I was never a pretty girl.
Not for want of trying or wishing. But there it was. I longed to be someone other people refer to as ‘adorable’ but there was always too much of me for it not to sound ironic. My father put it straight very early on. ‘You will never be a model, my darling,’ he said as if it truly did not matter. ‘You just aren’t built that way.’ He was referring to my ‘big bones,’ and my big nose. ‘But,’ my dad said, kissing my forehead, ‘you will be other things.’
Pretty and skinny seemed like such magnificent accomplishments, complete with a lifestyle of scruffy boys in low-slung jeans and ripped t-shirts eager to do things with their tongues which sounded gross, but left me curious nonetheless. Certainly if I was pretty and skinny, Samuel Wainstein would want to French-kiss me, which was for a large part of my teenage life, I am ashamed to confess, as high as my personal aspirations reached.
I watched enviously as my peers passed through the hands of plastic surgeons, wondering whether a rhinoplasty might make me more Samuel Wainstein’s type. I spent long hours side-on in front of a mirror, holding up a straight finger to my profile mourning the kinks of nasal genetic architecture. I wondered whether big-nosed girls were doomed to circus-life, like the bearded fat lady.
I kept a secret scrapbook, which was a chronicle of masochistic torment in which I stuck pictures of models I had cut out from fashion magazines. I dissected the images, keeping only the best parts. I had one page for ‘legs’, one for ‘breasts,’ one for thighs, one for ‘faces.’ A cut-n-paste of all the most lovely bits it took to be perfect.
Astonishingly, I survived puberty without ever throwing up my lunch into the toilet or eating only celery during the week as a form of weight control but I knew girls who did both. I (and both my sisters) got through high school without an eating disorder which I haven’t added to my bio as a formal achievement, but must surely count, though perhaps it is more fittingly a testament to my mother’s culinary talents. Despite how often I pepped myself up into a ‘fortnight of cottage cheese and diet coke,’ the seductions of her lasagne or rosemary and garlic lamb shanks set me back time and time again. She loved it when I enjoyed my food and never once used the word ‘fat’ to describe how I looked in sports shorts. My dad did his best with what he had, nudging me through adolescence with accolades of how ‘striking,’ and ‘special’ I was, which is what parents say to their overweight teenage daughters. It only further convinced me that he just didn’t understand. Samuel Wainstein liked pretty and skinny.
Then there was the small matter of my asymmetry. As my breasts grew the right one seemed to think this was a race, and left the left one behind. At seventeen, I stood miserably in front of the mirror with a B cup breast on the left and a C cup on the right. The space between two consecutive letters in the alphabet never seemed as persecuting and unbridgeable. ‘No man will ever love me,’ I declared to my mother. ‘I am a lopsided freak.’
‘Any man who loves you won’t care that your breasts aren’t the same size,’ my mother sensibly assured me.
But I found this betrayal by my body unforgivable. My breasts – the last outpost of my feminine beauty, where ‘big’ would have been just fine – had not agreed on terms or worked as a team. My mother worn down by my nagging, finally agreed I could have a breast reduction on the one side to even me up.
I cried out when the bandages came off – stitches and bruising do not improve a breast. But eventually, the scars faded and at least my breasts were the same size.
There came a time when I thought gym would solve all my personal problems. I lunged, curled and extended every muscle in three sets of twenty until I had shin splints and a six pack, languidly registering that gyms make their money off depressed women who live on yoghurt and black coffee. Instead of shrinking, my round wobbly bits just got harder. As muscle replaced fat, my weight on the scales increased. Instead of boys asking me out, they asked if they could train with me. The one cute guy I fancied who did stomach crunches with me until we couldn’t walk, turned out, in the end to be gay anyway. We perved over the hot guys together.
With skinny and pretty well out of reach, all that was left for girls like me, was ‘smart.’ So I went for it full tilt and as my father promised, I became other things: a Fulbright scholar. A lawyer. A feminist.
Not that these accomplishments came free of their own challenges. To be self-identified as a feminist is to make oneself the object of twin attacks: feminists have no sense of humour and are ugly.
But this is unfair. Feminists are not entirely humourless. I have personally seen placards with, ‘An erection is not considered personal growth,’ ‘Eve just wanted to know shit,’ ‘Of course I’m right – I’m testosterone free,’ and ‘No uterus? No opinion.’ Hilarious stuff.
But ugliness is trickier to defend because no-one plans to look like a Bulldog in need of orthodontics. Though women say we’d rather be thought of as intelligent than beautiful, most of us mean we’d like to be thought of as both. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth exposes our desperation as a gender to squash, starve or surgically enhance ourselves to fit the prevailing cultural stereotype of beauty, which since that wretched Barbie Doll made its appearance in 1959, has tortured generations of women into aspirations of being hairless, disproportionately buxom, disingenuously blonde and teetering in high-heeled agony. (I know women who swear by the stiletto but all it did was give me back problems). The only excuse for ugliness these days, it appears, is poverty. Dolly Parton once confessed that ‘it costs a lot of money to look as cheap as I do.’
Even Black culture, traditionally always favouring bigger women, has recently assimilated this obsession with wormy androgyny. Audre Lorde in her poem Song for a Thin Sister wrote ‘I was so sure that skinny / was funny or silly / but always / white.’ But white has not, in this instance, as in so many others, been right.
As I grew smarter, and correspondingly less concerned about my size and shape, my role models shifted. Posh Spice and Demi Moore fell off the radar as Golda Meir, Frida Kahlo and the Bronte sisters took their place, women who might never have been considered conventionally beautiful, but who had ‘other’ things going for them other than B grade movies and famous footballer husbands. Okay and Ashton Kutcher.
Now, a mother with a teenage daughter myself, I look back on my history of self-loathing and wonder why I found it so hard to love a perfectly fit and strong body that delivered me two healthy babies, decades of swimming, running, walking, love-making and the adoration of a handful of divine and sexy men.
How silly all that boob-angst seems now. At seventeen, I rode roughshod over the surgeon’s warning, ‘ducts may be severed.’ Only when my daughter was born thirteen years later and I could only breastfeed from my left breast did I understand what I had done to my faultless body in the pursuit of unnatural symmetry. As I strap my breasts into supportive bras, I cannot be sure that they are even the same size anymore or why it really mattered all that much. All I ask of them now is a clear mammogram.
I look back on my history of lovers and recognize that no man I chose to share the intimacy of my body with, ever found the flesh I had to offer as unworthy of love or desire. I wonder how much time I wasted worrying about my nose, my breasts, my weight, when I could have been reading, painting, and dreaming more.
After Princess Diana came out and told the world she’d been hiding her bulimia for years behind a stunning wardrobe while smiling for the camera, I stopped citing the glib mantra ‘you can never be too rich or too thin.’ What exactly was it I thought I was envying?
I used to think my father just ‘didn’t get it,’ but I realise now that ‘other things’ wasn’t some compromised curse for the unsightly and the deformed. It was a doorway through the mirrored corridor of ‘pretty and skinny’ hell in which some women become eternally trapped.
Years later, I became an author for which ‘pretty and skinny’ were neither requirements nor advantages and smiled thinking how Nicole Kidman needed a whole team of makeup artists to fashion Virginia Woolf’s nose in her rendition of the writer in the movie The Hours.
Feminism brought me to an understanding that too many of the female bodies on this planet are ravaged by devastating poverty and gender abuse in the form of foot binding, female genital mutilation, rape, domestic violence, dowry related femicides and other sadistic practices. There is more than enough loathing for women ‘out there.’ And yet those of us who have escaped the human lottery of war, famine and violence still find ways to perpetuate abuse and cruelty on ourselves, forever unloving our bodies as too thin or too fat, too this or too that, never ‘just right.’
Personally, I have tired of the barren enclaves of self-pity and dissatisfaction that have characterized women’s history of self-image. It is time for a new power, not the short-lived vanity that comes from squeezing into a size 0 pants, but the enduring kind that comes from the knowledge that compared to men, women have lower infant mortality rates, live longer, multitask more capably, abstain from war, give birth to new generations and do ninety per cent of the nurturing in the world. A dose of forgiveness for a fat bum, hairy eyebrows or a bit of cellulite is long overdue.
While writing this article, I came across a postcard on Postsecret, a blog of published anonymous secrets, which made me cry. Underneath a photograph of a toddler with a disfiguring facial birthmark around her mouth and chin, the caption read, ‘I love the person my birthmark made me become…. Finally.’
I wonder why it has taken me this long to understand that the journey to self-love doesn’t start with pretty and skinny and certainly doesn’t end there. Perhaps it is nestled in ‘other things.’ As Rumi, the Sufi poet said, ‘look at your wounds, that’s where the light enters.’
Published in Vogue, Australia, April 2009
Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?