The Perfection Myth
Guest post by FrabjousLinz
I’ve always struggled with body image. Wait, no, let’s be blunt. I’ve always hated the way I look, alternating with thinking I look OK at best. It’s worse the last few years, since I’ve put on weight, and since I’m older and don’t have youth working for me. But truthfully, I’ve never been happy with my body, or my face, or my hair. Or my personality, but let’s not get into that one right now.
I remember wanting to be pretty from a very young age, about when I realized that it’s a girl’s job to be pretty in this world, and that without it, society thinks she doesn’t have any worth. So what, about 4 years old? 5? I remember my brother pointing out to me what models were the prettiest in the JC Penny catalogue. I remember thinking, along with a lot of girls I’m sure, that my only hope was to grow up pretty, because that was the only way to be happy and have friends. I remember hoping that, like the ugly duckling, I would turn into something gorgeous and show-stopping. Because I knew, just knew, that I was ugly right then and there.
Looking back at pictures of myself, I was not an ugly child. I was just a child. I was even, maybe, a cute child. See? It’s hard to really be objective, even now. But at the time, I remember feeling ugly and ungainly and weird looking. I wasn’t popular among most of my classmates, which didn’t help. I was weird, or at least a lot different from many of the kids I grew up with. And one of the regular insults thrown around at kids by kids is always “ugly.” Which doesn’t have to be true to feel true. As I grew older, I only felt more ugly and awkward and weird and ungainly. Some of the ungainly and awkward is true for all kids at those stages – growing is a strange process, and not everything goes together in a cohesive way. But I was certain I was more awkward, more weird looking, more ugly, than basically everyone else around me. I did not know how to wear the right clothes, or the right hair. Of course, those are skills that can be taught, but no one taught them to me, and not having them only served to make me feel even less attractive. Because even when I tried, I felt like I failed. People told me I failed. The society around me told me I failed.
My mom did try to help, but since she suffers from a lot of the same feelings about herself, it didn’t help as much as she would have liked. And while I know that she had no desire to pass on these neuroses to me, she almost couldn’t help herself. She always called herself unattractive and fat. In fact, we all joked about it all the time, which was horribly cruel of us. “Oh, we’re just joking,” we’d all say, even my dad. “Mom’s not really fat or ugly. It’s just funny to say she is.” That joke lived a lot longer than it should have. My mom – tiny, thin, pocket-sized, bird-like mom – is always trying to lose weight. Always. She denigrates the way she looks. She deflects, is humorously negative about herself, makes her own jokes about being awkward and aging and imperfect. Everyone loves her. Everyone – although she would disagree, and laugh that off. Everyone loves my mom. She’s great. She’s funny and talented and articulate and smart and caring, and yes, she’s also very pretty. But she would never admit to any of that. So I grew up watching this fantastic person constantly put herself down.
I am more like my mom than I like to admit. Uh, and I think I just called myself fantastic. I can’t even describe how panicked and weird I feel about that. I want to take it back. Not me – I’m not fantastic. My mom is. I’m just like her in that I hate myself. Uh. That sounds bad. Quick, how do I make this funny?
Moving on. As a kid I was always on the short side, and skinny, shaped kind of like a medium-sized pole. Until I grew two inches and got hips right about 14. (And ended up with an impressive set of stretch marks, which were very confusing and distressing at 14. OK, they’re always distressing.) So then I was skinny, taller than 90% of the people (boys, too) in school, and shaped a bit like a taller pole with saddle bags in the middle. At least that’s how I saw it. Weird-looking. There was a standard of beauty, and I didn’t meet it in any way. I tried different hair, which was a disaster. I tried different clothes, which I didn’t understand and almost always had the wrong ones. I tried very hard to be likeable, with varying results. But I still wasn’t pretty, not really. Not as far as I could tell. And if you’re a girl, and not pretty, then you are close to worthless. That’s the message I received, and whether I wanted to or not, I believed it. Deep down, somewhere in my psyche, I believed – believe – I was worth less, because I didn’t measure up on the attractiveness scale. Some people told me I was pretty, but family members and close friends never count, even though they should. And even if I’d had other outside confirmation, I don’t know that I’d have believed it.
Of course, the girls who were considered pretty didn’t have it easy, either. And most of them didn’t even consider themselves pretty. Because it’s not just our job, as females, to be pretty. We have to be prettier. Not just prettier than each other (which is a terrible thing, just by the way), but prettier than we were before. Prettier every day. Fix all the things that are wrong, and then find new things to fix. Continue fixing. I remember one male classmate, at some lazy lunchtime, ticking off how he’d build the perfect girl from our various good body parts, those of us girls who were in the group that day. I think mine was legs. I felt insulted, and also a little sizzle of happy at the same time. He thinks I have good legs! But he was insulting all of us. I said nothing, although now I’m older, I wish I’d said “Each of us is perfect as we are. Pygmalion was an asshole. So what does that make you?” Or something along those lines: possibly more clever. But clever didn’t occur to me at the time. So that guy got away with treating all of us like crap, and none of us said anything about it, that I recall. Not the first or last time general misogyny was present in my high school. But it sticks in my memory. I have (had) attractive legs! That guy was a jerk! I don’t know how to process this! I’m probably not the only one who felt like that. Teenage girls, at least when I was one, were more likely to just ignore sexist remarks than do anything about them. And we internalized that sexism, and believed it about ourselves and sometimes each other.
I was skinny, and continued skinny for a good part of my adult years. When I got out of college, and (due to having more regular income, and food that was not ramen noodles) I gained 15 pounds, I immediately thought I needed to lose 10 of them. I wanted to lose 10 or 15 pounds at all times, as soon as I hit my mid 20s. There was absolutely nothing wrong with my weight. I just wasn’t underweight anymore. I ate plenty, I never had an eating disorder, although I kept thinking I should probably eat better, but never did. I just had the kind of metabolism that all women, and plenty of men, wish for. Heck, I wish for it, now that it’s gone. I could eat whatever I wanted, and I did, and my body mostly stayed the same. Lots of people were disgusted with me for that. For good reason – I was kind of obnoxious with it. Not on purpose, but in that clueless way that a person who is clueless is. But I was still horrified at that little poochy belly, the slightly larger thighs. My mom and I constantly discussed how we could lose 10 pounds. I, at least, never lost any. My mom stopped eating her one small handful of M&Ms per day that she allowed herself as a treat, and lost two pounds. She didn’t need to. She still felt like it was a victory. I felt depressed, because a life lived eating only dry toast, nonfat yogurt, and unbuttered popcorn for a treat just sounds awful. Not that Mom doesn’t sometimes eat cookies, but mostly she eats yogurt. And dry toast. She started eating that way in college because she put on weight then, and hasn’t been happy with her body since. Sometimes she skips the toast, too, because bread. It makes me want to weep.
Here I was in my 20s and then 30s – I was young, skinny, I had healthy hair, my skin was decent, I had (have) basically even features, and while I never had much in the way of a bust, that really shouldn’t have mattered. I had (have) curvy hips and long legs. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me.
I hated my body. I wanted to fix every part of it. My arms were too skinny and shapeless. My shoulders were too wide. My ribcage was too wide. My breasts were too small. My hips were saddlebaggy. I had a little poochy belly. My face was too small and round. My nose was weird. My hair was boring and thin and frizzy. My ankles were too thick. My feet were too big. I liked my legs, but that’s it, really. I felt this way about myself all the time, adding in new imperfections as I identified them. Now I had more of a double chin, now my thighs weren’t as smooth, now my arms were starting to sag. Always something to be unhappy about.
When I turned 35, a lot happened. Among them, my marriage ended after a long struggle and decline, and I began a new relationship just a few months after its last gasps. I moved from a house into a tiny apartment. Pets died. Lots of big changes. Over those couple of years, I gained 30 pounds. Suddenly I not only felt kind of ugly, and a little fat, I felt REALLY ugly, and A LOT fat. Objectively, I am not fat. I am almost 5’9”, and I’m about a size 14. (I say about, because women’s sizing is arbitrary and ridiculous.) While it’s larger than I’ve ever been before, it’s pretty average. It’s not even considered plus size, although I’m closer to that than I’ve ever been. A lot of stores stop at a size 14, and some stop at 12. So the clothing-sales world is also making me feel huge and ugly and fat. Imagine how it makes people feel who are just a little, or even a lot, bigger? I know some of it is my internalization of our fat-shaming world. But how hard is it to feel good when you can’t find clothes that fit and look good, and most of the clothes on the rack are sized 6 and under? Even when I was skinny, I couldn’t wear a size 6. Too tall, too broad shouldered and wide-ribbed. Hips too curvy. (Of course, the reason those clothes are left on the rack: Average sizes women wear in this country are 10-16, so those clothes go first. But still, it makes you feel worse.)
There’s nothing wrong with being the size I am. There’s nothing wrong with being larger. There’s nothing wrong with being smaller. I mean, health reasons aside, but many people are perfectly healthy at whatever size they are right now, and the health things are between themselves, their healthcare professionals, and their loved ones. But shame feels forced on all of us, anyway. I feel it all the time. I feel judged. I don’t know for certain that I am judged, but I feel it. And I judge myself. All things being equal, I should be able to find love and acceptance in at least one place in the world, and that should be for myself. But I don’t. I look at other people of all shapes and sizes, and I find them perfectly fine just the way they are, beautiful, even. I look at myself, and I find myself awful.
The reasons I gained the weight are relatively straightforward – I’m older, so my metabolism changed. And due to my separation and divorce, my metabolism changed while under a lot of stress, which exacerbated any changes going on. My body feels a lot different than it used to. I have a huge chest now, it seems to me. I always used to want a bigger chest, but now I want a smaller one, because these things are in the way. I had to learn how to wear entirely different clothes, because the kinds of things I was used to wearing don’t work for busty. I call them adult-onset boobage. It’s honestly a real shock – another thing my body has done to betray me. But really, it’s the same basic body. My bust to waist ratio has not changed. They’re just bigger numbers. So I’m still kind of square on top, with curvy hips, and long legs. But none of it feels the same, and I still hate it. So I hated my body when it was skinny and young and smooth and strong. And I hate it now that it’s curvier and busty. Although who wants older and saggier and lumpier? It’s hard to find acceptance for that. I should. It’s just a body, right? Bodies do this. They change. They change all the time, and agonizing over it and wanting something different is just an exercise in futility. So why can’t we all just learn to love our changing bodies?
I think it’s partly because our society doesn’t want us to. Our society, for whatever reasons (possibly capitalism), wants us to strive for prettier, younger, more perfection, whatever the current definition of perfection is. So I have to hate my body, because that’s how it works. Then I’ll buy the things that I hope will make me prettier. Then I’ll pass on my self-hatred to my children, when I have some, and keep the cycle going. Then we’ll work hard at the impossible. Pretty is still a woman’s main job, even when we denounce it, even when we shout that it’s not true. But to many, if a woman isn’t pretty, or isn’t the right kind of pretty, then she is substandard. Definitions of pretty change, but the job stays the same. And it’s very hard to measure up to the definition, since that definition is always some guy, or corporation, pulling apart different women and putting their body parts back together. Here, this random amalgam of parts, this patchwork inhuman thing we have sewn together as though we were Dr. Frankenstein, this is perfection. Perfection that no one really has, certainly not any human girls, because they are human and not carvings or pictures or statues. Because someone can always find another fault, another reason to nitpick, another reason to hate your body. Something to fix.
I don’t want to hate my body. I’ve spent my whole life hating this body, and it’s been really good to me, all in all. It doesn’t deserve all this hate. I certainly don’t want my future children to hate themselves, to spend their time trying to figure out how to be perfect. It’s such a waste. And yet I can’t help myself. I know this is a struggle for so many – to love ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with striving, until there is. Striving for better, when better means happier and healthier, is one thing. Striving for perfection is hurtful and leaves people defeated and full of self-hatred. I want to feel kindness and love toward myself. I just haven’t figured out how, yet. Maybe we can all learn help each other with that.
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