"Everyone says you're ugly anyway."
It's just been that kind of week and this was my nine-year-old daughter's response to the standard mother-daughter talk about how all body types are beautiful and true beauty is in our hearts and actions--you know, those modern truisms that we pass around to try to feel good and keep the horrible self-loathing at bay.
She has mentioned this before. The first time she came home with tales about what other--kids and some adults--say about me. she was six and there was hurt in her eyes. But she's over it now. Now she has internalized the social norms.
"What if I get fat?" she asks and there is terror in her voice that runs deep... so deep.
I grind my teeth. I don't know which part to react to first. Her terror infuriates me more than anything. This is what scares you? Not failing a test at school, not monsters, not climate change... she's terrified of getting fat?
I want to tell her first off that if she gets fat, she'll be fat. So what?
She'll have lap-room for more than one kid, she'll have glorious curves and she'll look like an ancient goddess figurine. She'll also be more likely to have knee problems, heart problems and other health issues, if she gets fat. It's not all a goddess picnic. But I also want to scream at her and tell her to get worried about something worth worrying about.
And at the same time, when I see that terror in her eyes, I want to snuggle her close and tell her that she is very unlikely to get fat. I'm her mother, but she doesn't have my genes and she's physically active, loves salad, already wants to be a vegetarian and shows absolutely no signs of gaining any extra. You can't help but want to sooth terror, even if you know that the very soothing is insidious psychological poison.
My body is thick and heavy. I walk a couple of miles a day on average. I can't drive a car because of my vision impairment, so that's just what happens. Recently I've started using an electric scooter because of problems with the bones in my legs. So to get exercise I run on an elliptical machine. I also garden heavily and run herd on hyperactive kids. My Apple Watch at least thinks I have a pretty active lifestyle.
My genes couldn't care less. A physical therapist recently shook her head over my legs, saying, "Looking at the muscles in your legs, you look like an athlete." My legs are mostly hard muscle, except high on my thighs where the muscle is covered with a layer of fat. And higher still, I carry a round Buddha-belly worthy of a goddess figurine.
But that isn't the only reason my daughter hears people--both kids and adults--make negative remarks about her mother's body. My eyes have a permanent and severe squint, because I've been legally blind since birth. My pupils move erratically and I'm told it is disconcerting--to say the least--to fully sighted people.
Given all that, it isn't very inspiring to try to be a fashion queen. I've been lucky to find good, professional clothes that fit me in the last few years. It probably isn't all the latest fashion and features a lot of slimming blacks and dark blues, but I just get dressed, make sure everything is clean and wrinkle-free and go.
I don't wear make-up. No amount of make-up is going to make my eyes appealing and I'd rather not emphasize the issues. My face has an unfortunate habit of turning red when I'm excited or exerting myself. But I'm not crazy about the chemicals in most affordable make-up and hair dye, so my hair is going gray, which I actually find rather pretty in my own non-standard assessment. I personally don't like the look of make-up either. So some small part of my appearance is personal choice.
But I'll be blunt. I have never gone out in public dirty, smelly or with uncombed hair or even with rumpled clothes. And yet there are enough people saying negative things about my appearance that my terrified little girl says, "Everyone says you're ugly." And this is when she is in a somber mood, not when she's mad at me.
This isn't just a two-way relationship between me and my daughter. This is a three-way conversation and one of the three sides is the commonly expressed social norms of our society.
But society likes to pretend that it has no part at all. Every day or two, some version of a feel-good, "every person's body is beautiful" meme comes across my social media feed. There is never any discussion around these, just a lot of hearts and thumbs up and smiles. No one ever mentions the reality of having a body that is widely seen as distinctly unbeautiful--a physical disability or illness or a shape or a face that doesn't conform to current--or any--beauty standards.
Those memes make me as sick as the rest of it. I know the people who send them, generally mean well, but mostly they do not open their professional or social circles to people who are considered less attractive no matter what their memes say. We like to say it doesn't matter, but it does matter--to what kind of job you can get, to what kind of community involvement you can have and to how you are treated on a daily basis in simple things like the grocery check-out line.
This past week one such meme was specifically about communicating this universal beauty myth to our daughters. I have said it to my daughter many times, the same sentiments as in the poem. I tell her how grateful I am for my body, for the health and energy that come from healthy living.
We are almost never sick in this family, even though we are four people and none of us is actually genetically related to any other. It astounds the pediatrician that my children and I stay so healthy through the winter while their classrooms are only half full due to illness. We probably do have some genetic luck, but it is also the result of good nutrition, activity and careful use of medicinal herbs.
I am thankful that my hands are nimble and strong, that I can sew and build a rock wall and do a great many other things. I am thankful for what vision I have, even if it's supposedly less than ten percent of "the norm."
I tell my daughter that each of us is beautiful. She hears how beautiful she is every day from strangers. Her big magnetic eyes, completely unblemished skin, thick curly hair and slim, muscled frame are all exactly what society applauds. But I tell her I am beautiful too, because that is what we have been taught in my generations that we should say.
But if it is true, it is only because I personally choose to see beauty in myself. While some specific feature of my body, may be considered favorable to someone else, it would be disingenuous to say that my body fits any other idea of beauty.
And I would not care much, if we lived in a world where appearance wasn't so crucial, where physical beauty wasn't a hiring requirement, a social gatekeeper and something strangers comment on to small children. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. We don't pretend that everyone has a great singing voice or amazing math ability or spectacular writing skills or huge sports talent.
But we like to pretend that everyone is physically beautiful.
Why? I'm not sure. Possibly because we actually believe deep down that physical unattractiveness is the last truly shameful flaw--that while it isn't a person's fault if they are tone deaf or bad at math, that it would be a person's fault if they were ugly or fat. And so we must never admit that such a thing is possible or we would be blaming that person.
Finally, last week I broke down and said as much on one of these memes--with not one word of profanity, caps or insult to anyone except the generalized norms of society. And the response rocked me back on my heels and sent my head spinning.
I was met with one of those social media hate storms, in which I was told that I need my head examined and several less flattering things. A group of friends ridiculed me and joked at my expense. Then the person who posted the feel-good meme threatened to use their position to have me banned from a spiritual group I belonged to.
These were the words that sparked that storm of hate: "I’m thankful that my body doesn’t get sick a lot, thankful that my hands can do a lot of things, thankful for energy to do the things I want to do. And I acknowledge that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. If someone came along and asked me if I would trade my writing ability, my mental ability and my inner world of curiosity and fun and fantasy for a body that people would honestly say was beautiful, a body that could get around freely or ski or drive or sing or dance or just not make my children ashamed, I would still turn them down. I don't want to hear platitudes about how everyone is beautiful unless people are actually friends with those whose bodies are far from perfect, friends enough to meet at a place where they can get to and in the door, friends enough to spend time, and share the enjoyment of life with people who don't fit common beauty standards."
I wanted to open up a discussion, but somewhere I touched a nerve, something that must have struck home enough that it could not be allowed. And the result was a stream of hateful messages at me and ridiculing messages about me to others. It's the way social media is and one has to be prepared, if one wants to engage in conversations there. But let's not kid ourselves, social media is only more brutal because people are more likely to speak their minds and dispense with politeness. The opinions expressed on social media are what people really think.
While we often--on and off social media--claim that all bodies are beautiful, the messages we and our children absorb from this enforced cheeriness is much less supportive. Children, who are more attuned to actions than words, hear something like this:
- Physical attractiveness is the most important measure of worth.
- Don't question the social norm, if you don't want to become a pariah.
- And always smile and put on a good face, even if you feel desperately sad and terrified inside.
That I think is a terrible thing to tell ourselves or our daughters and sons. Here is the message I would like to replace it with, one that does not tell half truths or require suspension of one's knowledge for a moment of fuzzy inspiration: