Reflecting on my Reflection

I am five-foot-none, with pale skin, big brown eyes, and hair that’s naturally dark brown (but hasn’t been “natural” for a few years now) and has a mind of its own most days.  My feet are small enough to fit in kids’ shoes, and my hands are equally tiny.  I’m a visible ethnic minority but don’t like being labelled as “exotic.”  My measurements are proportionate:  my hips and bust are the same, and my waist is 8 inches smaller than that.  Mathematically, then, I have a full-figured hourglass, and supposedly this is enviable.

Yet, as is the case with many other young women out there, I haven’t had an easy relationship with my body.

In every phase of life that I can actually remember, I’ve had one issue or another with my body.  I’d like to say that all my issues with self-perception and body image began during adolescence, because for most people adolescence lines up with puberty and all of one’s body drama (trauma?) happens at the same time everyone else’s.  For me, however this is not the case.  I was an alarmingly early bloomer:  Mother Nature dropped by for the first time when I was only seven, and by the time I was ten years old I had a cup size that most grown women I know would kill (or, at least, pay out the nose) to have.  Sure, when you’re a twentysomething neck-deep in the dating game, big boobs could be seen as an asset.  However, when you’re a ten-year-old, they’re anything but, and I suffered through puberty without any girl friends with whom I could compare concurrent notes about the whole thing.

By the time you add in the problems that arise with weight (or excess thereof) and height (or lack thereof), as well as other minor details (I don’t like my nose; I have one crooked tooth; my skin is pale but my limb-fuzz is dark; my bottom, while ample, is not perky; I am pigeon-toed…), it’s no small wonder that I had some pretty big issues with body image as a teenager.  These issues were so pervasive that makeup and clothing became things behind which I could hide.  I was obsessed with how my outward appearance fell considerably short of what I thought it should be.

We’ve all heard before that current standards of beauty are humanly impossible to achieve.  The viral mockvertisement for “Photoshop by Adobe” pokes fun at these standards, while Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign challenges us to look at ourselves honestly and lovingly.   And I am certainly not the first blogger to tell their personal “body story” or address the overall issue of body image.

This countercultural perspective is not new; it has been developing over a few years now and has even gained some footholds in popular or mainstream areas.

But the overwhelming majority of today’s media still tells us that we – as we are in our natural skins – are not enough.  Perhaps miracles will happen and in a generation or two humanity will be able to accept its inherent diversity in shape, size, weight, and colour.  But I am of a generation whose popular opinion of what “beauty” looks like or ought to look like is the direct result of a multimedia blitzkrieg that made us all buy into a world of impossible perfection.  Old-school print and television media have joined forces with the almighty Internet, and through our favourite social media we are kept in place.

Yet – even as the aforementioned countercultural movement fights for ground and even gains some here and there – emotionally, mentally, and physically, we are stuck in a culture wherein we are conditioned and conned into believing in standards of beauty that would give the ancient Greek gods a self-esteem crisis.  I mean, through my childhood and adolescence, I definitely saw myself the way pop culture made me see myself.

“Out of place” comes to mind when I reflect on the way my younger self reacted to her reflection.

So does, “Too different/short/heavy/curvy.”

Or even, “Not good enough.”

And yes, even, “Ugly.”

Then, I joined the Armed Forces.  And while I am no longer a member of the Forces, the brief time I spent as one of its Officer Cadets completely changed the way I saw the world and people around me…and the way I saw myself. Instead of being obsessed with what my body looked like, I found myself amazed at what this body – this so-called “imperfect” and “flawed” body – could actually do and accomplish.

Having this perspective means that I can look in the mirror now and see beyond not only the physical reflection, but also beyond what’s right or wrong with what makes up that reflection.

The cup size that needs its own postal code? Not only does it look pretty good in just about any T-shirt, dress, or sweater I try own, but according to my nephew and my boyfriend’s youngest siblings it also makes me “comfy-cosy” and “huggable.”

The nose that just never looked right on my face? Its shape makes it the perfect target for the cute little kisses my boyfriend likes dropping on me.

Those tiny hands can play guitar, type at 100 WPM, and write in cursive – not to mention cook, bake, and craft personalised greeting cards.  Those freakishly small feet will always be clad in super-cute shoes bought at insanely cheap sale prices.  The legs that give me a 27″ inseam might not have thigh gaps but they do not end in cankles, and in proportion to the rest of my body they are, surprisingly, on the long side.  The lack of height means I can wear impossibly tall heels and still fit into my boyfriend’s hugs.  The unruly hair that graces my head is thick and healthy without needing expensive products.  The crooked tooth goes unnoticed in the bigger picture of my smile.

It is by no means perfect, but this body can get out of bed in the morning.  It can walk, and it can run and bend and stretch and lift its way to a healthier version of itself.  One day, it will walk down a church aisle in a wedding dress.  One day, it will bear children.  One day, it will lie confined in a bed as the lines and wrinkles on my face tell my story.  And one day, it will be laid to rest.

The bottom line is, the body in the mirror might not be seen by society as beautiful in its appearance, but it is beautiful nonetheless in its abilities and potential.

And it is mine.

Reflections of a Former “Doormat” Girlfriend

As far as relationships go, in the past I’ve tended to really suck at them.  Let’s face it:  we all tend to suck at them at one point or another in our lives, and even good, solid relationships have their fair share of rough patches.  The trick is to start learning from our past mistakes before they become habits – easier said than done, I know, but it’s only once we’re finally able to look at ourselves and accept that we’ve screwed up that we’re able to grow.

I remember that, on the night of first-ever breakup, my mother asked me, “Why did you break up with him?”  And even back then, my seventeen-year-old self knew the real reason:  forget that he was living in Europe at the time, or that he had a female friend with whom he’d been getting a little too cosy, or that we were teenagers who thought they knew more about life and love than anyone else in the world.  Our two-year adolescent relationship hadn’t been working well for the better part of a year, and I had finally seen it for what it was:  a dead end.  I ended it with him because I knew that he wasn’t going to be able to give me what I wanted, which was the kind of love and life shared by my parents.

Call it old-fashioned.  Call it naïve.  Call it wishful thinking.  Call it whatever you want but that’s the truth.  My parents had an amazing life together and, as saccharinely Disney as it sounds, they really had a once-in-a-million years kind of love.  And who doesn’t want that?

I had gone into that first relationship with the faith of a child because I was a child, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest first relationship to deal with either.  I had spent most of my time with him trying to change him from who he was into what I thought he should be, and that was my contribution to the eventual demise of our relationship.  I thought his professions of love (or perhaps it’s more apt to say “love-like feelings”) included an inherent desire to make sure I was always happy, and that he would go about ensuring my happiness by giving in to each and every last one of my petty, childish demands.  (Naturally, my chosen adjectives here are bestowed in retrospect:  at the time, they all seemed reasonable.)

Post-breakup reflections led me to the following conclusion:  I wouldn’t be pushy and bratty in my next relationship.  (Obviously, this occurred after enough time had passed for me to believe that my poor broken heard really could mend enough for me to think about making another attempt at love…but I digress.)  I was determined to never be “that girl” ever again.  My next boyfriend would enjoy a nagging-free experience with me, and I would be a girlfriend who wouldn’t need to be told to “chill out” all the time.  No, sir!  I would be the girlfriend that would make his buddies wish they had girlfriends like me, simply by being selfless enough to cater to his needs – and, in turn, he would totally return the favour and be accommodating of all of mine.  Naturally.

Naturally, those of us who have gone around the proverbial block know that none of this happened.  To quote my mother, we all know none of this happened because

“the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

I assure you, although “Hell” might seem a tad melodramatic here, that’s actually a pretty good description for my second relationship.  Being the “cool” girlfriend quickly spiralled down, alarmingly fast, into a place where I became the “doormat” girlfriend.  In our on-again/off-again relationship (a two-year ordeal during with our time together was punctuated by increasingly worse fights and “being on breaks”), I was so desperate to please him.  I was, in fact, so desperate that I actually ended up giving him the power to deconstruct me, piece by piece, until I was emotionally small enough to be completely beneath him.  Or wrapped around his finger.  Or under his thumb.  Or completely out of sight (but nonetheless always available).

Essentially, I allowed one person to manipulate and sweet-talk me into compromising my ideals, my self-worth, and my entire self.  And, by the time I realised it, I was not only desperate to keep him, but desperate to do so in order to prove everyone wrong.  Because by this time, everyone in my life who genuinely cared about me could see that he did not.

Ancient Greek mythology is rife with stories that deal with the concept of hubris.  It’s one of those foreign-language (not to mention ancient) words that has no direct-to-English translation.  Often mistaken as pride, hubris is actually the dire consequences of pride – the lesson, if you will, or perhaps the fall that cometh after.  And in an agonisingly twisted way, I still had some pride – albeit the wrong kind – when it came to the sorry state of my second relationship.  I didn’t want to admit that I’d failed again at being a “good” girlfriend.  For starters, I’d done everything differently this time, so how could it be possible that things weren’t working out?  My pride decreed that I stick with it as long as necessary.  It told me that it would not end because of any lack of trying on my part.

In short, I had to go down with the ship.

My tale of hubris began with a horrific fight (the worst night of my life, actually) that preceded the revelation that nobody in a relationship ever wants to have:  despite all my efforts, he had been seeing somebody behind my back ever since our last break-and-make-up some months before.  In a strange way, though, our last fight had been so emotionally raw that this discovery was oddly cathartic.  In its wake, I actually realised several things about this relationship, as well as about its predecessor.

First, it hit me that despite these two different experiences, I would eventually be able to muster up the courage to allow myself to fall in love again – I just needed to figure out my own self and deal with my own issues before that could happen.  Second, I realised I’d had all the right nuggets of ideas in both relationships – it had been my approach in both that had helped derail everything.

I’m not saying that either of these guys is blameless:  evidently, neither can be described as such.  But yes, I was a contributor in my own right – a catalyst to a host of problems.  Instead of trying to find a common ground or agreeable midpoint with either of them, I polarised myself.  Yes – a good relationship includes wanting the other half to be happy.  Yes – a good relationship changes you in many ways.  Yes – a good relationship has a lot of giving in it.

But these things have to mutual, and constantly so; none of them are the exclusive, sole responsibility of one half.  To expect and to demand that a relationship operate on the grounds of the latter is both selfish and cruel.  A good relationship is not a 50/50 deal or any other division of effort that totals 100.  A good relationship is two people each giving 100% of themselves in order to make things work.

Being in love is sometimes equated to being drunk:  you do and say things that you wouldn’t under sober circumstances, and sometimes things seem beyond your control.  But maybe you’ve heard the advice that when you’re drunk, you should try sleeping with one foot on the floor because it’ll help with the dizziness (and yes, this totally works).  The same goes for being in love:  you have to keep one foot firmly planted on a solid foundation, and if your other half really and truly cares for you they won’t demand that you change what that foundation is made of, or ask that you jump off it altogether.  Nor should you expect that of them.

Because in the end, any relationship is built on the foundations that come with both parties involved…and any good relationship combines those foundations so that each half of it can build up the other.  And yes, while all relationships have their own problems the difference is that in a good one, both sides are on equal footing and work together to sort it out.

I mean, life is had enough – why make it harder?  Why let the one person who should always be in your corner go to the other side of the ring?