Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Hello, Goodbye Mirror

When I was six I had a strong and sure sense of my girl power. So confident was I that when I asked the boy in my class who had a crush on me - how did I even know this, I wonder now? - to dive into a cafeteria garbage can filled with milk cartons, banana peels, and chicken à la king to retrieve my ring, which had slipped off as I dumped out my own school lunch, my plastic ring, a trinket from a cereal box, I knew that he would oblige me.

And he did. When he emerged triumphant from the garbage, chicken cubes and peas decorating his shirt, arms, and face, a badge of second-grade boy honor, perhaps, I smiled serenely, for I was anything but surprised to see the ring in his now grubby hand.

Why did I feel no shame to have manipulated a boy to whom I'd never given the time of day? Why did I believe that I'd merely exercised my right?


By fourth grade I saw the flip side of girl power, and it came in the form of my muscular thighs. Too big, I declared them, and started sitting with legs crossed to minimize the impact of all that flesh. Although it would not be unfair of me to implicate my father in seeding this preoccupation, my father who had discussed with me the circumference of my upper legs with a rather high degree of concern, he was not present enough in my life to do real damage. My mother's obsession with her weight, shored up as it was by television ads - oh, I watched a lot of television - did the trick.

Whatever the causes, singly and in combination, they worked on my sense of my physical self until I believed myself thoroughly unlovable by the opposite sex. Through college, when arguably I was in the best shape of my life, I believed myself unworthy of a man's attention, and treated anyone interested in me in an uncomplicated way with disrespect for his suspect choices in all things, for it was a small leap between choice in mate to choice in all things, was it not?


So what happened? Did I change so much in twenty years that these dramatic shifts in self-perception were warranted?

Of course not.

It was never how I looked. It was only ever how I believed myself to look. The same girl looked back at me in the mirror - but for growing taller and becoming less girl and more woman - year after year after year. It was my brain that distorted the image.

I expect that my devolution, from perception of self as desirable and powerful to perception of self as unworthy and powerless, is a familiar slide to most who share my gender.

And it is also true that in my forties I am more comfortable in my own skin than I have been since I was six years old and bossing poor Jonny into the trash can. Ironic, because objectively I was prettiest in college, at the precise time I thought myself ugliest.

Still, the girl power I possessed so casually - even thoughtlessly - at six years old eludes me. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I wish I could summon elements of her back to me to use every now and then as the occasion dictates. Failing that, I'd like simply to meet her, shake her hand, get to know her again.


V said...

Yes, it is all what we project. I was a skinny, gawky teen with features a bit too big for my narrow face and no curves to speak of. While I was self-conscious about my appearance, I was confident about my Self. I was 15 when I began dating and my first boyfriend was in college. I dated him for two years and always had guys asking me out. It certainly wasn't my looks. I never had that "sexy" thing going nor did I have "pretty," but I always attracted quality guys with my personality. Thank God!

Helen said...

Once again, you write a personal story that will resonate with so many - the key to good memoir, I think. Your recollections have me looking back to a girl of 10 or 12 who was confident and, even competitive. Growing up in England, I attended a private all-girls school where confidence and competition were prevalent. I was used to a place where your class standing was posted for all to see. And then I moved to California and to a co-ed (rather rough/tough) Jr. high. I was teased for my outspokenness, my sense that you should take your lumps, broadcast your successes and own your individuality. I think I might have actually laughed at girls who called each other in the morning to talk about what they were going to wear to school. I might have used the word, "ridiculous." But, pretty soon, the teasing made it's mark and I no longer spoke my mind; I no longer took pride in a good grade. I was desperate to make friends, and I started on a path of poor choices. I lost my footing. Two weeks ago, I opened a box (hello Pandora) with all my journals, writings and poems, from my early teens. And now I read them with the perspective of having daughters in their teens. Reading those pages makes me want to go back and help that girl who was so confused and so desperately wanting to be thin. How could I not believe I was an appropriate size?? I was 5'6" and weighed 123lbs. Each page of my diary had my weight, circled, at the top of the page. By today's standards, I would be borderline underweight. Thank you for your writing, Sarah, every word and every insight.

Mary Gilmour said...

Now I have something to look forward to for the whole month! Cheering.
And yes! Body image warp nine is something that gets most of us. You sound just like my younger daughter ... Or me for that matter, a quarter century earlier.
A most thought provoking piece.

Nicole said...

Body image stuff, yes. I know that I'm in good shape, but occasionally I'll be suddenly appalled by my body, and suddenly I will just feel terrible and ugly and all wrong. It's like being 13 again.

Christine said...

I was the opposite--I had NO sense of power or beauty or self worth as a child. It is only now that I am finding it...sort of.