Is there a vein of misery that runs deeper in all our lives than self-loathing? A fault line that guarantees our failure ever to be truly happy, no matter how much we accomplish or accumulate, or in whose arms we lie?
Woman, heal thyself.
If I were to assign a color to self-loathing, it would be the bluish-black purple of an ugly bruise. This is what self-loathing is, an ugly bruise that erupts on the surface of our lives or on our bodies; a warning sign that something serious is happening on a deeper level. We bruise when we bleed within. Self-loathing is the silent hemorrhaging of the soul. You don’t feel or see the life force fleeing until it’s no longer there, and then, of course, it’s too late.
Loathing is grief that has festered. To loathe something or someone is to detest with disgust and intolerance. This is what self-loathing is, although we never call it that. It’s easier to tell ourselves and others, “Oh, I’m a bit hard on myself.”
How do we loathe ourselves? Let me Count the ways. Some of the world’s most famous beauties can’t stand the sight of themselves. Self-loathing is an equal opportunity oppressor.
In short, we may loathe our human frailties, flaws, and foibles in a world that approves only perfection; loathe our oddities, eccentricities, and ugly habits; loathe our inability to avoid insidious comparisons; loathe our buying into the illusion that good men would save us because it was easier than striving to save ourselves, or believing that we could.
We loathe ourselves for constantly capitulating to the needs of others by disavowing our own, for ignoring the careless cruelties of loved ones in order to keep the peace, for struggling to live up to the expectations of people we don’t even care about, t0r denying the validity of our own unrequited desires.
We loathe ourselves because we don’t look quite like the multiorgasmic sex goddesses we once thought we’d become; or because we’re not quite the natural, fully bonded mothers we hoped we’d be when we held that baby in our arms for the first time; or because we haven’t quite fulfilled the promise of our astonishing authentic gifts.
When was the last time you started off a conversation with “I’m sorry” and you weren’t? I did it yesterday.
“She had developed a passionate longing for making other people comfortable at her own expense,” Phyllis Bottome wrote in 1934 about a woman we all know too well. “She succeeded in getting other people into armchairs…with nothing left for herself but something small and spiky in a corner.”
Let’s look at ourselves now. Are you pretty? Are you plain? I’ve got my good days and I’ve got my bad. We all do. But the reality doesn’t matter. If your mother or father thought you were plain, you may still reflect that image. This is the origin of self-loathing or our looking-glass shame, which is what the English novelist and critic Virginia Woolf called the malady that breaks our hearts.
We are marked in many ways. A photograph marked me. When I was 10 there was a garbage strike in our town. For weeks the garbage piled up in front of trim suburban homes. One day a newspaper photographer drove up in front of our house and asked if any children lived there. He wanted to photograph children near the garbage pile to emphasize how much had accumulated. When he came to the door, I was standing shyly behind my mother, so I was selected and propped up on piles of garbage for the photograph. “Just think,” my mother exclaimed, “you’re going to have your picture in the newspaper.” And I certainly did. On the front page. When I went to school that day I was taunted by classmates who called me “a pile of garbage.” I was marked. In order to handle this public humiliation, I became numb to my own beauty for a very long time. For years I wouldn’t have my picture taken; I was terrified of what would be reflected there. To this day I still don’t feel comfortable being photographed–and I’m always amazed (and so grateful!) when the pictures come out well. It is nothing less than miraculous that I am no longer blind to my own radiance; it has been a lifelong struggle.
The reason we loathe our bodies is that we’re sure others secretly do. (Haven’t they been talking behind our backs since high school?) Forget other people; it’s really we who are most disturbed by our cellulite thighs and lined faces. We can’t believe that anyone could possibly love a woman with a little flesh on her bones. Of course they could–and the right ones do! We may be blinded by our own perceived flaws, but others have clearer vision. I have a man-friend who swears that once men pass their “breeding years”–after 45 or so–they become blind to a woman’s physical defects, especially if the woman respects her body, has a healthy sense of self-esteem that’s not based on her looks alone, and loves sex. “What could be better?” he asks. Starting today, if you can’t be with the body you love, love the body you’re with.
It’s time to declare a detente with our imperfections, to lay down the artillery of self-abuse we aim at ourselves, the potions, prayers, and punitive diets, cosmetic artifice, and extreme customized corrections. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a place for hair color, makeup, and cosmetic nipping and tucking if it’s going to help you awaken to your own inner beauty. But I am telling you that nothing will help you get over looking-glass shame if the transformation doesn’t begin from within. First you have to be willing to seek ways of renewal that honor your body and restore it to its rightful place, as the sacred garment of your soul. “The body must be nourished, physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” nutrition therapist Carol Hornig tells us. “We’re spiritually starved in this culture–not underfed but undernourished.”
One of the truths I’ve learned is that if you embark on a spiritual path within, it will be reflected on the outside. Time well spent in meditation gives us more serenity, and it shows on our faces. A half hour of walking every other day increases our vitality and energy level, and we find ourselves less depressed. Suddenly we become more relaxed and fun to be around. We smile, maybe even laugh. When we catch a reflection in a mirror we’re pleasantly surprised: “Who’s that babe?” As the actress Rosalind Russell once said, “Taking joy in life is a woman’s best cosmetic.”
A plastic surgeon once told me that he will not perform cosmetic surgery on women he knows are in shaky marriages or those he suspects have severe self esteem problems. Instead, he gently advises them to seek therapy and come back to him in six months. Why? Because he can’t promise that a face-lift will save a marriage or that breast implants will attract Mr. Right.
Learning to accept ourselves exactly as we are today gives us the motivation to move forward to the next step, whether it’s searching for a healthier way of eating or finding an exercise program that’s fun to do alone or with a pal. For years I starved myself in a desperate battle to stay at a certain weight. I didn’t exercise. I said I didn’t have the time, but the truth was that the very thought made me want to hit the snooze button. Then, out of desperation to relieve stress that couldn’t be alleviated with self-medication, I started walking around my neighborhood a few times a week. Oddly enough I began to notice that on the days I walked, I felt better. What’s more, I could eat food without feeling guilty or bungee-jumping off the scale. My Suburban saunters became such a pleasant part of my daily rounds that my daughter and I began going to a gym twice a week. Suddenly, sleeveless dresses! Sleep, instead of tossing and turning! The benefits of being kind to one’s body are astounding.
Now when I reflect on my body-ography something surprising happens. Like the archaeologist who unearths a priceless porcelain fragment from a lost civilization, I can feel only appreciation for all the places my body has taken me, and for the memories it stores, and the secrets it keeps. For the children it has carried, nourished, and nurtured, for the exquisite pleasure my body has bestowed on me, for the exultation of passion it has expressed through me.
Today, embrace the lines that stare back from the mirror, the parts of your body that sag in the middle or stick out where you think they shouldn’t, the hair that never keeps a curl or never loses it.
Each one of us is created unique and authentic. And yet we copy and clone so that we fit in. But fit in where exactly?
We’re not meant to fit in. We’re meant to stand out. As Marianne Williamson has written, “We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” But “actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. [You] were born to manifest the glory of God that is within [you].”