Being Just Right

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.

32 Comments on “Being Just Right

  1. I have a 9 year old daughter and how to gently guide her through the world of mixed messages sent from media to females is one of my biggest worries. Having a daughter is just downright scary, but knowing what we are about as women and parents is essential to even have a fighting chance.

    Like

    • It is a challenge and I think, too, it’s easy to notice the obvious external messages and not look at our own attitudes and behaviors that are so ingrained we barely question them.

      Like

  2. Excellent post!

    The reality is that I’m average looking with a decent brain and a twisted sense of humor.

    That sounds… quite attractive to me, actually!

    I don’t envy the uphill battle you face. Various industries earn many billions of dollars peddling fashion, clothing, makeup and those dangerous shoes. They invest huge amounts in trying to sell us on the idea that if we don’t fit the ideal, then there’s something wrong with us. Men get that in different ways, and not nearly as intensely, but enough that I can dimly imagine what it must be like.

    Kudos and sympathies!

    Like

    • I think appearance issues are trickling down to men and boys. Eating disorders are on the rise in males and there’s a whole lot of protein powder being marketed to those in pursuit of muscle size. It is an uphill battle, but I have to believe that being conscientious and aware enough to talk through advertising and peer choices with her will make a difference. Critical thinking is always, I think, the best defense.

      Like

      • Now that you mention it, I can think of examples. The whole metrosexual thing, and I’ve heard of makeup and nail polish for men. [shakes head]

        Totally agree on the critical thinking! I’m convinced a good education is key to understanding and solving a lot of things in life.

        Like

      • Am I awful and sexist for having mixed feelings about appearance concerns trickling down to males? I don’t want boys guzzling steroids in pursuit of perfect pecs, or slimming down by downing uppers, but after a year of having my profiles on two dating sites and experiencing the worst of the worst of male privilege being thrown in my face:

        “Don’t forget there are plenty more women on this site.”

        I will be very happy if, a generation from now, non-wealthy non-handsome non-witty semi-literate older fat men no longer self-describe as “athletic build” and feel absolutely entitled to svelte decades-younger women to perform cooking, cleaning, caregiving, and bed-turndown duties for them as they enter their sundowner years.

        Like

  3. Oh, yes, the body image thing! All started and maintained by companies that want us to buy their products.

    I had two sons, who were raised to cook, clean, sew, etc. (And my daughters-in-law are very thankful!) They played with dolls and one took ballet lessons, But I think the deprogramming stopped there. I sent dolls for my grandsons, trucks for my granddaughter, and was chastised by my sons. ::sigh:: I can only hope that societal pressures will change – and soon.

    Like

    • The amazing thing about kids when they’re young is that they don’t know what gender stereotyped role they are supposed to play. Adults often jump in with their own insecurities and ruin it. Think Little League dads and toddler and tiara mothers. I also think it’s harder for boys to play outside cultural male boundaries than it is for girls to play outside of theirs.

      Like

  4. The entire post is terrific, I agree with all of it. I’m particularly struck by your “twisted sense of humor” with the line…
    “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.”
    Freaking hilarious!! Love it – Your daughter is lucky to have you for a mom. She will emulate you in ways you don’t even notice. Moms with brains are a wonderful thing!

    Like

    • Thanks! I had the Cosmo thought while grocery shopping last week. I can remember seeing nearly identical headlines on the cover 30 years ago and wondered how they could spin this as being new or fresh. There are some limitations to the human body, I think!
      Parenting sure has a way of making you dig down deep and question what your beliefs are versus what you want your child to believe. I could hardly say to her “Be who you are” while actively trying to be what I am not. I still struggle not to be a hypocrite, but it’s a challenge!

      Like

  5. This post made me tear up. I have always liked you just the way you were/are. Really!

    Like

  6. I think it’s wonderful you want to know yourself and your own hang ups so you can be a better mom. Your daughter is lucky to have you.

    I hate women’s magazines too.

    Like

    • Thanks – I’m so grateful for having my daughter. She has so much to teach me!
      I have mixed feelings about women’s magazines – Elle, Vogue, Cosmo – these seem more like magazines that would be shoved under a 14 year old boy’s mattress. Others seem determined to keep us busy decluttering, decoupaging and creating over-the-top reactions to any occasion – perhaps so we won’t notice the glass ceiling above our heads!

      Like

      • I remember reading them when I was a teen and in my twenties and even some in my thirties. I was always frustrated with some aspect of my body, and when I looked at those rags it only amplified my natural state.

        My daughter doesn’t really look at them now, she’s 16 yo, but if they were in the house she would. She loves clothes and all, and I like them too, but the magazines are not about encouraging your own self-expression…they are, as you say, a distraction and really, it seems, a fairly negative one.

        Like

  7. The difficult thing is not just helping girls resist outside pressures but also (and this sounds silly but is the problem I faced) accept that they may someday genuinely want to wear make up or heels or enjoy fashion because…they just enjoy it. I spent years of my life thinking I had struck out in the looks department and imagined myself as a brain in a sub-par body. I actively resisted fashion, make up and anything I felt was too feminine and girly because I felt like it betrayed my intelligence to dress up. I started belly dancing and it built my confidence in my body. I felt strong, graceful and beautiful for the first time in my life. I loved the costuming aspect and after about a year I’d lost so much weight I had to buy new clothes. A whole world of color opened to me, and while I wouldn’t be fooled into mini skirts or ripped jeans I learned to appreciate a classic style and how to dress myself in a way that felt empowering and beautiful. Moral of this long drawn out tale is that its tricky to be a girl. God help a Mom. But if you can give a girl a sense that she is in control of herself and she makes her own decisions about how she feels and what she wants to be like you’re on the right track. I think the number one thing I tell the grade school girls at work is that they will never be like anyone else. They’re never going to look like any one else, and that they should always strive to be their best selves. I also give advice to their mothers; do not talk about how fat you are, how unattractive you feel etc etc in front of your girls! They eat that up like candy, its how they learn how they’re supposed to see themselves!

    Like

    • I am always appalled with mothers who insist on making denigrating remarks about their own bodies in front of their children, but I think it’s pretty common. I will have to resist a freakout when my daughter comes home and wants to wear makeup or short anything. Choice also means we get to be different and while my daughter goes through trying on her “selves” to see what fits, I want her to have a core of self-confidence that means, as you say, that she knows that she is ultimately in control. I am with you on the color. I showed up at a swimming birthday party this summer and all of the moms were wearing black swimsuits. I was so pleased that I had resisted and gone with color.

      Thanks for reading and commenting – it sounds like you have some valuable expertise!

      Like

  8. Pingback: My Year in Blogging: Happy Anniversary, Baby! | The Green Study

  9. Pingback: The Green Study Potpourri (or What’s that Smell?) | The Green Study

  10. Comfort yourself with the thought that, by the time your daughter is old enough to worry about what she looks like, she won’t be paying any attention to what her mother thinks or says, anyway! Just teaching them to observe all the body shapes around and be critical thinkers should be enough. And it’s a right of passage to learn about how to make the most of our appearance using make-up and clothes, making lots of horrendous mistakes on the way. I really don’t think talking about our own poor body image makes that much difference, either. I’d rather talk about what my daughter’s strong points are and how to make the most of herself for her own enjoyment, so she can feel self-confident.

    Like

  11. Yes. Yes.

    Those friggin’ magazines. All friggin’ television/cable. Why women are still wearing modern foot-binding, and how we’ve moved backwards in feminism so that pedophilic p*ssy-shaving has become the norm and showing major cleavage and butt cheeks in junior high is defined as feminism–my gosh, my Susan Faludi-inspired Backlashed-brain reels.

    Like

%d bloggers like this: