I learned very young that a woman’s power came from her looks. Specifically, my beauty, or lack there of, was how my worth was measured. The straightness of my nose and thickness of my eyelashes were important but useless if I wasn’t skinny. Tall and sturdy for my age, I took on the onus of “the fat kid” long before the title fit. My mother, with her movie star looks, was ashamed of me. She saw me as extension of herself.
My first attempt at weight loss was in the fourth grade. I had the brilliant idea of slicing my stomach with a razor and squeezing the fat out. Of course, I never could go through with it. Every night as I lay in bed, the success of my day was measured by how little I ate. The obsession to be thin had already taken hold.
When puberty hit, my weight soared out of control. The pressure to be perfect was overwhelming. I looked at the models in Seventeen magazine and knew I could never measure up. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the models didn’t measure up either. They had been airbrushed to flawlessness in their photos.
When I turned sixteen, my mother typed a rite of passage letter to me and signed it with, “Love, Mom.” What struck me the most in it was her advice to “marry a man who is going places and will take you with him.” I had learned the only bargaining tool to hitch that ride was my looks. And what I saw in the mirror told me I was doomed. I decided I’d better develop my talents.
My story does have a happy ending. At 23, I married a man who loved me just the way I was. Whenever I questioned how he could be attracted to me he said, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I thought that was his way of saying I love you in spite of how you look. Today I know better. My husband was way smarter than the media gave most credit for. He could see past the images that beauty advertisements were trying to force down our throats. After 34 years of marriage, he still loves my soul and my own brand of gorgeous that encapsulates it.
Over the years, with a concentrated effort, I’ve undone much of the damage to my body image. Movies like Miss Representation have helped. Most recently a wonderful blog post by Kasey Edwards affirmed my belief that the way most women see their bodies is an illusion. Our perception has little to do with how the world sees us.
I’ve come to peace with my mother and her inability to accept the body I was born into. I see now that like me, she was a victim of “lookism.” Born in the 1920’s, a bride in the 1950’s, she was a product of our culture. In her own convoluted way, she was just trying to keep me safe. She was passing on the societal expectations she had learned from her own mother.
Yes, at times, I still fall back into feeling horrified by the way I look. Recently, I saw a picture of myself that made me cringe. Instead of taking the feelings to heart, I now compare them to how I feel hearing a recording of my voice. Like most people, I don’t like the way I sound, but don’t take the foreignness of it to mean I’m flawed. In the same way, I no longer take my reaction to a photograph of myself to heart either. It doesn’t mean anything. My initial discomfort doesn’t stem from how I look but comes from the disconnection I feel of looking at a shell. The “real” me is formless.
Our world is evolving and so am I. The best gage of my self-acceptance is my daughter and the women my sons chose to marry. All three are stunning, accomplished women. They exude self-confidence and embrace who they are. No matter how thin or pretty, they would never think to add the superficial to their list of achievements. They where brought up knowing their power isn’t on the outside but lies within, being beautiful is no longer a career path.
All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com