I’m rational, right? That’s what I keep saying. But I’m also a woman, and a woman’s self-image is way too often affected by the careless comments of others, whether family, friends, or the omnipresent media. For instance, see the big media fuss over Marion Bartoli, a sports champ, and the unkind comments made about her quite normal looks.
Here’s how that sort of thing worked in my own life.
The process of being evaluated physically began when I was six. At least that’s my earliest memory of become self-conscious. Two of my aunts were chatting, when one of them looked intently at me before saying to the other one, “There’s nothing special about her features, but when you put them all together, she’s cute.” Oh, I thought, is that good, or is that. . . not so good?
At 11, already in the agonies of puberty, I wore glasses and had plenty of oily pimples. Dressed in pretend finery for a costume party, I showed off for my parents. My dad said, “Glasses on a vamp?” Hmm. So glasses mean you can’t be sexy. I began trying to wear contact lenses a few years later, and when I couldn’t get used to them right away, I was distraught.
At 13, Anne K. and I were friends, and we were on the outs. So I stupidly repeated what I’d heard from someone else, that dancing with her was like leading a tank around the floor. She retaliated by telling me her mother said I had piano legs. Not having a piano in my life, I wasn’t too clear on what part of my legs were flawed. Eventually I learned it had to do with my ankles, so I did countless repetitions of ankle exercises throughout my teens, none of which changed anything.
My good buddy Jill told me, at 14, that she could always tell from a distance when it was me who was heading in her direction, since I had funny legs. Bow legs. I haven’t worn shorts in decades because of that.
When I was 15, my mother took me to a gynecologist for a routine check-up. When it was over, he asked my mom, “Does she feel badly about having such small breasts?” It was the first I’d heard that I didn’t match up to expectations. But not the last. I soon had my first reciprocal crush on a boy named Ron Stevens. One afternoon this big-talking 16-year-old low-achiever whose own looks were far from those of a Greek god, announced, with hand motions to match, “You’d be just perfect if you moved all this [my hips] up here [the chest area].” That made me angry, and that’s one set of body parts I never did set out to improve (well, not counting all those chest-muscle-strengthening exercises).
One of my dates when I was 18, after drinking a good deal, pointed out that my forefinger was fat—in comparison to the slenderness of my other fingers, he added. I still think he was technically correct and, ever since, I’ve tended to believe drunken statements more than perhaps I should. My ex-husband said I had hairy toes a year after we married. He had a thing about hair, preferring his women air-brushed.
My husband Stephen has only made two inadvertently negative contributions to my body image over all the years we’ve been together. Once, when I made the mistake of handing him the movie camera and then walking in front of him at my son’s summer ranch camp, he took what he thought was an amusing shot of me (from behind) followed by a shot of a horse (from behind). Unfortunately, I sometimes get interior flashes of that sequence when I’m most tempted to feel frisky.
And then, one evening while absently fondling my right elbow, Stephen noticed it was rough. Uh, oh. Something I’d missed in my precautionary ablutions. I rubbed body lotion into those stubbornly dry elbows every night for years, and now they’re quite smooth. No big deal, really, just a suitably trivial coda to my lifelong body image problem.
Of course, I’ve heard some pleasing comments too over the years, though it’s harder to recall more than a couple of those (nice eyes, lovely lips). And, annoyingly, as soon as I began to care less about what others thought of my body and more about what I have to say in the world, I started noticing the effects of ordinary aging. Such observations compete with the quieter voice inside that insists, “What people don’t see is what you get to keep the longest.”
Feel like sharing? What parts of you have been commented negatively about by others? Was your self-image affected?
Copyright (c) Susan K. Perry
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