Worrying about how I look has ruined many of my days. To express the depth of the problem, I give you this image of our family camping trip to Yellowstone National Park the summer after my eighth-grade year. Yes, I am wearing a paper bag on my head.
It rained that fateful week in Yellowstone, and I was concerned about my hair. The paper bag was my beautiful solution. I am sure my parents were mortified, but I would not be persuaded otherwise. The thought of being seen with bad hair by anyone at all, even perfect strangers (whilst on a camping trip, mind you) was too much for me to bear.
I remember people thinking it was kind of a zany, funny thing to do; I believe I was part of several other family’s vacation shots; I know I heard quips about the Unknown Comic. But when I posed with my beleaguered siblings in front of Old Faithful, I also remember how un-zany and un-funny it felt to me. Under that paper bag was a miserable girl, paralyzed by feelings of inadequacy so intense they kept me from enjoying all kinds of things. Such as parties and ski trips with skinny girls and the dumbfounding mystery of a geyser erupting on schedule before my very eyes.
In this fashion, over the years, I have sabotaged various social events, job interviews and personal relationships. A paper bag, a well-cut trouser, the perfect wedge heel or a neckline I thought flattered my bust: I have used many tools to hide my prodigious imperfections from the world and it’s all just a bit crazy-making in the long run. Thus, I embarked upon my year-long experiment in simplicity. My original goal, of course, was to spend less time worrying about what I wear and how I look. Along the way, I noticed that when I dress to be comfortable in my clothing, I am markedly more comfortable in my own skin.
If I am on a journey toward better self-acceptance, I have been cruising along nicely until the past few weeks, when I seem to have hit a nasty road-block. At the moment, my experiment is not going well.
Last month, I spent five jam-packed days in New York. The skort365 project served me well. I dressed 100% for comfort 100% of the time, even when it meant meeting dear old friends for dinner in Greenwich Village in a black skort and (so help me God) a grey Denver South High t-shirt. Unthinkable, even a few months ago. A rare in-person rendezvous normally brings out the fussiest of my fussing about what to wear. I could spend weeks contemplating the most flattering, current, beautiful outfit to don for such an occasion. Not this time. I threw on a danged t-shirt, went on my way, and had a wonderful time. (It is also significant that it rained all week in the City and I neither worried about nor ever really so much as brushed my hair. Not a paper bag in sight.) Only one month ago, I felt like I was getting it. I felt confident and strong. I had my priorities in the right places. Experiencing the City and the people I love is far more important than agonizing about how I look while doing it. I felt gently sorry for the young girls doing touristy things, like I was, in five-inch heels and flawless makeup and coifs they had labored over all morning. I was in the groove of self-acceptance, and I felt great!
I don’t know exactly what has happened – has anything happened? – but I have to admit the feeling of confidence is gone. Lost. Slipped away. I look at myself in pictures and I am horrified. I see the purple bruises I get on my legs (because I am a very active and rather clumsy person) and I am ashamed to show my skin in public. I catch myself in the mirror and make frequent, fervent vows to spend much more time at the gym. I am so worried about how rotten my hair looks it keeps me awake at night. I think I look awful. Tired and fat and squatty and short and what the Hell Have I Been Thinking, prancing around without so much as a pair of Spanx to protect civilization from the horror of How I Look?
I know my appearance has not changed significantly in one month; it isn’t possible. I cannot have morphed from pleasant-looking, healthy 45-year-old woman into obese troglodyte so swiftly. In fact, I am technically a few pounds lighter than I was then.
So what has changed? Beats me. I know I prefer the Me of a month ago. I trusted I looked just fine, knew there were more important things to think about, anyway, and moved through the world accordingly. I resent the negative thoughts about myself, which have returned like noisy vagabonds, pitching tents, cranking up the radio and tossing beer cans into places I have so recently cleared of debris. I have enough distance from the whole thing to notice how I feel, which perhaps is progress. But at the moment, it is impossible for me to tell which vision of myself is true. Am I the healthy, happy, carefree image smiling in photographs one short month ago? Or am I the fleshy freak-show in my bedroom mirror?
One moment I was considering restricting my wardrobe even further, to black tanks and skorts with super construction only, layered with jackets and scarves as conditions require. I was feeling so secure and so confident in this basic ensemble, the loud colors and frilly tops I once favored felt like superfluous costume. The next thing I knew, I was frantically trying on six or seven tops before I felt secure enough to leave the house. Conversations with friends were suddenly tempered by an old, familiar fretting about how my belly looked.
At the risk of being indelicate, I am pissed off. I am thrown off – off-course, off-kilter, off my center. I resent my vulnerability, despite the real work I am doing, to forces I don’t understand. Since we only get to choose our reactions to things, here is what I have done: I have stayed my course. I have worn a black skort every day, no matter how many people I might offend with the doughy white meatiness of my legs. I have eschewed any other costume which might feel safer and more secure. I breathe. I walk. I remind myself how much better I feel when I eat no sugar at all. I bend, stretch, stand on my head, think expansive, forgiving, grateful thoughts. I have meditated on casting off, like boats from a dock, everything that gets ahold of me. I launch all the negative thinking into the open water and watch it float away. I remain anchored, unaffected. I have acted as though I believe the whole thing is crazy. The very idea that I can feel so fine one moment and so pathetic the next – it defies the rules of logic. I respect few things more than the rules of logic, and the empirical evidence I have collected over these 45 years tells me to wait it out. My observation and experience point to cycles, phases, patterns. The ebb and flow of life in this broken but wonderful world. I feel pretty crappy now, but I’ll feel better again.
I am putting the practices that feel uncomfortable at the moment into a savings bank. I am trusting that all of it–simplifying my wardrobe, opting for comfort over glamor, exercising, eating right, working to accept that I am a-okay, just as I am—will pay great dividends when I am back to feeling confident and pretty again. I am trying to trust that I don’t have to do anything now to fix a problem that isn’t there. I am trying to ignore my obnoxious tenants, those old familiar negative thoughts. I hope they will become bored and move onto more interesting territory, where they can get a rise out of someone less sure of herself than I am.
I hesitated to write about this hitch in my giddy-up, because it’s kind of embarrassing. I am starting to believe, however, that I am not alone in any of this. I think a lot of women can relate to the fun-house-mirror aspects of our relationships with ourselves. So I’m writing about it. I’m hoping other women will share their secrets for staying centered when life threatens to knock them out of balance. I am even more hopeful about talking to the few women I know who do not suffer such a silly fate. The girls who feel confident and sure, who have healthy relationships with how they look and what they wear and how much they weigh . . . they are out there, and I am watching them, hoping to learn their secrets. Most of all, I am putting one foot in front of the other. Keeping calm and carrying on. Noticing the good stuff and un-docking the bad stuff, sending it adrift and un-moored and un-tethered from me and my life.
As my beautiful husband just said, when we were hanging up the phone after a discussion about our sometimes-difficult teenager (aren’t they all?!), “Well, we all shine on. Like the moon and the stars and the sun.” See why I married him? I am helpless before a guy who casually drops John Lennon into the convo just when I need it most.
Indeed. Amen. Shine on. I’ll let you know how it goes.