About two weeks ago, Sean and I went to Memphis to pick up a friend’s dog, hit the library, and purchase, among other things, swimsuits for our upcoming trip to the beach. Shopping for clothes, swimsuits in particular, is an unpleasant experience for me. I feel a lot prettier if I never look in mirrors, especially changing-room mirrors. Sean thinks I’m just beautiful, and he tells me so excessively, but that isn’t enough to counteract the predominant cultural messages that I’ve been subject to for a quarter of a century.
On the outside, I look like a feminist: I have comparatively little hair on my head and a comparative lot on my legs and in my armpits*. Most of the time, I can be a feminist on the inside, too. Feeling bad about my body in a changing room, I felt worse about my character. The self-loathing I was experiencing was two-fold:
- Heavens, my butt is rather unattractive!
- How dare I betray my ideals by hating my fairly healthy and by all accounts perfectly-nice-looking body!
I came out of the changing room more or less whimpering, detesting my insides and my outsides. Because I wasn’t happy with the way I looked, I resolved to start running again. Because I couldn’t stand the idea of basing a decision on hating my body, I retracted my decision. Taking back the decision didn’t address the initial feelings, so I came back to running. I went through this cycle a couple of times, going round and round with myself.
About two weeks ago, I started running again. I ran cross country in high school and liked everything about it except for the, y’know, actual races. I haven’t resolved my feelings about the decision, but I’m embracing the fact that it makes me feel better about myself: I feel good about my resolve, my health, and my strength when I run, not just about my body. We live in the prettiest part of Arkansas, so I always see something strange or cool or wonderful on the road (I saw a wiggly lizard this morning). I’m happy with the decision, but I’m uncomfortable with my motives. I’m exploring those feelings and disclosing them to gain some perspective, and hoping that my motives will eventually shift away from my looks and toward my health and happiness.
If I’m being honest here (I’m really trying!), I want to look good without working at it, and I want to feel like I look good (who doesn’t?). However, putting effort into my appearance based on other people’s ideas of what “looking good” is works against my efforts to make the world a better, more inclusive place. It’s a dilemma. I haven’t resolved it.
A few cleanup thoughts:
- In certain social situations, I think it’s okay to want to look “normal.” Any event where someone else in particular is supposed to be the center of attention (weddings, funerals) is a good place to put away the funny hats and don a bra.
- I don’t always disapprove of putting effort into my appearance: I think it can be fun to try to feel like a work of art and to use clothing and accessories to send a message. Most of the time, though, I just want to be dressed comfortably and functionally.
- This isn’t a pity party: don’t tell me I’m beautiful because I wrote this post. You’d be missing the point.
- running in the morning (when it’s not 100 degrees) is the bomb because a) then I don’t dread it all day and b) I get to feel great about myself (Yay! I ran today!) all day long. This is the great secret of people who actually exercise.
One of the greatest things that anyone can do to empower women and girls is compliment them on something other than their appearance. Maybe if the world hadn’t emphasized my looks over my health and strength, I’d be running for the right reasons.
*Women with hairless armpits always look a little strange to me.