January 5, 2016

Impossible

All my life I have struggled with my appearance.

When I was a child, my mother dressed me the best she knew how, however, it was not me. She was in charge of my hair, oftentimes sitting me on the stool in front of her chair and winding my hair up in those over-used pink sponge rollers that were not comfortable to sleep on (by the way). With my hair back-combed and sprayed, and in a sweet dress she sewed herself, off I would go to elementary school picture day. I felt awful. I was told not to smile 'too big' for the picture, Elizabeth. I tried.

The gawky stage didn't improve, and I was in an economic class that didn't allow for special clothing or styles some of the others could have. I wasn't in the popular group, although with my quick wit and loud mouth, you'd think so. I still felt awful about my appearance, as I just couldn't meet the perceived standard I saw in the magazines. I did manage to learn how to smile less, however.

As I progressed toward womanhood, I was fully entrenched, sold-out victim of the beauty industry and the impossible standard put before me. I ate it up with beauty magazines, fashion books, and talk shows featuring makeovers. Most, if not all, of these makeovers included weight loss. New diets, eating plans, diet gurus and their books, ad infinitum. My mom tried them. I tried them. We tried them together. And we both rode the emotional roller coaster that is, and will forever be, dieting.

Weight has always been an issue for me. Not because I am obese, or have even been overweight (although I always thought I was), but because my mother was. My beloved mother, who had medical and other issues that fostered an out of control weight gain, was honest but pained about her weight. Through watching the treatment she received socially for being overweight, I learned very quickly that I didn't want to carry extra weight, nor should anyone else. Fighting genetics, I worked out constantly - always dancing, attending and teaching aerobics classes, and weight training. I learned to control my eating through restrictive diets - fasting, calorie-counting, shake replacement meals, supplements, and vegetarianism/veganism. My whole life was consumed with wearing the right clothing, makeup, and hairstyle, and being the lowest weight I could manage. My whole life.


I am now 51 years old. And, frankly, I'm worn out and cynical about the whole affair. All my efforts got me absolutely nowhere.

One area of study for me has been that of gender - including patriarchy, and the expectations of the genders in society and culture. This has been quite eye-opening, and to be completely honest, it just plain ole pisses me off. Women are held to to this impossible standard of looking twenty-something their entire life. Thin, long hair, fresh-faced, put-together, and independent. They are expected to be the perfect daughter and mothers. They are expected to be smart but not intimidating. They are expected to be dressed in the latest fashion, but frugal at the same time. Perfectly messy hair, perfectly done nails, lookin' hot in those skinny jeans, walk with grace in heels, and overflowing with confidence. Quick, freeze the moment with a selfie that you can look back on and marvel that it all worked...for that moment, anyway.

For me, it was most unfortunate that I had to have an uniquely feminine surgery a few years ago. My doctor told me that I could expect to gain 20 extra pounds in the year following the procedure. 20 lbs?? That definitely meant one, possibly two, sizes up. I immediately discounted her words - surely that wouldn't happen to me.

It did happen to me. As I watched my weight creep up, I started to panic. I still do. I wake up at night in a panic, promising myself that I will start the next morning killing myself with exercise and stop eating until the weight starts to go back down. And then there are the whispers that it is so much harder to lose weight when you are older...

Then there is Oprah. She just bought 10 percent of Weight Watchers and broadcasts a commercial saying that inside every overweight woman is a thinner woman who wants to be more, be better, be everything...be the impossible standard. And women nod their heads in unison. However, Carrie Fisher, after losing weight to be in the Star Wars movie, is still not pleasing anyone. She is getting hounded about her appearance, while no one says anything about her aged co-stars' appearance, weight, or wrinkles. Shoot, I think Mark Hamill put on weight for the role! I think Oprah is pedaling a lie - losing weight does not make us better or allows us to become the woman we always wanted to be - it is all a lie! Moreover, I have girlfriends who are currently struggling, virtually killing themselves to be thinner with meal plans and faddish workouts all under the guise to be more healthy, but they cannot fool me. They want to meet the impossible standard, too. Because we all feel BETTER when we are closer to the standard. Better = more valuable.

But, more valuable to whom? To our partners? To our friends? Don't they love us for who we are not what we look like? Aren't they supposed to?

I want to just be happy in my own skin, regardless of size. I don't want to meet the impossible standard put before us...I don't want my worth to be determined by the cultural patriarchy that says that for a woman to have value she must be an attractive and sexual object. I don't want to have to apologize for taking up space in society anymore. I want my worth to be determined by my grey matter and how I love others, not by what my butt looks like in a pair of over-lycra'd skinny jeans. When can I just be happy being a 51-year-old woman who has lived and has so much more to contribute regardless of my weight? If Oprah can't even be happy because she is overweight, despite all her accomplishments, then what? If Carrie Fisher cannot 'be,' even after losing for the film, then what does that mean for the rest of us?

Take a look around you. How many women do you see that meet the impossible standard? I actually see them all the time, and do you know what? They are twenty-somethings. And not all of them meet the standard, either. Because it is impossible for everyone to meet the standard - genetically, financially, emotionally. Very few can meet the standard - those of us who are 30-ish, 40-ish, or 50-ish are constantly struggling, and our confidence and self-esteem suffers greatly. Even the AARP magazine tries to tell us that you can look like a twenty-something at 60-ish or 70-ish! Seriously?

What is it going to take for all women to refuse to meet the impossible standard? It doesn't help us, only hurts. When will women stopping policing other women, judging and comparing, in order to feel that at least we are better...at least we are not like those who are fatter or don't have everything put together. Not that I don't want to be healthy, but I don't even know what that looks like. Healthy has been painted by the media to look just like the impossible standard. Go figure.

So, who benefits when we kill ourselves to meet the standard? The diet industry. The plastic surgeons. The fashion industry. The department stores. The makeup counter. The hairdressers. The gym. And do they care about us? Hell no. They just keep telling us that we are supposed to look like the mannequins with blank stares in the mall store displays.

My partner repeated tells me that I am beautiful, that he loves me the way I am, that he wouldn't be happy if I was 'the standard.' I just wish I could relax in that and I wish I could be happy with me because I am me, not because I am 'pleasing' to someone else. Desperately, I ask him to keep telling me in hopes that someday his sweet voice and endless love will drown out the myriad of voices telling me otherwise, while I continue to strive to just be.



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