While I didn’t always notice it — especially during my ridiculously self-centered teenage years — my mother was quite a striking woman.
Mom was what some call “Black Irish,” — dark, wavy hair, brown eyes and a slightly olive complexion. She was medium height — maybe 5’7″? — with beautiful hands, gorgeous “gams” and slender fingers. She carried herself in a way that was almost lyrical. And that smile. You knew she liked you, if not loved you, when you saw that lovely smile. It made you feel good all over.
That was what we saw. But then there was what she saw.
I remember the phrases she’d utter for each stage of her life:
As a child she was: Too skinny… embarrassingly skinny. Tiny boobs. Shapeless legs. Hip bones sticking out.
As an adult she was: too heavy. Too heavy to even want to shop for clothes. (She was a size 14 at her largest, I think — what most call “normal” now.)
Mom criticized her body constantly in front of me. I’m too big for this, I can’t wear that, I just don’t look good. And she cried about it — frequently. Not surprisingly, this was exacerbated when she got cancer and lost a breast, her hair and even more of her self-esteem.
Sadly, as many women do, I inherited her mirror.
When young I was rail-thin, too. People called me beanpole, Bones Jones, whatever else they could think of that I have since blocked. I was odd and often unliked during my especially awkward stage — when I was about 12. In one middle school class kids would throw wadded up gum at me any time the teacher left the room. Oh — I was pretty ugly. Even looking at myself through today’s eyes, I still think that. Braces, Sun-In-ed hair, nasty haircut and awful clothes that didn’t really fit (it was the ‘80s, after all). And the same tiny boobs. Genetics be damned.
I was so tall I honestly wondered if there was a surgery that could remove some sections of my bones to make me shorter. Thankfully, I started to develop a sense of humor and an edge, but it didn’t help my self-esteem much at all. Simply helped me fight back a bit.
I don’t remember Mom doing anything but telling me those other kids who teased me were “dumb.” Don’t remember hearing I was perfect the way I was. Don’t recall shopping trips to find something that might fit my figure (or lack thereof). No “here’s how I got through it” advice. She didn’t give that advice because she really didn’t get through it herself. So I was left to follow suit.
Fast forward to college. Mom was dying after her very long battle with cancer, and I started drinking and eating too much. I got up to a size 10 and felt HUGE. Thanks to Weight Watchers I lost the “extra” pounds, but embarked on a life-long battle with my fear of being overweight, instead of underweight. The voice inside continued to remind me I just wasn’t pretty.
Over the years I tried almost everything I could to look and feel good. I had my nose done. Got facials, makeovers, Botox and wrinkle fillers. Spent a small fortune on designer clothes and shoes. Experimented with every haircut and color until I found a look that felt okay. I ran so much to stay fit that I broke my body — fractured my pelvis and tore the labrum in my left hip. There were times when I felt very attractive, which was a major accomplishment. But I guess never quite pretty enough.
A few months ago, after hearing me bitch yet again about my weight, my sister snapped me out of it. “Stop it!” she said. “What do you think my daughters think when you say that? They’re the same size as you!”
I was passing it along. Just like Mom did.
I realized I had work to do, and it wasn’t with my nieces. It was with myself.
It’s hard to undo beliefs cultivated in childhood, but I attempted to do so by separating emotion from fact (thousands of dollars in therapy taught me that phrase and that practice).
Fact: I am tall, I like being tall and lots of ladies wish they were tall, too. It also hides the extra weight well. (DING! JUDGEMENT! Let’s undo that.)
Fact: I am not overweight. I am not underweight. I am a nice size for my frame. I may never be a size 4 again, and that’s ok.
Fact: I have my dad’s eyes, kinda, and my mom’s smile. Those were some pretty features on beautiful people. I’ll wear those with pride.
Fact: My body is strong, and it can get stronger still. That makes me feel good, and I think it’s very attractive.
Fact: I’m damned pretty on the inside, as they say, and that counts for a helluva lot.
I wish I could go back and comfort young Mom and young me. Tell them how beautiful they were. Find a lovely feature they could focus on and be happy with. Play them some Christina Aguilera and some Pink. Nurture whatever was missing in their little hearts that prevented them from seeing the beauty everyone else saw. But because I can’t, I have to just decide to believe it now.
I am beautiful, in every single way. Yes words can’t bring me down.
Not even my own.
And Mom, I wish you could have seen what we all saw. You were simply lovely, and extremely loved. I will never stop being sad that you didn’t feel this. And I will never stop trying to make sure the nieces know how unique and lovely they all are, too.