Sunday, August 13, 2006

You're my brown-eyed girl*

A reader (Jeff) recently left this comment under my post about my family reunion and how it had me thinking about my appearance:

As the father of three daughters, I constantly walk the line between complementing them on their appearance (which I would think encourages them) and not doing so (which presumably places less emphasis on their appearance). They're beautiful, of course, but what to say? Thanks so much for giving me a forum to ask this question where, if someone posts an answer, it will likely be to the point and not sarcastic.

Regular readers will know that my appearance and my weight and my perception of my attractiveness are things that I think about, and write about, fairly often. My good friend Mir emailed me after she saw his comment and said, essentially, “I hope you’re going to address this because it’s a great question” and told me her thoughts, which (I think) mirror mine.

In a nutshell, here’s my answer: Tell your daughters constantly how beautiful you think they are. You don’t have to tell them that they are entitled to special treatment because they’re beautiful, or that they don’t have to use their intellect or natural talents because they’re beautiful, but my personal opinion is that one of the greatest gifts a father can give his daughters is to instill WITHIN them the CERTAIN KNOWLEDGE that they are beautiful, both inside and out. You don’t need to turn them into self-absorbed little twits, or encourage an unhealthy level of concern over their appearances, but I would define “telling them they are beautiful” as “letting them know that they are beautiful people, including physically, and allowing them to be secure in their bodies and physical form whether or not they meet ‘conventional’ ideas of beauty advanced by society, the media, and other persons to whom they are exposed.” **In rereading this post after I wrote it, I realize I'm not sure I mean" tell them they're beautiful" or "tell them what the world says is beautiful doesn't mean anything" or perhaps both, so the post is a little stream-of-consciousness, but I'm going to continue to think about this and see if can come up with a way to articulate it better.**

I’ve written about this subject before, so I’ll try not to retread old ground, but I think this is just such an important subject.

I don’t want to go into my entire family history, except to say that while I was growing up there was A LOT of focus on my weight and appearance. I always felt like my dad was embarrassed to be seen with me because I did not represent him in a way that he approved of or could relate to. My accomplishments were celebrated, but they were celebrated on a FAR grander scale when they were related to weight loss or sports. I always believed that the sum total of my value as a human being related directly to the number of pounds I was currently over the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tables, or the distance I could run without keeling over and dying. The scale in our bathroom took on a life of its own, as did the chart next to it where my weight was tracked with undying regularity and tiny gold stars representing when I did "good." I always want(ed) to know what I weigh(ed) but I was(am) terrified that the result would(will) be “bad” and would(will) somehow deem me unworthy of love and affection that was(is) undeserved for “someone like me,” i.e., fat.

So, sometimes it has seemed as if my entire life has revolved around my weight, my appearance, and my failure to live up to standards set by my dad, the military, society, fashion magazines, clothing sizes, men, etc.

I am 31 years old and there has never been a day in my life that I can remember where I didn’t think about my weight. I can’t remember ever being totally comfortable in my skin or with the way I look. I cringe when I walk by the glass front of a store, or a car window where I’m reflected, or a mirror, but I’m still morbidly fascinated with what I see, comparing it to what I saw the last time I looked (even if it was two seconds ago in the window of the store next door). When I used to run I knew every car on my route that had a window where I looked “good” or “bad.” I have mirrors that make me look “OK” versus “totally huge.” All of my clothes are judged on the degree to which they cling to any part of my body that I don’t want things clinging to. I know every pose and position in bed that will make my body seem “less disgusting” to a sexual partner, but in my heart I know that when a man sleeps with me it's because he's desperate and when he doesn't call back it's because I'm fat and he would be embarrassed to be seen with me in any situtuation other than in total darkness after a night of drinking. Any port in storm, right?

I wish that someone had told me, all the time, that I was beautiful. I wish that I had known that beautiful isn’t what a fashion magazine or society or commercials on TV tells you it is. I wish that there had been an adult male in my life who had told me that I am beautiful because I’m a human being who is special and amazing and smart AND pretty and that any man who didn’t make me feel all of those things about myself isn’t worth my very valuable and precious time. I wish that my dad had told me I was gorgeous to him and that he would beat up anyone who tried to tell me different or made me feel less than that. I wish I had been given a benchmark with which to judge my adult relationships with men. Or, rather, a different benchmark. I wish that I hadn't been taught to EXPECT that my appearance wouldn't measure up and that I was capable of putting both actual and perceived rejection by men into a bucket NOT labeled "The Way I Look."

If I knew I was beautiful I wouldn’t grasp at any male attention that comes my way, no matter what sick and unhealthy and squalid human shell it is contained within. If I had known I was beautiful I wouldn’t have married either one of my husbands…not knowing then, as I do now, that just because someone asks (anything) doesn’t mean you have to (always) say “yes.” If I had known I was beautiful I would have told when someone touched me inappropriately, because I would have known that the attention I was getting was unhealthy and that my body was a valuable and wonderful thing to be treated with dignity and respect, not a vessel of constant betrayal and degradation.

If I knew I was beautiful I might try internet dating again…but after a month of vacillating on whether I was “curvy,” “normal,” or had “a few extra pounds,” I gave up when I read in a man’s ad that he KNEW that “curvy” was a euphemism for fat, and everyone knew that women on the internet did nothing but lie about their weight because they’re a bunch of “fatties” and anyone who wasn’t “slim or slender” need not apply. How can I ever face meeting a legion of men to whom I will be either a liar, a disappointment, or a brief rest stop on their way to finding the (acceptably thin) woman of their dreams?

I would literally sell my soul to be able to look in a mirror without spending an hour debating with myself whether or not I should be “allowed” to wear something (Heavens! What WILL people think!?), or to be able to go out with my friends and not feel like the fat, ugly friend…which I know intellectually that I am not, but which my heart and soul cannot seem to grasp, especially when I look at all my size 6 friends and hear them talking about how they're "so fat" and "gross."

My best friend M recently commented to me, “Did you ever think that people couldn’t tell you hate yourself?” And you know what? Yeah. I thought I was fooling a lot of people by being brash and ballsy and funny to hide a crater of insecurity the size of the Grand Canyon. Now I am trying to catch myself and stop when I find myself being self-deprecating or extremely irrational about my appearance, but, as they say, old habits die hard.

It has taken me years to come even this far in dealing with an issue that is so pervasive in our society, and I KNOW my parents did the absolute best they could. No one abused me. No one told me I was ugly or horrible. People told me I was smart and talented. But the most important man in my life, my hero, told me, both through words and actions, that my worth (partially? wholly?) as a human being was based on my appearance and then led me to believe that I (partially? wholly?) didn’t measure up, and I’m not sure I’ll ever work through that to a degree that allows me to be 100% comfortable with my body and appearance.

So, yes. Tell your daughters they are beautiful. All the time. Until they believe it, and know it, and don’t even have the ability to think any different. One of my law professors described a “habit” as “you would stop there even if the stop sign was missing one day.” That’s how your daughters should feel, that even if one day you’re not there to tell them how beautiful they are, they would still stop, mentally, and just *know* it. I’m sure many people will have different opinions on this issue, and I welcome all of them, but this has been my experience and as an adult I look back on a (overall) very happy childhood and just wish that I had been given the tools to deal with an adult world that is very focused on appearance, especially in women. I don’t have kids, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. But, I was a kid, and in some part of me, I’m still a kid, and I wish my dad would tell me I’m beautiful so I could stop looking in every mirror, store window, and reflection in a man's eyes, wondering if I am and what it means to my future if I’m not.

*One of the happiest memories of my childhood is my dad telling me that Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison was about me. I didn't know what the words meant, but I knew it was a song he loved and that I had brown eyes and that it made me feel pretty and that whenever it came on he would sing along and sometimes dance with me. I play it on every jukebox I come across. Every single one. I wrote this whole post without crying, but remembering this made me cry, because that's how powerful it is as a girl to know that your father thinks you are the best thing he ever did.
This blog is sponsored by The Reeves Law Group at 515 South Flower Street, 36th Floor. Los Angeles CA 90071. (213) 271-9318