I was glaring at my butt in the mirror.
After two pregnancies, it was a lot flatter and lumpier than I would like it to be. I fancied my rear was like a pat of butter melting down the backs of my thighs.
You’d think, considering the years I’ve put into convincing other women to love and accept themselves, that this sort of thing wouldn’t be a problem for me. But my self-hatred is implanted too deeply. Just knowing it’s there isn’t enough to make it disappear. Peggy Orenstein makes this point in Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girly-Girl Culture:
“As for so many women, the pathology of self-loathing is permanently ingrained in me. I can give in to it, I can modify it, I can react against it with practiced self-acceptance, but I cannot eradicate it. It frustrates me to consider what else I might have done with the years of mental energy I have wasted on this single, senseless issue.” 1
I consider the time I’ve just missed, and the energy I’ve wasted, hating my own flesh.
I should be amazed by myself. I should be thinking about how I graduated college in spite of an anxiety disorder, PTSD, undiagnosed ADHD, and having a surprise baby. Or about the times I’ve spoken up on my postpartum depression and how isolating motherhood can be, even in church, where we all pretend it’s a cotton candy dream. I should be amazed! Instead I defer to the impossible measuring stick of “hotness.”
Iron corsets and sixteen-inch waists are long out of style, but striving for today’s “beauty” can be just as crushing, because the ideal is calculated so that every woman falls short. The companies that sell makeup and pills for weight control do not care about women’s health or happiness. They care about money. And the more deficient they can make us feel, the more money they make. An industry worth billions hinges on convincing women and even girls that our eyelashes are too short, our lips and breasts not plump enough, our hair the wrong texture, our skin the wrong shade. We grow up believing that cellulite lessens our value as people. This is our “pathology of self-loathing.”
Back to me, staring at my rear in the mirror. I had an epiphany: about the summer I ran a merchant’s booth at a medieval festival with my roommates.
It began with the woman in the next booth, who sold jewelry and belly dancing accessories.
Ah, the forbidden fruit of belly-dancing. It seemed to have extra appeal among my free-spirited BYU friends. For a while there had even been a “Modest Bellydancing Club” at the University, but the year before they’d been shut down on a technicality. As appealing as bellydancing sounded, my prudish side kept me from enjoying the art in all its wiggly-jiggly glory.
So when this woman caught me wistfully contemplating her wares and offered me a lesson, I accepted like a child sneaking a cookie before dinner.
The woman’s gray hair fell loose to her waist, and her voice was low and firm. When I mentioned I was getting married in two months, she said,
“Well you found me just in time then! Your fiancé will thank me for this.”
Which resulted in probably the brightest blush she’d ever seen.
She smiled, her eyes solid.
“When you dance, every move comes from your stomach. From the inside,” she told me. “Do you do your Kegels?”
I had no idea what Kegels were. Coming from this woman, who seemed bizarrely confident in her body for her age, I wasn’t sure I should know what they were.
“Ah, sometimes,” I mumbled, my virginal ignorance extreme.
“You should do them every day,” she told me, sternly, “you’ll live longer.”
I drank in her advice, still skittish over the ominous Kegel and all the figurative cookies I was stuffing in my face.
“Your shoulders,” she said, “should be back, and your breasts proud.”
When I looked at this woman’s body, I saw saggy and round–hardly someone I would have pictured as having “proud breasts.” Her brash use of the word “breasts” threw me for a loop, too. I wasn’t used to being around people who were so very…comfortable with their bodies.
Now, with hindsight, I can see the disconnect clearly. At 22, I was uncomfortably familiar with being sexualized, but had no ownership of my sexuality. Catcalls, poking, grabbing, whistling, and “compliments” of every variety had started when I was small and then increased yearly once I began to put on fat in the right places. I quickly got the sense that male approval of my appearance was essential to my self-worth, as well as dangerous to my safety and theirs. By the time I graduated high school, I recognized my body as a thing to be openly evaluated by strangers and family members, but not as a home I could live in. “Pretty” was all I had that mattered, but it was never enough, and everybody owned it but me.
I couldn’t even identify my breasts as being mine, let alone “hold them proud.”
No wonder I craved the physical expression of belly dance. No wonder I felt guilty for wanting it, and confused when my teacher tried to tell me that the dance was about me–not the men watching.
I saw my teacher perform later that week. She wore traditional muted colors and carried a curved silver sword. As she danced, I realized what she meant by “proud breasts”. She danced strength. She danced control. Each roll of her hip declared, “I am whole.” Sword balanced on her head, she showed me: hold your shoulders back, breasts proud, because your power is rooted in movement, in breath. Feel that dignity with every step because your body bears the marks of growth, of pain, of living. And dance from the inside with a body well-used, a self well-loved.
I can’t dance like that yet, but I practice every day.
1Orenstein, Peggy. Cinderella Ate My Daughter. (p 141)