It's a weird time for me right now. I'm facing a health issue that threatens to take away something that is very important to me, something around which I have built my identity and sense of self-worth since I was 11 years old. (It's not being pretty, BTW.) My pastor seems to see right through me. She encouraged me to write about my sense of self-worth that is deeper than any skill I might have or how I look or anything. My inherent worth. I just stopped by to give her the update on the health issue, and then wham, she nailed it. How did she know? And then came the tears I didn't know I was holding back. And I see that I have lots of issues about not being pretty.
I was shopping with my mom this weekend. She was a teen in the 50's, the era of pointy pumps, and now she has problems with her feet. They hurt her a lot. She wanted a pair of sandals that were comfortable, but the first pair I thought she might like didn't have a heel. Okay, I revise my search image. She wants a pair of comfortable high heel sandals. I can't figure that out - I am only 44 and have given up on heels. If you want comfort, step one is flats. After a while I figure out she wants the sandals to wear with dresses to church, so she won't have to wear pantyhose this summer. She says HAVE to wear pantyhose, but I don't even own a pair of pantyhose. I go bare-legged with dresses all the time and never think a thing about it. But they were more formal back in the day. So okay, high heeled sandals dressy enough to wear to church. The next pair shows too much of her ugly feet, she says. She has a bunion. God forbid that anyone should see it. I look at her feet - I cannot see anything wrong with them. The bunion is right where that ball is beneath the big toe, so that point sticks out a little further. Her foot tapers in a graceful line away from the widest point where the bunion is. She laughs a little, realizing that comfortable high heeled sandals that don't show much of her feet is a tall order. Meanwhile I am wondering how it feels to be in your 70's and so concerned about your ugly feet and your bare legs that you can't just wear some comfy shoes.
Your appearance is one of the most important things about you. Did you get that message? My mom sure did. She's not shallow, I don't mean that. She's a great person: loving, compassionate, intelligent, and generous. Outspoken about things that matter. She dumped her hairdresser for airing her bigoted, racist, homophobic views everytime she did her hair. Wrote her a letter and told her if her gay friends, her black friends, and her hispanic friends weren't welcome in that salon then she didn't want to be there either. She agonized over it. She hates conflict, but she wanted the woman to know why she left. That was when I changed her ring tone on my phone to that quote from River Song: "I was on my way to a gay, gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled when I suddenly thought, 'Gosh, the Third Reich's a bit rubbish. I think I'll kill the Führer. Who's with me?" Every time she calls I think how proud I am of her. She's awesome. But why does she think she needs to hide her feet?
I'm not judging so much as trying to figure out why we are so different. There's nothing wrong with wearing makeup or being interested in fashion, and maybe one reason I'm not into it is that I don't think I have that much to work with. I never felt pretty enough so not making an effort is a way of saying I think there are more important things about me. I don't want to buy into it, not anymore. Now I admire those women who are always put together. There can be something heroic about keeping up your appearance as you get older. I get that, but I'll just have to be heroic in other ways. The whole endeavor makes me tired. My mom gets her hair styled every week. She never learned to do it herself, and she's never happy with it. She APOLOGIZES for her HAIR. Again, I don't see the problem.
I lean more towards the hippie aesthetic. I grow mine long enough that I can put it in a ponytail if it gets on my nerves. I wash it, brush it, let it air dry. Sometimes I put it up. That's the extent of my styling routine. I feel like I burnt out the concern-with-appearance sensor my sophomore year of high school. I used to get up at 6 to wash it, blow dry it, hot roll it, brush it out upside down, tweak the ends with a curling iron, and lacquer it with spray while holding the hair dryer close to the hair above my ears held tightly away from my face with my other hand. I made my hair defy gravity. Every day. Once at a summer camp on a college campus, I slept through my alarm and woke to my friends coming to walk to the cafeteria with me. I can't go, I told them. I'll have to skip breakfast. I have to fix my hair. They insisted so I threw on my clothes and went. I felt SO self-conscious going through the line, but no one seemed to notice. After that I paired down the routine and slept til 7. It was better after that. Well, hair was. Of course I still had my body to worry about.
I first felt fat in 6th grade when I hit 100 pounds at 5'2". Thighs! The horror! I started wearing skirts to hide them. Everyone thought I had to wear skirts because my dad was a preacher. Umm, he's not that kind of preacher, and you've known me for three years, so you ought to know that isn't why. But I didn't really want to say it was to hide my fat thighs. I got boobs and my period long before anyone else in my class. Yay. Let's skip some steps and talk about being size 14. Too fat to get a date, that seemed clear to me. Nobody ever seemed to like me back. Could it have been that I kept falling in love with guys who were gay? Did I fall in love with people who weren't interested in me on purpose, so that I could win their love and therefore prove my worth to myself? Every day of high school I dressed to get the love of some boy. I went to school primarily to get a boy to like me. Throughout the day, it was my guiding principle. I flirted so hard. It seemed to turn guys off. Maybe they were intimidated by me, maybe I was just too intense. Maybe I was just in a different place and interested in different things than boys my age and it would be college before I started dating. Or maybe I was just not pretty enough. Guess which explanation I believed.
Mom wanted to bond with me over clothes. She always would turn the conversation back to something she thought we'd both want to talk about. "So what are you going to wear tomorrow?" I hated that question. I don't know why, since I clearly WAS putting a lot of thought into my appearance. But it felt like there was a pressure to look good inherent in the question. Pressure from the inside was so intense I could not stand the slightest hint of pressure from the outside. And I'm not a planner. I'd wake up and dress according to my mood, trying different combinations, throwing rejected items on the bed. Poor Mom, maybe she was hoping to cut down on the laundry. I am embarrassed to say I never did my own laundry til I was in college. Clothes magically appeared in my closet clean and pressed. We did go shopping together. How I hated shopping. Pressure to try on something I knew I'd hate once I put it on. "Just try it!" Those mirrors. The self-loathing. The curvy body that just didn't fit in those tailored clothes. My body. Me. Not good enough, still not good enough.
I went through a period in junior high where I decided I would not wear makeup to church. Church was the one place where it shouldn't matter what I look like, right? I think people thought I was trying to be holier than them, but we weren't that kind of church. I never judged anybody else for wearing makeup, far from it. It just seemed like a lot of effort never to look as good as they did no matter how carefully I applied it. I was good at makeup, it was just my face, you know. There's only so much you can do. I can't win this competition, I thought, so I'm bowing out. I'm not playing this game. I went to church looking like a ghost. Mom said, "At least put on some lipstick!" Lipstick without foundation makes me look worse, I thought. I'm not in this. It's not about how I look. It's something else, it has to be.
I have this funny memory of looking around my classroom in junior high. There was something pretty about all the girls. With makeup and hairstyling we could all find some way to be pretty. The boys were all in an awkward stage. I almost felt sorry for them because they couldn't use makeup and curling irons to make themselves look better. The irony that we were trying so hard to impress these boys who didn't have to try at all was not lost on me. Some boy I'd picked out to like was leaning over his assignment and I looked from behind at the one small head and shoulders on which I had dumped all these intense feelings. It seemed ridiculous to me for a moment that I should need him to like me so much. He was just some kid. He did not hold within his chest the answer to all my doubts about myself. The moment passed of course. If only he would ask me to "go with" him, I'd be worthy, like the other girls with boyfriends, which I assumed they all had in the absence of evidence. When I think of what else I might have done with my energy, for years - a library full of books, worlds to explore, projects to create that weren't about boys... I was a smart girl, but a fat lot of good it did me. Being smart was not as good as being pretty when it came to boys. Everyone knew that.
So why did I assign the job of finding me worthy to one random boy after another and abandon that work myself? And now years later, very happily married for 15 years to a guy who gets me and loves this face, this body, exactly as they are, why am I still carrying around those feelings of not being good enough? I could make more of an effort with my appearance, but the more attention I pay to it, the more important it seems in my mind and the worse I feel. In so many ways I am so much healthier than I ever was. This not making much of an effort with my appearance, it isn't just low self-esteem like I said before. It's a defense mechanism against a world that says being pretty is the most important thing. And it's just not that interesting to me. I'd rather spend half an hour on the computer in the morning before work, filling my head with ideas. Why does that seem like such a revolutionary act sometimes?