Rational Woman Hates Her Body

uglyI’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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14 Responses to Rational Woman Hates Her Body

  1. Liza says:

    When I was maybe 6, my father said that my knees bulge so much that they should be choped off by a hatchet.
    When I was 21 by boyfriend noticed that his knees are sharp, so he could be a model if he was a woman. But mine are round, so I’m ill-suited for this career. 🙂

    Actually my knees are quite normal, but I try not to notice them at all.

    • Oh yeah, I’ve had the fat knees remark too. Your father sounds like a real winner in the self-esteem-building department. Too bad!

    • Lothar says:

      You surely should not have seen that as a big problem, it was just ONE boyfriend. For me, I was always positively impressed (attracted!) by round knees on females! 🙂
      I remenber, in my own puberty I once was fascinated by a film poster showing a girl with the roundest knees I had ever noticed … (no, I’m not a fetishist 🙂 )
      I never thought that “sharp knees” could be seen as an advantage for a women. Finally, today female fashion models – that’s a very particular species, not at all “sexy” or attractive for both average men and women.

  2. Sharon Deane says:

    I’ve always head issues with my weight, but I worked hard at taking it off in my early twenties and got down to where I was well within normal parameters. I remember one winter day walking home from work. I was wearing a brand-new winter coat, had really fussed over my hair that morning, and was feeling pretty good about my new thinner body. As I passed a couple of young men standing on the corner, one nudged the other and said something snidely negative about my looks. I can’t remember his exact words, as I was too busy trying to disappear into the sidewalk at that point. That was more than thirty years ago, and I have never again allowed myself to feel good about how I look. I figured if I was as attractive as it was possible for me to be without cosmetic surgery and I was still fair game for men’s contempt, I might as well give up and just be content with being good-natured, literate, and ethically grounded. At least I know I never got anything in life just because of my looks.

    • Grr. That makes me so angry: at those guys and others who feel they have a right to judge others, aloud. And it makes me sad that a single negative comment can do so much harm to those of us who are sensitive that way.

  3. Barbara Baker says:

    Fifty years ago I was tall and slim with long, wavy, dark brown hair. It was pointed out to me that I had a clumsy walk, and I moved my hips too much when dancing. I have been uncomfortable being observed in motion ever since.

    • Men surely have some similar body issues. Funny we just don’t hear about them as much. What a waste to carry that sort of inferiority/inhibition for 50 years, but I know exactly what you mean, Barbara. Maybe all of us who were harmed in this way will help produce a less unpleasant future for the next generation.

  4. Alice Cotton says:

    As a ten-year-old, I was fairly serious about ballet, and at one point, an expert of some kind came to examine our dancer bodies. She asked me if I had had a skiing accident, to try to explain why my turnout was so different for each leg. As this was in the deep south (New Orleans), I had never seen snow! The teacher regularly used me as an example of how not to perform exercises. It took me thirty-five years to be able to return to dance classes. I still fall apart when the instructor looks my way.

    • How can any decent human use a child as a bad example of something she had no control over? That is so mean and thoughtless. Thank you for sharing, and I hope you find a way to enjoy those classes without anxiety, somehow.

  5. Ron says:

    Somehow gotta teach kids that these thoughts about our bodies come from the same place as hatred, revenge, pettiness, and cruelty. All that uncivilized rivalry stuff. It needs to be banished the same way.

    • Patti Wahlberg says:

      I got glasses in the third grade, and from then through my mid-teens was made fun of and suffered such insults as, “You look like a grandma,” or, “four-eyed fish face.” (Whatever the heck THAT is!) One time when I was about 12 or 13, my sister and I were walking to the store and saw a couple of teenage boys walking towards us from the other direction. As we got closer, one of them said, “Ewww. The both got glasses.” Instead of my wondering who would want to flirt with someone who uses such bad grammar, I felt humiliated. When I turned 15 my parents got me contacts, and a month later I had my first boyfriend. It took me a good 25 years to allow myself to be seen in public in my glasses. I always felt as though they made me look terribly ugly. Even though that first boyfriend told me he had had a crush on me for months (BEFORE I got the contacts), it didn’t matter. The damage was done.

      My sister once told me, after observing a photo of us in our Easter dresses, “You have ugly legs.” You can imagine, to this day, I don’t like my legs, even though men have complimented me on them over the years. I am no Betty Grable, but I think I am at least average, and my self-consciousness about my legs for my entire life was unfounded. Thanks, Sis!

      One more: When I was growing up, boys would comment on my hairy arms. I was called a hairy ape, a chimp, et.c, and often boys would often say, “Eww! Your arms are hairier than mine!” I bleached them for awhile, and waxed them, but all of that took tremendous maintenance. I have left them to their hairy ways for the past 20 years or so. Imagine. My husband loves me anyway!

      Here is another story, not about body parts, but about abilities. In the 4th grade the choir director came to all the classrooms and had all the children sing a few lines of My Country ‘Tis of Thee, to choose children for the choir. After each child sang (in front of the entire class!) she would turn to the teacher and either nod “yes,” or shake her head “no.” When it was my turn, I was very nervous, as I really wanted to be accepted into the choir. As you may have guessed, after I finished my shaky audition, she shook her head “no.” I was again humiliated, and to this day I feel as though I am a terrible singer. I cannot carry a tune when singing in front of others. But there have been times when I have felt uninhibited and have sung (on very rare occasions) in group settings and been told I have a good voice. I do wonder if that moment was the factor that made it so hard for me to sing on key in front of others.

      It is sad that people feel compelled to insult us in order to make themselves feel superior, (or in the choir story, sad that the teachers would not be more sensitive to the developing self-images of small children) and it is also a shame that we allow these things to scar us for our entire lives.

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