Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. ~Charles W. Eliot

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Who said you're not perfect?

Friends, family and colleagues have pointed out that it's been a while since I last posted to this blog. Sorry about that. I guess it's a little like a diet and exercise routine. I'm pretty good at maintaining a program once I've developed some momentum but once I slip off track, it's remarkably difficult to get back on. I had actually intended the big return blog post to be happy and funny but something happened this morning that changed my mind so please bear with me.

I took our daughter to her camp bus stop, like I do every morning. She was wearing her most awesomely stylish outfit of the season, which, incidentally, included a very cool fedora, and I was feeling reasonably stylish myself. We were happy and chatting away. A former doorman of ours, who now works in a building near the camp bus stop, came over to say hello. He hadn't seen any of our children in several years so I re-introduced him to our daughter and reminded him that she is one of the twins. He said it was nice to see her and then turned to me to say, "And congratulations - I see you have another one on the way". No, I don't. I politely corrected him, "No, I'm just fat but it was nice to see you." He said goodbye and left. I didn't have time to wallow because I had a livid child next to me who desperately wanted to rip him a new one, if you know what I mean, and I had to talk her down to make sure she got on her bus happily so that her day could start right. And then I wallowed.

Several people who are close to me will read this story and immediately want to call, email or text to assure me that I do not look pregnant and that he's an idiot. Much appreciated but, really, don't worry about me. I'd rather use the experience as a jumping off point for a different discussion. I have dealt with weight and body image issues for a very long time and had hoped to spare my own children the trauma. I haven't succeeded. What do you do when your child tells you she's fat or ugly or fat and ugly? There's no easy answer. If you haven't figured it out by now, a mother telling her child that she is beautiful and not fat is pretty well worthless. Don't get me wrong, you still have to say it but you should know that it will do nothing to solve the problem. It's also not particularly helpful to blame the media. While it's true that convoluted notions of physical beauty are conveyed negligently by the media and it may be intellectually interesting to acknowledge the genesis of a problem, it won't help your child to feel better about him or herself. Sometimes the only thing that helps is to open your child's eyes and mind to the fact that they are not alone - that most people are not entirely delighted with everything about themselves - and that it does get better. Encourage your children to find their way, to express themselves in a way that makes them feel as beautiful as possible, and to be healthy and informed in the process. And encourage them to define beauty in a way that works for them, based on what they know and experience. Does objective beauty even exist? Each of our daughters identified a boy she was crushing on to some extent this summer and each raved about how cute he is. I doubt that any of them saw the object of their sisters' affections in the same handsome light. Taste and beauty are subjective. Surround yourself with people who help you feel beautiful and who, maybe, see you just a little differently from the way you see yourself.

No matter what your perspective or your personal state of self acceptance, the universal truth is that adolescence is complicated, difficult and a stage of development fraught with insecurities. Some of us never entirely outgrow those insecurities but it seems clear that they peak for most people during adolescence. In 1995, psychologist Mary Pipher wrote the book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, equating the contemporary adolescent experiences of teenage girls to Shakespeare's ill-fated Ophelia. Pipher wrote of eating disorders, self-mutilation, abusive relationships and more. Sixteen-year old Sara Shandler read the book, identified with many of the experiences described and took it to the next level. She reached out to teenage girls and asked them to write and submit their own stories. She compiled the stories and in 1999 published her response, Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write About Their Search for SelfSome of the stories included in Ophelia Speaks are difficult to read and, for many girls, not easily relate-able but many of them speak to a common or shared experience. There is value in knowing that your experience and feelings may be imprinted with your own uniqueness but the core is something you have in common with more people than you may have ever realized. Mary Pipher's thesis, that teenaged girls in the 90's were coming of age in "a girl-poisoning culture," punctuated by abuse, self-mutilation (e.g., anorexia), consumerism and media pressure to conform to others' ideals, is as relevant now as it was then; maybe more so. Pipher offers concrete suggestions girls can try to build and maintain a strong sense of self, e.g., keeping a diary, observing their social context as an anthropologist might, distinguishing between thoughts and feelings - practical approaches that you may want to suggest to your own children but you might also suggest they take a look at Ophelia Speaks.

One of our daughters is currently reading The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han. Talk about a book worth buying for the title alone! It's a story of first loves and first kisses and I can't help but note the smile on the face and the twinkle in the eyes of my young reader while she's reading it.The sun-kissed effect alone of a satisfying summer is enough to make anyone feel just a little bit prettier than before.

p.s. If you're not sure what the title of this post has to do with the rest of it, go listen to Who Said by Selena Gomez. Beautiful song, powerful message!

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