Monday, February 28, 2011

Dangerous Playgrounds

Since as far back as I can remember, people have commented on my appearance. When I was a little girl, I would relish in dressing up in my sister’s old dance costumes, getting up on the coffee table, and dancing to my father’s piano playing as my parent’s friends ooo’d and aww’d at my adorableness. Another favorite pass time would be after my nightly bath, when my mom would run her bristled brush through my hair with the warmth of the blow dryer running over my scalp, because I knew once I exited that bathroom in my clean, pressed pajamas, my father and grandparents would be waiting there to fuss about how beautiful and fresh I looked.

Then I entered grade school when, all of a sudden, the words about how I looked weren’t as kind. My arms were hairy, my hair was frizzy, my legs were too muscular, my eye brows were bushy, my t-shirts too baggy, and my breasts an embarrassing topic of conversation. I’m surprised the comments rushing from the mouths on the playground didn’t ultimately given me an early aneurysm (being the insanely sensitive person I am). Instead, they only caused emotional distress which I carried with me for way too long.

I’ll never forget the afternoons after high school when my friend Sherry and I would stand in front of the mirror, pulling our legs and stomachs back to see what we would look like if we had fewer inches. We would console each other, and I remember thinking about how sad it was that Sherry, this incredibly beautiful and talented girl, didn’t like her perfect body. It never occurred to me that maybe she thought the same thing about me. I’ll never forget these days. The crying over my pants size, the secret agony I felt over my mother’s Victoria’s Secret catalogue, the deep desire to look and feel like a confident movie star, and the feeling that I was all alone in this, because even though my friends would say they felt the same way, in my mind, they were way too beautiful to really understand.

One day, I came home crying after school (a usual occurrence so I’m not sure what the drama of the day was), but my mother held me in her arms, and in one of those awkward parenting moments, said something that I will never ever forget: “It's my fault. Instead of spending your childhood telling you how beautiful you looked, I should have spent more time telling you how beautiful you are on the inside.” I didn’t get it. How could her compliments cause any damage? How could it hurt to have someone tell you you’re the most beautiful thing on Earth?

After that day, I think my mom changed her approach. Her compliments started to be more about my academics, my musical abilities, my athletic accomplishments, and my choices. I’d still get the occasional, “you look great” comments, but the focus was moved from my appearance to my performance. Once a week after school, my mom would also teach a yoga class to my friends and myself, and at the end of every session, she would end the class with a quote on inner beauty and enlightenment. I don’t know if this is the reason why I eventually became less fixated on my looks or if maybe I just made the decision to stop the angst, but whatever happened, I entered my freshman year of college feeling confident and strong. I attribute this healthy transformation to my mother’s activism in my body image.

Now that I am 27, I only remember these feelings as a phase I went through as a teenager. At this point in life, I’m comfortable with my arms, I like my freakishly strong legs, I am happy that my eye brows are big, I think my hair looks kind of sexy when it’s frizzy, I find baggy t-shirts to be quite comfortable, and if my breasts are a topic of conversation, it’s probably because my best friend is a bra-sizing specialist, and she knows what she’s doing! But something inside me keeps reminding me how lucky I am that this so-called “phase” didn’t turn into a serious eating disorder or a lifelong distorted body image disorder. After all, can we really call these thoughts a “phase?” I think they are more of a lingering danger that we have to CHANGE. It’s time to redefine beautiful and to teach kids to be kind to each other. The playground is a dangerous place, and it’s not because of the monkey bars or tire swings.

Before I wrap up, I want to share a story my friend told me the other day:

Her friend was always a little worried about the size of her legs. One day, a girl at school asked her friend to pose for a piece of art: a clay molding of a dancer’s legs. The friend was thrilled that the artist, a popular “hot” girl, wanted to use her legs as a subject! After days of work, the sculpture finally went on display for the whole school to see…..Titled: An Overweight Dancer. This girl went on to develop a serious eating disorder. Are you surprised?

How can we turn the tables and encourage kids to be supportive of each other? I’m going to start by volunteering at my elementary school to come in and give a little talk. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll just work on my nieces and nephews until another opportunity comes up. I encourage all of you Guiltless readers to join together and rise against body image cruelty! Let’s take back what belongs to us: Our bodies and our peace of mind.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I remember always feeling too small and skinny in grade school. This may have been made worse by the fact that I had a bunch of friends who were Goliaths and had beards in 6th grade, but nonetheless I always wanted to be bigger and more manly. I went so far as to take supplements and weight gainer in high school to try and increase my overall mass. It wasn't until I got older and a bit more mature that I realized I could still be very strong and powerful in my own right without being physically huge. This post really hit home and reminded me of years past, and reinforced how much I appreciate my current state of inner and outer self-happiness and security. I am guiltless!!