As I write this I am 353 days away from turning 40. I’m gonna be honest, I could not be more excited.
My 30’s has brought forth a new self-confidence and personal comfort level that had eluded me most of my life prior. Do I LOOK better than I did in my 20’s – nope. I maintain a constant weight that is 15 – 20 pounds heavier than I was despite work out attempts to lessen that gap. In fact I had to tuck my muffin-top into the waistband of my jeans as I settled in with my computer and coffee to write this. I look tired – I mean the deep down bone tired that only an almost 40 year old full time professional mom of two under the age of 5 can look - kind of tired. Thank god for Instagram filters that eliminate the dark circular bags under my eyes. I have LESS hair on my head than I used too (thanks to said kiddos), and MORE wrinkles on my face than I used too (well, duh). And there is something happening to the tops of my knees that can only be attributed to both gravity and a landslide effect that the loosening skin of age does over time. Oh, and I have spent the last five years unsuccessfully trying to find a bathing suit that is not marmy but appropriately contains whatever happened in my chest region after the ravages of creating two small humans. Yikes.
Despite all this – I FEEL better about the way I look. I like my curvier body and the way I fill out clothes. I have a nice proportion to my frame. I have a good nose. Its small and perky. My eyes have a nice shape and I have an envious set of eyebrows (if I do say so myself). I’ve got good skin and I can get away with little to no makeup most weekends. When my arms and shoulders are in shape watch out – they are pretty darn sexy. I have bigger feet and long toes which look nice in sandals. I have lean and bony wrists – a mighty fine canvas for stacks of funky bracelets. I still have a waist – and for that I am grateful. I take pride and joy in accentuating these attributes. I find it a non-stressful challenge to work around those areas that are not my ‘first choice’ physically to create a look that I feel good about darn near daily.
But here is the deal – I came by this acceptance after a war I had waged with myself for almost 20 years. I don’t recall how I first started to hate my, well, everything. Although I could speculate on the ‘whys’, there was nothing concrete to point too as an official ‘beginning’. It was sometime in high school. I remember little things at the start like driving in my car by myself and sucking my stomach in – the ENTIRE WAY to and from my destination. Why? Who was going to see the natural fold that happens when a 100 pound human body SITS?! I did not care, I hated it. I also hated the way gravity and pressure made my legs look in the car – bigger. I would pull my thighs up just off the seat so they appeared smaller to me from the top view. I would also link my fingertips of both hands around my upper thigh as some sort of gauge to discern how small I wanted them to be in circumference. If they touched, or swoon, were smaller – I was golden. If not, the anxiety and self-loathing would kick in. I honed a gift of systematically maneuvering my way to the back of every girly group photo opportunity and even still, had this pained look on my face that was supposed to resemble a smile. This torture grew over the next 10 years into beasts we have all heard of; anorexia, bulimia and obsessive exorcise. I am 5’-1”, my lowest maintained weight in those years was 90 pounds. I mean – gross, right?
I compared myself to everyone around me. Not that I judged them on what they looked like but more how my features compared. I wanted HER long thick naturally wavy hair and darker skin tone. I painfully coveted HER mile high long legs whose thighs did not touch in the middle. I envied her chin that was sharp and angular. I pined for HER strong muscular back and HER tiny waist and HER this, HER that, HER everything ….. all but what I had. It was a very real and constant voice in my head telling me I was ugly, fat, dimply, average and overall not good enough.
Sometime in my late 20’s - after I had made myself sick and riddled my daily life with anxiety and obsession - I had a moment of astonishing clarity. During the dramatic throws of an observation of the mess I had made of my life at the time, I had stepped outside of my body and really saw what this mindset was doing to my physical being. Slowly over the next 10 years my perspective had changed and I grew to accept myself for what I looked like. What genetics and biology had given me to work with in this life. It has brought me the sense of freedom that I still carry with me today. I can’t change the vessel I was given and I refuse to spend one more minute hating this vessel any longer. It is wasted energy and it’s unequivocally WRONG.
Once I stopped being a captive of my own obsessions, I started to realize that most all of the women around me were stuck in a similar prison. My friends, some of the most BEAUTIFUL women you will ever see, would not only rebuff genuine compliments but they would actually ARGUE against people who give them true accolades. You probably have these women in your lives too (or are one of them - shame on you). You say, “Girl, you are so sassy today.” Only to hear back, “Ugh, thanks but I look so fat in these jeans and I have a huge pimple on my nose. I have to get my hair colored too – these greys are making me look like my mom.” This kind of constant exchange began to make me angry and exasperated. I actually made up a ‘game’ where I would give my friends a swift punch on the arm if they did not take a compliment in my presence. Ok, so that did not make me the most popular girl in the group but worse – it did not do a thing towards giving them the clarity to see themselves as we all did – lovely and fabulous.
As modern day women this mindset has become our norm and its heart breaking. I am a mother of a beautiful, innocent and charming 5 year old girl. All willowy and smooth skinned and not even remotely thinking about how other people view how she looks (unless there are sparkles and tulle involved then the tune changes drastically). My gut aches at the thought of a time in her life where she starts to look critically at herself in the mirror. When she pulls her flesh aside this way or that and sucks her stomach in to look leaner from a side angle. Where her peers begin to murmur snide comments about the appearance of another girl. I know, I know - I can’t stop that from happening. But I will tell you what I can do – and what YOU can do too.
We can stop teaching them how to loathe parts of ourselves. We can take compliments from our friends gracefully. We can set aside a moment to marinate in those kind words and let them sink in to our souls to make us feel freaking fantastic, if only for that second. We can give compliments freely and unabashedly to women of all shapes and sizes – and MEAN it. We can talk about how those compliments made us feel and how they affect other people emotionally when we extend them. We can mention the parts we like best about the way we look – genuinely and honestly. Teach them that it is ok to like yourself in a humble and true way. Tell our daughters that it is downright rude to dismiss or downplay the kind words of others (applying the same rules where we get on them for not saying ‘please and thank you’). Admit to them that it is ok to have insecurities – we all do - but explain that it’s how much value we give to those nagging thoughts that makes them either recede into the background or become our main daily narrator. It’s not a perfect plan ladies but it’s a start and it has to begin with us.
Ok, so I might have lied a smidge earlier. Some crumbs of self-doubt have never fully been swept aside after my mid 20’s revelation. I still hated pictures of myself. I mean – really, not a fan. It was a scroll through the last handful of years of photos of my kids where I came to realize that … I was not in them. Really, my children were going to grow up with very few images of their mother interacting with them and enjoying their childhood right alongside of them. What would that do to their memory of me when I am not here any longer? All because I could not shake the last vestiges of perception (both of myself and what others viewed me). Around this time I had seen this film from Dove and I was floored. It had encapsulated everything in my journey and I became inspired to make a change.
I decided that very day to start taking one selfie a week for a year and post it on Instagram. I was going to single handedly change my mental block of photos of myself. At first during exorcise I would physically wince and some of the images as I played them back. Most every time I am still all fumbly and embarrassed. I shuffle about and talk to myself out loud. It has to be a hilarious sight. Ill say however, through the art of selecting, cropping filtering and categorizing I have become sort of enchanted by the whole circus. I decided to continue the project for an indeterminate amount of time as a reminder of how far I have come and how important this exploration has been. This project is what has allowed me to write a paragraph like the second one in this essay and not feel even remotely funny about it.
If I can feel the way I do about images of myself after how horribly I tortured my body and mind in my past then I know other beautiful women can too. If not for yourself then for your daughter, niece, sister, best friend or mother. So, I’d like to encourage you to do the same.
Girl, use that to change how you view yourself. I can’t say it more eloquently than they did in the last frame of the Dove film - WE are more beautiful than we think. And it’s up to US to change that perception.