Monday, May 20, 2013


I’m sitting here on a bed strewn with a lifetime of photos trying to figure out when it happened. It is, in part, foolish because, of course, there is no way to pinpoint a moment when it shifted. I would guess it was gradual, but I’m hoping the reversal of the process can be swifter.
I look at the school photos from kindergarten through fourth or fifth grade and I can tell it hadn’t happened yet. It becomes more apparent around seventh and eighth grades, which is normal I guess. And boy, can you see it in the photos my Dad took of me when I was in high school for the photography class he was taking. I could barely look at the camera by then.

This process of healing began in earnest for me about a month or so ago. I have been slowly making my way through Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance. I put the book down after a chapter about self-compassion, because I knew I needed to take some time with that chapter. It has been a challenging process, but one that I’m grateful for. I found that yes; there have been some things in my life that I have been less than compassionate with myself about. Granting myself that compassion now, when I didn’t at the time it was called for, has been a beautiful gift to give myself, though one that did require reflecting on some uncomfortable times and issues.

I, like many people I know, find it much easier to give the gift of compassion to others rather than to myself. It feels selfish and egotistical and yet I know it’s not. Being gentle with yourself as you move through difficult times or situations is important and in the end helps all those around you as well. Perfectly logical, and yet not so easy for me to do. So I have been working on it.

As I went through the process of reflection I found the deepest wounds surrounded my own image of myself, hence, my walk through old photos. I knew I was going to have to go to this place and go through this healing, I had felt it coming for a while. Strangely though, I have to say I’m grateful to Mike Jeffries, the CEO of Abercrombie + Fitch for stating his bigotry so plainly, which finally prompted me to look more deeply. I won’t go into my thoughts on Mr. Jeffries and his comments here, because many others have addressed it quite eloquently already. However, I will say that I’m afraid that he has mixed up the definition of cool with the definition of cruel. Perhaps I will send him a dictionary as a thank you gift with both words highlighted.

But I digress. The statements of Mr. Jeffries and the ensuing discourse were the nudge I needed to take a look, not at him, but at myself. I have struggled for I don’t know how long with how I see myself. It’s a strange phenomenon this self-image dance we do. My dance has not been very graceful, for I have to admit that for a large part of my life, I have not liked what I saw in the mirror. 

It’s funny; I can look at the pictures of myself when I was little and think without a moment of hesitation, Oh, I was so cute! Then as I get older in the photos I can feel the evaluation and judgment kick in. It’s as if at a certain age it was fine to just be who you were and then there is a line you cross somewhere when that shifts. As my photos reflect, I crossed that line in about seventh or eighth grade, middle school. I guess that’s pretty normal for girls. I remember being pretty skinny (I believe flat as a board was the term some used) and having fluffy hair – neither of which I had any control over. Luckily I had some good friends and was a fairly well-adjusted kid so it didn’t really spill over into self-loathing until high school sometime. Yes, it’s hard to even use that term, but really that’s what it was if I’m honest with myself. I can see it when I look at the photos my Dad took. I wanted to look nice for them. It should have been fun, my sister and I we were doing a photo shoot in the living room, but I couldn’t smile genuinely for the camera because I was so self-conscious. I still have trouble with being in front of a camera. I look at the pictures from high school now and I’m shocked because I used to think I was fat! It’s ridiculous when I look at them now. Yet, a high school friend and I went so far as to make up a club for ourselves, the Fat Ugly People of America (FUPA). We even had t-shirts made up with President and Vice-President on them. We laughed about it at the time and yet wow, what a thing to put on your back! And sadly, we wouldn’t have done it if there hadn’t been some truth in it as to how we felt about ourselves. I think it’s about time I got that one off my back.

It’s clear to me that Mr. Jefferies has never been an adolescent girl who is trying to see herself through the eyes of someone like him, which really is what we end up doing - trying to see ourselves through the eyes of some artificial and unrealistic standard of beauty portrayed so frequently in advertising and the media. Not only is it unrealistic, but it’s also beside the point. The focus is so much on how we look rather than who we are.

Despite the fact that I know I should not judge myself by these artificial standards of physical beauty, it is a challenge I still face every day of my life. Every day I look in the mirror and every day I try to pause and look with kindness rather than judgment. Some days I succeed and some days I don’t.

Weight is one of those standards that has been a real test for me.  After the birth of my first daughter I began a real battle with my weight. Losing that “baby weight” was not easy for me. Then after my second daughter it was really a problem. I was a good 35 pounds over what would be normal for me. I had a lot of trouble looking in the mirror during that time. Why? Because I was unhealthy? I may have been on the verge of reaching an unhealthy weight, but mostly I couldn’t look at myself because I didn’t fit an image of beauty that I carried in my head. We are not born with some artificial image of what is beautiful, but we learn it quite early on. I apparently learned it well and held myself to that standard. Then one day a friend of mine stopped to talk to me during grad school and made some reference to her and me as “big girls.” I was horrified. “Big girls,” surely didn’t fit that standard I had been taught so well. How could it apply to me?! Shortly after that comment I joined Weight Watchers. I did eventually lose 35 pounds and for a while felt really good about how I looked. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not saying that my attitude toward or my reaction to the phrase big girls was right. It was a reaction born of years of holding onto the Barbie image of beauty.

A perplexing part of this whole thing is that I don’t think most of us judge the people around us as harshly and by the same standards that we judge ourselves by. I have friends of all shapes, colors and sizes and love them as they are. Yet, I have been unable to be as loving with myself. It turned out that focusing on my new weight as how to evaluate my own self-image didn’t work out well for me in the long run anyway. While many members of my family have been blessed with a high metabolism that helps them remain at a healthy weight without much effort, I was not similarly blessed. I have to work at keeping my weight down. I kept the 35 pounds off for a few years and then slowly as I hit age 40, I started to gain some back. It was amazing how quickly and how few pounds it took for my image of myself to slip again and how quickly I could go right back to berating myself.

Then along came Radical Acceptance and the chapter on self-compassion and here I sit surrounded by photos trying to figure out how to see myself with love and acceptance. My heart aches for all the anger and unkindness I have directed at myself over the years. I feel so sad as I look at that high school girl and wish she knew how beautiful she was at the time. It’s such a blessing to me now to have two daughters who know their own worth and beauty as they are, inside and out. They are my greatest teachers and I am so happy for them and the fact that they have not lost that innocent love of self. My own view of myself has been forty-plus years in the making, but I’m setting a goal that by 50 I will have learned to love myself as I am.

It starts today. And it starts with the questions I ask myself. Normally it would be, Is my weight what I would like it to be? No, it’s not, but the real question is am I healthy? Yes, I absolutely have a healthy, strong body. It’s wonderful, it carries me out on my daily walks, allows me to hug my children and beloved, allows me to smile and laugh, allows me to drink in the sweet smells of spring and witness its vast array of colors. It allows me to listen to beautiful music and dance to it. It allows me to enjoy delicious food. It allows me to think and write and talk and sing and breathe and be in this amazing life! How could I be anything but grateful for this body? I wish I had spent more years loving it and the life it enables me to live. It’s not too late though. Each moment is a new beginning. I will begin now. I will look again at these pictures before me and will look this time with the eyes of love, with the eyes of wonder that I came into this world with. I will go stand in front of the mirror and do as I have encouraged others to do, look with the eyes of love. I will focus on gratitude and the joy of being alive in this miraculous body.

Is it a body that will fit into Abercrombie + Fitch clothing? Probably not, but you know who else wouldn’t have fit into them? Marilyn Monroe. More importantly, does it really matter what clothes I wear? Not in the slightest. The only clothes that are significant to me now are the ones my soul is wearing, and that look suits me just fine.

This is for Jessica and Lucy, who teach me every day how to love myself just as I am through their beautiful examples.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. Someone posted your link on Jada Pinkett Smith's Facebook page and I'm glad I clicked on the link. Please check out the book, "Through Eyes That See."

Tom Allen said...

Pretty stinkin' insightful!

Emily said...

Yes, thank you for this Lynda. I'm just now reading this and I'm currently going through the same struggle, what with the onset of menopause and a change in metabolism. This is also the second mention I've seen of Tara Brach. I think that's a sign. :)

Lynda Allen said...

Thanks everyone. It was a challenge to write on one level and very freeing to write on another level, and a bit scary to put this one out there because it was so personal for me. Thank you for reading it.

Anonymous said...

You are beautiful!!! Inside and out!

Lynda Allen said...

Thank you! I'm learning that day by day. :-)