Reflecting back on the last few weeks with all the cruel and salacious attacks on several women in the public eye for their weight and appearance by the media and general public, I struggled with a growing unease. If someone as beautiful as Kim Kardashian (who honestly I can't be arsed about) is called fat and mocked while pregnant, how does that reflect on women as a whole? What made me even more uncomfortable was to see authors under fire. I stumbled across some very snarky comments leveled at two successful New York Times Bestselling authors on a popular celebrity site. Though one of the women has been accused of being plagiarizer (which is a very serious charge), most of the people were mocking her weight and appearance. Even on Facebook I noticed an increase in memes mocking skinny women and declaring "Real women have curves," or ones mocking the weight of Americans by showing overweight women.
As someone who avoids looking at their own photographs, I felt increasingly ill at ease with the nastiness being hurled at women. I began to feel uncomfortable in my own skin.
Then I realized my relief stemmed from my own issues connected to my appearance.
Last week I saw this amazing video by Dove's Real Beauty campaign and it reduced me to tears and made me face the truth.
I won't lie. It hit very close to my heart. I knew if I had been one of the women in the commercial the image that my description would have created would have been quite hideous.
You see I have spent a huge portion of my life being more cruel and abusive to myself over my appearance than anyone else ever could be. In fact, if someone calls me "fat" or "ugly" it doesn't even phase me because most of my life I have pretty much agreed.
In the last few days I've dug deep to find the roots of this destructive self-hatred.
My first memory of criticism of my appearance surrounds a family portrait that was taken when I was around five or six. I was incredibly excited about the portraits because I got to wear a new outfit, socks, and shoes. I remember getting ready to go to the studio, taking the photos, then waiting anxiously for the portraits to arrive. For some reason, I was just enthralled with the whole process. When the portraits did finally come, I immediately regretted ever being excited.
I've worn glasses since I was very small. I was born with awful vision. I had a new pair of glasses and they hadn't fully been broken in by the time we took the photos. My ears are slightly misaligned so my glasses tend to sit awkwardly on my nose until one side bends and evens out the line. Well, that new pair of glasses sat at an angle across my face partially obscuring one eye. My father berated me over this "flaw" in the photo. He was furious with me. I still remember sobbing as he told me how much money he'd wasted on worthless pictures and how everyone who saw them in our Christmas cards would make fun of me. It was one of the first times in my life I dealt with his rage and certainly not the last. (I do not have a relationship with him and haven't for over twenty years.) He would continue to critique and mock my photos throughout my childhood. (I don't think my mom is even aware of this story, by the way.)
I've not been able to look at a photo of myself without shredding my appearance to pieces my entire life.
In the 1970's an "all-American beauty" meant blond hair, blue eyes, and a tan from the sun, not genetics. All the baby dolls and Barbie dolls stocking the toy stores were blond and blue eyed. The sex icon of that time was Farrah Fawcett. In books, films, and TV shows, most often the heroine was a blond with big blue eyes, the villainess was most likely a brunette. As a kid I absorbed all of this, looked in the mirror and saw a black-eyed, dark olive-skinned, brunette staring back at me. I knew from a very young age I was anything other than pretty according to the beauty standards upheld by the media.
Living in a largely Hispanic community, I quickly shot up in height over the heads of the other girls. I literally towered over most of them. By 10 I hit puberty and took on the curvy shape of my mother's side of the family. I longed to be petite (most of the girls were shorter than 5 foot 2 in junior high, I was five foot six), small boned, straight haired, and small-breasted. I literally remember walking down the halls and being able to stare over the heads of almost everyone else - boys and girls - for years. It didn't help that my breasts drew a lot of ire from other girls. I was called a slut many times before I actually knew what a slut actually was.
So I wasn't a petite, straight haired girl. I wasn't the tall, skinny, blond, blue eyed girl. I was none of those things. I looked in the mirror and saw masses of dark curls, a big nose, small lips, and a severe lack of cheekbones. By my teens, my self hatred had reached epic proportions. I could barely look in the mirror.
My mother (who is such a great person) realized I was struggling and took me to see a film at the library during a special summer event. Sophia Loren was the lead actress. I had never seen such a beautiful woman in my entire life. She had dark skin and hair like me and a figure very much like my mother. I was enthralled.
Though I wasn't completely cured of my self-hatred, I did slowly start to accept that I would never look like Christie Brinkley.
Of course, I also grew up around other girls who were being taught to hate their own looks. We all learned very young that to hurt another girl you just had to call her "fat" and/or "ugly." Those two words could shred any girl. Sadly, as an adult, I still hear those words hurled by women at other women.
Throughout my teens and twenties I struggled to overcome my intense hatred of my looks. I couldn't look in a mirror or see a photo without internally ticking off everything that was wrong with me. It wasn't until a trip to Italy that I finally felt beautiful. Seriously, the attention I got was obscene. And, to my surprise, the blond, blue eyed girls from Australia were not the women getting all attention. It was me. Of course, the second I was back in the States, all the self-hatred came flooding back, but for a short period of time I knew what it felt like to be pretty.
I wouldn't feel that way again until I met my husband. When he looks at me, I feel pretty. He's the only person in this world that makes me feel like I'm attractive and desirable. It took me years though to actually believe he found me beautiful.
In fact, it took me YEARS to learn how to accept compliments. Years! To this day, if someone compliments me I struggle to believe them. It's hard to drown out the voice inside my own head.
Yet, in a weird way it's made me strangely immune to people attacking me and my looks. A few years ago another woman hurled the dreaded "fat and ugly" phrase at me and it slid off of me like water. I have called myself much worse.
Yet, in the last six months or so I have realized its time to fight back against that internal voice. It's time to fight back against that horrible programming in my head. I honestly can't look at a photo of myself without tearing my appearance apart, but at least I do try to look at them now. I'm always amazed at how some people post a billion photos of themselves when I struggle to just post one. I have sat and untagged photos from book signings and conventions just so I don't have an anxiety attack. But recently I have even forced myself to take self-portraits and put them on facebook. It's very, very hard to do so. When at appearances, when people take photos, I feel stark fear inside myself, but I have started to remind myself that they just want to document meeting a writer who's work they enjoyed.
I don't want my nieces to feel the way I do. I don't want any other woman to feel this way. It's horrible. It's destructive. And it robs so much joy out of life.
In a society that judges a woman so harshly on their appearance, how do we fight back? How do I fight back?
I'm not sure. But I'll start by posting a photo.
This is me and PJ Hoover, another Tor author, at BookPeople last week. We had a great panel and a lot of fun. When I first looked at this photo, I started ripping myself to shreds, then forced myself to stop. Instead, I concentrated on remembering how much fun I had, how nice PJ was, and focusing on things I do like about myself: my eyes, my smile, and my hair.
I will never be as beautiful as a celebrity, actress, or model, but I am who I am. I have love in my life, a career that's wonderful, and a life full of goodness.
Someday that evil voice inside of my head that whispers that I'm worthless due to my lack of physical perfection will be gone.