For those of you who have been reading along over the past few months, you know that when I was twelve my dad went to prison. You also know that my Christian school wasn’t too fond of my dad being a criminal. They didn’t believe that the daughter of a felon should be the valedictorian, so they stripped me of the title and gave it to my first boyfriend Carlos Estrada (no, not the guy from CHIPS, that’s Erik Estrada). Granted, I was only in the sixth grade, but losing that spot, the spot that meant I was smart and seen and valued, had an enormous impact on me and the stories I told myself about my worth.
This all leads me to the continuation of my story and this month’s scintillating topic––body image.
Mom pulled me out of the Christian school and enrolled me in public middle school. She suggested I get an updated hair style. Apparently, she didn’t think my long, all one length style was cool enough for public school. She thought a more mature look would suit me and this was junior high after all, she said.
We went to a nearby salon, where a hunk of a man was waiting for me. He guided me to his chair, his hair blowing sexily as we passed a row of stylists with dryers in hand. This was the first time I remember being physically attracted to a guy. I’d had crushes on singers and actors whose photos hung on my walls, but this guy simultaneously lit up my girl parts and turned off my brain.
“So, beautiful, what’ll it be?” He ran his fingers through my thick hair that flowed down my back.
“She needs something fresh,” Mom chimed in. “Something that says, junior high.”
Oh my God, I was mortified. What was she saying? Shut up, Mom. Take your stupid mouth and leave me alone with this hunk.
That’s what I wanted to say.
Instead, I said, “Yeah, fresh.” No other words would come out of my mouth.
“Okay, fresh it is,” the hunky hairdresser agreed.
He spun me around so I couldn’t see myself in the mirror but instead faced him. My eyes focused on his crotch, his thing tightly nestled in polyester pants that he’d probably worn out dancing the night before. Embarrassed and not sure where to look next, my gaze fell on his fetching, ocean blue eyes. I wasn’t paying attention to all the hair that was falling to the ground or where he was cutting it from. And after my first professional blow dry, he spun me back around to the mirror.
“Ta da! Look at that. Now that’s fresh,” he said with a rock star smile.
I could not believe it! Mr. Crotch Rocket gave me a mullet! Tears streamed down my face so fast I couldn’t hide them.
“What? You don’t like it?” he said, his face reflecting my utter despair.
I jumped out of the chair and ran to the bathroom. Standing in front of the mirror, I didn’t even recognize myself. I pulled at the short hairs above my ears in rage as if that would make them instantly grow back. I sulked to the stall, sat on the toilet, my pants absorbing the pee left behind by the last person, and sobbed. Whatever tiny, minuscule piece of self-esteem I had was now lying on the floor under Mr. Crotch Rocket’s chair.
I couldn’t help but wonder: why were men such a constant disappointment to me?
Mom knocked on the stall door. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
I came out, my face red and swollen.
“Well, that’s not the best look for your chubby, wide face, now is it? See we have these high cheekbones and well, this is just––umm––you know what? It’ll grow back. Let’s go.”
I wish I could tell you that I went to my new school and everything was fine. But it wasn’t. I was taunted and called “Cabbage Patch kid” by every boy in my homeroom. This sent me on a decade-long trajectory of disliking my face (it was too fat) and my body (it was also too fat) and constantly seeking validation of my physical self from others.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I really began to rewrite the story of my body image and to finally appreciate the way I looked (big cheeks and all) and how it felt to live in my body. It wasn’t easy and it took me many tries (and fails) to find true love for myself. I learned that so much of how I felt about my body had nothing to do with my body. My sense of worthlessness and imperfection came from my early traumas of abandonment and neglect.
For years, I took my cues of worthiness from other people. I looked outward for my value. If others saw me as pretty or smart then I was. If they didn’t, I wasn’t. As I began healing my deep traumas and rewriting the narratives of my life, I caught on that I was beautiful (internally and externally) and strong and worthy because I said I was.
Because I felt I was.
Because I knew I was.
The Rise Above the Story formula is a beautiful way to find your way back to yourself––to find that deep love for your body. As always, it begins with acknowledging the story you’re telling yourself. Get real. Write it down. Write it all down.
My thighs are fat.
My face is too wide.
My nose is too big.
You get the idea.
Now untangle them. What’s at the root? What’s your trigger? What are you constantly trying to fix? Who are you trying to please? What would make you feel more comfortable in your own skin? What would you do, wear, try, if no one was watching? (Because the truth is, no one really is.)
Now, what value, lessons, and wisdom can we garner from the past trauma? How can we take that wisdom and unlock a liberated life and fierce acceptance of ourselves?
For me, none of it was about Mr. Crotch Rocket. It was about my mom and how I felt abandoned and unloved even, especially in her presence. It was also about my dad and my unresolved feelings about him going to prison and where that left me in the world besides swimming in a sea of uncertainty and continuously grasping for a life raft that wasn’t there.
That is, until I crafted one for myself.
Finding that deep love and an uninhibited, beautiful body image is possible for all of us who are willing to dig in and do the work.
But just in case you need a few more ideas of how to find that deep inner love, here are a couple of tips from a pro:
Look at some old photos of yourself. I bet in looking back at the younger you you’ll be sweet and soft and see the beauty and strength that was there. Guess what? It’s still there.
Get more face time in the mirror. I am a huge believer in affirmations. I say at least three nice things about myself every day while looking in the mirror. When doing this, make eye contact with yourself. The eye contact cements the sentiment.
That’s it for now, except I must leave you with this last bit of advice for a positive body image: No matter what, no matter who says it’s cool––I don’t care if it’s Vogue magazine, Lady Gaga, or Audrey Hepburn from the grave––mullets are NEVER, ever a good idea.