I have this recurring daydream where I’m in a terrible accident and have one of my legs amputated. Sometimes both of them are gone, and I’m pushed around in a wheelchair by my husband, who assures me he still loves me just the same as he always did. As he wheels me around I look down at the nothingness that used to be my ability to run and dance, and I try like hell to remember what I looked like and felt like with all my limbs intact. In the dream I love them, my poor hacked-off legs, with a passion generally reserved for treasured family members and dark chocolate. I concentrate on that loss until the yearning for what I had is palpable. Then I let the dream go.
Because, like I said, it’s not a nightmare. It’s not something I wake from in a sweat, wiggling my toes under the blankets to make sure I’m still in one piece. It’s a daydream. I force it on myself once in awhile, in the light of day, in an attempt to regain my sense of thankfulness for having been blessed with a healthy body. Because it’s a body I’ve been so hopelessly insecure about my whole life that it’s paralyzed me from doing and wearing and feeling the things I should, which I know is pointless, annoying and sad. Hence the daydream. And yet.
Everyone has insecurities. Everyone has something about their appearance they don’t like. Right now you’re thinking of yours. Over the years my “something” has shifted. In my teens it was a general sense of “I don’t think I’m pretty.” I would sit on the couch beside my high school boyfriend and panic if he looked over at me. “He’s too close! He’ll see what I really look like!” Like the idiotic schoolgirl I was, I would hide my face from him, tell him to look away. It wasn’t a flirty ploy; it was a response to real fear.
In my 20s my “something” became a quantifiable list, a new insecurity always seeming to take the place of one that was fading away. I didn’t like my freckles. I hated my hair, back, legs, feet, chest, fingers, nose, ears, smile. There was something wrong with just about every part of me, and there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it.
Perhaps because of that, I settled on one giant insecurity and clung to it: My legs. I decided they were too hideous to be seen. I stopped wearing shorts in public. (And I was living in the South at the time, so that was a fairly stupid, terribly uncomfortable decision.) Then I stopped wearing shorts at home. I didn’t want my husband to see them. I didn’t want to have to look at them either.
When my college roommate was getting married I spent weeks shopping for a dress that might be stylish but still cover my legs completely. I finally found a black sleeveless dress that went down to my ankles. There were two slits up the sides, reaching almost to the knee, so when I walked the bottom of the dress flapped open a little, revealing just a hint of a calf muscle. I spent an hour of our drive from Florida to Virginia frantically pulling a needle and black thread through that dress, closing up those slits so I’d be comfortable enough in it to relax and have fun. I’m no seamstress, but my hack job worked.
It worked so well, in fact, that I think that black dress is the only one I owned and wore for the next 12 years. It is downright comical how many photos I have, of various events through the years, in which I am wearing that dress. Other weddings, awards banquets, fancy dinners, my own bridal shower, even a funeral or two.
Amazingly my amateur seamstress work has kept those side slits closed, allowing me to feel safe in that polyester blend of a cocoon that for the past six years or so I’ve told myself is “timeless,” even though the sheer length of the frock makes it pretty dated.
For a long time I thought age and maturity would take care of my insecurities. I’ll just grow out of it. Get over myself. It’s a phase.
I thought faith would take care of it. God gave me this body, and I should love and exalt it as the gift that it is.
I thought finding the right man would take care of it. He compliments me all the time, says I grow more beautiful every year. Shouldn’t that be enough?
I thought therapy would take care of it. My physical insecurities are apparently an outward manifestation of something inside me that I have not yet come to terms with.
I thought having kids would take care of it. This body grew two human beings. It produced miracles, and fed them for the first year of their lives. This body ROCKS for that reason alone. Show it some respect!
Maybe all of these have added pieces to the puzzle, but there are still these gaping holes and I’ve spent years rolling around like a Shel Silverstein drawing trying to find my missing piece. I’ve done the psychobabble, the self-loathing behaviors, the empty relationships. I’ve spent years avoiding mirrors and eye contact because I didn’t want to be seen. For awhile I tried writing down every compliment I received so that they might not dissolve in my mind like snowflakes on my tongue, the way compliments usually do.
I’ve ruminated and prayed for an answer to this problem of low self-esteem. I’ve cried about it, argued about it, read about it. It sounds so silly, but it has debilitated me for years.
Finally, in a fit of genius, I gave up.
I recently decided to stop thinking about all the things that are “wrong” with me, because frankly I’m sick to death of thinking about it. Berating myself for not being perfect is exhausting, not to mention pointless, stifling and completely self-centered.
So instead I thought I’d just try to wear a pair of shorts. Not all the time, mind you (baby steps), but once in awhile. It probably sounds like a simple thing; it’s not. But I bought a pair a few weeks ago (thanks Mom, for your extreme patience during that particular shopping outing) and have worn them three times, including to a 3-year-old’s birthday party, which was excruciatingly difficult for me to do.
I also bought a new bathing suit — something I haven’t done in about eight years — and a new dress, with a hemline that just brushes my knees, and I'm currently psyching myself up to actually wear it to my cousin's wedding in a few weeks.
Look out, world.
It hasn’t been easy, this new strategy. Last weekend I happened to be in a pair of shorts when an impromptu gathering of neighbors and their kids took place on the sidewalk in front of our house. As quickly and casually as I could I excused myself, slipped inside and ran upstairs to change into jeans, sweatpants, anything that would cover up my legs. But I stopped myself, took a deep breath and looked in the mirror instead. I envisioned my insecurity as an object, and I pulled it away from my actual body.
“Ya know what? Screw you,” I said to the imaginary mass of self-loathing and shame I could practically see. For the first time, I saw it separately from my physical self. I still didn’t like the way my legs looked, but I could see they were just legs. Just freckles. Just shoulders. Just a nose. Taken as a whole they are who I am, but they do not define me unless I let them.
I kept the shorts on and went back outside. I made eye contact. I laughed and joked. I watched the kids dance around, blowing bubbles and chasing them down the sidewalk, totally unaware of their bodies as anything but vehicles for the life that propels them forward, outward, upward.
It’s too late for me to feel that again, to be unaware of my body in that way. But maybe if I force myself to wear shorts sometimes, after awhile I won’t feel like I’m baring my soul, just my skin.
When I sat down to write this post, I knew only what I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want to say something trite that means nothing to anyone, but I didn’t want to make it about you when it’s really about me anyway. I got so muddled I considered deleting the whole thing. And then I remembered French model Isabelle Caro. At 25, she posed for an Italian ad campaign to highlight the tragedy and danger of anorexia in the fashion industry. She was 5’5” and weighed less than 70 pounds at the time. She was a walking skeleton, and she knew it.
“I saw death coming for me,” she said. “At that stage I freaked out.” She started diligently trying to gain enough weight to live. She knew she’d ravaged her body, but she was hoping it wasn’t too late. What struck me about Isabelle, even more than her skeletal frame, was some dramatic freckles she’d painted around her eyes and cheeks. When an interviewer asked about the makeup, Isabelle said, “I do have freckles naturally but I use makeup to accentuate them because I like to bring out my eyes. Because if someone is looking at my eyes, they are not looking at the rest of me.”
Isabelle spent her entire life trying like hell to disappear. But she realized, too late, that unless she disappeared completely, her attempts to shrink were actually making her stand out more and more and more, until people literally couldn’t look away. Isabelle died at age 28.
We all paint on freckles. We highlight what we like about ourselves and downplay what we don’t. But downplaying is different than hiding. Hiding is fear, paralysis, unnecessary tears. Hiding is wearing jeans to the beach in July. Like Isabelle found, the most ironic thing about hiding is that it often captures attention that is unwanted in the first place. (I mean how can you not notice someone sweating like crazy in rolled-up jeans with her two little boys on a beach in the middle of summer among crowds of normal people in bathing suits?)
So I’m trying to take a vacation from the self-loathing. I’m trying to make eye contact. I’m trying to wear shorts once in awhile. I’m trying to pretend it’s something I do all the time. Basically, I’m trying to fake it ’til I make it. To redefine myself, just in my own mind, in simpler, gentler terms than the ones I’ve used for many years. Because it’s summer, dammit; it’s hot out there. And because, as the sharp-witted Dooce tweeted recently, “Self-confidence is not something you strive to get. It’s something you finally realize.”