Friday, July 08, 2011

Eye of the Beholder

Every girl, young and old, has to face her own reflection.
Twirl around, stare it down…what’s the mirror gonna say?”*
I was in third grade when I learned that there was something wrong with me.  I’m not sure how I regarded myself before that point…whether or not I knew that I was damaged.  I’d like to think that I was oblivious…that I went tearing through those first few years of my life happily unaware of my condition…blissful and content with myself.  Unfortunately, I can’t recall.
My pediatrician was the one to give my parents the news.  My memory of her is that she was a harsh woman, but what she lacked in bedside manner she compensated with expertise.  When I was a baby, she got me through a close call with a strep-induced high fever; my parents trusted her completely.  I remember her walking in the exam room after my third grade physical.  She gravely told us that I was overweight for my height and that my mother needed to deal with it right away.  She gave Mom a handful of literature…including a green book with meal plans and a graph in the back to record the changes in my weight.  I was to be weighed weekly and my progress charted.  She expected to see improvement by my next appointment. 
My mother worked hard to implement the plan.  I was no longer allowed to eat the plentiful cake and cookies that were always in the house.  My meals were portioned and based the green book plan.  I was banned from sweet tea and soda.  I tried to do what the green book said, but I was miserable a lot.  More than anything, I wanted to please my parents, but I didn’t seem to be shrinking like the book said I should.  I became terrified of the weekly weigh-ins…afraid that I’d miss the mark and they’d be disappointed.  The graph never seemed to go down very much.  I’m not sure that my parents were ever really pleased.
And so began the war.  I was eight years old.
“With some luck, you’ll measure up…
But you might not hold a candle to the rest.
“Is that your best?” says the Mirror to the Mess”*
I learned to compensate.  It was clear in my adolescent mind that no one was ever going to want to be around me “as is” – I was broken, officially, on the outside and my efforts to fix the broken parts weren’t working.  I took an accounting of my strengths and began emphasizing them.  I was smart…so I took “good student” to the next level.  I was nice…so I became a solidly reliable friend, no matter how I was treated in return.  I was talented…so I sang in church and performed in plays.  I never spoke out or stood up for myself for fear of losing the tenuous acceptance I’d gained.  I couldn’t take too many risks for fear of disappointing the people around me.  I never trusted that relationships would last unless I did everything just right.  I learned to read the reactions of others to judge whether or not I was measuring up to their expectations…and I learned how to adjust.
But even as I rose to every occasion, I always felt as though I was faking it, somehow.  Behind the outgoing, smart, funny face I showed to the world, my internal monologue reminded me that it was all tenuous…whispering in my ear that at any moment they could notice the horrible truth of my body and everything would crumble.  Occasionally, this voice was validated.  My best friend’s retort during a middle school argument was “Well, at least I can keep my weight down!”  My mom’s words have echoed in my head since I was sixteen:  “You know, if you’d lose some weight, you just might get a boyfriend…”
And there it was…the secret truth I’d always feared:  without that measure of tangible beauty, my value was marginal.
“But there’s a whisper in the noise…
Can you hear a little voice?
It says ‘Has anybody told you you’re beautiful?’”*
It wasn’t until the year after I graduated college that I finally looked in the mirror and saw a legitimately beautiful woman staring back at me.  I almost didn’t recognize her, even after I spent a long moment marveling at the reflection.  I could still see all the flaws:  I was still overweight…I was still single…I was still insecure and self-conscious.  But in that moment, it didn’t quite matter. This person with my face was…lovely! 
I saw myself for the first time that day.  It had taken me sixteen years.
The years that followed were characterized by fits and starts in the journey to self-acceptance.  I’d swing on the pendulum between confidence and terror, still warring with a body that was “too large” but slowly realizing that I had value anyway.  I began to date…and I learned to be less hurt by the qualified compliments I was offered (“Actually, you’re really cute for a big girl!”)…and I fell in love a time or two.  When I was in a relationship or things were going really well in my life, I could see and accept that I was beautiful.  In the face of rejection, however, the old voice found its volume to remind me of everything that I wasn’t.
I was gaining ground, but the battle wasn’t won.
“Close your eyes…look inside
Let me see the you that you’ve been trying to hide”*
But after 33 years of fighting, I’m ready for the war to be over.  I’ve been carrying this story…this pain…around with me for much too long.  I decided this week that it’s time to set it free.  It’s time to steal the power away from the naysayer in my head.  It’s time to give my adolescent self a voice…and to let my beautiful, grown-up self give the adolescent-me the love and encouragement that she needed years ago.  It’s time to reinterpret the hurtful parts of the story.
Did you know, for example, that children don’t grow proportionately?  They grow out…and then up…fatter, then taller.  I know this because my son’s pediatrician told me…and I know it because I’ve watched it happen with him.  I’d be willing to bet that my parents didn’t know it at the time.  And I’d be willing to bet that if they had, they would have reacted differently to the news that third-grade day.  I know that my mom struggled with her own weight, so it had to have been painful and scary for her to hear that I might struggle too…and terrifying for her to consider that she would have to help me conquer something she’d not yet conquered herself. 
And I’m sure it was frustrating to deal with an angst-ridden teenager carrying eight years of body-image insecurity around…and I’m certain I pushed my mom’s patience to the limit.  As a parent, I know exactly how it feels to lash out at my child in frustration…then desperately wish, in the very same instant, that I could draw the words back in and un-say them.   My mother’s words in my sixteenth year were painful, but I know that she didn’t mean to hurt me…nor did those who have qualified their compliments over the years.  We sometimes open our mouths and get it all wrong…even when our hearts are in a place of good intention.
 “If it’s true that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder,
I want my life and what’s inside to be something to behold.”*
The inner critic still tries, from time to time, to whisper these old stories…to make me feel bad about myself.  I’m just growing less and less inclined to listen.  Someone told me earlier in the week that my level of confidence and comfort with myself is impressive – and I didn’t even bother to argue.  I’m growing more self-assured and relaxed with each passing moment…and ever more satisfied with the beautiful person I’ve become.  These adolescent struggles ultimately allowed me to evolve into the woman I am today.  For that, I will be grateful for every painful moment of growth that I’ve endured.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the most important eyes are our own.  Beauty isn’t just an external validation…it is an internal state of acceptance that radiates outward.  We all long for the unqualified compliment from others, but we have to start by being unqualified with ourselves.  When I look in the mirror now, I see the deep-seated glow of a woman growing ever-more satisfied not only with her own beauty, but with the beauty of the life she’s created. 
And that is truly something stunning to behold.
“Has anybody told you you’re beautiful?
You might agree if you could see what I see….
‘Cause everything about you is incredible!
You should have seen me smile, the day that I made you
beautiful for me.”*

*Accompaniment credit goes to Nichole Nordeman’s lovely ballad “Beautiful for Me”.


miss shirley said...

I can't find adequate words to respond to this post. You are beautiful, inside and out, and I am so glad we are friends.

MBF said...

Wow...just, Beautifully written by a beautiful lady I'm proud to call my friend.