It starts when I am cutting up the peaches. I often buy fruits and vegetables “reduced for quick sale” for use in smoothies, soups, and other comestibles requiring neither peak freshness nor flavor. It would be a mortal sin to chop up and freeze a pint of ripe, Michigan peaches for the purpose of blending them with soy milk and a banana; those peaches, the ones that send a beckoning finger of fragrance at the farmers market, are meant to be eaten standing over the sink in a frenzy of slurping, sticky glory.
As I cut, I look down and see that one of the peaches has large brown spots. The part of me that is politically correct, sane, thrifty and green knows that it’s no big thing because it’s going in a freezer bag. The other part of me, the darker, bitchier, judgmental part says “ick” and the offending segment is flicked into the Dispos-all’s maw before I can stop it. This all happens very fast.
The thing that takes a while, as I continue to cut, is thinking about how deeply I truly believe in perfection and artificially high standards, and how totally that dark part of my brain buys into every sick notion our society offers about what a woman should look like. I make myself remember that only a day earlier I watched a clothing ad on television and literally sized up and judged the appearance of the models. I had no issue with the slender, objectively beautiful African American family frolicking in their summer togs. When their plus-sized friend appeared, however, that darker, bitchier, judgmental part of me said “ick.”
That woman was probably wearing exactly the same size I am wearing right this minute. It is, I believe, the average clothing size of women in the United States.
I find myself less concerned about how I got this way than I am about how to stop it. I want to uproot it like the foul weed that it is, before it chokes the self-confidence and joy out of more women and girls. I will say that my parents aren’t responsible, but that I grew up in a community in which unattainable perfection was pretty attainable – most of my peers’ parents could afford cosmetic dentistry, dermatologists, frequent trips to the hair salon, tanning and expensive clothes. They played sports, they had access to healthy food, and they were, by and large, a really good looking group of affluent kids. It was what I saw every day, and on TV, and in magazines. They were beautiful, I was not; they were perfect and I was flawed from frizzy hair to fat thighs.
So I wonder two things: do women who grow up in a more forgiving culture tend less towards self-judgment? If the people you see every day have “brown spots” and are still cherished and admired can you more easily filter out the noise from the commercial world? Also, how much of my relentless judging and comparing comes from my own wiring and how different would it be if I were less sensitive? (Those were rhetorical questions, but if you have answers I’d love to hear them).
The big question is how we snap out of this – you and me and everybody else we know? How do we re-educate ourselves, and how do we talk to our daughters and granddaughters about sorting out the cultural wheat from the chaff? How do we talk to our sons about accepting a woman as beautiful if she is not made up, siliconed, and wearing high heels and a Wonder Bra?
When I am in my right mind, I think that the most beautiful women and girls tend to be athletes. They are not always tiny, but they glow with health, they are fit, they are comfortable in their bodies and they are strong. They aren’t “working out” to be beautiful; they are beautiful because they are healthy. I see this as a clue and part of the solution, this notion that owning your strength and moving your body for the sheer joy of it is much better than dragging oneself to the gym as piunishment foreating a piece of cheesecake. We don’t have to train for the Olympics, but we have to walk, or dance or move our Chi around most days. We can introduce our daughters to movement and see what they like, focus on their fierce intrinsic power and let them make it a good habit instead of a necessary evil, part of the harnessing and breaking of natural impulses that makes it bad to enjoy food and makes the pleasure of exercise into a penance.
I think we must not teach girls to separate mind and body. I know that I have spent most of my life believing that my inadequate, imperfect, and embarrassing body is a separate entity with which I was cursed, and which must have its food rationed, be walked on the treadmill, have its hair colored, its face painted and its clothing carefully selected to fool the greater world into seeing fewer brown spots. It seems really silly if you spell it out that way, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only woman who has shortchanged herself and missed out on wonderful things because they were not, in some way, good enough. Not perfect.
I hope I can teach this to myself, although I’m a pretty old “girl.” I hope I can stop living in that cold, nasty part of my head that scans perpetually for societally acceptable beauty, constantly ranking, judging, and finding a repulsive kind of satisfaction in a spot of cellulite on the smooth thigh of a twenty-year-old in short shorts. I hope I can find the courage to turn off the noise outside and stop spending time and money doing things to make me look “acceptable.” I want to move because there is great music playing or because it’s a beautiful day and I want to walk. I want to eat healthy food because I prefer it, and revel in the pleasure of a piece of pie because it's awesome. I want to remind myself of my natural hair color (mostly white), my natural hair texture (fine and curly), and be able to leave the house without any makeup. Then I can choose, if I like, to decorate myself because it’s a pleasure to decorate myself. Not because I have to.
I want to go on a crusade and stop this thing from happening to a single, beautiful girl child in this world.
I want to savor the brown spots, which are often the sweetest and juiciest of all.