Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rethinking body II

I've been trying to remember when my obsession with appearance began. Thinking back over what I can now remember of my life, I think it must have started at the same time that I began to feel like something was very wrong with me... and THAT probably started when I moved from private school into public school in 2nd grade.

I remember loving school when I went to a small private Baptist school called Victory Baptist for kindergarten and first grade. There, I was well-liked by the other children and the teachers. It was a small school, probably no more than 60 or so students; the kindergarten was in a small classroom upstairs, the 1st-8th graders were in a large first-floor classroom together, and the high schoolers were in a seperate large room on the second floor, separated from the kindergarten class by the principal's office. The school building shared a lot with the church, which was across a small drive, and during school hours the parking lot and yard served as our playground and lunchroom (when the weather was nice).

I remember being very popular at Victory Baptist. I was friends with children from all of the grades, my best friend was a girl in high school, and was the mascot for the cheerleading squad. The classrooms were set up in such a way that we all learned, primarily, independently. In the large elementary/middle school room there was a big desk in the middle of the room (probably several desks put together) where the 2 (or maybe 3) teachers could be found. all of the students had small cubicle-like desks of their own and our coursework was made up of small workbooks (called Paces) that contained lessons, worksheets, and tests. We had a different Pace for each subject and in order to complete each grade the student had to successfully complete all of the Paces for that grade-level.

I am still fascinated by the educational program there; each student was working at their own speed, we were all on differrent pages, and Paces, at any given moment. If I remember correctly, the day was divided up into periods for working on each subject (to make sure we studied everything) but we were never pressured to move faster or slwer in our work, nor were we ever compared with the progress of other students. The teachers were there to help us if we had a problem (and maintain order), but even with a student/teacher ratio of probably 30:1, no one was neglected or left behind and it was unusual to not find one of them available at the exact moment you had a question or needed help.

I loved school there and sped through the work at a speed that seemed to shock the teachers. During my first grade year I finished the curriculum for 1st, 2nd and most of third grade-- never once being told to slow down, or being given any indication that I was "strange" or even that I was gifted-- I was treated like everyone else, and I never felt like I wasn't.

I was taken out of Victory Baptist and enrolled in the local publlic school foor 2nd grade; V.B. had wanted to skip me into the 3rd grade and my mother felt it would be socially harmful for them to do so. At first I was excited about going to public school. My friends in the nieghborhood all went to Lemaster's Elementary and I thought it would be fun to go to school with them. From the begining, though, it was disasterous for me. I don't guess either my mother or I was prepared to successfully transition me into the public school culture into which I was thrust. My mother had no idea of what was fashionable for elementary school kids in 1982; she sent me to school in bell-bottoms, butterfly collars, and the cheapest tennies they had at Kmart. I, up to that point, had never given a second thought to clothes.

At Victory Baptist, there was a dress code: all girls must wear skirts or dresses that are knee-length or longer. We were allowed to wear pants under our dresses in the winter, but had to take them off when we got to school. I'm sure it also restricted other aspects of clothes, and perhaps make-up/hair, but I only remember the skirt rule (and only because skirts meant you had to be a lady and not climb trees or do other things that might show your underwear :) ).

All, or nearly all, of my clothes until then had been hand-me downs from cousins or family friends, or came from the local thrift stores. I had never minded that (I probably didn't really realize that it was any different from anyone else, and likely the other students at my school had wardrobes very similar to my own--- though I can't remember anyone caring much about what anyone was wearing) until the first day I went to public school.

I remember being so happy and excited; it was quite an adventure and I didn't really know what to expect. I had been to the elementary school for the yearly carnival they held in the summers, where I most vividly remember the cakewalk and musical chairs, and knew that it was HUGE. There were many different buildings, a real playground with a jungle gym and swings (I'd been there to play sometimes), and since I had friends who already went there, I don't remember being afraid at all.

And I don't remember much of that first day, most of it bled together into the one thing I do remember... I was sent to the principal's office (I think because I wouldn't stop crying) and I remember walking down the walkway between the buildings, I remember that it was sunny but the walkway was shaded by a roofway, and I could barely ssee where I was going because I was crying so hard. I remember wondering what was so wrong with me, why everyone hated me, why they all made fun of me, why they were mean to me, why I was so weird, why?

I remember wanting, so badly, to be liked by the people at school. I remember that I promised myself I would find out how to be "good enough" to have friends there, to be normal, to fit in.

And now, thinking back to that time in my life, I am a little overwhelmed by the sadness I feel. Before that day, in spite of all of the abuse I witnessed and endured, I was a happy child. All signs point to my having been sexually abused by my father, likely as early as my toddlerhood, and it is certain that I spent my life before 3 living in a home where my father regularly beat my mother and my older brother without mercy. I remember that my first real nightmare happened when I was still in a baby crib; I dreamed that my father was the boogey-man and he'd killed my mom and brother so he could have me all to himself. I remember my dad kicking in our door when I was 3, when my mom changed the locks and seperated from him, I remember him picking her up by the throat, punching her, screaming that he was going to kill her, holding a knife to her throat as she struggled to breathe, and Jon and I crouched crying under the dining room table. I remember being taken to a big bed in a basement and losing myself in the focus of a babyoil bottle on the bedtable as someone I trusted and loved did things I knew to be wrong... All of these things and more happened long before that first day of 2nd grade, and yet I remained a happy and whole child.

For, despite the bad things that happened, I knew I was loved. I was secure about myself, believed in myself, and had strong family bonds and caring that largely mitigated the horrors I had seen. And, beyond that, the bad stuff that happened was the exception to what was normal in my childhood. Most of my life prior to that had been spent with people who deeply loved and cherished me, and though I had witnessed the violence of my father against my mom and brother, I had never before encountered violence against me (well, other than normal sibling fights). In fact, unlike most of the stories I have heard from women who were molested, I was never sexually abused in any way that even hinted at violence or shame. I would never say I was abused in a loving way-- I don't think it's possible-- but that I was abused by people who truly loved me, who had no intention of hurting me (and probably did not think they were), and never was I told, by them or anyone I told about the abuse, that it was in any way my fault, that I had done anything wrong, or even that I should be afraid to tell anyone about what happened (at least that I remember).

And certainly those events had helped shape me into the person I was then; I was, at the very least, hyper-sexual for a 7-year-old. I was flirtatious wth men and would use my looks and flirtation to get things when I could. I don't remember enough else to know what other ways I was effected at that point. The real point is, that my spirit was still intact. I had the self-esteem and confidence to place the blame on the people who had done wrong instead of myself; I disliked my father and thought he was a bad person (never considering the possibility that his actions were anyone else's fault), and the other people... I guess I seperated them in my mind: the good them who loved me and I could trust and love, and the bad them who had done what they did.

But I was still whole, I still FELT, I still loved deeply, enjoyed living, had fun, played with my friends, tagged behind my big brother wherever he went, and felt like I was just a normal kid, accepted, loved, basically OK. And I was a VERY sensitive child in many ways.

Though resilient in terms of overcoming the bad things, I had always been an exceptionally sensitive child. I, even into early adolescence, had a deep desire to be good and helpful. I wanted everyone, but especially the people I loved, to be happy and it upset me terribly to have done something bad or to be otherwise disobedient.

While my brother, likely toughened by his regular physical abuse by my father, required harsh discipline in order to show he felt bad (via cryng) for what he'd done, a harsh word or raised voice was nearly always enough to reduce me to a tearful ball of regret for my naughtiness. And my sensitivity, up to then, had been protected and accepted by my family. I was sheltered and dearly loved for who I was, and I knew it.

So walking into that school with hundreds of children, most of whom had been raised to be street-smart and tough, was very akin to throwing an infant into a hungry lion's den. I didn't have the roughest idea of how to defend myself, I'd been protected by my older brother and family, and I came from a far different culture than the culture I then had to deal with.

For Lemaster's was a part of the Riveview Gardens school district, a small district in the northern part of St. Louis County. I understand that, when my parents bought the home I spent my first 13 years in, it had been a decent nieghborhood-- quiet and safe. By the time, though, that I entered the local school system it had become a much more dangerous place. As happened in many areas, "white flight" had blighted the home values and invited in the problems of inner city St. Louis. The particular nieghborhood I lived in was largely still safe, and I never thought twice about the color of my nieghbors. The house next door had been bought by a black family and their three daughters quickly became my best friends.

The thing is, though, that the inner-city black culture that I was soon in the midst of was truly foriegn and incomprehensible to me. While I had been raised to believe that "ladies" don't fight, don't say anything if they have nothing nice to say, had been taught to love learning and reading, had never been exposed to materialism, and was firmly entrenched in the belief that people should treat others as they wanted to be treated, the majority of kids I was in school with had been raised quite differently.

First of all, they were raised to physically defend themselves against any real or perrceived wrong. Fighting was not only a reasonable solution to problems and aggrivations, it was generally the only solution they knew of. There was also no cultural taboo against boys hitting girls, or the idea that fighting fair meant a one on one fight-- at least if one of the fighters was white. Crying was for sissies, and all of the other students had, at least by then, learned not to cry... ever, in public. Making fun of other people (sometimes called "jahning") was an acceptable form of amusement, even when people got hurt and even though it often started fights. A person's place in the social heirarchy was often very dependent upon them having the "right" clothes, shoes, bike, and toys. Enjoying things like reading and learning was completely uncool and nerdy-- a certain path to becoming a social outcast. And over-all the basis of interaction had nothing to do with that golden rule. How you treated others was based on 1)how much respect they had and their place n the social heirarchy, and 2) how they would let you treat them (and how far you could push before they pushed back.

So now, as an adult, I can see that never had a chance in that environment. I can see that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was just put into a situation that was far beyond my ability to deal with. I can see that but I don't know how to fix the effects.

Because I never learned to fit in at school. I tried and tried to become whatever I needed to be to have friends. I tried dressing like them, learned to talk like them, became as invisible as possible, tried avoiding them, learned not to cry, learned to fight back when I got punched... everything my childish mind could conceive of. But, I was not intellectually mature enough to realize that I could only fit in by becoming culturally like them, and even then I would still be only marginally accepted because I am white and they were black.

I was such an outcast, in fact, that even the uncool kids didn't want to be seen with me-- they were cooler, had more respect, than me. And all those nieghborhood friends I had counted on-- they still played with me in the nieghborhood, and even at the bus stop, but as soon as the bus came into sight they silently removed their friiendship and ignored me like everyone else. I was a pariah.

All of this was made much worse by the fact that I had entered 2nd grade with an almost 4th grade education. I was maybe even a brilliant child; I loved learning and it came easily to me. Added together with my natural comfort with adults, I was nerd extrordinaire from the start. But, unlike V.B. that had nurtured my exuberant curiousity, my advanced education was a big problem at my new school. The teachers were constantly telling me to stop working ahead, to stay with the class, to slow down, and even that I was too wierd and should "act normal." I remember that in the first month of 2nd grade, before I fully understood how things worked, I had gone through the entirety of the math book and filled out all of the worksheet pages and tests, as I was used to doing at my old school. I proudly presented my completed book to the teacher one day and was horrified and embarrassed when she angrily made fun of me, in front of the class, for trying to show off how smart I was and being too big for my britches. She then made me spend the next hour erasing all of the pages I had completed and finished by admonishing me to keep up with the class from then on.

In the first month of school, that first year, we visited the library. I was quite excited to find that it was at least 5 times as big as the one at Victory Baptist. I happily chose several biographies (being in a history phase then) and brought them to the librarian to check out. She looked at the books and laughed; confidently stating that I could not read them. I remember being puzzled at first, having never been told that I could not read something, and she told me that they were 6th grade books, not 2nd grade books. She said I wasn't old enough to read them, which further intrigued me and led me to seriously piss her off by continuing to ask why there should be rules about what books we can read, and to show her that I could, indeed, read the books by opening one and reading aloud from the first page. I was ultimately kicked ut of the library for the day and had to leave with no books checked out. I still didn't understand why I should have to get Dick and Jane books, or Curious George types (which were the books deemed to be at the 2nd grade level) instead of more interesting ones like the biographies of Harriet Tubman and Ben Franklin that I had initially desired. I was sent home with a discipline note to tell my mom that I had been disobedient and would not check out a book from the library. I thought I would get in trouble but instead my mom was FURIOUS at the librarian and teacher for not letting me get the books I had wanted. She marched into the school the next day and raised hell until I was granted permission to chose whatever books I wanted, which made me happy but did nothing to improve my relationship with the teacher or librarian :)

Both of these anectdotes are to illustrate how badly I fit in at my new school, and how unfair and impossible it was for me to adapt to my new situation. I had grown up in an environment that offered and encouraged me in my intellectual development; I was surrounded by books and was reading full-length novels by the time I was in 2nd grade, my mother read to us every day and was seldom without a book in progress or in her hand, and my aunt (who babysat us) encouraged us to read, play games, and learn from the world around us at all times. We could all read what we wanted from what was available, and reading was, by far, my favorite pass-time. But most of the kids I went to school with had few, if any, books in their homes. The idea of reading for fun was ridiculous to them, their parents didn't read books unless they had to, and no one who was cool had ever been shown with their nose in a book. Even my next door nieghbors, and best friends, always thought that my reading was a bizarre quirk... they accepted it, though, as another one of those crazy white folk's habits and didn't mention it much.

And while I knew that being smart, and not beng ashamed of it, was one of the things that kept me firmly entrenched in the "outcast" role I was placed into, I (thankfully) had the self-esteem to decide that I would not try to change that about myself-- at least not at that point.

Instead, I became convinced that if I could just "look right" then people would like me. And I think I have spent the rest of my life stuck in that 7-year-old-mind's decision.

It saddens me to finally understand, after 26 years, that looks have nothing to do with my problems and that my obsession with "looking right" has probably, in all honesty, been far greater of a harm to my life than the emotional trauma that precipitated it.

I can finally see, looking back over my life, that I chased harder and harder for the appearance that would gain me acceptance and only got further and further from anything that would actually work. As I grew up I was often told, by my peers and by the adults in schools, that something was wrong with me, that I wasn't right, that I wasn't normal, that I didn't fit in, and that was lacking in one way or another. I believed them, but not in the "normal" internalized way. For my foundation of love and acceptance in childhood had given me a secure idea of myself as a good and worthy person, and my family continued to love and cherish me for who I was as I grew up and entered adolescence. So I was sure that it wasn't something inside that was wrong, but something outside, and now I am sure that it started out from the outside but slowly leaked into me and took from me the very natural goodness and beauty that my family had always loved.

Because I find myself at 33 with no close friends, other than my partner, and no idea of how to make them. Thinking back over my adult relationships, I realize that at some point I became incapable of forming deep relationships outside of romantic involvement-- and I think that happened when I was 18 or so.

I used to know how to make friends, and have them, with relative ease. Outside of school I always had friends of all ages, and I was naturally curious about people in general. I also have a natural inclination to like most people and had thus found it easy to get to know individuals-- even though the group dynamics in schools forever eluded me and still does.

Around 18, though, I became tired of being used and hurt by the people I knew. I had never been picky about my friends, happily getting to know anyone who gave me a chance, and had ended up befriending a long list of selfish people who used me for the dependable and reliable affection I freely gavee them. I don't know if it was sudden or gradual, but I ultimately decided not to be that person anymore, and lost my curiousity about people along with my desire to understand them.

While I have had many friendships, well mostly acquaintances, since then, I don't know if I have ever been able to be more than a shallow kind of friend. To be honest, I don't know how to have more than a shallow kind of relationship, outside of my romantic partner, and that really bothers me.

For this all began as a rethinking of body, inspired by many things, but ultimately because I want to be a healthy role model for my child. And it is the rethinking of my relationship with my appearance that has led me to understand how deeply entrenched in the physical world I have allowed myself to become. No matter the contributing causes, I have devolved into a woman who has no idea of what is important, who honestly believed that I could find happiness by changing only the environment of my life, by learning the physical care of a home, by creating a beautiful world n my immediate surroundings-- but never really considering that I may need to change also the inner parts of who I am.

I have this chance, this amazing and rare chance, to really become whoever I want to be. I have a new homeland, in effect a new identity, the security and anchor to frame whatever I chose to become my new self-portrait-- but no idea of how or what the inner workings should be.

And the inner workings are what is at the root of my isolation and fundamental insecurity. I have spent my life observing how people interact, learning what motivates people, memorizing the right words and right behaviors, poring over fashion magazines and gaining a deep insght into trends and fashions. I have done all this to the detriment of my own emotional growth. For in my focus on observation I have traded the experience of emotional maturity for the almost scientific knowledge of human behavior. I have approached my friendships and familial relationships as an objective observer instead of a real human being, and in doing so I have harmed myself and whatever relationships I have had.

My family still loves me and accepts me for who I am. I do not know what they think of me, or how they see me, but I know the love is still deep and secure. We are not close though; I go to my family gatherings and feel as much an outsider as I ever have in a group of people. I see these people, I love them, and I wish very deeply to have a close relationship with them-- to, as an adult, be their friend. But I don't have any clue of what frendships are made of.

I can read books and learn that they are made of shared experiences and bonding through self-disclosure... but is that all that makes us friends? Why is it that I can truly care about people, and want the best for them, but never feel close? Why do I feel inadequate and incapable of real connection? Why don't I know what to talk about, the appropriate feelings, or where to go?

It's easy to make acquaintances, to initially begin to get to know someone, but that is the begining and the end for me. I am finally coming to see that it is because I somewhere left my heart and friendly mind-- I was probably chasing after losing more weight or changing my hair.

But now that I see that there is a problem, I have the possibility of repairing whatever it is that's wrong. And this may be the most important challenge of my life, for I am being and becoming the person who will most heavily influence the shape of Lily's personality. As she comes to an age of her own observation, as she observes my interactions and friendships in order to make her own, I will soon be the model for her emotional/social life. And while my shortcomings will not necesarily doom her to a lifetime of shallow relationships, they will ertainly make it harder to learn social happiness and fulfillment. Aside from that, I want that too!

I want to have close friendships with the people I love! I want to be happy and full of joy, have a full life! I can make my house beautiful, I can become successful, I can lose weight and chase beauty, I can do anything-- but until I learn how to be a friend I don't think any of that will truly matter. For at the end of the day I will lok into myself, and my beautiful life, and realize that it is empty without friends to share it with.

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