Two days ago, I posted a ferocious reflection on Facebook, stating that we collectively needed to stop criticizing women’s bodies because we forget (more to the point, are conditioned to forget) the sheer mystical power that women have and how our bodies shift and change and adapt to what life demands, and it doesn’t always look like how photoshop suggests it should.
Yesterday, a client’s mom remarked that I had gotten thick, and was no longer skinny like I used to be. She meant it as a compliment. I spend the rest of the day in bed.
Granted, I started the day off with a pretty low mood: two weeks before my period, I typically get depressed, but lately, I have been forcing myself to engage with the world when depressed. This whole past week has been an exhaustive foray into what nuero-typical people experience regularly; that is, being irritable and not feeling one’s best and showing up anyway. By the end of the week, I was depleted. And I had also had an infuriating exchange at work, in which I walked away feeling like I was not doing enough, I was not good enough. I was open and porous to let shame seep in.
And so, when this mom said this, her eyes shining, and her face breaking into a smile, expecting me to return in kind, I froze. “It happens,” I mumbled, and quickly changed the subject. I was mortified. It was confirmed: everyone could see my failure.
Before I continue, I want to pause and examine a few things. For one, I am not comfortable with the way I look lately because I am heavier than I have been in previous years. I’m not sure what I weigh because I avoid scales, as they typically send me on a shame spiral of similar proportions to yesterday. But there are many people who would roll their eyes at my assertion that I am fat. There are also many people who would not want their body to look like mine. Basically, I am a “before” picture. I am a perennial before picture.
And like most things, this is cultural. I was raised in the faith of skinny white girls, where one could never be too slender, and curves were for other girls, who knew how to handle them. The expectation that I internalized for myself was that being slender meant being virtuous and lovable. Anything else suggested being unlovable and pathetic, as if I didn’t have enough respect for myself if I couldn’t keep my body in line. And so, like a lot of women, most women, regardless of culture, I struggled in my relationship with my body throughout high school, college, and beyond. Clearly, I still do. There is a part of me that always wants something different for myself.
I remember in my first job after college, someone who had a romantic interest in me described who in the company he found attractive (I don’t remember the context, but doubt it was in any way not douchy). One of our co-workers he stated, used to be really attractive but had “let herself go.” I was equal parts annoyed and motivated. What an asshole! And also, mental note: never let myself go, lest some asshole somewhere notice and comment on it.
But over the past 25 years, dating back to when I first realized that my body didn’t belong to only me, but to everyone around me to observe and critique, reject or approve, feel attracted to or disinterested by, there have been times when I have been able to reach some mundane standard of physical appearance (certainly not health, as much of my teenage years were spent chain-smoking cigarettes and eating yogurt and, absurdly, bologna), and other times when my toned arms softened and my stomach started making appearances in all my clothes, and all the cute shorts that used to fit looked like the beginning of a porno as I tried to squeeze into them. And each time my body softened, I thought to myself, I have let myself go.
In other words, I’ve failed as a woman.
And failure is my biggest fear. Because failure means I am a loser, and I don’t deserve love. Even though I know that this is absurd, and would never let a friend say this about herself. Even though I would punch a guy in the face for even thinking it. It’s how I feel some days. Other days, I have a vague sense of peace with my body, and even resilience.
But I guess this what it means to be human. I can experience shame and anger and anything else that is real, at any time.