By Melissa Kirk
I borrowed my mom’s photo album of my kid/teenager photos last week, as part of my attempt to come to terms with my childhood and figure out how I got where I am today. One thing struck me when I was leafing through the album: I was never ugly.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve thought of myself as ugly. As a young kid, I had a major overbite that required a purple nylon headpiece that I wore through my first years of school. Then, when I was 10, I developed acne that has never really gone away. I took Accutane for a year or two, which stopped the worst of it, but that was in college. By then, I had already developed a self-identity as the “ugly girl”, at least in my own head. I thought of myself as this impossibly ugly monster girl, who would never be loved by a man and would forever be an outsider, in the shadows. In addition to the overbite and the acne, I was pathologically shy, almost autistic, as a young girl, and so I really never had many friends and never had a boyfriend until I was in college. This only served to prove to me that I was too ugly for the rest of the world.
Even now, as an adult, I struggle with my self-image. I still think I’m ugly: big, hulking, tall, big-boned, long-nosed, scarred, lanky-haired, ugly. I know I’m not, really, but it’s hard to shake that self-identity. And I was surprised to find out that I’m not the only one who feels this: A few weeks ago, a gorgeous young woman I know and I went out for drinks and, for some reason, started talking about how we both felt this way: huge and ungainly, even though to one another we seem lovely and even, we noted to one another, tiny. Self-image can be a bitch. And when I looked at my kid pix, I realized: I never was ugly. It was all in my head.
It makes me smile in relief, but it’s also very, very sad. I think about the quarter of a century that I’ve spent hating the way I look, when in reality I was a very cute, smiling, eager, blond-headed kid, not very different from most kids. I just wish I could go back in time and say to myself, in some way that I would really believe it: “You’re not ugly, you’re beautiful and vibrant and everybody can see it but you.”
Now I have a task cut out for me. I have to get off this self-imposed trip about me not being attractive. It’s been a chip on my shoulder for my whole life, and now it’s time for it to get off and go take a hike. It’s the story I always tell myself about myself, and it’s never been true. And it’s so hard to get rid of.
When I’m with my female coworkers, I always feel like I’m the “big girl”. I feel sort of clumsy and unkempt next to them, unfashionable. When I see pretty, stylish girls, I always feel like a troll next to them.
In relationships, it comes up, too. While all of my peers were dating and mating, I had never even been kissed, and I always used to blame it on the fact that I just never was as cute as the other girls. “Guys are so shallow,” I’d say to myself, “They just want the cute, tight little mini-skirted girls, and can’t deal with an intelligent woman like myself.”
But what if A) it was more complicated than that, and B) I actually DID get interest from guys, I’ve just most often been the one not interested in THEM? That means I have to change my whole self-identity, from the victimized so-called “ugly girl”, to the one who has always had the choice as to how my life has turned out. Oh boy.
That means I can’t blame anyone else. I mean, I could blame society for feeding me media images of women who represent unattainable beauty standards (and believe me, I have), but I’ve always been smart, and started calling myself a feminist at 19, so really I always had the tools to look past that malarkey. I can’t blame my parents, because they, or at least my mom, always told me I was beautiful.
And I suppose blame isn’t really important, anyway. The point is for me to start constructing a new story about myself. One where I am the heroine of my own life, which is what I always fantasized about as a kid. I always wanted to be the straight, tall, proud warrior-woman (with a big white horse, of course!) who did battle when necessary, wowed people with her various skills, and inspired courage in others. Wait a minute…could it be…that I really AM that woman (without the horse, of course)?
Constructing a new story about ourselves is healthy, for us and for the people around us. I’ve dated several men with chips on their shoulders, and it’s no fun. I know the one I’ve been carrying around has caused its share of problems with the people around me. The question is: how do we even start rewriting our own personal stories? It’s so easy to repeat the old stories, I mean it’s second nature by now, right? Most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
I’m not sure how to start, except by being aware when I go into that old headspace again, and consciously rewriting what I tell myself about myself, until that new story becomes second nature. I don’t want to spend another quarter-century telling myself something about myself that’s untrue.
How about you: What story do you tell yourself about who you are? And what would it take for you to start changing it?
By Melissa Kirk
So last Thursday night I was on the bus coming home from work. Normally I take BART – the subway - for this leg of the trip, but there was some delay on BART, so I took the 72 bus instead. It’s a LOOONNNGGG bus ride. For some reason, I was just sitting there without a lot of jibber-jabber in my head. That’s not normally the case for me, but this night, I was just sitting, my mind relatively quiet, observing, open to the people around me.
The first thing I noticed was the noise. This was one noisy crosstown bus. I think if I had been more my normal self – more in my head and more judgmental – I would have been really pained by the noise. There was a group of high-school-age kids in the back talking back to each other as kids will, a woman talking rather loudly into her cell phone, and two other women having a loud conversation. As it was, I let the noise just wash over me, and it did feel like some sort of sonic wave.
The next thing I noticed was peoples’ energy, bouncing around inside that steel box. The lady on the phone was getting mad because another passenger was looking at her as she talked. Two young girls were eating sweets (one had a huge, rainbow-colored lollipop, the kind I didn’t think they made anymore) and talking quietly. The two conversating women were swapping stories of their painful childhoods – and they did sound painful. One said the last time she had seen her father was when he had come running to her house, t-shirt covered in blood, looking for shelter. The punk-looking guy next to me was staring out the window but his fingers never stopped moving.
Eventually, as I watched the restlessness on that bus, I realized what I was seeing. It was like I opened up to what was really going on. And what was really going on were that everyone’s egos were desperately seeking comfort, bouncing around inside that bus like ball bearings in a pinball machine.
The lady on the phone was seeking acknowledgment from her friend on the phone and also making a big show of getting up and moving so the guy watching her couldn’t see her. The comfort of self-righteousness is one of the nicest feelings there is. The girls eating sweets were enthralled with the comfort of the food. The two women sharing horror stories were wanting their pain to be seen – really seen – by the other, and also wanting it to be OK that they didn’t feel responsibility to treat other people respectfully because, as one of them said “Nobody ever said sorry to me.” The loud kids in the back of the bus were seeking comfort in numbers, seeking physical and psychic safety by taking up space. The guy next to me was, like me, en route to something else that would give him some kind of comfort. A lover, maybe, or a concert or a drug deal. I was going home to be safe in my cave, where I was in control and nobody could touch me unless I wanted them to. We were all just bare-naked egos in that bus that night, crying like little babies wanting to be fed and held.
I know that this is true of most people most of the time. I joke sometimes that you can take the person out of the schoolyard, but you can’t take the schoolyard out of the person. All of us at some time or another, and most of us most of the time, are in the schoolyard, at least in our psyches. We hit and kick when we think the bully is coming after us, or we ingratiate ourselves in exchange for being left alone; we seek solace in something outside ourselves – food, love, sex, booze, TV, self-righteousness, religion – because we aren’t getting our needs met elsewhere and don’t know how to ask; we seek cameraderie with others so that we can feel safe and not alone, the way zebras do on the plain, and we’ll do whatever we can to be accepted by our crowd, to not get kicked out and left for the playyground bullies.
And there’s nothing wrong with all that – it’s the way humans are. But that day on the bus I saw it clearly than I usually do. I’m usually as blind and ego-driven as everyone else, and I was on that night, too, but for some reason, I saw something differently, some break in the curtain between what we tell ourselves is real, and what is actually real. It was like when the light falls in a certain way, illuminating a familiar object differently than normal, and you see that object in a new way, for just a second. I felt a strong compassion for everyone on that bus, for the little kids inside us all, who just want to be loved, acknowledged, appreciated, and touched.
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