We are the walking wounded. I can’t speak for men, and I shouldn’t speak for all women, but it seems we swim around in a sea of insecurities. At least I do. And honestly, I don’t know a single woman who is excited about the prospect of trying on bathing suits in a store’s dressing room. In fact, right now I am pondering whether I should get a new suit for my upcoming trip to Mexico. My current bathing suit is old, stretched out, and hangs on me. It has a neat granny skirt and is an ugly color. Yet, I probably won’t replace it because the prospect of seeing myself in the giant dressing room mirror in the most unflattering light possible is more than I can handle. Oh, the horror, the horror…
Is there a woman alive who is not insecure about her body? We are watching a series on Netflix called Offspring (recommended by Sydney McDougald) in which the main character is a beautiful young obstetrician who is asked by a daft couple to deliver their baby in the nude. It is a strange request, but she is thrown into a tailspin at the thought of flashing her adorable form, especially in front of the handsome pediatrician she lusts after. She remembers the point in her development when she went from carefree naked child to self-conscious pre-teen. She comes up with a plausible excuse and is off the hook.
Of course I have tons of body shame. Perhaps it started when my father informed me as a young teen that I was so fat that no man would ever find me attractive. (P.S.,I was never fat.) From that moment on, the die was cast. No matter how thin I am, I see a fat girl in the mirror. “What is that bulge I see on my thighs? I ask myself. Maybe it’s just flesh? Nonetheless, I want to hide it. My daughter accuses me of having a bad Fatitude. And let’s not even talk about the blue road map of veins on my legs. Thank God for leggings.
There are so many other ways I beat myself up. If there is something I am pretty good at, I feel pride until I remember all those others who are so much better at it than I am. I am grateful to those of you who read my writing, and it certainly makes me feel good. But then I pick up a book by Colm Toibin, Ann Patchett, Margaret Atwood, or almost anyone whose work I read and I feel embarrassed. Why would anyone want to read something I have written? I am considered a good cook, and then I eat something my son Natty (or Seth!) has cooked and I go back to the drawing board. As David Urion says, “Stephanie, you are The Worst!”
When I was in college I really enjoyed Russian Literature. After graduation I moved to Manhattan and volunteered as a companion to the daughter of a Russian ambassador to the UN. We would meet once a week and have tea together. I was supposed to help her with her conversational English, but she already spoke like a native. Early on I told her that I loved Russian literature. She was delighted. “Did you read it in Russian?” she asked. When I admitted that I had read it in translation, she dismissed me, saying, “Then you don’t know anything about Russian literature.”
That was over fifty years ago, and I haven’t read a Russian novel since.
I don’t have to just look at the things I supposedly do well to make myself feel bad. There are so many things I am terrible at that I can count on these to make me feel useless: math, sports, walking without tripping. I have tried to improve. Really I have, but I am just bad at stuff. Years ago when I was a young mother I took tennis lessons at the local high school. I thought I was improving until the instructor pulled me aside. “Do you see that old lady across the gym?”
“Yes!” I said. “She is so awful at tennis, isn’t she!”
“She’s better than you are,” He announced sadly. “Maybe you should work on learning another sport.” My solution has been to avoid all sports. At my exercise class for seniors, I hide in back behind the eighty year olds. I don’t even play board games as they bring up the spector of tennis.
I would just dig a hole and lie in it, except that every woman I know beats herself up as badly as I do. Life was simpler in the 1950’s before we women became “liberated.” My mother didn’t feel she was a failure because she didn’t have a brilliant career, raise kids, keep her house clean, and prepare gourmet dinners every night. Nowadays we have to be good at everything and not let a single ball drop.
Back when Natty was a little kid and played Little League Baseball, I would go to every game and cheer for him. One afternoon, though, he came into the English Department office and begged my co-workers to come to his game that day. Chris Martin asked him, “Doesn’t your mother come to your games?”
“She comes,” he admitted, “But she doesn’t pay attention.”
He was right. The games were endless and I had stacks of papers to grade. I would pretend to watch, yell his name every now and then, and rely on other mothers to tell me when he was up at bat. That was a long time ago, but I still feel bad about it. Mea culpa.