Ouchy Truth From Millennial Daughters

There I stand, weeping in the dressing room at a higher-end lingerie store. The very accommodating young women there have cheerfully measured my chest without a hint of judgement and helped me to gather various styles; I’ve got some with lace and others with satin, but none quite work. I try a very pretty teal bra that gaps in the front, but more devastating to me in that moment, there are squishy blobs sticking out of the sides of the bra. Now, I had chanted to myself, before I took off my top, “No shame. No shame. No shame.” Literally, I did this out loud. I knew what my mind was capable of.

Bra shopping is just the worst, isn’t it?

I have, all my adult life, had issues with feeling displeased with my body’s appearance. Haven’t so many of us? But that’s not really the rabbit hole I want to plunge down at this moment (I know the mantras: “we are powerful women, no matter our size,” “beauty is as beauty does,” “exercise for health, not for looks.” All true. Every last one).

But you know the phrases that are getting to me these days? That are clanging around in my head like the clappers on the bells of a cathedral? They’re coming from my daughters. And they pinch a little (kind of like one of those ill-fitting bras I was trying on).

working out

While on a visit to my eldest child’s home in Los Angeles last fall, I pressed play on the inner tape that I have been reciting since I was a teen: too fat, too fat, too fat. And my oldest daughter looked at me and said, “I have grown bored with your self doubt.” Ouch. Oh, wow. It struck me so that I even typed the exact quote into my phone within a few minutes of her utterance; I wanted to remember that moment. It was Sept. 2, and my 30-year-old had just abruptly, firmly, but lovingly drawn a boundary. My younger daughter, a fitness trainer by profession, tells me at least once a week to stop worrying about my appearance and exercise for strength and flexibility. The last time I went down a self-critical path for her ears, she actually became angry at me. She told me, “I won’t listen to the negative talk.” She’s raising a daughter of her own now, and she doesn’t want little Hazel to hear the messages that I transmitted, without meaning to, all those years to her.

This post isn’t about body love, though. Here is the learning I want to really contemplate: our Millennial kids, who happen to now be young adults, have wisdom to share with us. They have seen the shortcomings of their elders and they love us anyway. But they don’t want to be burdened with our angst, the self-flagellation and doubt that we have clung to since we watched an insecure-but-gorgeous Molly Ringwald apply lipstick from between her cleavage.

Our children don’t want to lug the baggage of our youth any more than they are willing to cart home the boxes of our discarded belongings. They’re “bored” with our blues. And we, their parents and grandparents, need to listen. My children’s generation has their own hurdles to face: climate change, an unfriendly economy, a sense of destabilization in world governments. Kids to feed. Dogs to care for. Jobs to find. But I have found that they manage to maintain a stubborn optimism in the face of all of it. They are growing into their own youthy wisdom. They have things to say. Good things. Challenging things.

Youth has always had the temerity to speak wisdom to its elders.

When Jesus visited the temple at the age of thirteen, the rabbis were amazed at his teaching. Yes, Jesus is Special, a unique case. And yet, I believe many of the young do have things to teach us. Kids say more than the darndest, cutest things; there can be a clarity to their words and a richness in their observations. When that richness evolves to be seasoned with life experience, it can create young adults capable of amazing perceptiveness and kindness.

There are many young people who have wisdom; granted, it is a different wisdom from that which comes of life experience. If you’ve ever done the laundry of a seven-year-old, you know it’s essential to empty the pockets, for there, treasure is gathered: feathers and pebbles and dice. Marbles and sticks of chewing gum. Silly Putty. Once, our own pockets were full of treasure, too. There is a thought, a whimsical wish, maybe, that when an infant is born, she still knows all the wisdom and beauty of Heaven, from whence she came. Little by little, it is forgotten amid the complexity of living on Earth. Perhaps, our ten-year-olds, twenty-year-olds, and thirty-year-olds are still just close enough to Heaven that they hear whispers of truth from there. By the time we’re fifty, I imagine our heads are too clouded to hear that particular strain of the purely Divine voice. Our ears are attuned to a different aspect of the Divine One: the weighty matters of self and world, nation and clan ring in our ears. I expect that will shift again in another twenty years, when we start to shed all the weighty matters and return to the glittering pocket fortunes of the soul: time appreciated, loved ones kissed, kindnesses both given and received.

Who are these wise youth? Where are they? There are obvious ones. Malala Yousefzai comes to mind. She speaks with a wisdom that is so anchored in truth born of suffering it is hard to imagine her faltering.  Samantha Smith wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov that got her invited to the Soviet Union to share her message of peace. But not all of the wisdom coming from youth is of a scale that leads to book deals and international renown. Sometimes, it is revealed in the wisdom of advice given at the right time.

When I left the mall, I posted something on Facebook about my bra-induced tears, and within minutes, my California-dreaming daughter called me. We talked for an hour, she shared her own struggles and fears and listened to mine with compassion, especially when I explained that my dissatisfaction is not so much about appearance these days as it is age and the near-constant literal physical pain of it. She reminded me of my own goals, challenging me on my excuse making; she referred me to a website where workouts are body-positive and inclusive, a far cry from the exercise videos my generation grew into adulthood with.

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If you’re blessed to have children, teens, or Millennials in your life, go grab an ice cream or an iced latte with them. Open your ears, your heart, your mind. Let them share some of what they’ve learned from watching us Gen-Xers and Boomers flail around a bit. There’s no shame in a little arm fat dangling over a bra cup. And there’s no shame in listening to whippersnappers in their young adulthood. No shame, no shame, no shame.

Wondering what littles carry in their pockets? Take a look at this joyful photo series!

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sweet-photo-series-reveals-whats-in-a-preschoolers-pockets_n_56fbdde3e4b0a06d58041b04

dandelion 2

 

 

Pretty and Witty and Bright!

 

Women are killing it in 2018. Killing it. Though we still haven’t completely leveled the playing field, it’s getting closer. Oprah at the Oscars, “Wonder Woman,” and the #MeToo movement which resulted in the Silence Breakers being named as Time Magazine’s most recent Person of the Year have been highlights. On a personal level, I am finishing two book drafts- those are major accomplishments for me.

And on the fun front,  I got to see “I Feel Pretty” just this week, and I loved it. Before the movie started, women and only women (most at least 30 years old- the humor is probably only funny for those of us who have lived a little. The marketers knew their audience, the first glimpse I got of the movie was on Pinterest) got comfy and ordered lunch while watching a preshow of Amy Schumer highlights: clips from “Trainwreck” and “Snatched” were interspersed with her comedy shorts. The movie trailers were for “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” “Ocean’s 8,” and the “Mamma Mia” musical sequel. All films about women who make us laugh. “I Feel Pretty” made me laugh. A lot. It also made me cry.

“I am beautiful.”

“Am I beautiful?”

“I’m not beautiful.”

That’s the progression for so many women. When we are little girls, we don’t doubt it. We play dress up in our mom’s heels, smearing lipstick on our faces and striking poses for photos. We throw on a pair of shorts or a swimsuit for play without a second thought about our bodies. But it changes somewhere along the way, doesn’t it? At least, for a lot of us. Some charmed angels manage to stay whatever society says beautiful is all the way through childhood and adolescence- shiny hair, clear skin, thin. But most of us go through some awkwardness, and that’s where our hearts and psyches stay.

Image result for I Feel Pretty

And so we meet Renee Bennett, Amy Schumer’s beleaguered Millenial in the new release “I Feel Pretty.” She’s watching a YouTube tutorial, trying to recreate a “faux-hawk” hairdo. It’s not going great. And she gives herself a long, long look in the mirror. It made me tear up, and here’s why: without speaking one word, I saw in her eyes exactly what she was saying. Because I say it to myself on a daily basis:

Not pretty enough. Not thin enough. Not enough, not enough, not enough.

To see her undress and take in her reflection after being fat-shamed into leaving a clothing boutique was, to be honest, gut wrenching. I teared up again here. Every time she looks in a mirror her shame radiates. Until the magic moment when it doesn’t. In a moment that is an acknowledged meta nod to the Tom Hanks gem “Big,” Renee bonks her head in a fall off the bike in her Soul Cycle class and wakes up completely convinced that she is fantastically gorgeous. And she is- but the trick is that nothing actually changed. She is the exact same person, but instead of an inner monologue of self shaming, she caresses her size ten legs and declares them perfect. It is her perception that has changed, not her actual appearance, though she doesn’t know it.

We watch what happens when this seemingly average, thicker girl owns her own beauty. She rules. And she falls in love. She makes courageous choices.

Image result for i feel pretty west side story

I feel charming
Oh, so charming
It’s alarming how charming I feel!
And so pretty
That I hardly can believe I’m real!- Maria, “West Side Story”

Make no mistake- this film is not “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” It’s not going to be nominated for any Oscars. Schumer is not a Streep-level actress. But she’s funny. Really, really funny and fearless. The bikini contest scene was uproarious- the theater was rocking at that point. Watching Michelle Williams, who is an Oscar nominated actress, play against type was utter joy. I fell a little in love with Rory Scovel, who played a slightly bewildered and really sweet love interest. Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips are the trusted sidekicks. I was so relieved that Aidy’s size was never mentioned. Not once. Not even as they created a triple-threat online dating profile. The audience that I watched with was completely female, and the laughs were loud and frequent, grounded in the reality that so many of us have lived: the magazines may not see us as goddesses, but that’s okay. We are goddesses even without their permission.

The Dove company did a really great campaign not too long ago, its message was just that- it’s how we see and define our own selves that matters. They did a hidden camera video of women who had to choose between two doors to enter a building: one labeled “Average” and one labeled “Beautiful.” I cried when I saw it. I cry to even think of it. Because almost no women chose the beautiful door. Their faces fell, in fact, as they made the choice. Heads hung as they walked in. Why do we do that to ourselves?

“I Feel Pretty” matters. It really does. It reinforces, it shouts, the truth that we are all beautiful. We all struggle with romantic relationships, friendships, and careers. Yet we are all pretty- fat, thin, tall, short, chic, basic, brown, white. Oscar trophies? No. Big laughs and happier ladies? Hell yes.

Changing the Tapes: Oct. 6, 2015*

tape

I had been doing really well on feeling more peaceful with my body. But today, I had a turn. We went to a party Saturday night, and I saw the photos today. I look big to myself, soft around the top of my halter dress.

What’s so frustrating is that I had felt pretty that night. Not Jennifer Aniston pretty, but me pretty. Hair up in curls, my usual understated makeup, pretty coral shoes. Bam- photos arrive in  my inbox and on Facebook.

So I have spent the afternoon trying to change my talk.

Here are my reminders for today:

No woman in either side of my family is willowy. None. We are all, both maternal and paternal lineage, athletic in build. Some are more fit than others, but none of us has that tall, thin, size 4 figure with long slender legs. I have got to understand my gene pool.

I exercise. I do. I don’t try to run anymore, the doctor told me I could stop that nonsense because it truly hurts my damaged knees. But I walk, I do cardio and yoga, I just laid almost an entire pallet of grass by myself. I do bicep curls with rocks and tricep dips on benches. I am as active as my poor joints will allow. I will always try to do more and do it better, but for this moment, with a show just behind me and a faire season three days away, I am doing my best.

I eat fairly well. Could I cut a few carbs? Yes. Could I reduce my wine intake? Probably. But if I am honest with myself, I don’t want to. I don’t have wine every night, but some nights (like last Saturday) I have too much. I know exactly how many donuts I have had this year (for the record, it’s four and a half, so I still get another one and a half in 2015). I rarely have big dessert, but I do allow myself a few shortbread cookies or vanilla wafers every once in a while. I eat salads, but yesterday I had a kids sized mushroom Swiss burger. Because here’s the thing: I honestly believe good food and drink are one of life’s pleasures. Like a beautiful cloud formation lit with a setting sun, or puppy breath, or baby toes, or hugs, or trees (or hugging trees for that matter, which I have in fact, done), food is good. It is part of what makes it wonderful to be human.

Not for me the diet shakes and rice cakes. Life is too precious. Does that mean I eat all of it, every time I want it, in unlimited portions? No. But I eat some. Occasionally.

See, I am going to do a thing that is very brave for me. I am going to publicly say what pants size I wear: a 10. Mostly- today, my pants were size 8. Eight years ago, I was wearing sizes 6-8 in everything, but when I injured my neck, that went to a size 8-10, and there I have stayed. It’s the largest I have been, ever, except when pregnant.

For some people, a size 10 would be their dream size. For others, they will never own pants this big. For me, this seems to be where my middle aged self has landed.

When I see myself in the mirror, I see a healthy looking mom, until I look at photos.

BUT, DAMMIT, I DON”T WANT TO NOT LOVE PHOTOS OF MY LIFE JUST BECAUSE I THINK I LOOK PLUMP! MY LIFE IS ACTUALLY PRETTY WONDERFUL.

The trauma inducing photo from Saturday night!
The trauma inducing photo from Saturday night!

So here is what I propose: All photos of myself will be looked at through a filter of love. I will be grateful for the experiences being photographed. I was having a blast with my darling husband and awesome friends Saturday night. I was laughing and dancing my fool head off. That must be my photo filter. Not Toaster or 1977 or Earlybird- just me being grateful for a body that is pretty healthy, that can climb around and lift stuff, that can hug my loved ones, that houses me in all my weird, neurotic glory.

Not one more minute of today will be wasted on worrying about my body shape. Only joy. And maybe a shortbread cookie for good measure.

*This is part of an ongoing series in my journey, today is the first time I am posting publicly. We’ll see how it goes!

Skeletor or Staypuft?

female nude

I find myself in a corner. A prison of my own construction. This morning, I stood at the mirror, examining myself from several angles, bending to and fro to see how my body squidged as I contorted. I ate a very, very tiny breakfast when I got downstairs, let me tell you.

I want to take a moment to talk about weight. I know this is not an original topic, nor will my message be a great revelation. But I am okay with that, because I think we just have to keep talking about this. We have to own what we have done to women in this country, and that takes constant, repetitive chipping away at the wall.

Not too long ago, I went to the preview of a show my husband has been working on, a 1920’s murder mystery at the Prohibition Club in downtown Houston. Prohibition is the home of the Moonlight Dolls, a premiere burlesque troupe. Their photo is below. Look at them. They are all beautiful. And after weeks of rehearsing with them, my husband says they have body image issues, too. What the hell is wrong with us?

Dolls

I knew it was going to be a rough afternoon for me. About ten minutes into dinner, after watching a tiny twenty-something girl in a cute, wee outfit spin on a trapeze, then having four tiny twenty-somethings do the Charleston in g-strings and bandeau tops, I fled to the bathroom, where I sobbed on a toilet for pretty much the remainder of the show.

When I emerged from the stall, I found a large woman bent over the sink, eyes squeezed shut, breathing deeply. She, too, looked traumatized. She finally stood up, squared her shoulders, and went back to her table. I didn’t. I stood in the lobby and read a novel on my Kindle.

There’s a tape that plays in my head, almost constantly. It goes something like this:

“You shouldn’t eat that…suck in your stomach…look how thin that lady is…I bet she has more self control…I bet she is more lovable…how many minutes have I exercised this week so far?” You get the picture. I count calories on an app and worry if I forget to enter something.

When I was a kid, I remember two media moments that embedded themselves profoundly in my psyche. The first was the Special K ad campaign “Can You Pinch an Inch?” The commercials showed people playfully pinching their tummies,and if they had more than an inch of pudge, they needed to go on a diet. For a twelve year old girl approaching puberty, that dangerous message sank its claws deeply. I understood that my body must stay thin to be acceptable. The second media moment came when Cosmopolitan magazine declared that thighs must not touch, and featured an article in which perfectly lovely women who were at healthy weights were shown at a ten pound weight loss, and trumpeted for how much more beautiful they were after that weight loss.

Cosmo

I was not getting affirmation from my family when it came to weight or looks. When I tried to get my mother to tell me if I was pretty, I was told I was shallow and vain for wondering about my looks, when maybe a simple compliment for an insecure girl would have done a world of good. When I was about thirteen, I remember I hugged my maternal grandma and when I told her how much I loved hugging her, her reply was something like, “I’m fat.” I protested, but she told me that my grandfather would love her more if she could just lose twenty pounds. How’s that for a message about weight’s affect on your worth? I believed her, because I had seen that same grandfather stand at the picture window in their lakeside cabin and make fun of his neighbor’s body in her bikini.

One time, though she didn’t think I could hear, my other grandmother, while looking at pictures I had just had made and was so proud of, commented that I looked like I had put on about ten pounds (I was fifteen and wore a size eight, which would now be a 4. See photo below).

In drill team, we weighed in once weekly, and the officers were allowed to know our weights. I was always on the cusp of being sidelined, at 5’6″ and 128 pounds. In my freshman year of college, the coed p.e. instructor, a man, did a caliper test on all of us, in front of everyone, and declared me “obese” on my form. I weighed 135 pounds and wore a size 8.

A photo from the shoot when I had gained a few pounds!
A photo from the shoot when I had gained a few pounds!

You see, I was coming of age in the 1980’s, when Jane Fonda was everywhere and Karen Carpenter was the first celebrity to die of anorexia. Now there are scholarly articles on the prevalence of weight loss articles and images in the media in the ’80’s and what effect it was having on women’s body image. Health was out, thin was in.

(Fittingly, while proofing this post, I heard a commercial for Medifast “Be the best version of you!” on Pandora. It’s everywhere and all the time, I tell you.)

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I have never, ever been able to shake the worry about my weight. I worked as a fitness instructor through my twenties, and spent most of my thirties teaching beginning dance to eighth graders. Now, after one knee surgery, a severely sprained ankle, a bicep tendon injury, and a spinal surgery that removed two cervical discs and replaced them with a steel plate, I still work out as hard as my body will let me. I hurt, but I keep trying, because I want to be thin. I have ten pounds that I keep gaining and losing; it used to be the same ten pounds. I would lose it, it would come back. Something’s changed since menopause, though: I lose ten then gain back twelve. I had been wearing the same size for years, an 8 or ten, depending on fit. Now I am in tens to twelves. Some days I have equanimity about this, but sometimes I lay in bed, squeezing my pudge and mumbling my new dress size over and over, a litany of shame.

I tried my hardest to instill healthy messages to my two daughters about their own bodies. I knew how much I craved doses of reassurance when I was young. I fear my own insecurities rendered me a hypocrite, but I did try. Kate Winslet, an exquisitely beautiful and gifted actress, was recently cited on Huffington Post: “I was chubby, always had big feet, the wrong shoes, bad hair,” Winslet told Bear Grylls during an episode of his NBC show ‘Running Wild With Bear Grylls’ that aired Tuesday. “When I grew up, I never heard positive reinforcement about body image from any female in my life. I only heard negatives. That’s very damaging because then you’re programmed as a young woman to immediately scrutinize yourself and how you look…I stand in front of the mirror and say to Mia [her 14 year old daughter], ‘We are so lucky we have a shape. We’re so lucky we’re curvy. We’re so lucky that we’ve got good bums.’ And she’ll say, ‘Mummy, I know, thank God.’ It’s paying off.”

skeletor stay puft

There has to be a place between Skeletor and Stay-Puft for this woman in her 50’s (child of the 80’s pop culture reference!) If I get too thin, my face looks drawn and skeletal, if I am too heavy, I look puffy and unhealthy. I must find the balance. More importantly, I need to change the tapes that play in my brain. I need to stop looking at myself in the mirror and castigating myself. And though I haven’t carved the word “FAT” into my own thigh with a pair of scissors since 2009, I still recite it to myself in a million ways every day.  It’s time to move forward, to come out of hiding in the bathroom stall, to see myself for what is deeper than cellulite, and to be grateful for my healthy, strong body. Hell yeah, I can pinch an inch. What of it?

Kjerstin Gruys spent a year without mirrors. She researches how body image affects women, and wrote about it. What a gift to the world.

Kjerstin Gruys: A Year Without Mirrors

 

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