I've written the following post in response to the BlogHer initiative Own Your Beauty (2010).
"Own Your Beauty is a groundbreaking, year-long movement bringing women together to change the conversation about what beauty means. Our mission: to encourage and remind grown women that it is never too late to learn to love one's self and influence the lives of those around us - our mothers, friends, children, neighbors. We can shift our minds and hearts and change the path we follow in the pursuit of authentic beauty"
I am the product of a long line of body loathers. I grew up in a family where my body type was the subject of derision, and nicknamed "The Hellsten Curse". My indoctrination began as a small child when I listened to my mother lament the long list of physical faults she saw in herself. After which she would always apologise with the same words, "Sorry love, but you look like me". A simple sentence that over time shaped the way I viewed myself.
Such thinking was not isolated to my mother. All my female relatives ascribed to this way of thinking. It was, and is, a bond that holds us tightly. A review of photos of female kin past and present, has always been a time to mourn our genetic lot in life and highlight any unappealing physical traits we were bound to re-produce. Family gatherings a chance to join together and rue our physical imperfections. Never did I hear a single bodily affirmation. Compliments were dispensed of with precision shots, that clearly re-established the negative norm to it's rightful place. Always there is a competition to see who can denigrate one's self the most. We are truly independent women. We put ourselves down, we don't require anyone else to chime in.
Over my 37 years I have learnt the lessons of my female kin well. I look in the mirror and see only faults. I look in the mirror and see all the ways I will never be perfect. Not that I necessarily know what perfection looks like, I simple know it is something I will never achieve. I know I will never be good enough and in that moment I realise I am truly one of the clan. There is something comforting in that moment, and something equally disturbing. It is only in more recent years I have come to identify and question the status quo.
Why do we tear ourselves down with such ferocity? Why is this the thing we have chosen to bond over? Is this really the lesson we wish to teach not only our daughters, but also our sons? We have created a mythical beauty than none can achieve. That in a sense doesn't need quantifiable attributes as long as it remains the menacing shadow that looms in the distance controlling our lives. We doom ourselves to failure. We doom ourselves to a life of self-loathing. To the unassailable knowledge that we will never be good enough. That physical beauty and spiritual beauty are inexorably linked. In the moment that realization hits, we achieve unity through our shared worthlessness.
A quick review of my body reminds me that I will never reach that mythical perfection. There are stretchmarks from my pregnancies. There are scars from surgeries and the simple scrapes of childhood. My misshapen feet are a constant reminder of a life-long love of high heels. My skin bears the marks of youthful summers spent in the harsh Australian sun. My hair is streaked with incandescent silver strands. In more recent years my body has shown the ravages of chronic illness. My skin has changed both in colour and texture. My body shape has altered through the combined effects of age, illness and medication effects. As 40 approaches, gravity is making it's presence felt more strongly as my rear end heads south (and east and west) and my boobs sag in their inevitable quest to find my waist. And I realise now that a choice must be made to accept and embrace these changes, to cut the ties that have bound physical worthiness to that of spiritual worthiness. Or, to continue on the same path and doom my spirit to a slow and lingering death as I continue to long for something that will never exist.
Such positive thinking about myself is alien to my make up. To be comfortable in my own skin does not sit well. It feels as if I am betraying my heritage. As if I am abandoning my familial traditions. And yet I know I must. So much time has been wasted. Generations lost to the plague of self-loathing. We have all been too fat, too thin, too tall, too short,..., too something, for far too long.
So I've made a choice to change. I'm going to ignore that little voice. I'm not going to play the game. I'm going to make a deliberate effort to grant myself the kindness and acceptance that I naturally give to others. I'm going to re-write my internal dialogue. Every line, every mark, to be accepted as a sign post to my life. The good, the bad and the ugly all rolled up in one 30-something package. And every day I'm going to tell myself that that's okay. And every day I will believe it a little more.
There's a passage in M L Stedman's, The Light Between Oceans that I have been musing since I put the finished book back on my shelf.
“It occurs to him that there are different versions of himself to farewell—the abandoned eight-year-old; the delusional soldier who hovered somewhere in hell; the lightkeeper who dared to leave his heart undefended. Like Russian dolls, these lives sit within him.”
I keep coming back to the idea that we have multiple lives sitting inside us. Versions of us pinned to an unseen timeline. Marked by specific events and less distinct evolutions in character. Some versions we pack away with care, wrapped in tissue paper and special boxes to be pulled out when sentimentality strikes, and others we attempt to lock away in strong boxes never to be revisited except when life sneaks in to crack the lid and let an unwanted element out for a run.
I look back at the way I was raised to think about my body and my worthiness. I was left with no doubt that as a woman I was less and that my body would never be good enough. Familial and societal elements conspired to make sure I knew my place, and my place would never be one of my choosing.
"...the knowledge that other people assume the right to decide who you are allowed to be on any given day....Be whatever you like, but do not be this. Do not be loud. Do not be sexual. Do not be prudish. Do not be disagreeable. Do not challenge. Do not be too fat. Do not be too skinny. Do not be too dark skinned. Do not be too masculine. Do not take up too much space. Do not say the things we don't like. Laugh when we tell you to. Smile when we tell you to. Fuck when we tell you to. And you will be free." (Clementine Ford, Fight Like a Girl)
I marked the page when I read the words above. As women we all share the burden of the impossible. It resonated strongly (as did most of the book) and in reading those words I also realised that at 43 and with the passage of years I have come to see those lessons for the lies they are and the yoke of control they represent. A couple of years ago my father expressed his disgust at my political leanings, stating that he never thought "[I'd] grow up to be a feminist and a lefty!" And I remember the warm feeling that radiated in my chest knowing that the toxic lessons I'd learnt as a child were finally erased. That old version of myself was shoved deep inside my Matryoshka doll, fare-welled and most definitely unmissed.
I'm not quite sure what or how it happened. But I sit here typing today and I am okay. Nothing stands out to mark a distinct change. One day I just finally saw it for the bullshit it was.
People I've met. Becoming involved in the local writing community. Becoming involved in the chronic illness and disability communities. Reading recent works by Tara Moss, Clementine Ford and Roxanne Gay and finding elements and explanations of my experience on the pages before me. The lack of compassion that is demonstrated (and sadly escalating) in the current political climate. Deciding that I want different for my children. All of it combined to bring me to this point. All of it has percolated until the version of me today is very different to that it was 7, 17 or 27 years ago. And in that period, the way I respond to my body and who I am has evolved.
My body has continued to change thanks to medications, progressive illness and age. And I'm okay.
I say okay and not fabulous or fantastic because I wouldn't say I celebrate my body but I'm not upset by it either. And I don't relate to it in terms of beauty, which I find such a limiting concept and still placing our highest value on the external. My boobs are my boobs. My hips simply hips. Whether anyone else likes them is no longer relevant. My level of impairment has increased overtime. Conversely my self-acceptance and self-worth have grown. In a society which is fond of framing disability in a negative light and illness as some form of moral weakness it seems incongruous to like myself now more than ever. It also warms the rebellious cockles of my heart to give such perceptions a vigorous and defiant middle-finger.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Screw that. The aesthetic value of my body is mine to decide. In turn my value or worth as a person has also become mine to own. That ownership is a quiet thing. Although my bright green hair and patterned and bright coloured clothing may indicate otherwise. I am who I am. And that word okay pops into my head once more. Four letters that provide a comfort that I didn't know until more recent years.
I have farewelled the version of myself that says I must obey and strive to meet the ever changing goal posts of acceptability. The conservative bindings of my youth are no more. My self-hatred has dissipated (although I will admit a need for self-vigilance. I do need to be always alert for the first whispers of that inner dialogue. Once it attaches that first claw it can be hard to dislodge). A version of myself I have no desire to revisit.
But it sets me apart and there are difficulties in the displacement. When I am back in the familial realms I find it draining. It rends my spirit as the maelstrom of escalating and combative self-criticism whips around kitchen and living room. I have no desire to bond over hating myself and more importantly I no longer believe the lies. The familial narrative is one I can no longer participate in and I wonder what my place now is. I must weave a new relationship. One that preserves my sense of self and can tread those places with safety. I am unwilling to cede ground. And I know the road ahead will be rocky. But the pattern must stop somewhere. And for now it stops with me.
We are not supposed to be static. Survival means adapting to changing circumstances. And sometimes that change must be of our own making. I wrote the words above nearly seven years ago. A person ago. The version of me who tapped away on the keyboard is still in here somewhere but the false comfort of self derision that I was just beginning to understand as destructive, is gone and life is better for the change.
I will cock it up at times. Of that I am sure. Old versions of myself will reach out their tendrils and the long list of ways I am too something will batter my self-worth. But I am far better prepared now.
My body simply is.
I am comfortable in my skin.
Also no longer confined by it.
And I am ready to embrace whatever new version of me develops in the years ahead.
I am okay,
And liberation is sweet.