Batterers and abusers have an uncanny knack for sizing up others’ vulnerabilities–one of the reasons we stay too long is that they underscore doubts that are already in our own heads. The most powerful ones, those most ready for the abuser’s exploitation, are the ones we worry about with private shame.
A little insecurity about your nose? Let’s talk about plastic surgery. Your thighs? Can you hear the “thunder”?
Since childhood, my vulnerable spot has been my body image (today it is less tender, but still not the bulletproof vest I’d like it to be).
On my second date with Lee, he made a negative comment about a friend’s wife’s weight. I should have argued in defense of the other woman, but instead I cringed inwardly–did he know that I worried about my weight nearly all the time?
We were off, and eventually my weight becoming his go-too topic for verbal abuse.
It took me a long time to realize that only I have the right to decide what I should eat and weigh and wear. No one else. So simple. And easier said than done.
If you meet someone who seems to want to exploit what you worry about, whatever it might be, rather than support you through it, I recommend that you show that person the door.
Knowing that you’re not alone, that you’re not the only person who has experienced exploitation and abuse, will help. Knowing that others have survived trauma and come out the other side, will help.
Read Hunger by Roxane Gay, or listen to the audiobook because Gay is a wonderful narrator. Whatever the trauma you’ve experienced, her story–the violence, the weight gained and lost and gained–will move you. She writes,
But I am a lucky girl. I think most of my sad stories are behind me. there are things I will no longer tolerate. Being alone sucks, but I would rather be alone than be with someone who makes me feel that terrible. I am realizing I am not worthless. Knowing that feels good. My sad stories will always be there. I am going to keep telling them even though I hate having the stories to tell. These sad stories will always weigh on me, though that burden lessens the more I realize who I am and what I am worth.
You’re worth far, far more than any abuser wants you think.
I’ve counted Weight Watchers points. I’ve counted grams of carbs, protein and fat depending on the conventional food wisdom of the moment. I’ve counted the non-nutritive calories in sugar-free Cool Whip and Jell-O pudding.
For the past nine months or so, I’ve been tracking what I eat, both macronutrients and calories.
Confession: I like to track.
I don’t see it as unkindly restrictive or self-flagellating; it gives me a framework within which to eat, just as I have frameworks and goals for writing and working out and anything else that I don’t necessarily do well or consistently without planning. I agree with Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty’s Sam B when she writes, “my food log often serves as a way to remind me that what I eat matters. For me, it’s much more about making sure I take care of myself.”
At a few points in my past, I’ve taken more care with Max’s food than I have with my own, and tracking keeps me focused on eating well, eating enough, eating not too much. I appreciate my food more when I pay attention to its quality and pleasure and the nourishment it provides for my body.
If I’m hungry for chocolate (or whatever), I eat chocolate, savoring every bite. And then I write it down.
Am I talking about mindfulness? Paying attention? Self-care? All of the above.
I’ve been known to try to fit a square story into a round metaphor, and I wondered whether the Women’s History Month guest posts would really be nest-making.
Today’s post is by the beautiful Streetlights Imagination.
So far, so good.
There is an undeniable sense of power in being a woman, and I love it. I love my curves. I love my softness. I love the differences between a man and me. I celebrate not just womanhood, but my own individual womanhood. I don’t see my gender as a political weapon or a social statement. I see it as beautiful and there is something awe-inspiring in its beauty.
Of course, I don’t mean ‘beautiful’ in any petty vain way. I mean beautiful in all its mechanisms, in how it works within itself – there is nothing more empowering, more inspiring, than a woman’s body and knowing that it has the capacity to create, carry, and nurture life. Except for when it won’t and it doesn’t and it somehow becomes a betrayal to its very life’s purpose.
All I had ever wanted to be was a mother. Life goals and achievements had come too easily for me. I obtained degrees and higher degrees without much worry or stress. I made the grades necessary in school to be on various deans’ lists and worked hard for the things I needed to work hard to obtain. I advanced in my career as far as I cared to. I had assumed that conception and pregnancy would come easily as well. I had taken it all for granted.
I was so naïve to think all I had to do was have sex with my husband.
It was more than that. It took us a few short years to have our son, and even in that experience I was foolish enough to think it was a temporary set back in my dreams of motherhood. It was such a false blanket of security I wrapped myself in – stubbornness and pride. My body, my woman’s body, wouldn’t fail me a second time, or third, or fourth. This is what my body was for, after all. I loved that pregnancy, but I was busy working and going to school for another degree. I can’t remember all the minute details of a first pregnancy as many women can. I primarily remember exhaustion; perhaps that is all that a pregnancy entails.
And yet, when it was time for my husband and I to approach our second baby – or “trying” as people call it, I realized that all the respect I had for my body was misguided. Where was the easier conception I thought I would have? I thought I deserved? I would stare at my naked self in the bathroom mirror and where I once saw something I marveled at I saw a traitor. My body was no longer my own; it was an enemy. And I had never felt more powerless. I could no longer convince myself that it would be just a couple years like my last child, and I began to reconcile myself to being a mother to one.
My heart ached. I had fallen out of love with my body and with being a woman. I mothered my son and settled into a lifetime career. We still tried to conceive; we still hoped that it would “work”. Not once did my husband ever blame me. Every time I blamed myself. Before we knew it ten years had passed.
In those ten years I had slowly begun to learn my body again. I would lie in bed and listen to its whispers, feeling its hum inside my core. I would no longer stare in bewilderment in the mirror or sometimes tears; the old feelings of inspiration and awe were coming back.
I began wearing eyeliner again.
And I lost a baby. I had barely begun to revel in the pregnancy when the baby was gone again. The life I cherished within me vanished in a night over a series of contractions that rolled through my body. I thought the sun would never rise again. And yet it was audacious enough to do so the next morning.
I was back staring at my body in the mirror, tracing its lines and curves with my fingers. Where was the source of its power? Why wasn’t it working, whatever it was? I’d hold my hands against my abdomen, flat after too many years of no child, and now empty. It felt empty. I held my hands against my heart, feeling the palpitations. Vibrancy.
When we discovered our next pregnancy all I wanted to do was hold my hands against my belly as if cradling the child. My body felt electric and each breath I took was a cognitive exploration of the world. The child growing inside me empowered me to find my own sense of power and strength pulsating again.
I found out I was having a little girl on March 8th – International Day of the Woman. The fetal specialist confirmed the gender as tears flowed freely. My baby girl bounced around in the womb, pointing her finger at us, and we could even see her smile. Ours was the only girl to be ultrasounded on that day. And she stands alone even now – eight months after her birth. Born one month early and after I came close to being lost before delivery, the doctor held her up for me to see before she was taken to NICU. This little girl, my vibrant daughter, looked straight at me and smiled. She hasn’t stopped since.
Motherhood has been the most powerful form of my womanhood. I have never seen my body more beautiful then now with all its scars and stretch marks. I love the stories they tell and the new curves in my form. Would I still feel empowered as a woman without my children? I believe so, though in different ways. I have gained identity through education, career and other forms of self-fulfillment. However, I was forced to learn more about myself through becoming a mother. I had to learn patience for and with myself. I learned a different kind of self-respect. I had to learn to trust others and be humble. Most importantly, perhaps, I had to learn that I couldn’t hold burdens in my own pockets. The greatest source of power is overcoming your own weakness.
My children are sleeping as I write this, one in his room and one right beside me. The emotion swells inside me as I think of them growing up and becoming who they are meant to be. My son, who we discovered growing inside me at the start of spring, and my daughter, who was the only girl on International Day of the Woman: My heartbeats, these little ones, and with each beat I become a stronger woman.
Let it always be known that I chose joy over despair, family over the world, and to fight when it mattered. Welcome to me.–Streetlights Imagination
Looking for more nest-making posts? They’re here and here.
The Choose Love Project is live, and it “aims to help women, both young and old, to understand that loving our bodies and healing our relationship with food and exercise are choices, that these are indeed about choosing love.”
You can read letters by women (including me!) to our younger selves, and if you’re so moved, please submit one of your own for Volume II.
What am I going to risk in the process of shedding, giving up the burden of attempted perfection, telling my story, bowing down to grief and love?
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I've written about that part of my story. I've talked about it in private and in public. I have a purple ribbon on my Twitter avatar. Last October I didn't, didn't, and didn't. What I thought I might never be able to do, I have done, and in the doing, I can fly.
I've written about the power of telling the truth internally and out loud, and I've proven it to myself.
But there is another frontier of truth-telling that I have yet to explore. It's a part of my story that is much older than domestic violence, much more deeply rooted in my psyche, and in many ways related to my tolerance of emotional and physical abuse.
Online I can hide this from you. There is really no need to talk about it, is there? There is.
It's weight. My longest-term struggle. I'm too heavy. I am a yo-yo dieter, more or less annually moving up and down the scale in the same range of 20 to 30 pounds.
Except for a precious few brief and shining moments–and I could tell you the dates, the weights, the clothing sizes, and the men involved–I've always been "too heavy." This fact has become the biggest single consumer of my mental energy. I exercise to change it, I dress to conceal it, I move to hide it, I choose food to change it or rebel against it.
I ask myself, as I see that this is a recurring obstacle to take off, sustained flight, safe landing, Why?
What does "too heavy" even mean?
I start with words. I take my big red Synonym Finder off the shelf and look up "heavy":
Wow. Did you read them all? Well. "Heavy" encompasses quite a lot. Some of which weight I do not want to lose.
I'll be exploring "too heavy" over the next few posts.
Did you know that female bald eagles stand about three feet tall, with a wingspan of approximately seven feet? They weigh between 14 and 18 pounds. I can't imagine that they worry about being "too heavy."
I’ve seen pictures of the Statue of Liberty all my life, and I could have recited that it was a gift from France in the nineteenth century, but I couldn’t have described her.
I had a vague idea that she would be a comforting presence, saying, in the Emma Lazarus poem "The New Colossus,"
“Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,/ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
But I did not bargain for her strength and power. Sure, she is 111'1" tall and weighs 225 tons, but if she were scaled down to human size, she would be a formidable woman. Wearing the robes of a warrior goddess, she is commanding as she offers care to the immigrants who approach.
I found this picture of her face on a postcard. The photo was taken before she was assembled at Bedloe's Island, 1885.