I've talked a good deal about how important it is for all of us—and by all of us, I really mean ALL of us: curvy women, thin women, short men, tall men, bald men, curly-haired people, straight-haired people, etc.—to focus on what is good about ourselves, especially what is good about our appearance, rather than focusing on our so-called imperfections. But I haven't yet talked about how I learned to do that. Because, believe me, I have not been this positive about my appearance all of my life.
In fact, anyone who knew me when I was growing up can attest to the fact that I was a mess of insecurities and awkwardness for many, many years.
I was a tall child—five-foot-four and 125 pounds by the time I was ten—and always in the back row of school pictures and church processionals. It isn't cool to be tall when you're a ten-year-old girl. In fact, it's the opposite of cool because it means you're taller than most of the boys, which, of course, is not the goal if you want to be popular and well-liked.
All the popular girls—Chris McGinn, Janie Church, Rosie Kearns, you know who you are—were short, adorable pint-sized versions of the beautiful women they would eventually become. These were the girls who winked at the judges as they walked off the stage during cheerleading competition, the girls who wore ribbons in their shiny hair, the girls who stalked the school halls in high-heeled boots on class picture day. And I was not one of them. (Tall girls, obviously, can't wear high heels if they have any desire at all to fit in.)
In addition to being tall, I also had curly hair, which was kind of like drawing the short straw back in the late '70s and early '80s when girls ironed their hair with an ACTUAL iron and modeled themselves after Charlie's Angels (none of whom, I might add, had curly hair). Having curly hair still isn't cool—anyone who's seen The Princess Diaries knows that—but it was an even bigger social faux pas when I was young and society was even more white-washed than it is now. The bottom line was that I spent a lot of time trying to straighten my curls and pretend to be someone I was not.
Like most people, I became more confident when I got older (college does wonders for our psyches, doesn't it?), but I still felt mostly uncomfortable in my own skin.
And when I gained 33 pounds the year I turned 28, I tuned in to this discomfort and began talking about my body in ways I am now ashamed to admit: I called myself fat and gross on a regular basis, and, if I was with people I was really comfortable with, I would refer to myself as a monster. Sure, I would make a joke of it. That's how most of us do it. We say things like, "God, I'm so gross" or "What a fatty I am," and for the most part, this kind of talk is considered acceptable in our society.
Now I know it is precisely this kind of talk that is at the root of our self-esteem and obesity problems, but back then I was still willing to dis myself every chance I got. I suppose it's a kind of defense mechanism: you think that if you call yourself fat before anyone else does, no one else can hurt you. After all, in our society, what is worse than being called fat? It's hard to think of an insult that cuts more deeply than that one.
But something positive came out of all this, something very positive. It turns out that the people I was most comfortable with—the ones who heard me calling myself a fat monster on a regular basis—were totally uncomfortable with me talking about myself that way. I'd make a jokey comment about my weight—like saying that my thighs could win a cellulite contest—and my friends would go off. They would insist that I not talk about myself that way and swear that I was not fat, I was not ugly, I was not gross.
They got so angry with me for getting down on myself so many times that I was actually forced to change my behavior around them. I taught myself not to make fun of my body or call myself fat when I was in their presence even though I was still doing it in my head and around other people. It wasn't easy—sometimes I'd start to call myself fat and stop just before I finished the word only to be greeted by a sharp look from Peggy, a retort from Kristin, or a roll of the eyes from Dave—but I learned that with these three people I was not allowed to see myself as unattractive.
And then something miraculous happened: I started to see myself as attractive even when they weren't around.
I wasn't even aware of it at first. Dave and I had just moved to North Carolina, and as always seems to happen with moving, I changed without even realizing it. Some of the changes were superficial. For instance, since I was no longer a grad student, I had to start dressing nicer, and dressing nicer immediately made me feel better about myself. And other changes were more profound—my weight bottomed out at a healthy 176 pounds, which of course made me ecstatic. And sometime after the move—I'm not sure exactly when—I actually began to see myself as attractive. I even began to feel attractive. God help me, I even started to feel the way my husband has always described me: beautiful. And, to my surprise, I would feel this way even when the three Monster Slayers were nowhere to be seen.
It wasn't long after that when I noticed how much I hated it when other people criticized themselves by calling themselves fat or ugly. It really started to bother me, and I found msyelf saying exactly what Kristin, Peggy, and Dave used to say to me: "Don't talk that way about yourself! You're not fat. You're beautiful."
And the more I said it to other people, the more I believed it—about them and about myself. And that's why even though I've gained weight—as a result of another prolonged and difficult move—I have never gone back to that old way of seeing myself. Even at 196.5 pounds, I still feel fabulous. Because, honestly, what's the alternative? To feel bad about msyelf all over again? No thanks.
But it's more than just positive thinking that has changed my perspective. It's that I've learned that it isn't hard to see the good in each other. No, none of us are perfect, but we are unique. And isn't that what makes us beautiful? Isn't that what people see when they look at me? The things that set me apart? They don't see the pounds I have to lose, the size on my pants, the nose that's a little too big. They don't see any of those things. No, I really believe that when people look at me—at any of us—they see our best qualities. They see my large blue eyes and my long curly hair (which I now love). They see my joie de vivre and my warm personality.
I know this is true because I know that when I look at Kristin, I see her flawless skin, her sculpted arms and shoulders, her long shapely legs, and her astonishing mind; when I look at Peggy, I see her perfect little nose, her lovely golden locks, her tight little tushie, and her unyielding passion, and when I look at Dave, I see his strong jawline, his full lips, his intense eyes, his unflappable drive, and his acerbic wit. When I look at all of them, I see how much they mean to me.
So I want to say thank you to the three of you, my monster slayers. I wouldn't be who I am today (and this blog wouldn't exist) without you, and I appreciate what you've done for me—for all of us—more than I can say.