Vanity Fare

It started with this bedtime conversation my nine-year old daughter and I had recently.

Anna: Mommy I weigh too much. I weigh like 70 or 80 pounds.  My belly pokes out.  It’s not flat like yours.

[My heart sank and then I said what most parents say.]

me: Anna you’re perfect just the way you are. If you want your stomach to be a little flatter, we can incorporate more fruits and vegetables, and cut back a little on the sugar. I’m really glad you told me about how you’re feeling.  Together we can make some healthy shifts that will make you more comfortable.

Anna: I’m never going to throw up. I’m going to eat what I want to, and be normal. I don’t care what people say about me. Sticks and stones. I just want to have a happy life.

me: Were you thinking about throwing up?

Anna:  No, I’m just saying.

me:  Okay, good.  There are a lot of solutions to what you’re feeling, and that’s not one of them.  It’s really dangerous.  Let’s keep talking about the healthy the changes we can make, and how you’re feeling.

Anna:  I said sticks and stones, but words actually do hurt.

me:  I know.  Being a kid is really hard.  But the way you feel about yourself is so much more important than anything anyone else can say about you.  Let’s stay focused on that, and the rest will fall into place.

Anna: I don’t want pancakes for breakfast. Can we have fruit instead?

me:  Absolutely. That will be great for both of us.

I was choking back the shitty lump in my throat when I left her room.  I remember the first time I felt fat.  I was 10.  My ballet teacher poked me in the stomach and told me to “hold it in.” I was average looking for someone my age (Anna is also), but it crushed me.  I never forgot it.  I never will.  I still hold in my stomach when I’m walking around the house in my jammies thirty years later. 

I don’t want that future for Anna.  I want her to be happy and at ease with herself.  I don’t know how to make that happen.  My own self-image is not where I’d like it to be.

I grew up with show business on both sides of my family.  My grandmother was a jazz singer – as was my mother for a while.  My grandfather and uncle were/are professional musicians, and my father was the drummer for Ringling Bros. Circus.  I spent most of my childhood surrounded by the glamour of nightclubs, and half-naked showgirls and aerialists.  Everywhere I looked were the one-percenters of youth and physical beauty.  That was the standard.

It’s a hard shadow to live in.  I guess it’s the same for kids who grow up with parents, grandparents and great-grand-parents with Harvard degrees.

In our family you can never be too young, too fit or too pretty.  Appearance is paramount, and it’s a life-long quest.  The grandmother I mentioned above will be 93 this weekend.  She’s still trying to lose 10 pounds.  When she’s not lamenting her weight (which is totally healthy), she doesn’t want her photo taken because she’s “old and wrinkly.”  My mother barely weighed 100 pounds until I was in high school, but she was never satisfied either.  Today she makes the same comments her mother makes almost verbatim.  Truth:  they both continue to be stunningly beautiful women well into their 70’s and 90’s respectively.

When Anna was born I vowed to do it differently.  I stopped talking about weight.  I stopped talking about aging.  I stopped verbally associating either to beauty, or the lack thereof.  I’ve considered my messaging on these topics the way a national brand evaluates its content for air.

I thought being totally positive about Anna’s appearance and completely neutral about my own would protect her from the obsession with beauty that runs in our family, and through our culture. I believed ignoring that dark thread in myself would make it disappear.

It didn’t. I feel fat and old a lot of the time – I just don’t say it out loud (except on my blog because that’s obviously the best place to keep a secret).  The shame of having those hateful thoughts about myself is far worse than any physical flaws I might imagine.

It’s not an eating disorder that gnaws at our peace of mind – it’s a perfection disorder.  I color my grey, use the best anti-aging products, get manicures and pedicures regularly, and wax 85% of my body.  I have a Botox bruise on my forehead as I type this – even though I swore over a year ago I would never put another needle in my face.  We’re having a family reunion this weekend.  I need to look my best.

On good days I’m able to comfort the part of me that’s afraid of not being pretty enough, or young enough, or thin enough.  I see the insanity of it.  I can focus on how lucky I am to be healthy.  I can see the qualities I have that truly make a person beautiful:  integrity, fortitude, empathy, generosity, love, intelligence, and humor.

On bad days I judge myself against photo-shopped teenage supermodels who eat cotton balls and tissue paper instead of food.  That is the fare for those at the long and empty table of vanity.

I hoped keeping these broken thoughts to myself was enough to guarantee Anna would have a healthy self-image.  I thought if no one knew, especially her, it wouldn’t matter.  But how could I think she wouldn’t one day notice the lengths I go to behind closed doors striving for physical perfection?

The conclusion I arrived at after that bedtime conversation is I will never be able to teach Anna to feel good about herself by regurgitating the healthy truths I’ve read in books and magazines along the way.  I have to teach her by example.

Crumbling under my own criticism never would have been enough to get my attention.  That’s normal.  It’s our legacy.  But the thought of my daughter having this same twisted relationship with youth and beauty is all the motivation I need to make a change.

I will always spend a lot of time and money maintaining myself – I’m okay with that.  But I’d like to get to the place where I’m doing those things out of love instead of fear.  A place in my mind where those rituals feel like I’m taking care of myself, not running from the Age Monster.

As with most things, attitude is everything, and I’m ready to change mine.  For me, and for Anna.

I think this genius post by Lizzy is a great place for me to start.

Maybe it is for you, too.

There is beauty in beginning.

Real beauty.

NaBloPoMo November 2013

Comments

  1. What a beautiful and powerful post. I’m supposed to be preparing for a conference call, but I can’t get your words out of my mind. Your perspective felt so fresh and unique on a topic that’s been discussed a bazillion times over. I’m going to have to come back to this one. In the meantime, thank you for sharing. You are doing a great job with Anna — with yourself.

    • Thanks Carinn! I really appreciate that so much. We gotta get out of our heads about this stuff right? Thank you for reading and commenting. Good luck with the call – you big-time Wall Street lawyer, you : )

  2. Wow. This is so powerful. I love the way you handled this, considering how terrifying it was to hear from your very own daughter.

  3. Excellent post, dear. I really hope the change of attitude on youth and beauty is a smooth transition for you because I was a little concerned when you mentioned that you feel fat yet a few paragraphs above your daughter mentions your flat tum tum. 😉 We all have our days though. ((hugs))

  4. Why is it SO hard to feel the same compassion for ourselves that we feel naturally for others? I am so hard on myself and only negativity comes from it. Make me glad I have sons…

    • Oh I know! It’s crazy. You’re lucky to have boys, but I’m hearing that it’s even starting to affect them as well now thanks to Abercrombie ads and whatnot. Uggg…Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  5. Wow. I wrote about this same thing a few months ago…how I started to have problems starting at ten years old. And not because of magazines or models, because of what I heard from others. Hope you don’t mind me sharing this…very powerful!

  6. It’s a hell of a struggle but you seem to have found the right voice. The right attitude. The focus on beauty is something that’s inherent in the human condition. It’s in our DNA. It goes way, way back and I don’t know how to solve this conundrum because I don’t think it’s ever going to stop. May I borrow some of this, verbatim, and put it in my arsenal for when my daughters start asking these same questions?

    • You’re right – it goes way, way back. It’s a little crazy, but a good attitude changes everything : ). Yes you can always use anything I say. If you dare haha. Thanks for reading and giving your thoughts.

  7. Molly,
    This broke my heart, but also gave me hope. Yes, the media bombards us with ridiculous images of what “beauty” is, and an ideal that is so skewed, and unhealthy. And when I hear well grounded kids like your little Anna being self-conscious about their physical appearances, I bless the fucking Gods in which I don’t believe that there are parents like you out there, who can surround their children with love and security, but also, equip them with the best possible tools so that they can build their self-esteem and self-respect away from this godawful quest for unattainable “beauty”. Much love to the both of you, and kudos for being such a fucking magnificent™ mother.
    Le Clown

    • Le Clown,
      Thank you so much for your thoughts and this huge compliment. Having a daughter (as you know) is no joke, especially when it comes to this stuff. I’ll keep pressing on and doing my best. Thankfully we have this great community for ideas and support. Hooray! Thank you again.
      Molly

  8. I absolutely loved reading this, even though yes it saddened me by how you feel, I admire how much you try to keep a strong head with your daughter! Its the best and only thing you can do. Keep on going and well done 🙂

  9. This was a beautiful and sad post on so many levels.

    My wife struggles with the same issues and it doesn’t matter how many times I tell her she’s beautiful or that I can’t keep my hands off her.

    I hope you and Anna can break the cycle together because the world needs more people who realize they are beautiful just as they are.

    • Word, Jason. Thanks! Some of the most beautiful women I know struggle with this issue. Hopefully the more we talk about it and acknowledge how crazy it is, we can all finally chill the hell out. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  10. My heart is sinking for Anna and you and for all of us. I too still walk around sucking in my stomach when I am thinking about it. What a way to live. I came of age in ballet and it was brutal, but honestly, I would have done the same thing no matter what. I was probably attracted to ballet in part because of the impossibility of fitting into that world. Always been a masochist like that.

    • Same here. I took ballet, tap and jazz for years. It’s so fun to be in front of a mirror all afternoon. Not. I have so much respect for all the work you’ve done around food. You’re an inspiration : )

  11. This makes me glad I don’t have a daughter, although some of these “perfection pressures” can get to boys too. I wish I could be nicer to myself every day, not just on days when I’m feeling really good. You said Botox, and it makes me want some after seeing the furrows between my brow a few minutes ago. And then I think I must be crazy for wanting to have botulism purposely shot in my face!

  12. Stunning observation about what your daughter has picked up on. They learn more from modeling that we are aware of most of the time. I love your attitude!!

    I have food issues that stem partially from my mother always being on a diet, and she was not overweight until later in life and on antidepressants. I remember buying some diet pills when I was 12 or 13. I swore my son would not pick up on any of the crap I grew up with. So, even though today I am living the other extreme of being quite overweight (which I am working on), food talk in this house is about being heathy and eating enough protein to keep the tummy full longer.

    • It’s to true, and thanks! It’s good to hear you’re keeping the focus in your house on being healthy – we’re doing that, too. Nutrition is hard! It’s so much easier to reach for the ready-made processed foods. Sigh. Thanks for reading and chiming in : )

  13. Oh, exactly! That’s exactly it. (And thanks for adding Lizzy’s link, too.) I look at my dear girls and hope, hope, hope they see the beauty. I actively tell them Mama looks great even when… well, I’m thinking maybe not so much. Anyway, a pleasure and honor to read. Thank you!

  14. Thank you for your honesty and candor. I’m glad your daughter is an inspiration to you. It’s wonderful that you possess such self-awareness and a willingness to be kinder to yourself – for her sake and your own. Such positivity and fortitude will only serve as a boon to both of you moving forward.

    • Hey thanks a million! Your (guest) post on pageants was really interesting. Pretty is really a topic these days, eh? Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Nice to meet you!

    • THIS HAPPENED TO ME AS Well. Except, I In no way SENT THE MONEY Because AS Shortly AS I STEPPED UP TO FILL OUT THE FORM On the WESTERN UNION I had AN EERIE Experience IN MY Abdomen AND DECIDED TO Stroll Away. i’m SO GLAD THAT I Di7;&#821dnt GO By way of WITH IT. I am SORRY That you Had to Lose THAT MONEY AND BE SCAMMED. ALL N ALL A LESSON Learned FOR Each OF US. Very best OF LUCK For you.

  15. I think — with all of the wisdom of a trainwrecky non-parent — that you handled this perfectly. It’s horrible and heartbreaking that perfect little Anna is already feeling the impossible societal pressure to be “perfect,” but her response demonstrated that she’s got a totally level head on her little shoulders. And, with you to encourage her to make her food and exercise choices about health, not some beauty ideal, she’s going to be just fine. You’re teaching her to be strong, healthy, and whatever she wants to be, and that’s going to be the mental and physical strength she needs to navigate all the BS the world is going to through at her.

    Because you can’t do push-ups if you don’t eat enough cake. And everyone knows that push-ups are way more bad ass than a concave mid-section.

    • Stop being so awesome-you’re making the rest of us look like assholes. Can you move in please? I make an amazing chicken salad, and don’t even get me started on my mashed potatoes…Seriously thank you. Shit’s so tricky. Thankfully I have people like you to help lead the way. Kids or no kids – awesome is awesome. True story. XO

  16. Love this post! I too am haunted by my mom hitting my stomach in high school (5’9″ 115lbs) and telling me to suck it in I looked pregnant!

  17. montaignejns says:

    You know Molly, as the world’s most shallow man, I usually don’t comment on such weighty issues. (yeah, I did)
    My first reaction was, WTF? Molly’s kind of a Beatty. Why is she posting this? Was this Blog Sweeps Week? Had her #s with rotund women who make their own clothes taken a hit lately? That seemed really unlikely. If there was ever a reliable blog reading demographic… but I digress.
    Upon further reflection I got your real point. In spite of the fact that my children are physically incapable of going in public w/o being assholes, I’d be way more fucked if I had girls.

  18. montaignejns says:

    At lunch we were discussing dieting and I brought up this post. Actually I said, “I was talking to my friend in Atlanta” because I was the youngest person at the table by 10 years, and “I read this blog” would have been mocked or dismissed.
    Anyways, the consensus was that your actions were correct in regards to the Botox and whatever you do for your flat belly. Essentially, if your in the game you need to play the game, and attractive people attain more than less attractive people of similar ability. This is a positive for Anna because she is the biggest beneficiary of your actions who is not you. (Honestly, $50 ear piercing for a fucking doll. That pisses me off and it didn’t cost me a dime)
    This actually led to a whole other conversation re: Does this need to be explained to the child, or is this the kind of lesson that teaches itself, but I gone on too long.

    • Guns, guns are easy. They are simple mechanicsl devices, measurements and tolerances are crucial, but they only have a few failure points.Cars, well, modern cars are difficult with thousands of failure points. Admittedly, cars are a lot more forgiving, especially where measurements and tolerances are code.rnen.c..

  19. Thanks Molly. I think as intelligent, sassy, confident, gorgeous women one of the things about this is it is embarrassing to admit we care about something so… Well, so shallow. I thought I would be ok getting older naturally ( with glossy hair, glowing skin and natural grace with no effort) but I’ve realised I don’t want and I CANT ACCEPT baggy eyes, baggy belly or grey hair. What do do? Either accept (the noble thing to do. Also known as “letting yourself go” aka “giving up”) or up the beauty treatments and hit the gym/Pilates.

    I’m also pissed off and bitter that I actually have to work for it now, I don’t have time for gods sake (I’d rather be reading and writing blog posts, for one). I’m annoyed that I face giving up my free time and money to groom my outer world when I would rather be enriching my inner world. Maybe that’s why so many do yoga, it’s kind of spiritually acceptable vanity… Hmmmm.

    Good point about attitude. As I keep saying to my kids “it’s all about intention”. Now I’m gonna kid myself that it’s all about looking healthy when actually I just want to be shit hot like I was 10 years ago! Lol.

    Definitely one tbc…. Ciao!

    • Girrrrrl. I totally get everything you said here. I wish I didn’t care about it either, but I do. And it does get harder to maintain as we get older – so unfair! But I’m willing to continue to do the things I can to go gently into that good night : ) It’s so great that you’re teaching your children about the importance of intention. They’re lucky kids to have scored you for a mom! I’m so happy we met this week – thanks for chiming in!

  20. Thanks lady!

Trackbacks

  1. […] recently read an excellent blog post about one woman’s struggle with self-image and her fears about her daughter facing the same […]

  2. […] days than talk about my body.  It's fucked up.  I know, and you know, because I told you about the dark shadow of vanity that haunts my family.] However, to appear comfortable and confident I chirped:  I like my eyes, my feet and my […]

  3. […] recently read an excellent blog post about one woman’s struggle with self-image and her fears about her daughter facing the same […]

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