I was a precocious kid: intelligent, insightful, nosy, bossy. I was the teacher's pet, the straight-A kid, the cry-if-I-got-a-B kid, the do-my-homework-as-soon-as-I-walk-in-the-door kid.
I wanted to be the pretty kid.
When you're pretty, no one cares if you're intelligent -- and if you happen to be both intelligent and pretty, people still tell you you're pretty. Pretty is important.
I had a report card made of vowels and perfect penmanship, and I just wanted to be the girl the boys looked at.
We could have a long conversation about where that profound desire for pretty is born, but whichever road we take, the end result is the same. However we arrive there, most girls grow up wanting to be beautiful. Hey, 42% of girls ages 6-8 would rather be thinner than they are. How does a 6-year-old even get to that place? Discerning fat from thin; beauty from the alternative? I don't know. And it's terrifying.
But then I think about what could happen, for them, for us, if we just let go of beauty as a construct.
A couple of months ago I was shoe shopping with my oldest daughter. I was just sort of aimlessly wandering around the store while she searched for the perfect pair of nude heels. I walked across the store to find her and saw one of those knee-down mirrors. Those mirrors are meant for you to look at your potential shoes (I guess to see how they look, which is sort of ridiculous, because who is ever just looking at their feet?). What I saw, besides my Birkenstock, was my own leg.
There was a sizable bruise on my right calf. I couldn't remember where it happened. It was at that sort of green-purple-blue stage of recovery; probably even more ugly than when it happened.
And then, inspecting the areas for additional, unexplained bruising, I caught sight of the back of my leg.
And this is what I saw.
VEINS. MANY.VEINS. MANY.
Yeah. That's what I said too. I gasped. And then I thought all the things you would think I thought, OH MY GOD I didn't even know that was there. How many people have seen that? Why didn't anyone tell me how horrifying it was? I'm never wearing shorts again. Ever.
Recently, I was talking to Jes Baker about struggling with my body image -- it's ongoing. The general perception seems to be, if you are part of the Body Positive Movement, a headliner like Tess or otherwise, you must absolutely have some titanium-esque impenetrable confidence.
And even within the movement, I think many of us do apply some measure of pressure to ourselves around our self-assuredness. If you aren't Fat and Fab, what are you? If you have a shit day -- a really shit day; one where you despise your body -- is it tantamount to a chink in your armor? Are you suddenly no longer valid?
Honestly, there is a real pressure there. I recently wrote an article that was simply about cosmetic surgery, and whether or not the reader would be comfortable getting it done. It was both a social exercise and an opportunity for me to assess what parts of themselves folks would change. And of course, to hear from those that wouldn't, and why. It was pretty unbiased.
And of course, there was a comment: Ugh nooo Joni. Your article that went so viral was my first intro to any type of body positivity. Since then my life has changed to be a million times better. I knowwww we should talk about our thoughts and feelings about our bodies but I need you to stay hardcore body positive for me girly.
I don't blame her. I'm sure a general survey would reveal similar expectations: I look up to you, therefore you need to be a constant. If you aren't a constant, how can I believe there is hope for me?
But let's cut the crap. I just cannot always be body positive. I can't always be any kind of positive. There are some days I feel just... not good. I feel bad; miserable even. I don't feel beautiful or empowered or mighty. I just feel like shit. I don't want to put on clothes because they all feel too small -- like I'm shoving my oversized body into some sort of cruel sausage casing.
I don't want to go anywhere. I don't want my husband -- my partner, the person I love most in the world -- to see me naked, so I pull up the sheets, I turn out the light, I stay sheathed in my towel. I dress in the closet. I look at old photos of myself with equal degrees of loathing and longing. I want to crawl in bed. I want to go back on a diet for the 71st time. I want to run 30 miles. I want to eat a cake. I want to cry into a cake.
Being inside my body during those times feels physically painful. I ache for the comfort that I used to believe came with a thin body -- even though the comfort of thin was just an illusion of control. I try so hard to remember my value, my worth, my beauty.
It's not always easy. Sometimes it's really hard. Sometimes it's impossible.
Remember the JESUS CHRIST varicose veins?
Here is what I did. I sent the photo to Jes, and I told her I would never show it to anyone else, because it's just so awful. And she's an outstanding human and this is what she said, "OH MY GOD YOU HAVE BLOOD. AND VEINS THAT CARRY IT. IT'S ALMOST LIKE YOU'RE A HUMAN OR SOMETHING." (That's not an exact quote but it's really close. And there were ALL CAPS.)
(Also, I just wanted to say I love you, Jes Baker. You are an outstanding human. And I hope you sell 2 million copies of your amazing book.)
There was a light bulb moment just there. And the light bulb said, you don't have to be beautiful. Your legs don't have to be flawless. Your face doesn't have to be as smooth as a newborn butt. You can have fat and cellulite and stretch marks and wrinkles. And none of it matters. You can just let go of all of it.
You can just decide that beauty isn't important. And when you do, it's OK that some days you just cannot be positive. Some days you can just live in your body and give yourself space to be not ok at all. It's completely ok to look in the mirror and be sad that your stomach is a curtain for your pubic hair.
When I was young I didn't think I was beautiful and now I see myself and think I must have been deluded. And I'm getting older. I've traded the acne of my teens for the wrinkles of my 40s. I've traded the smooth, flat belly for a curtain of stretch marks. I've traded the frizzy hair I didn't know how to style for the gray hair I don't cover up. In 20 years, I imagine, I will see this me the same way 41-year-old Joni sees 21-year-old Joni.
They aren't new problems, they are just different problems.
I've traded the insecurity of my youth for the reflection that comes with middle age.
That doesn't mean I don't have problems. It just means I'm in a constant tug-of-war with what I think beauty is, and how I came to the conclusion of what beauty is, and what beauty actually IS, and then what I actually AM. And if all those things can coexist.
Sometimes I'm not sure, just like sometimes you're not sure. Because we are never all sure all the time. When I'm unsure, I call Jes. When you're unsure, you can call me (Jes is really busy).
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