The night before last, I dreamed I was rushing through a hospital to see a friend of mine who recently died of breast cancer. I was in a hurry to get to her so I could say goodbye. When I arrived, she rose to greet me and she didn't have any hair, but otherwise she looked like her old self, her body healthy and strong. She looked happy. She hugged me. And then we began to dance.
I woke with my face wet with tears, but grateful to have seen her again, even if only in a dream. I felt that she had brought me a message about my body and time and the preciousness of it all.
That morning, some girlfriends and I took our kids to the pool and I brought the message with me in my bones. I spent the day happy to have my legs stretched out in the sun, charmed by my wonderful friends, awed by the adorableness of our kids (even as they basically assaulted each other in the shallow end). When it came time for lunch, I sat there in my suit on a lounger and ate a Cobb salad and not once did I think, I should really put that sarong back on. Because I have been on this planet long enough to confidently know that no one is thinking about the size of my ass except me.
Phew, good thing my self-absorbed, self-conscious, self-loathing, weight-obsessed days are over and done with...
Yeah, right. Well, at least I had a morning of reprieve.
Every time I talk about body image issues, I can preemptively hear the charges of "first world problems" being leveled at me. It's a popular argument these days and I'm not convinced it's a useful one. Its intention is, of course, to shift our perspective for a moment, to make us less whiny and more grateful. Instead, it often shames us for having a feeling about anything other than the genocide in Darfur, which is simply unrealistic and not at all helpful to people who are genuinely in pain, whatever the cause.
Last week, I sat down in a Macy's dressing room and cried because I was so desperately sick of hating myself. I can't remember a time I didn't feel like someone made a mistake when they made me -- the wrong shape, the wrong size, clumsy, thick. There is a picture of me in the bathtub when I was 5 years old, and in it you can see the first hints of what my frame would be like. I look like a sturdy little truck, like you'd have to shove hard to knock me down. I hated that picture for years, even though in it I am smiling a giant little-kid-having-fun-in-the-bath smile. This bizarrely distorted lens is reserved for use only on myself. When it comes to other people, I have an expansive view of beauty, both physical and not.
The self-hatred isn't constant, but it is always lying in wait for a window of opportunity. I can be going along my merry self-accepting way when a moment of social anxiety, a rejection or even just a hard morning will trigger a full-force flood of poison and the conclusion is always this: I am so ugly that I don't deserve to be alive.
Of course I don't consciously believe this. What I consciously believe doesn't matter. What I actually look like doesn't matter. My politics don't matter. It is illogical. It is, in fact, ridiculous. I believe it has its origins in having too high a premium placed on physical beauty when I was a child, in having been inappropriately sexualized at an early age, in feeling out of control. Somewhere, I blame my own body for the injury it has sustained.
But frankly, at this point in my life -- a grown woman, a writer, a mother -- I don't give a sh*t about the origins of it anymore. I simply want it to change. With the rest of my time on this earth, I want a different experience of my body. I want a life in which I don't cry in dressing rooms anymore.
I don't know how to make that happen. If it was a matter of just deciding to change my perspective (please don't tell me to read The Secret), it would have happened long ago. If it were a matter of meds or therapy or yoga, believe me, I'd be golden by now. To whom do I go for help with this one? God? My therapist? My dead friend? Walt Whitman?
It's hard to conceive of tackling a problem that lies deeper than conscious thought, deeper than words. But all the change I've managed to effect in this life thus far has started with noticing. This, giving voice to the beast, is how I notice. This is how I begin.