Friday, September 12, 2008

(Pt.3 of 3) On Missing Genealogies, Or How I Learned I Was Ugly

Part 3: The Mirror

(Please read Part 1 and Part 2 first.)

Like, I suspect, most people with internet access, I learned to interpret real bodies with reference to fake bodies.

The real body I have came from my mom's and my dad's real bodies, and the bodies of their forbears. My general body type is mostly from my mom, I think, although my funny gait is definitely my dad's, and I got my red hair from my dad's side.

Those traits came to me thanks to genes, which are of course tiny little bits of bodies. And as you can tell from the fact that whatever great-aunt I got my red hair from is no longer living, the bodies that gave me the body I have are also bodies that die. Get sick, age, and die.

However: before I ever had any concept of any of that... before I understood that you get your body type from your parents... before I can even remember having a conscious thought about bodies... I had already learned that human bodies were fake bodies.

By which I mean, bodies in entertainment and advertising. Smooth, well-lit bodies with no rough places or saggy bits. Bodies that have been photoshopped, sculpted, rearranged and augmented. Bodies frozen in time. Bodies with no context: those fetching green eyes on the model in the perfume ad do not make you think, "Oh, you can tell she's Daisy's daughter," or "Oh, she always gets that look when she's impatient." They aren't meant to make you think anything but, "I feel inadequate yet vaguely titillated. I think I'll buy some perfume so I can be titillated AND adequate."

Those kind of bodies.

I can't remember a time when I didn't simply think that's what a normal female body was. A human female's body was smooth, lanky, unblemished, unwrinkled, intriguing, lovely. And, it moved product. You were a better person, I thought (still think?), the more your body approximated those fake bodies.

I'm an only child, so the only frankly real female body I saw, as a kid, was my mom's. My mom's body was not perfectly smooth, lanky, or taut. And because I had learned that a human female body was what print ads and television said it was, my mom's body looked monstrous to me. It looked monstrous to her, too, and she feared for me lest I be similarly afflicted. I picked up on that pretty early, her internalized hatred of her own body.

As I've said, I mostly got my body from my mom. But even more - and to connect this to the theme of female genealogies - I also got my visceral hatred of that body from her. That's not to say that it's her fault. Hell's bells, I am so SICK of mothers getting blamed for everything; almost as sick as I am of the beneficiaries of sexism wringing their hands and moaning, "Why do these silly women DO this to each other?"

I just mean that I learned how to be a woman from my mom; specifically I learned how to be a woman with a particular kind of body -- the one that she and I share. And a big part of that education involved getting very, very, very good at thinking of myself as a certain collection of physically-realized shortcomings.

(In fact, let's take it from (ha!) the top: Hair too thick and given to frizz, shamefully unable ever to be long and flowing. Face that is sallow and prone to breakouts. Circles under my eyes; even in high school a teacher would tell me I looked like someone had burned two holes in a sheet. Jaw too square. Smile vaguely reminiscent of the Joker in the 1989 Batman. Unfeminine shoulders. Squishy armpits that hang out of sleeveless shirts like two drunk frat boys yelling obscenities out the two back windows of a car. Saggy boobs. Ridiculously high waist. Long slack torso. Man hands. A belly that, after two kids, looks and feels mangled. Saddlebag thighs. Proportionally short legs. Rough knees. Big bulky calves. Boat feet that turn out funny, giving me a duck walk that I correct for even though doing so gives me hip pain. Ugly toes. And everything just too big. And that's... me. Hi. Pleased to meet you. No, really, I promise I have some beautiful qualities on the insi... oh, you're gone. Okay.)

Looking back, I wonder why my mom gave me some of the lessons she did. Like telling me about how she was the alternate on the cheerleading squad because although the coach said she was one of the most talented people to audition, she was a little chunky. Or the time that they got weighed in gym class, and her teacher was so astounded that she weighed ONE HUNDRED AND ELEVEN pounds that she blurted it out, gobsmacked, to the class. Or the rule that her mother had told her: a woman should weigh 100 pounds at five feet tall and five additional pounds for every inch above that.

I think all of these were said, at least in part, as cautionary tales for me lest I turn out as bad as she thought she was... but I wonder if, too, she was trying to clue me in about the kind of cruelty I could expect from the world?

Of course, like my mother, I have my collection of plain-girl autobiographical vignettes: dieting in the primary grades, enduring private-school-mean-girl torment in middle school, entering high school and then college and not believing that any boy could like me who wasn't a loser and so letting myself be treated unkindly by boys who most certainly were losers; discovering I was an incredibly talented actress but also discovering that it didn't matter because I wasn't pretty enough to make use of my talent... blah blah blah, if you've ever been the ugly weird kid you know exactly what I'm talking about, and if you haven't then you won't understand anyway although you will probably imagine that you do.)

I won't rehash those memories, but there are a few observations I'd like to make, in no particular order:

1) Part of my lessons in ugliness included instruction in how I was a class traitor. It was never stated that clearly, obviously. But my parents had come into a lot of money in their lifetimes, and I was a smart kid attending a super-fancy school in a super-fancy neighborhood. SO WHY (I somehow learned to scream at myself) DIDN'T I HAVE A NICE LANKY WASPY BODY THAT LOOKED GOOD IN UPPER-CLASS DESIGNER CLOTHES? Why did my body have to be the dead giveaway, the proof that my family was secretly vulgar, not beautiful or refined?

2) Learning to hate my body was the first kind of self-hatred I got really good at. And it made other kinds of self-hatred come much more naturally. For instance, I have a clear memory of being in third grade and really, really overreacting to another classmate doing something obnoxious to a box turtle I had found and brought in to show the class. I remember thinking, "Other kids don't react to things as intensely as I do. Other kids don't think so hard about things as I do. What's wrong with me? Why can't I be normal?" That's the first (of countless) times that I remember wishing away my intensity. And yet, by third grade I was already putting myself on diets without a thought. I was already looking in the mirror and spending ten minutes hating everything I saw.

3) I never felt as though I looked like myself. I felt, in other words, like my body and my personality didn't match up. Suppose you were casting a role in a play. Suppose the character was female, intense, intelligent, emotional, startlingly honest, and unceasingly creative. You would NOT cast someone who looked like me. You would cast someone -- and how well I have this image in my mind, having thought for years that it was who I really should have been and that my real body was some kind of horrible mistake! -- who had long flowing dark hair, clear pale skin, burning green eyes, and a willowy lanky body. (And I flag again, here, the fact that prettiness - as defined by the dominant culture - is terribly intertwined with racism; with whiteness serving to put prettiness more "within reach," even if it isn't sufficient to bring it about.) I could not play myself in a play, because nobody would believe I was that person. Functionally, as far as I could see, this meant that I was not, in fact, that person.


So what now?

For the first time in my life I'm dealing with this by plowing straight through it, for the whole Big Dark Barn of the internet to see.

I'm realizing that I will not, in this lifetime, ever achieve Pretty. That is one ideal I simply will never meet. I almost came close once, but that's in the past, on the other side of motherhood, and I'm only going to get further and further from Pretty.

I have not quite come to terms with my experience of pregnancy and birth as profoundly disfiguring. It scares me to see my own body following the pattern of my mom's body. She, too, was at her Prettiest before she had a child; she, too, found having a child disfiguring and has spent decades hating herself for getting uglier.

I am so thankful that I'm not raising daughters.

I wish I could be Pretty. I desperately wish I could be Pretty. I wish I could have a fake body that would better match the real me.

I'm angry at the cultural forces which taught me that "the real me" doesn't include my far-from-perfect real body. I'm angry at the cultural forces which ensure that self-hatred is part of my legacy from my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. No name, no marker of our connection; but instead a certain body type, and a way of hating it that has been honed for generations.

I wonder whether, if I were Pretty, other people would see someone intriguing, fetching, worth loving.

I'm frankly terrified that nobody will ever again look at me with a face full of love, interest, delight, acceptance, and recognition. I imagine decades stretching out ahead of me, and never being looked at that way again.


Rachel said...

There is a picture I've seen of two beautiful older people, who were obviously in love. They were in their 90's, old wrinkly...not beautiful anymore in how our society views them. But they you could tell they loved each other. I guess, that is what I want. Reminds me of the old Beatles songs, when I'm 64. I think there is more to being pretty then our society really knows or understands. In my mind, that couple was beautiful! Thanks for sharing your story. Rachel

bon said...

Gonna have to write my own post.

But I really must say, it's actually TOO BAD that you are not raising daughters. The things that I have learned from looking at my daughters faces and bodies, and seeing my own body and face tweaked and sent back into the world; I cannot take my eyes off of the breathtaking beauty I see before me. I suppose that it helps that Dadguy added some extra lovely genetics of his own... but there is so MUCH of me and my "flaws" to see. I understand my own beauty so much better. Is not in the stillshot.. is in the gleam of my eye. Is not in the hourglass of my figure (or even better, the waif-like fragility) is in the functionality of this amazing body of mine.

I am almost mystified by my parents dissatisfaction with me and my body. The only time I heard anything about my pretty-ness it came with caveats; if only you would... hold in you tummy... don't stand like that...

What the hell were they looking at?

bon said...

Dude... I am SO glad you are blogging again!

estherar said...

I had (have) the pretty mother. The problem is that I'm the spitting image of my father. And let me tell you, his looks and large build don't look awfully good on a female.

Funny thing is, I am raising a daughter. And though she is the spitting image of non-pretty me, she's the most beautiful girl in the world, bar none...