You may notice a lack of goal updates lately. This is not an oversight. I’ve dialed back the goal work recently. This is why.
I’ve heard the term “body dysmorphic disorder” bandied about quite a bit, but I never thought I had it. Not until I read Lindi Ortega’s Lenny Letter and recognized myself. The way I’ve picked apart my skin, my hair, every small feature of my body since I was old enough to start noticing the way I was different from other people. So, like, age 6 or 7.
So young, you say? Yes. Which is why I am dismayed, but not shocked, to hear my daughter obsess over her lack of a six-pack. I have no idea where she heard the term; I’ve never been fixated on having a six-pack. (I just want a flat stomach. It doesn’t have to have definition.) But I did learn, finally, where she got the notion that she, at the age of 6, should have one.
This is me at Anya’s age. I did not do anything special to earn those muscles. I wasn’t especially thin — no thinner than my daughter, at any rate. I just have natural abs. I still do; I can feel them in there, above the endometriosis bloat and beneath the pregnancy-loosened skin and the breastfeeding pudge. I can make them stronger, but they’re already pretty strong; after months (okay, let’s be real — years) of inactivity, I can work up to doing 100 jackknives in less than a week. I can, if no small child decides to sit upon my back while I’m down, go do a 3-minute plank right this second, in my piggie slippers. I can’t do anything about the bloat or the pudge or the floppy skin, but the core strength is still there.
My daughter got a lot of things from me. Her hair, her eyes, her long legs, her smile. But she doesn’t have those abs, and she feels she should. Just as I, at her age, thought I should have a more feminine face and blond hair and more dainty hands and an even tan. (It was the 80s. Tan was a thing.)
When I got older, I fell victim to the Stridex and Clearasil marketing that was suddenly ubiquitous. So much so that I had Clearasilled upwards of 20 chickenpox blisters before saw one on my knee and realized they weren’t the world’s ugliest pimples. (I was 12, and I never really had acne. I didn’t know any better.) I obsessed over my (clear) skin at 12. And my suddenly thick, frizzy, wavy, unruly hair. I didn’t, at least at first, give a thought to my body.
Then I did, because boobs were everywhere. Except, it would appear, on me. I was flat until my 20s, when things shifted a bit to give me a somewhat balanced figure. But I still didn’t fill out shirts. And my calves were like sticks, no matter how much I exercised. I once did so many heel raises that I had to coat myself in Ben-Gay for days just to lurch to class. I had a flat stomach, slim thighs utterly free of cellulite, and a perky butt, but I had a small chest and tiny calves, so I felt hideous. I would buy clothes in the plus-size section, trying to mask my grotesque form.
The funny thing is that back then, everyone thought I had an eating disorder. I was in fact trying to gain weight; I was just unhappy, and when I am unhappy, I can’t eat. But the criticism I received from well-meaning people trying to save me from the eating disorder I didn’t have didn’t help my self-esteem one bit.
Such has it always been. I have picked myself apart my whole life, and people have helped me do it. But the loudest, cruelest voice has always been my own. And to watch my daughter start to do the same is devastating. Even more so because I’m still doing it — only now I’m comparing myself not to others, but to my former self. I put on clothes I wore before I got pregnant with Kai and look at the fat that bulges up around my waist and across my back. I look at the splotches on my face and wish for the skin I had at 18 — pimples and all. I look at my dimpled thighs and wonder why I ever thought bigger calves were such a big deal.
It’s not just my appearance, either. My house isn’t clean enough and I’m a horrible mother and a worse wife and daughter. I don’t work hard enough, and what work I do is laughably bad. I waste my free time doing things that don’t matter instead of finishing my book or working on Anya’s blanket or taking a class.
I will never live up to who I think I should be.
The thing is, I don’t want to. Not entirely. I enjoy setting goals and meeting them. I love always having a challenge before me. I’m not sure how I would derive any sense of self-satisfaction without that. But I also wish I could just be happy with me for five minutes. For my daughter. We can’t continue to compare ourselves to my former self and find ourselves wanting.
For starters, I never thought my former self was all that great to begin with.
But I Googled Lindi Ortega photos, and I don’t see any of the stuff she’s picking herself apart for, either. She’s absolutely beautiful. So it’s entirely possible that my mirror is lying to me, too.
I don’t know how to strike a balance between constantly having some goal to work towards and being forever uncomfortable in my own skin. But I need to find that balance, and soon. Because my daughter is watching.