Veins of Gold

I grew up near the Gulf of Mexico.  I spent hours at the beach every summer, and I was fearless.  I would swim out quite far never taking heed of the depth or the currents.  I was once caught in a smack of passing jellyfish, and, yes, I was stung in all sorts of places.  I’ve had fish caught in my swimsuit, been nipped by sand sharks, and even been stung by a Portuguese Man-of-War.  I used to go crabbing which might account for the presence of sand sharks, and I once had a lifeguard urinate on my ankle in order to alleviate the pain of a jellyfish sting.  It was the ultimate humiliation for my young, adolescent heart.  He was too handsome and dashing for his own good, and I had hoped my futile attempt at flirting might lead to an exchange of phone numbers–not a furtive piss on my foot behind the lifeguard stand.  I was embarrassed, wounded, and stinky.  Horrid!

There was not a lot about the ocean that frightened me, but there was one thing that I did not like; I feared getting caught in a series of breaking waves.  Sometimes near the shore a series of large waves will come crashing in.  If you get caught in the surf zone as a series of plunging breakers come through, you might find yourself coming up for air only to find yourself being plunged to the bottom as another wave crashes down on your head.  I was always a very strong swimmer so I wouldn’t panic when I was caught in the midst of strong breaking waves.  It just took patience, deep breaths, and focus to slowly make my way to the beach if the waves got a hold of me.  This is a good description for how I’m currently experiencing my life.  I am caught in a line of plunging breakers.  As soon as I rise to the surface to inhale, another wave breaks and I’m forcibly plunged to the bottom where I must wait until the current allows me to rise to the surface for another breath.

The flashbacks have calmed, I have begun to see an exquisitely lovely psychotherapist.  The reality of my dear friend’s family member’s suicide has begun to settle in to us.  Relief comes and goes as does grief and disbelief, but the initial shock has passed.  Those waves have plunged and broken down upon us, and we have come up for the deep breaths.  And then one night in my inbox I see a name.  An email from a person whose name I haven’t seen in years.  My father and his wife, my abusers, have another daughter.  She was born when I was 15 years-old.  She was special because she wasn’t me.  I was a representation of his past life with my mother–all his mistakes, everything he wanted to pretend he was not, everything he wanted to deny he had done.  I was essentially bastardized.  I watched as this little girl was given everything that I was not–toys, lessons, opportunities, favor, attention, and love.  She was the Golden Child.  It would have been easy to resent her, but it wasn’t her fault that her parents hated me.  I was always accused of myriad sins so when I cut off that relationship I always assumed they would continue to color me as the “bad one”, and yet here she was reaching out to me.  Why? What on earth could this young woman want, and for God’s sake, why now?

Is it possible to be friends or even sisters with someone who does not want to know the truth? Even if she did want to know the truth, I don’t want her to know it.  To know your parents as kind, loving, supportive, and caring seems miraculous to me because I don’t know either of my parents as such.  Explaining to this young woman that her father married my mother when her own mother was only 9 years-old seems challenging.  To go on to pull back the curtain on his well-crafted facade would only do her harm.  It reminds me of the stories one hears about escaped Nazis who went on to to fabricate new identities in other countries.  They remarried, had children, worked, retired, and enjoyed pleasant lives all the while hiding their true identities from their new wives, children, grandchildren, and communities.  This is what my father has done, but to my half-sister he is no villain.  He is her father.  She knows him as loving and supportive.  I know him as my worst nightmare.  Is this relationship even possible?

Japanese potters have an interesting tradition dating back centuries.  When a pot would crack it was not thrown out.  Instead, it was repaired with resin but not camouflaged.  Pure gold was painted over the resin repair to highlight the flaw.  These flaws add value and character to a ceramic piece, and oftentimes these repaired pieces are preferred over perfect pieces.  The cracks and repairs add value to the ceramic fetching a high price on the auction block.

Seppo
Tea bowl “Seppo” by Hon’ Ami Koetsu (1558-1637)

Both the Tanakh and New Testament exhort us to have sincere love and sincere faith.  Some believe that the word “sincere” comes from the Latin phrase “without wax”.  This may be a fascinating etymological tidbit, an urban myth, or an old wives’ tale.  Regardless of its origin, I like this explanation for its appropriate and rather inspirational metaphor.  During times of ancient Roman rule, merchants who sold pottery used wax to fill in the cracks on broken pots.  To the naive customer, each pot looked flawless, and the deceptive merchant was able to sell all his pots both broken and  unblemished.  Of course, once the customer took his purchase home he quickly discovered the hidden defect as the wax melted away leaving him with a visibly cracked pot.  The contents inside the pot would then be visible if not leaking out.  So, what does it mean for us then to be sincere people, and what does this have to do with Japanese ceramics?

I think that we are all “cracked” in some way, and we all have something glorious hidden within.  What God is asking us to do as revealed in sacred texts is to allow the cracks to show so that our authenticity, the contents of our character, will be revealed.  We spend so much time hiding behind personas of perfection and high performance; how are we ever to make meaningful connections with others much less reveal the glory of our authentic selves? The Japanese have taken it a step further.  They repair the cracks and then highlight them with pure gold.  They don’t feel the need to hide a flaw with wax; they celebrate the cracks and breaks!

stoneware tea bowl, Tokugawa period (1603-1868)

The above tea bowl has been repaired with resin and gold.  Look how beautiful the gold strokes are on the ebony glaze like lightning flashes on a black night sky.  Imagine how this bowl might look without the repair work.  Would it look as interesting? Would it be as beautiful? It would simply be another black tea bowl.

I’m going to bring this around to my earlier struggle.  Am I to hide my cracks with my half-sister? Is a healthy relationship characterized by safety and honesty possible if I feel forced to fill in the flaws with denial particularly a denial maintained for someone else’s comfort? I have worked so hard to be sincere, to learn to live from a place of security and truth rather than fear, to live from a place of acceptance rather than shame.  Am I to return to the “family’s way” of doing things simply because she’s curious now that she’s older?

For the survivor of sexual abuse and trauma, establishing safety is goal number one.  Learning to come out from under the shame that so many of us have experienced and continue to battle is something to celebrate.  People will come into our lives who will challenge our progress and make us reevaluate our healing.  I went into my basement today and shouted to God, “I am not the bitter one.  I have forgiven them! I have done that work even if you are the only witness to the contents of my heart.  I am not their victim anymore.”  And, sometimes that has to be enough.  Sometimes God, how we understand him anyway, is the only witness to the true depths of the darkness we’ve known, and sometimes he’s the only witness to the true depths of the forgiveness we’ve offered…on this side of Heaven anyway.

I don’t have an easy answer to the problem with my half-sister, but I do know that I’m not willing to sacrifice my identity or my safety.  And, I’m willing to entertain the idea that our vulnerabilities are worth revealing because they are, in part, what make us unique.  It is an idea worth considering.

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Living in Color

It is no secret that the past few weeks have been difficult.  Moving forward seems to require looking back sometimes, even going back.  Unresolved memories of my abduction surfaced recently, and I have been required to revisit old places.  It feels like touring an old battleground or an ancient ruin.  There was blood shed to be sure, and there was ruin.  There was a great fight, and something died there.  Good and evil were at work, and a life was at stake.  I’m not, however, visiting the site of another’s battle or ruin; I’m visiting mine.  I have, therefore, felt vulnerable, shaky, and a little needy as I have set forth on the healing journey once again.

I do not like to feel vulnerable and needy.  I do have some trusted allies; nonetheless, I prefer self-reliance even though that opposes my own creed and approach to community and friendship.  How can I process what I am going through with a trusted friend if I lock myself in my house? So, I ventured forth in spite of my own fears, and I had two distinct experiences.  My first experience thwarted me by only reaffirming my fears of vulnerability.  I allowed myself to be transparent with someone and came away feeling distinctly “broken”.  I cannot think of another word to describe my deep feelings of shame and regret.  Nothing was said overtly, but sometimes it isn’t what is said–it is what is not said.  It’s body language, a small criticism, an attitude, a look, a lack of empathy, a sigh.  At the end of the day, I regretted leaving the house.  I remember driving home, and I was talking to myself as I made my way home.  Actually, I was talking to God.  I said, “You know, I’m sick of feeling this way.  Broken.  Damaged.  I’m so tired of being “that woman”.  That woman with the problem.”  It isn’t often that God talks back to me.  Oh, I’m a big believer in God speaking to us through nature, other people, even bumper stickers, but when you hear that still, small voice so distinctly answer back in your mind (and you know undoubtedly that it’s not you answering back), it is very important to stop talking and listen.  This is what I heard–“You are not broken.  You are awesomely and wonderfully made.  I made you.  How could you break?”

Let me back up here for a moment.  I took a hiatus from the American church experience about five years ago for myriad reasons.  I left the church, but I did not leave my faith behind.  At the time of my exit, the use of the word “broken” was very popular among Christian Evangelicals.  To speak Christianese fluently, one had to use “broken” often.  It might look something like this: “Oh God, we want to be broken before you.” or “We bring our brokenness to you as an offering.” or “We are broken and weary people.”  You get the idea.  At times it seemed that the more “broken” a person felt, the holier and more sanctified he was.  What does it mean to be “broken”? Google.com has searched many online dictionaries for me, and this is a list of definitions for the adjective “broken”:

  • physically and forcibly separated into pieces or cracked or split
  • subdued or brought low in condition or status
  • (especially of promises or contracts) having been violated or disregarded
  • Sundered by divorce, separation, or desertion of a parent or parents
  • Intermittently stopping and starting; discontinuous
  • Incomplete
  • Weakened and infirm
  • Crushed by grief
  • Financially ruined; bankrupt
  • Not functioning; out of order

Obviously, there are a few definitions that apply to the spiritual life of a human being.  The church at large does not necessarily have it wrong.  We certainly want to bring crushing grief, financial ruin, spiritual lowliness, infirmities, broken promises, and physical brokenness to God.  We do not, however, want to wallow or label ourselves or others as “broken”.  When I said I felt “broken”, however, I meant the last definition on the list.  After all my life experiences, sometimes I just feel like I don’t work anymore.  Like I’m kaput.  What’s more, sometimes I have a feeling that other people think the same thing.  I feel this way when well-meaning people say things like, “How can you have been through so much and still be so normal?” To me, they are really saying, “You must be really screwed-up underneath your veneer of normalcy.”  Should I just have ‘Out of Order” tattooed on my forehead and call it a day? Can a person just go through too much? So, when I heard that still, small voice tell me that I am awesomely and wonderfully made, I was forced to reconsider my own opinions.

Psalm 139:14 tells us that we are awesomely and wonderfully made.  I did not just fabricate that.  As I meditated on this new idea that I was not a broken person, but I was, on the contrary, a whole and working person, I began to wonder what that might mean.  This is what I’ve come up with, and I’m going to use images to explain it.

Black and White Study

Look at the image above.  You can probably discern the subject.  Can you find the two bees? Can you see the complexity of patterns? Can you discern color? I have filtered this image, removed color, altered exposure, saturation, temperature, and contrast.  I have faded the image on the edges.  This image is a metaphor for how we view ourselves.  Our life experiences act as filters for how we view ourselves.  What might a stinging remark from your mother before prom night alter in your self-image? What about an absent father? What about a rape or an incestuous relationship? Think about my abduction experience? Think about any kind of sexual violence or trauma? Could they remove all color from your self-image leaving you with only a black and white picture of yourself? It’s very possible.  If we have been exposed to terrible events or events that left us feeling out of control and terrible about ourselves, then how might we “look” to ourselves? Overexposed, colorless, shadowed, and faded? It explains why I feel broken sometimes.  Even being in a fallen world has activated our filters.  We are surrounded by all forms of death, destruction, poverty, illness, and suffering.  If we are able to live in the world without deactivating our empathy, then we will no doubt have learned to view the world through filters.  We must if we are to survive.  It is often too painful otherwise.

Blue and Green Study

This is the same image filtered differently.  I’ve filtered out the color red.  This image looks very different from the other.  The bees stand out, but the petals do not.  The complexity of the seeds have become more visible, and the play of the shadows is more interesting.  Your life with more color, more pattern, less filtering.  Some trauma has been resolved.  Forgiveness has been at work here.  Forward progress.  There is more balance between light and dark.  Less extremes.  More vulnerability means more safety.  Better boundaries and more peace.

Full Color Study

This is the image in full color with very little filtering.  I took this photograph yesterday evening in my backyard.  This is the flower of the Russian Mammoth Sunflower.  Look at the complexity of the seeds in the fruiting body and their colors.  Do you see all the details and the shadows in the petals? Do you see how the light reflects off the bees’ wings? These details were impossible to see in the other images due to the effects of the filters.  It does not mean that these details were not there.  The nature of the flower existed.  The bees were doing their work.  They existed.  This flower is standing majestically at about 12 feet in my backyard at this very moment tracking the sun as it moves across the sky, but you could not know this because of how I filtered the two previous images.  You knew that you were looking at a flower.  You did not know the color.  You may not have known the genus or species.  You noted the bees, but you could not notice their gossamer wings or their black and yellow thoraces.  You only knew what was allowed to pass through the filters.

In the unseen or invisible world, the eternal world which will never pass away but surrounds us yet, in God’s heart and mind, we are much like this sunflower.  We exist in full color in rich complexity.  Remember–Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. (Psalm 139:14) We are not broken, out of order, lowly, violated, emotionally bankrupt, incomplete, separated, or crushed.  Our journey in the physical or visible world is to learn to bring forth, if you will, bit by bit the invisible reality of who we really are into the visible.  Essentially, step by step, we learn to see ourselves in full color and complexity rather than black and white, overexposed, and shadowy because that is who we really are regardless of what has happened to us or how we feel about ourselves. This process takes time, the help from very trustworthy allies, and an unwavering belief that you are so much more that what you currently see.  You are strong, beautiful, powerful, gifted, majestic, capable, talented, complex, and so valuable.

At the end of the famous 1 Corinthians 13 there is this verse:

For now we are looking in a mirror that gives only a dim (blurred) reflection [of reality as in a riddle or enigma], but then [when perfection comes] we shall see in reality and face to face! Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly, even in the same manner as I have been fully and clearly known and understood [by God].

This verse comes at the end of a chapter entirely devoted to the nature of God’s love.  That is the perspective you must take when you read 1 Corinthians 13.  This chapter is often read at weddings because we want to be able to love each other with the love that is described in this beloved chapter of the New Testament.  What is profound is that God Himself loves us like this.  This chapter could end in any number of ways, but it comes to a close with the announcement that what we see is only a blurry and dim reflection, a cracked and tarnished image, of what exists in the perfect reality.  What’s more, as we are today, sometimes lost in the haze of an imperfect self-image often rooted in deep psychic pain, we are “fully and clearly known and understood by God”.  This statement was made after an entire chapter devoted to the nature of God’s ability to love us.  Human beings are never asked to do something which God Himself does not.  This chapter is all about the nature of God’s love towards us.  So, you see, we may not see ourselves clearly, but God does, and He loves us completely, entirely, thoroughly regardless of everything.  Regardless.  And, He understands you.  You, my friend, are understood.  That means that you are not alone.

That is what I learned last week.  When I feel the temptation to feel “broken” or ashamed, I must think again.  This is not an easy choice, but the question comes down to ‘who am I going to believe?’  Am I going to believe my father, my mother, my perpetrator, or even my wounded self? Well, I’m not going to believe my father, my mother, or my perpetrator.  Hell, no.  And, my wounded self is…well, wounded.

 

It’s something worth pondering as we continue to heal.

Breaking Up the Switchbacks

Healing is a process.  How many times have you or I heard that statement? Frankly, I don’t think I have ever understood what that process really means.  It all seemed very romantic in a way.  I remember watching the film “Prince of Tides”.  Tom Wingo is sitting in Dr. Lowenstein’s office on behalf of his sister who has tried to commit suicide.  She won’t talk to Dr. Lowenstein, her psychiatrist, about her pain or her reasons for her suicide attempts.  Tom knows why Lila tried to kill herself.  He’s been carrying the same secret inside himself since his boyhood, and Dr. Lowenstein senses something.  She senses that Tom is hiding a truth, a truth that might help Lila.  Eventually, Tom shares his secret with Dr. Lowenstein.  He, his brother, his mother and Lila were sodomized and raped by escaped convicts on one stormy night years ago.  If I remember correctly, they murdered the convicts in an act of self-defense, but they were made to keep this horrible event a secret.  Lila’s mind and body were paying the price, and she could no longer function under such a heavy burden.  After telling the truth, Tom fell to pieces.  He wept in Dr. Lowenstein’s arms perhaps for the first time since the night he and his family endured the assault and murdered the criminals.  After his catharsis, Tom seems freer.  He engages in life in a new way.  His countenance is changed.  His posture improves.  He is transformed.  If only it were so easy.

The healing process is not romantic at all.  It’s horribly difficult because no one comes to rescue us.  We have to do the speaking.  We have to do the telling.  We have to do the uncovering.  We have to do the remembering.  We are not required to do it alone, but, ultimately, no one else can do the work for us.  We have to show up, and we have to take ownership of our wounds even though we are not the ones who inflicted them.  This pain, this grief, this fear, this panic, this loneliness, this alienation, this anger, and this longing for wholeness must all be owned and given a voice.

Switchbacks

A friend and I were discussing the grueling process of healing.  She described it as hiking switchbacks.  Switchbacks are trails that snake up the side of a mountain–each trail is like an individual trail connected to the next by a hairpin turn; thus, the climb up the mountain is less steep, but it is much longer.  My friend has done switchback hiking, and she described the feeling of reaching the end of a switchback trail.  It’s exciting, and there is a great sense of accomplishment and fatigue at the same time.  Then, you look up and realize that you only advanced a few feet towards the summit of the mountain.  So much energy expended for so little progress.  That’s an appropriate metaphor.  What, however, are the options? Should we tackle Everest straight on? Switchback hiking seems like a smart choice if there is a mountain to be climbed.  That is the way of this process.

I spent years doing very deep work with a psychotherapist.  I have done good work with people trained in spiritual direction.  I have done work with a life coach.  All of this was very much like switchback hiking.  It all represents forward progress.  When I finally reached a point where I felt I couldn’t do anymore work, I rested.  All of the work had to sink in.  Much like deep watering plants, the nutrients must make their way into the soil, and that takes time.  Today, I find myself on the mountain again, but I’m not at the bottom.  I’m much closer to the summit this time around, but, either way, I still have to hike the damn trail!

It is all too tempting to grow weary of this process, but we don’t have to choose temptation.  This is our process.  Yes, it’s exhausting and painful, but it does belong to us.  I wish that I did not have to face this enemy again, but the fact that memories of my abduction experience came forward (and refuse to leave) and require resolution is actually positive.  It means that it’s time for me to hike another switchback.  It means that I am closer to the summit, and isn’t that what I have been trying to reach all these years? What will it mean when I reach it? I will plant my flag of victory and look out across the landscape of my life breathing in the high altitude air of freedom knowing that I made it to the top of this mountain in spite of the best efforts of my perpetrators.  That will be the sweetest revenge.  We will be heroic in all of the places where we have been victimized and laid low.  So, lace up your boots.

View from the top of the Chola Pass in the Everest Region

A Look Behind the Curtain

We are currently discussing body image.  When I first approached this topic, I wanted to try to dissect it a bit because the topic of “body image” is complex.  What is “body image” exactly? It has to do with how we view ourselves to be sure, but it’s more than that.  It has to do with our perception of other’s views of our bodies as well.  Our body image was not formed in a vacuum.  It was formed in a family and a culture with many sub-cultures.  While we might consider the larger culture to be comprised of “pop culture”, the publishing industry, Hollywood, advertising, the music industry, and the like, the sub-cultures might be the regional cultures in which we grew up or now currently live.  Each region of the United States has its own culture, set of traditions, ethnic groups, and tacit expectations for women and their roles in society.

I grew up in the South where the standard of beauty is very high while also very distinct.  Think “big hair”.  When a young woman came of age, she did not just wear mascara and lip gloss.  Oh no.  I woke up at 5:30 AM to wash and blow dry my hair so that I could set it in hot rollers.  Then, I had to apply the mask of foundation and powder, eye shadow, eye liner, cream blush and powder blush with a bit of highlighter to the cheekbones.  The eyebrows were tweezed and finished with a bit of hairspray applied with an old toothbrush.  The lips were exfoliated with Vaseline on yet another old toothbrush after which lip liner and lip stick were carefully applied with a lip brush.  This was all set in place with a final application of powder.  This make-up had to stand up to the Texas humidity.  Then, on to the hair.  Hot-rolled, curled, brushed, combed, teased, and shellacked with Aqua Net.  Not even a flash flood was going to take down my do.  Picking out the perfect outfit to match our hair and make-up was mandatory, and all Southern females put in the time.  If you wanted to measure up, you had to do it.  We looked like 15 year-old geishas quickly making our way to our classrooms, eyes darting back and forth from one girl to the next, catching our own reflection in locker door mirrors, wondering “Do I look good today? Does my hair look okay?”  In the South, one tacit expectation for women is to look beautiful.  I would classify that as a cultural expectation.

The fact is it matters to us what the next person thinks about us.  It matters what my mom thinks.  It matters what my best friend thinks.  It matters what my neighbor or my child’s teacher thinks.  And, in my case, it might matter that I meet the expectations of my regional culture.  We don’t like to admit it because we think that we should be above it–“I don’t care what she thinks about me.  I don’t care that I’m not fitting in.”  Right.  I don’t think it’s that easy because there is a human need to belong.  We not only want to belong, but I believe that we need to belong.  I could make a case for this assertion giving you evidence based in anthropology, evolution and group dynamics, but, suffice it to say, when we feel that we do not belong, we feel excluded and often out of control.  Loneliness ensues, and we are left trying to meet that need through different and often harmful ways;  Just because an inherent need goes unmet does not mean it goes away.

I’m not breaking new ground in what I’ve just said, but I want to say it again because I believe that the media takes advantage of our inherent need to be accepted.  This is one reason why Americans spent over $7 billion on beauty products alone last year.  Analysts at Goldman Sachs estimate that the global beauty industry is worth over $95 billion dollars and growing (www.economist.com).  And again, the images that we consume on a daily basis do not reflect reality.  Women are striving to reach an ideal that is unattainable.

This leads me to my point.  I want you to watch this short video.  It is called “The Photoshop Effect”.  The process of learning to see yourself differently is much like tearing down a wall, brick by brick.  Each brick has to be taken out individually, named for what it represents, and named for the person, culture, or idea that added it to our wall.  We are steeped in a culture that puts forth the idea that women can be “perfect”, and then some version of “perfection” is put before us.  We are then strongly encouraged to try to reach that level of perfection by any means necessary be it through purchasing products, exercise, dieting, cosmetic and plastic surgery, or any other sort of extreme activity.  This video pulls back the curtain in order to show you that life in Oz is not what it seems.

“See Yourself Differently”–Part III

Psychologies Magazine UK Edition devoted almost an entire issue in June of this year to the topic of body image.  The editors entitled it “Dossier: 18-Page Special–Feel Happy with Your Body”, and they put it on the front page.  They chose former English supermodel, Jodie Kidd, as their cover model.  Ms. Kidd was part of the “heroin chic” trend in fashion during the 1990s which launched Kate Moss to the top of the fashion world.  At 15 years old, she was 6 ft 1 in and most likely a size 0.

Jodie Kidd, 1990s

Almost twenty years later, she is between a size 12 and 14.  What’s more, she is happy and healthy.  In her interview with Marianne Macdonald for Psychologies Magazine, Kidd explains:

“I have a 32in waist now.  I am who I am, and I don’t really care.  I’m size 12 to 14, I’ve got bits hanging out here, there and everywhere, and I’m happy.  I’m a country girl, and to me there’s so much more beauty in trees wildlife and travelling and history and culture…Of course, I don’t think there’s one woman who does like her body, apart from Gisele (Bundchen).  And even she would probably say she didn’t like hers…My bum’s too big, hips are too big and thighs are too big.  I don’t think about it…I never got a boyfriend (when she was young).  But my dad is 6ft 6in and my brother is 6ft 5in, so we’re a tall family.  And a confident family as well, so I didn’t go, ‘I don’t like this’.  It could be quite awkward (being tall) because you don’t feel like you fit in, but I luckily had the exuberance, life and character to not really give a toss.  I’m very proud of my height.  I’ll wear the highest heels possible so I’m 6ft 9in.” (Psychologies 21)

Jodie Kidd, 2007

I have included Ms. Kidd and part of her interview in this post because it provides a nice introduction to the next excerpt that I will be sharing from the article “See Yourself Differently” by Isabelle Taubes for Psychologies Magazines UK Edition June 2010.  If you are new to the discussion, you can read the previous article excerpts here: “See Yourself Differently”–Part I and “See Yourself Differently”–Part II.

In the first two excerpts, Taubes discusses our views of ourselves in relation to the ‘ego-ideal’.  Essentially, as Taubes puts it, “We love ourselves according to how we measure up to our ideal perfection.  The higher we set the bar, the greater the risk that we’ll feel we’ve let ourselves down.”  What I have been attempting to point out is that we ourselves are not the only ones raising and lowering that bar.  There are many influences.  The first influence that I’ve discussed is the media.  I’ve taken us back to the 19th. c. Paris Salon in order to explain that we can develop a more critical and discerning mind when looking at the images that are presented to us (see Variation on a Theme).  Just because an image of another person’s body represents beauty, sexuality, desire, health, or perfection to someone else or even to the culture at large does not mean that it does for you.  We have the right to decide what is healthy, appropriate, and attainable for us, and if we are going to thrive in this culture, we must learn to do this.  We choose how high or low our “bar” is.  Not Hollywood.  Not the beauty industry.  Not the publishing industry.  Not Madison Avenue.  And, certainly not People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue.

That being said, who else influences the placement of our “bar”? Our families.

“If we had a good relationship with our family from early on, we may develop an ego-ideal so flexible and forgiving that we won’t become obsessed with what we lack.  We may understand that, for example, having a big nose does not make us contemptible, or that we can be a good person without needing to be the centre of attention.

Our ego-ideal is based on our parents’ perception of us, their demands and their hopes. ‘My mother worshipped me,’ says Michael, 55.  ‘In her eyes I was the most beautiful boy in the world.  Even if in reality I am no Greek god, I never doubted my appeal.  I recently married a beautiful woman 20 years younger than me.’

‘Someone with a far from perfect physique, who felt validated during their childhood, can still feel confident in their appearance,’ says Prades.  ‘It’s the power of love.’  If we were surrounded by love as children, would our self-esteem be assured for life? That would be far too simple.  A father, disappointed that his teenage daughter is no longer the adorable little thing she was at 10 years old, may treat her more coolly and as a result she may start to think that she’s become repulsive.  A mother, dismayed at her own ageing, is full of insecurities and can be just as destructive.

‘My mother was so anxious about getting old, she couldn’t cope with my growing up,’ remembers Marie, 39.  ‘Whenever she gave me a compliment, she would immediately undermine it, so she would say something like, “You have nice legs, but at your age, mine were thinner”.  She couldn’t help herself.  Maybe that’s why I have no confidence in my own body.’

But as well as conscious emotions, such as love and hate, subconscious desires can be very powerful.  ‘If they were expecting a son but they had a daughter, parents will be disappointed, albeit subconsciously.  Even if they give masses of love to their little girl, she won’t be able to avoid thinking that her body is inadequate,’ says psychoanalyst Françoise Dupin.” (Psychologies 106)

Suddenly, the media is feeling like a much easier topic to discuss.  The media is external to our lives.  I took a trip a few years ago to the Cascade Mountains.  I had my cell phone, but it didn’t work.  There was little point in bringing a computer.  There was no television because there was no electricity where I was staying.  There were no magazines anywhere.  I was completely free of all media, but I wasn’t free of something else.  The voices of my past.  Our families are not external to our lives.  They are very much an internal part.  Our experiences in our families, for better or for worse, are foundational to our lives.  Taubes says it: “Our ego-ideal is based on our parents’ perception of us, their demands and their hopes.” In large part, how we view ourselves, the ruler with which we measure ourselves, is given to us largely by our parents.

I introduced you to Jodie Kidd in the beginning of this article.  She is an interesting figure to me because she represents a woman who made a successful transition from a very challenging adolescence as a teenage model to a woman who “grew into” herself.  If you’ll notice from her interview, she describes her family as confident, and they were able to impart this confidence to her as well.  So, as she witnessed her young body change from boyishly thin and lanky to voluptuous and full, she was able to transition from awkwardness to self-acceptance.  She admits that she finds fault with her shape, but she also admits that she’s proud of the one physical attribute that made her feel the most awkward during her adolescence–her height.  I believe that she is so proud of her height because her family is so confidently tall.  Kidd’s story reinforces Taubes’ assertion that if we have a good relationship with our family from early on, we might develop a flexible and forgiving ego-ideal that will prevent us from obsessing on perceived lacks.

You may be asking, ‘What if I did not have that sort of family experience?’  If you’ve read any of my other posts, then you know I did not.  My response? There is time, and we shall explore that because it needs exploration.  It’s part of telling the truth (Step 1) and moving forward.  How are we ever going to learn to see ourselves differently, learning to like what we see in the process, if we never realize why we don’t in the first place?

What I want to leave you with is this: In any of your familial experiences, were you left with any positive gifts relating to body image? Jodie Kidd was given confidence.  I’ll share.  Mind you, I had to think about this one; but if I can come up with one, then I know that you can, too.

I have great feet.  I really do.  My mom would always paint her toenails, and I think I picked up the habit of painting my toenails from her.  My mother has never left the house without having painted toenails.  I am very similar.  Even without having my nails painted, however, I can say without a doubt that I have pretty feet.  I like the shape of my toes.  I like the size of my feet.  They aren’t too big or too small.  The skin on the top of my feet is very smooth, and my feet tan in the summer.  I wear sandals all summer long so that I can show off my pedicured toes and suntanned feet.  Even when I neglect to keep up with nail polish, I still like my feet.  Even when my feet are dirty and the nails grow a little long, I still like my feet.  Even if another person came along and insulted my feet, I wouldn’t care in the least because I like my feet.  That was my mother’s gift to me.  She cared for her feet, and she taught me to care for mine.  I don’t know if she ever said that I had nice feet, but because I spent so much time looking at my feet, “doing my toenails”, and caring for my feet, I learned to like my feet and see them as pretty.  Consequently, I like to look at other people’s feet.  I think that feet are interesting.

Is there a part of your body that you especially like? Your hands? Your skin? Your hair? Your eyes? Ears? Lips? Nose? Bottom? Thighs? Stomach? Feet? Your height? Your posture? Your smile? Your neck? Back? Ankles? Your wrists? We spend so much time discussing what we don’t like.  Spend some time thinking about what you do like in a deliberate manner.  If you like your hands, then apply some lotion to your hands as an act of tenderness and appreciation.  If you like your hair, then take an extra minute or two when you are washing it, feeling it, running your fingers though it.  If you like your skin, spend a few minutes admiring it, feeling it, “being in it”.  Whatever it is that you like about yourself, spend some time attending to yourself.  We are able to look at our flaws with the focus of a laser.  Turn some of that energy into positive self-attention.  If this is too uncomfortable for you, then merely ask the question: “What part of me might be beautiful, interesting, or striking if I were a stranger looking at me for the first time from a distance?”  Whether you know the answer or not, you are beautiful.  Learning to see yourself differently is a process, and it is a worthwhile one at that.

As for me, I’m going to spend some time painting my toenails.

Keep, Recycle, or Trash?

A friend of mine recommended this blog to me: www.alreadypretty.com.  I am now going to recommend it to you–this post in particular, http://www.alreadypretty.com/search/label/psychology, because it builds on what we’ve been discussing in the last few posts.  I think that you will find her entire blog helpful, encouraging, useful, and edifying as you begin the process of deciding how high the standard of beauty, your own beauty,  is going to be.  She’s an honest writer, and she’ll make you laugh, too.

“See Yourself Differently”–Part II

Girl at Mirror, 1954, Saturday Evening Post
"Girl at Mirror", 1954 by Norman Rockwell

As promised, we are continuing our journey into learning to like our bodies.  In my earlier post, “See Yourself Differently”–Part I, I cited from an article with the same title written by Isabelle Taubes for Psychologies Magazine UK Edition.  Because Psychologies Magazine does not archive their articles online, I am posting longer excerpts here for discussion purposes.  If you have not been following the discussion, you can find the first part of this article at “See Yourself Differently”–Part I.

“Someone suffering from anorexia sees themself (sic) as enormous even though they are skeletal, and someone suffering from body dysmorphia is constantly discovering new monstrosities that only they can see.  What is the demon that dominates the way we perceive ourselves and our relationship with our bodies? Freud called it the ‘ego-ideal’, and its role is to manage our relationship with all that we would like to be and do.

We love ourselves according to how we measure up to our ideal of perfection.  The higher we set the bar, the greater the risk that we’ll feel we’ve let ourselves down. (italics added) Someone with an uncompromising ego-ideal believes that to be lovable they must look like a supermodel, so it’s inevitable that they feel unattractive as they are.  Adolescents may be prone to anorexia, and their lives will be punctuated by long periods of dieting.  Orbach points out that comparing our bodies to an ideal makes us more likely to fall short, and even fall ill. ‘While we demand more rigour and have high expectations of what the fit, healthy and beautiful body can deliver us, there is an increase in symptoms, from sexual dissatisfactions to eating problems and fear of ageing,‘ she says.” (Psychologies 106)

I am going to interject here. Did you notice this quote from Susie Orbach?: “While we demand more rigour and have high expectations of what the fit, healthy and beautiful body can deliver us, there is an increase in symptoms, from sexual dissatisfactions to eating problems and fear of ageing.”  Firstly, I am fully supportive of a healthy body.  We cannot live the lives for which we were created from a hospital bed, but what constitutes “healthy”? Susie Orbach uses the same language to discuss the body that one might use to discuss a car’s performance.  She uses words like “rigour”, “demand”,”high expectations”, “beautiful”, and “deliver”.  These are words that advertisers use when talking to consumers.  Why not? It’s very possible that we could treat our bodies like some sort of product to be used and consumed.  It must be shaped, altered, pushed, pulled, stretched, injected, lipoed, worked, punished, deprived, and changed in order to deliver us the life we want.  This is the message that advertisers send us through magazine ads, television commercials, films, radio ads, music videos, ad nauseum on a daily basis.  Our minds are bombarded with the message–“You are not good enough as you are, but you could be…”–whenever you are faced with any sort of media short of listening to NPR unless you feel intellectually inferior.  Listen to NPR enough, however, and you might just walk away feeling a boost in your IQ.  Read People Magazine or watch E! Channel long enough, and you will certainly not feel a boost in your self-esteem.

The question I’ve been asking in my last few posts is “Who is setting the bar for us?” as far as beauty goes? I’ve named the media as one culprit.  There are others, and I’m going to get to those.  But, let me share a story with you to illustrate this point a bit further.  I have a brilliant friend.  She is a writer for a major television network, and she also moonlights as a screenwriter.  She has a lot of “connections” in Hollywood, and she also knows many other writers in the entertainment industry.  I am secretly envious of her (well, not so secretly) because she knows Tina Fey.  One cold, wintry night last year, I was fortunate enough to spend an evening with my brilliant friend, and we began discussing the issue of body image in Hollywood.  She was more than willing to share her opinion, but being the discreet woman that she is, she refused to name names.  She did, however, tell me tales of how these famous Hollywood actresses maintained their famous physiques–drugs, cigarettes, coffee, and alcohol.  I choked on my chai.  “Surely not,” I gasped, “this isn’t the 1970s anymore!”  She rolled her eyes at me, and said, “Get real,” in her characteristic deadpan tone.  She went on to tell me how these television stars relied on cocaine to get them through the 20-hour work days.  They rarely ate.  They were typically a size 0 or 2.  She said that the shows for which she writes now have “clean sets” meaning no drugs, but in the past that was not the case.  The stories that these stars tell the American public through their publicists like, “I love the new Zone diet, and I have a trainer who helps me follow a good exercise routine” are often bogus.  Much of it is spin.

As I sat at her kitchen table processing this information which really did not seem too far-fetched, she went on to tell me about another writer.  He was a local writer who was happily married.  He, too, wrote for a major network, and he was being pressured by one of the show’s producers to move to Los Angeles.  He didn’t want to move to L.A. because he and his wife were happily settled here.  The producer went on to ask him why he was unwilling to leave the area; the producer then asked him if it was because of his wife.  The writer did say that his wife’s family was indeed near, but he himself was happy to stay.  The producer then asked, “Is your wife L.A. caliber?” (This is a true story.)  The producer offered to pay the writer’s wife a certain sum of money to essentially “go away”.  The writer could then divorce said wife, move to L.A. in order to churn out more entertainment for the masses, and upgrade to L.A. caliber wife 2.0.  Hear what I say, this producer in Hollywood is one of thousands propping up the entertainment industry in this country.  That industry churns out billions of images which dictates the standard of beauty in this country.  They are a huge piece of the media pie that is setting the bar for all of us.  To that producer, that writer’s wife was expendable, worthless even, because she did not fit his standard of beauty!  She could just be paid off and sent on her way so that his end goal could be accomplished–another episode on his hit television show.

Understand that you are not expendable.  That producer and the industry that he represents do not get to set your bar for you.  You do! The media does not have that privilege unless we agree.  I think that is the key to learning to thrive in this culture.  We must remember the Parisians in the 19th c. Paris Salon when Ingres presented them with “La Grande Odalisque” (see A Variation on a Theme).  While his painting was beautiful, and it appealed to the senses just as modern-day representations of beauty do, the Parisians recognized that it was not realistic in the slightest.  And, because it was not realistic, it was not obtainable or relevant; therefore, it was a sort of absurd beauty.  The 21st c. media’s representation of beauty while fantastic, tempting, appealing, and provocative is also absurd; it is time that we learn to appreciate it, but reject it.  Your beauty, on the other hand, while perhaps still hidden to you is very relevant, and it is time that we all come out from under the shadow of “La Grande Odalisque” and her legacy.