As I stood in the horrific light of the Gap dressing room yesterday trying on several bikinis I had a bit of a meltdown. After spotting one of them on a lithe, tan model in one of my many, many magazines I devour monthly (and being fresh off a sweat inducing yoga class and self-tanned to a decent color) I felt like I was ready for a little bikini try on time. You have to be “ready” to try on bathing suits, not in a “post-cheeseburger-pasty-white-and-pissed-off” mood. Like many women, I struggle fiercely with self-esteem. I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for a very long time, but always feared what people would think (hello-self esteem 101, Erin) and if I could possibly put into words the incredibly complex emotions I feel about the importance placed on beauty these days and my personal relationship with my looks. If I keep waiting for the perfect sentence and the perfect time, I will never write it. So here we are and here I go. No little outfits for you today, just deep thoughts….
I was not a cute adolescent. People who did not know me then like to argue with me on this. Let me assure you I was not. Let me assure you even further still with this assault on your eyeballs:
Me in fifth grade, I believe.
I’ll give you a minute to take it all in while I go wretch in a trashcan about the fact that I just posted that on the freaking internet for all the world (and my ex-boyfriends) to see. But hey, Tina Fey put her not-so-flattering middle school photo on the back cover of her best-selling book (the whole thing an inspiration and a half to me, by the way) so I’m in good self-deprecating company. Where shall I begin? The walrus teeth? The unibrow? The extraordinary mullet topped off by the world’s ugliest headband? Or perhaps the collision of chubbiness and my spectacular 80’s clothing (I wore that sweatshirt in TWO professional photos that year, TWO!) My mother still insists I was “cuuuuute” while my dad is more realistic in saying “people will think you’ve had plastic surgery.” There are even worse pictures, one specifically involving a Debbie Gibson hat, brocade vest/plaid shirt combo and crash zoom lens- but I must have lit it on fire. Or perhaps it spontaneously combust from it’s own revulsion of itself. Even my husband, who is the first to pay me lavish compliments, looks at photos from this era and stifles a laugh and thanks Baby Jesus I “matured”.
Want to know the funny thing though? At this age I thought I was the shit. I believe I even told my mom I wanted to be a teen model and made her take “modeling” shots of me. My confidence knew no bounds, and my mom deserves an Oscar for not dying of laughter while clicking away as I tried to get that mullet to flow in the breeze. I never thought about calories, clothing size, comparing myself to other girls or clearly waxing (even though I was more Teen Wolf than “teen model” material). I wouldn’t think twice when absolutely crushing a Croissantwich at Burger King on Sunday mornings (as in every Sunday). Or fret when I needed to go up a size in my Limited Too cranberry colored jeans. I was “me”, and there was no other “me” out there so why would I be worried? Appearance, beyond copying Blossom’s illustrious fashions, was not of the up most importance. Puffy Painting everything within my grasp and finding my brother the perfect bridesmaids outfit to go with my dress up wedding gown were of more concern.
And one day things changed, and I don’t really know why or how. I could “blame the media” or my genetics or social pressure (there’s only so many times you can not be asked to dance by a boy at a school function until it starts hurting and changing you), but I can’t pinpoint a specific “a-ha” moment or traumatic taunt by a peer, but all of the sudden I started to worry, compare and diet. I began to try to “fix” myself and once it started, it spread through me like a flame on an oil slick. I began to hate my body, hate my face, hate that I wasn’t cool, hate that I felt invisible, hate that I wasn’t perfect. And that hatred fueled a near-death battle with anorexia that left me a ravaged shell of skin and bones and locked up in a mental hospital insisting I looked normal and that everyone ELSE was crazy. The hard part to explain (and fathom) was that I did think I looked totally fine and I did think that eating 250 calories a day was totally healthy. At 5’9” and 95 pounds I assure you I looked anything BUT healthy (more “Crypt Keeper body double”-ish).
But this is where and when my Body Dysmorphic Disorder developed and I now have to admit, it’s never left (cut to me in the dressing room yesterday). Recently I was asked to contribute to a great book by Aimee Liu about recovering from eating disorders and while reading it I realized in all honesty I am still not out of the woods. I feel so far less confident and happy with how I look now then when I was that pudgy little buck-toothed girl of twelve but I’m not sick like I was either. Inside I am still the girl no one asked to dance and I will always be no matter how much the outside of me changes. I assumed that the BDD had been beat alongside the anorexia, like two evil culprits linked arm in arm, skulking off in the night. But these things do not exist exclusively together, one of them can linger and even hide for a while, only to resurface when it senses the slightest chink in the armor. So while I now eat with abandon, I still hate looking in the mirror because I cannot do it without the fiercest of criticism. The reflection I see is vastly different from what others see- something many doctors have corroborated. And the hardest part is that people think this is a case of false modesty or fishing for compliments, when really it comes from a far darker, sadder place. I’ve turned down TV shows for this reason, shied away from photo-shoots and stopped posting the “What I’m Wearing” segment I know a lot of you liked. The added attention placed on how I look sent me many, many steps back in my life-long goal of self-acceptance and valuing the internal over the external. It’s frustrating for those who care about me, and it’s torture for me to live with. But I AM working on it. And I hope that someday not only will I like what I see, but more importantly, I WON’T CARE.
Not everyone has such an extreme relationship with their appearance, but I have yet to meet a woman 100% confident in every inch of their bodies or faces- just look at the money being made on cosmetics, creams, procedures and diets and make-over T shows. Some of the most beautiful, famous women in the world have lower than low self-esteem- probably because once you’ve become “known” as beautiful, having to maintain that and feeling like it’s importance is so intertwined with your self-worth must be scary; especially in today’s society in which so much value is placed on outside appearances (“plastic surgery for EVERYONE!!!!”). I know that so many people have issues with themselves they may not like to acknowledge or talk about with others. But admitting them is the first step to overcoming them- so here I am, posting the picture that my family used to joke would be excellent fodder for UsWeekly if I ever became famous in an attempt to hold myself accountable to be stronger and work harder.
But you know what, I am grateful I went through that awkward phase, if only because it served as inspiration for what was the most epic father of the bride speeches ever given, in which my dad recounted getting a call from me from a pay phone at the middle school crying because no one would dance with me. He came to pick me up and took me home and promised me someday all the boys would want to dance with me, but until then he would dance anytime I wanted. And as I stood there some 14 years later, finally a bride for real, next to man who wanted to dance all his dances with me, he pulled out a roll of “Daddy’s Dance Tickets with Erin” and handed them to Andrew saying he was the only man he trusted to be my dance partner. But as he handed them over he tore one ticket off and looked at me and said “but I get one last dance” (I am fucking sobbing at my computer right now writing this, by the way). I would not have traded being the most popular and beautiful middle school girls in the world for that moment. I wouldn’t trade anything for that moment, in fact, and as I look up at that picture I have hated and hidden for so many years I feel nothin’ but love for that silly bucktoothed girl and know that she is going to be okay. No, I know that she IS okay.
Now, where is that damn headband? I think I saw one like it on Etsy.