Feelings and Standards

I often write about feeling different. When I write, I touch on one aspect of my self in connection to a greater culture within which I often do not feel a sense of solidarity and belonging. When I write, I do not intend this out of place feeling to come across as arrogant or unfortunate. It just is, and by writing and reflecting I try to recognize, embrace, and make sense of it in one moment in time.

How to put words a feeling, to something so visceral?

I have felt since I was a little kid that I just did not quite “fit in.”

One realm where it took years for my to find a sense of belonging was among women.

Until high school, I thought most women were cruel, malicious, and capricious.

One young woman who was purportedly my friend would be friendly one day and not speak to me the next. I never understood why or what I had done to bring on such strange behavior. Nonplussed, I was.

I can recall a girl who would ask me my score for an exam every time we got our tests back. I would tell her. If my score were higher than hers, she would not tell me hers and would not speak to me for some length of time.

My best friend would tell me on a regular basis that her hair looked better in a side ponytail than mine and that I had thunder thighs (I imagine the thunder came from being muscular instead of waifish and having a healthy appetite).

I would get dressed in the morning and feel good about how I looked and then arrive at school and realize that what I was wearing was completely wrong in comparison to what other girls were wearing. Sometimes, I still feel this way, though it has become far more rare.

Other girls were delicate with gentle hands and perfectly shaped nails.

In contrast, I felt big, bulky, and ungraceful around them. Even my hair, a mess of frizzy curls, was unmanageable and wild.

Pressure came from all directions.

It was not cool to speak out or appear intelligent in class or around boys. Women I knew to be quite smart would act flaky and ditzy in co-ed settings. It was so odd.

It was not cool to wear clothing from last season’s styles, and believe me, people knew if someone was not adhering to this standard.

By 8th grade, I was getting frustrated and weary of many of the behaviors and mannerisms I was meant to mimic.

I began speaking up for girls who were “less cool” when popular boys would prey upon them. I found my mom’s old Levis and started wearing those instead of more delicate, feminine clothing from stores where I had previously begged my parents to get me clothing.

And the strangest thing happened. I seemed to earn a certain respect among different circles in the social sphere of my middle school world. I still did not feel that I was an honorable member of any one group, but I was beginning to wonder if maybe gaining membership was not my ultimate goal in life.

At the start of my freshman year in high school, I found a group of women with whom I felt more at ease. They were misfits with wild ideas, wild fashion sense, and wild hair. Some did not even shave their legs or armpits! And many of them were not Jewish.

I had no idea that women like this could exist.

It was at once exhilarating and intimidating. It was a revelation and reevaluation of my definition of what it meant to be a woman in a suburb that was predominantly Jewish in eastern Massachusetts.

My struggle with my identity as a woman was far from over (in fact, it continues still).

I tried not shaving my legs. I found this choice to be freeing at times and less so at others. Sometimes, it felt good to not shave my legs. I was expressing a different choice. Yet, I did not like the look of hair on my legs. It felt unfeminine. So I would shave my legs. They were sleek and “womanly,” but they no longer felt like my legs.

I was stuck between worlds. I felt out of place in both. I was frustrated.

Always, I compared myself to other women who seemed to represent the epitome of what I wanted to embody in my own body, even if my own body was built differently and refused to conform to an unnatural standard without unhealthy compromises.

Women should have flat stomachs. The only way I could succeed in conforming to this perceived standard was by cutting food out of my diet and running obsessively. Yet, no matter how fit I became, how trim and muscular, I looked in the mirror and was dissatisfied with my reflection.

The standards I wanted to attain seemed always to be just out of reach.

In the middle of my freshman year in college, crisis hit. I got tendonitis and had to stop running. Shortly after, I tore my ACL tendon and dislocated my shoulder in a freak ultimate Frisbee accident and had to stop exercising altogether.

Suddenly, controlling my body was no longer an option. I was forced to begin confronting the standards I had been trying so desperately to conform to.

But I had no idea how. I talked to a nutritionist, who told me with confidence that I could and should be eating far more than I was.

Those facts only deepened my psychological crisis. I wanted to be able to nourish my body, but I could not allow myself to do it without experiencing extreme guilt and self-loathing.

Looking back, I wondered how had I come to this point? I had studied feminism. My mother kept her last name. I listened to Ani Difranco. I had dumped my boyfriend at the end of my sophomore year of high school. I thought of myself as relatively empowered.

Yet, there I was in the midst of an eating disorder.

What?

It did not seem to matter how many men or women affirmed my beauty and attractiveness. I could not see it in my self.

I would admire women with real bodies, with stomachs that had shape, but I could not yet allow my own body to take on a more natural form.

I can recall two pivotal moments (there were likely more) that created a shift in my behavior. The shift in my self-view was even more difficult to adjust. To this day, I am still working on both.

I visited a friend who was studying in Paris during her junior year of college. During the visit, she told me that sometime earlier she had decided to eat whatever she wanted. If she started to get fat, she could reevaluate. Up to that point, she had not gained weight, so she had continued this experiment with eating. Another piece she mentioned was that she tried to go for a long walk each day. It helped her to feel like she had exercised, which seemed to improve both her psychological state and view of her body as well.

I decided to try it.

I had tried to take up running after physical therapy in the wake of knee surgery, but it hurt my knee and shoulder. I also found that each time I took up running, my propensity for control and obsession with food and exercise would rekindle with a vengeance. Walking was more peaceful and affirming.

Only a few months later, before my own junior year in college, I attended a summer language immersion program at Middlebury College to begin learning French. While learning how to compose sentences with the word “regret,” I experienced a second epiphany.

We were asked by the professor to imagine we were much older. Looking back on our lives, we were to imagine something we regretted and to write about it.

Je regretted de ne pas avoir….

I regret not having…..

Each student was asked to read their response. The words of a woman with brown hair in tight curls whose name I have long forgotten are still clear in my mind, along with my response.

I regret not having eaten a piece of chocolate every day.

I was shocked at the thought. Perhaps, I had just imagined that by the time I was eighty I would have gotten over this. But what if I didn’t ever get over it? I was denying myself of some of the greatest sensory pleasures in a human life. I was horrified that I might get to the end of my life and have a similar response.

In the back of my mind, I recalled the nutritionist I had spoken with saying that the human body naturally burns myriad calories throughout the day, simply by existing, by being and breathing.

What if I tried incorporating a small sweet into my daily rhythm? One seemed reasonable and possibly even attainable.

I decided to try it.

A decade has passed since these revelations.

I feel better about my body. I still control what I eat. But I try to remind myself of the words of these two wise women in my life.

Sometimes I shave my legs. Sometimes, I don’t.

I never wear makeup.

My stomach is soft, and sometimes I wish it were more flat and muscular. But I try not to lose sleep over it.

I try to eat French fries and potato chips and not feel guilty about it.

I write about it.

I also compose music.

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