Here is the talk I gave at Chapman University, about adoption and the role of imagination in forming our identities. Hope you enjoy it! Please pass it along if you do.
This holiday was more stressful than usual, for no particular reason. Sure there were work deadlines and money hemorrhages and family drama and too much food and too little sleep, but there always are. So why this year did I feel so shut down? Even my latkes sucked this year, and my latkes NEVER suck. I found myself curled in a ball on the upstairs couch more often than I would have liked.
When I begin to get overwhelmed and anxious, I react by trying to control the situation. I have multiple to-do lists, color coded, on different sized note pads and post-its. I’m sure if I get to the end of the to-do list, I will find…freedom. Aaahh. Spaciousness. Wide sky. I’m convinced that if I just throw myself with enough gusto into doing doing doing, I will round a corner one day and see the finish line. I will run through the ribbon with my arms held high in a victory pose and then (and only then) will I feel at peace.
I’m not sure why I persist in this delusion, when it has never once worked.
In service of this unrealistic goal. I employ generous measures of self-denial. The first form this denial takes is neglect of my physical self– rejection of my body and its needs. I don’t eat or I mindlessly eat too much. I don’t exercise, because I don’t have time. I don’t stretch and my old back injury acts up, so I take more and more ibuprofen and muscle relaxers and “power through.” The ibuprofen upsets my stomach, so I scarf antacids by the handful. I don’t sleep well because I can’t stop running through the list in my mind.
The plan the whole time is that, when I reach this mythical finish line, I will “take better care of myself.”
Perhaps you have such a plan. Perhaps you imagine the finish line is January 1, and you can abuse yourself in a method of your choosing until then, when things will finally change, like, forever after.
Except they won’t, and you know it. When I began to face the truth– that my resolutions almost always crumbled before January 15 rolled around– I stopped making them. Now, I try to see the New Year as a useful marking of time rather than a clean slate. Because I have come to believe there is no such thing.
My body is the scene of more that one crime in this lifetime. Crimes done to me and crimes I’ve committed against myself. I have legitimate reasons for wanting to shut it off at the slightest provocation. I resent my body and its annoying needs, its troublesome memories and emotions, its alarming register of the passing years. But I have learned time and time again that it is my only way back to feeling grounded and present in the world.
I went to an exercise class on Christmas Eve (dreaded because I had played truant for so long). I went for a long walk, when I had absolutely no time to do so. I began rolling out of bed into a yoga pose or two. Slowly, I started to feel a bit less like a walking to-do list and more like a human inhabitant of this earth.
So again, I go back to the beginning. I go back to my body. Not one day a year, but every day. Each morning, I must choose to say, Hello, Body! I know you, house of all I’ve witnessed and thought and experienced in this lifetime. I see you, you have carried me this far. I feel you, and you are not half bad.
The night before last, I dreamed I was rushing through a hospital to see a friend of mine, who recently died of breast cancer. I was in a hurry to get to her so I could say goodbye. When I arrived, she rose to greet me and she didn’t have any hair, but otherwise she looked like her old self, her body healthy and strong. She looked happy. She hugged me. And then we began to dance.
I woke with my face wet with tears, but grateful to have seen her again, even if only in dreams. I felt that she had brought me a message about my body and time and the preciousness of it all.
That morning some girlfriends and I took our kids to the pool and I brought the message with me in my bones. I spent the day happy to have my legs stretched out in the sun, charmed by my wonderful friends, awed by the adorableness of our kids (even as they basically assaulted each other in the shallow end). When it came time for lunch, I sat there in my suit on a lounger and ate a Cobb salad and not once did I think, I should really put that sarong back on. Because I have been on this planet long enough to confidently know that no one is thinking about the size of my ass except me.
Phew, good thing my self-absorbed, self-conscious, self-loathing, weight-obsessed days are over and done with…
Yeah, right. Well, at least I had a morning of reprieve.
Every time I talk about body image issues, I can preemptively hear the charges of “first world problems” being leveled at me. It’s a popular argument these days and I’m not convinced it’s a useful one. Its intention is, of course, to shift our perspective for a moment, to make us less whiny and more grateful. Instead, it often shames us for having a feeling about anything other than the genocide in Darfur, which is simply unrealistic and not at all helpful to people who are genuinely in pain, whatever the cause.
Last week I sat down in a Macy’s dressing room and cried because I was so desperately sick of hating myself. I can’t remember a time I didn’t feel like someone made a mistake when they made me- the wrong shape, the wrong size, clumsy, thick. This bizarrely distorted lens is reserved for use only on myself. When it comes to other people, I have an expansive view of beauty, both physical and not.
The self-hatred isn’t constant, but it is always lying in wait for a window of opportunity. I can be going along my merry self-accepting way, when a moment of social anxiety, a rejection or even just a hard morning, will trigger a full-force flood of poison and the conclusion is always this: I am so ugly that I don’t deserve to be alive.
Of course I don’t consciously believe this. What I consciously believe doesn’t matter. What I actually look like doesn’t matter. My politics don’t matter. It is illogical. It is, in fact, ridiculous. I believe it has its origins in having too high a premium placed on physical beauty when I was a child, in having been inappropriately sexualized at an early age, in feeling out of control. Somewhere, I blame my own body for the injury it has sustained.
But frankly, at this point in my life- a grown woman, a writer, a mother- I don’t give a shit about the origins of it anymore. I simply want it to change. With the rest of my time on this earth, I want a different experience of my body. I want a life in which I don’t cry in dressing rooms anymore.
I don’t know how to make that happen. If it was a matter of just deciding to change my perspective (please don’t tell me to read The Secret), it would have happened long ago. If it were a matter of meds or therapy or yoga, believe me, I’d be golden by now. To whom do I go for help with this one? God? My therapist? My dead friend? Walt Whitman?
This is not a rhetorical question. I am asking you, the women in my life, how did you learn to love yourself?
It’s hard to conceive of tackling a problem that lies deeper than conscious thought, deeper than words. But all the change I’ve managed to effect in this life thus far has started with noticing. This, giving voice to the beast, is how I notice. This is how I begin.
First of all, do yourself a favor and never google the words “sexy” and “motherhood” together. Ew. I discovered this as I was meditating on motherhood and sexuality after a Palm Springs weekend during which I spent about seven hours standing in waist deep water at the bottom of a water slide with a group of decked out moms with Eastern European accents, sexy swimsuits and full faces of makeup.
These ladies were wearing gold belly bracelets and absolutely rocking their completely normal not-at-all-perfect mom bods. And they had kids hanging off each limb, same as the bedraggled-looking moms in mumus. It seemed, well, fun. I’m not exactly one to wear a belly bracelet, but I did appreciate the sentiment and I allowed it to inspire me to go put on a little lipstick and stop feeling like I had to don a full-length potato sack every time I stood up from my beach chair.
The de-sexualizing of the mother in this culture isn’t just something that’s done to us by our partners or by the media, we do it to ourselves. I definitely did for a few years there. I don’t believe it’s only because we’re tired and we don’t have time to get to the hair salon. Moms have innate guilt about “selfish” pursuits and getting sexy has nothing to do with our kids, so it gets dropped to the bottom of the to-do list. Also, much of our need for human touch is fulfilled by our children. It’s easy to wake from the oxytocin baby haze and realize that we aren’t connected with our erotic identity at all anymore.
I recently read a terrific book called Mating in Captivity, by Esther Perel. It’s about reconciling the erotic and the domestic and I would say it’s a must if you’re in a committed long-term relationship. Here is the TED talk, in which she asks the crucial question, “”Why does sex make babies and babies spell erotic disaster in couples.”
Obviously, I’ll never again be the sexy single gal who went on a first date with my husband ten years ago, but I’ve committed to making sure that I’m evolving into a more confident and alive sexual being, not less.
I have an essay at Salon right now about an inappropriate relationship I had with a counselor at my sleepaway camp when I was 12. That’s me on the right in the shapeless white sweater. I remember that I borrowed it from a friend for the night. One of the great joys of living in a bunk with a bunch of other girls was the communal wardrobe.
It was such a pivotal summer for me that it’s hard for me to look at the picture and not want to go back there and… And what? And stop myself? And change how things turned out? How could I ever wish for that when my life is so rich with blessings today? I’ll take my whole past, every confusing moment of it, if it means I get to have this present. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets when I look at my face in this picture. How could I have thought I was so grown up?
Check out my essay! Leave comments if you feel inspired to jump in the dialogue.