge the messages in my head. I’m chipping away at them and for the sake of my daughter, I won’t stop until I get it just right.