A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned off-hand that he was headed to the gym. He jokingly added that his mantra is, “Must get bigger.” I laughed and told him that I have never once in my life had that thought. We talked for a minute about the irony that (in general) men tend to go to the gym to get bigger while women go to get smaller.
This conversation played in my head over the next few weeks, and it occurred to me that my own mantra in so many parts of my life seems to be, “Must get smaller.”
I am talking about my body, of course. A body I have long struggled to love, and in fact, find myself hating more and more each year. But more on that some other time. Because I am also talking about the rest of me.
I’m talking about how much time I spend trying to shrink my too-big, too-wild feelings down to a manageable size. How I constantly fight to curb my too-loud, too-opinionated, too-clumsy, too-anxious self. How I leave most social engagements, and turn to Jonathan to ask, “Was I OK? Was I obnoxious? Did I talk too much? Did I embarrass you? Did I make anyone else uncomfortable?” *
I worry that my decisions are too-selfish. That my desires are too-frivolous. That my dreams are too-big. That my appetite for food, for life, for adventure, is too-much. I am constantly aware of the space I take up and how often it feels like more than I deserve. And in sharing all of this, I now worry that I am being too-vulnerable. And that maybe all of this is just a product of my being too-selfish and too-whiny.
Of course, I want to cultivate truth in my life and to cut away the things that are not good for myself or for others. I’m not saying I should allow my worst qualities to run free. But how can I expect to grow when I spend so much time intent on shrinking myself down to fit into the limited space I am told I deserve?
I want to live a big life. A life where my love–for my family and friends, for my work, for freedom and justice, for the hurting, for beauty and diversity, and for the work of God in the world–is so expansive that it cannot be contained. I want passion and empathy and joy and grace to flow out of me and into whatever corner of the world I happen to be in.
I am tired of asking for permission to take up space. I am tired of apologizing because I have desires and dreams that don’t always align with other people’s expectations or are outside of their realm of understanding. I am tired of sucking in my stomach all day every day so I can pretend to have a more acceptable amount of belly fat. And I am tired of trying so hard to rein in all that seems unacceptable about me that I’ve been shrinking my soul in the process. I want to come to peace with all of my dimensions–from the circumference of my thighs, to the depth of my sadness, to the volume of my laughter. I want to take up space.
A few weeks ago I watched this video for the first time. I was a little late to the game with this one – the video had been circulating a few weeks previous, but for some reason, I hadn’t ever watched it. Until one afternoon, sitting at my desk, with my classroom full of hyper Korean kids (they’re not my class, they were just in my room). And it absolutely wrecked me. If you haven’t seen this video, watch it before you read the rest of this post.
“What is it specifically?” my mother asked when I sent her the link, weeping.
How to say, “It is everything”? It’s the words for what is wrong with me. With so many women that I know. It is the pain and the struggle of being a woman in a world that holds us to absurd standards. Expectations that fill us with righteous indignation because we know they are wrong, but still somehow leave us feeling unworthy that we don’t measure up.
This girl (her name is also Lily so it doesn’t really help to use her name in this case), is talking about traits and behaviors she saw modeled by and inherited from her mother. I don’t necessarily feel that I learned these from my mother, but from countless women who have come before me and surrounded me as I grew. These are my personal struggles, but they are the personal struggles of so many of us. We lead lives of violent inner turmoil, resenting and also being controlled by external images, expectations, and messages about our value that we have somehow internalized. These particular lines really shook me:
“And I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking, making space for the men in their lives, not knowing how to fill it up again when they leave…”
This made me think of my grandmother, who has lost herself in being my grandfather’s wife– a man who undoubtedly loves her, but also has her utterly convinced that she is dependent on him. That she couldn’t take care of herself if he weren’t around. She’s been schooled in her own incompetence all of her married life (and perhaps longer), even as she fixes his plate and irons his shirts. To any observer, it’s clear that she is entirely capable of self-sufficiency. She’s been made to feel less-than for the sake of his need to feel important – a strong leader in a household that no longer requires management. My grandparents are of a different generation, but still, I see the looks and hear the concerned murmurs from many younger people who look at my marriage and frown, unable to understand this relationship in which both of us lead and both of us serve.
“My brother never thinks before he speak, I have been taught to filter. ‘How can anyone have a relationship to food?’ he asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs. I want to say, ‘We come from difference, Jonas. You have been taught to grow out. I have been taught to grow in…I learned to absorb.’”
Up until these past few years of my life, I lived in such fear of displeasing others that I could rarely express my own opinion. In the worst cases, I was afraid to express my opinion because I didn’t really believe I was entitled to one. The concept of “Authority” has always been strong in my family/school/childhood church, but in me the concept never rang true. Somehow the lines got crossed in my mind. Rather than learning what it truly meant to respect authority, I learned how to repress myself. To subjugate myself under someone else and call this good.
“Nights I hear her creep down to eat plain yogurt in the dark – a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled. Deciding how many bites is too many, how much space she deserves to occupy.”
This makes me physically ache. For me, this isn’t about my mother – this has been the story of my own life. Possibly it started all the way back when I was 10 years old at summer camp and I overheard some boys behind me on the soccer field, “Hey, look! That girl’s butt jiggles when she runs!” Certainly it’s been my story since I was 15 or 16. Every day of my life. Frantically counting the calories. Obsessing over every bite that goes into my mouth and calling it “self-control.” Or not. Aggressively ignoring what I am eating. And later being consumed by a self-loathing that makes Hitler look like a saint. I don’t remember what it’s like to go through a day and not think about what I’ve eaten, what I’m going to eat, what I should be eating, what I shouldn’t have eaten, the size of my body, the way that I look, the way that my clothes fit, whether I can congratulate myself for having sufficient self-control or if I must shame myself into a better day tomorrow. I must force my unwilling body to run half marathons and then full marathons to prove I can be disciplined.
(I admit that there have been a few brief periods of my life when I had a short break from this – after the bout with salmonella that left me (unhealthy) but skinny, having lost 20 lbs in 10 days before my sophomore year of college. Right after I got married and found that the time I had spent worrying about my body pre-honeymoon was unnecessary because I was so unconditionally loved. And last spring after I lost 27 lbs and felt that I’d won a small victory over myself and my self-destructive habits. But that came crashing down quickly after moving to a country whose staple foods are rice, sodium, and all the meat is half fat.)
Unlike many girls, I didn’t learn to count my calories or call myself fat from my mother. From my mom I learned what I should be able to be – she has been thin for my whole life. She almost never indulges. She has always been able to say no to food with an ease that makes my all-consuming battle with it feel all the more humiliating . In my mother I saw modeled a self-control and a discipline that I simply lack. I felt that she was living proof that it was possible and I failed to measure up. Again and again and again. (And again today.)
“I asked 5 questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word, ‘Sorry.'”
This is me. This is me. This is me. I have spent so much time apologizing for things I have no business being sorry for. Why should anyone feel sorry for needing to ask a question? Or sorry that someone else’s expectations of them weren’t met. Sometimes I think these murmured apologies that season my conversation like salt from a shaker is really me apologizing for what I feel is the inconvenience of my existence. Like my being here at all is a burden. It makes me furious that anyone should be made to feel that way. And so I am angry. But also, I am sorry for being angry.
“I don’t know the capstone requirements for the sociology major because I spent the whole meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza.”
This made me laugh, even though it isn’t funny. I can’t tell you how many meetings, recitals, graduations, concerts, and events I’ve only been half-present for because there was a war being waged in my mind about the food. About what I could permit myself or not permit myself. My rationale behind it. “How much space do I deserve to occupy?”
Listening to Lily’s poem was like having words put on every inadequacy I have felt since I was a child and simultaneously exposing the inherently flawed basis of those inadequacies. I am angry at a world that has made me feel this way, but at the same time, this is so deeply ingrained that I don’t know how to shake it.
I shared these comments with my mother and she told me a story about herself – one she’d never told me before. The story of how 26-year-old her broke free from a life-long struggle for perfection. The struggle for a perfect body that made food her enemy and a perfect life that made her avoid confrontation by not having an opinion. The struggle to be perfectly likeable and agreeable that made her ignore her own wants and needs, pushing herself under a rug in order to please others (or often, let others stomp all over her). That at 26 (the age I am now except that she already had a 6 year old and a soft tangle of arms and legs and blue eyes that would be me in her belly) she realized that no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t change the way she felt about food or finances or keeping other people happy. And that instead of trying harder or trying to be more disciplined or more self-controlled (which inevitably leads to self-loathing), she learned to stop trying. She wrote to me, “I became humble. I had to become brutally honest with myself and admit to myself that I could not fix it/control it. I had no power over it and life had just become crazy. I realized that the ONLY person who could supernaturally ‘adjust’ me was God. But I had to let him.”
I was so thankful that my mom shared this with me. I wish I had known these things about her as a teenager and young adult (well, young-er adult). I think something many parents have been missing with my generation and possibly the current one is how valuable it is to let your children see and understand what it looks like to struggle well. Because no matter what you do, your children will struggle. And if all they’ve seen are the victories, they won’t know what to do when the time comes to struggle. It’s like the physics teacher I had in high school who was great at solving all the problems, but who couldn’t explain to me how to do them. Life is lived in the process so much more than in the conclusions.
I’ll finish this post, then, by sharing something about my process. Right now, I don’t understand what the heck it means to “Let go” of something. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard some form of “Let go and let God” in my lifetime. Most of the time it makes me want to scream. Because often it’s just code for, “I don’t know what to tell you, but this phrase is something ‘spiritual’ people say and so it sounds like a real thing.” You see, I’ve tried “letting go” in so many different situations. I’ve knelt with my arms stretched as far as they can reach or spread myself across the floor with my face pressed into rough carpet fibers, trying to find the correct posture, the arrangement of limbs that will accomplish this mysterious goal, chanting prayers over and over like a mantra, “I’m letting go. I’m giving this to you. I don’t want to carry this anymore. I can’t do it on my own. I’m letting go,” each iteration more soulful and heartfelt than the last, only to find that, in fact, this changes nothing. It simply makes me a failure at letting go. (Ha!)
I value my mother’s story. I believe her words were genuine and described a true transformative experience for her. But I admit that I have yet to figure out how to “stop trying.” So far I’ve tried it in the shower, at my desk, while running, in bed, at a temple and on a mountain. So far none of this insisting I am “letting go” has been successful. I am being a little sarcastic here – I know it’s not a magical ritual or formula. But I am admitting that I can’t seem to figure out how to do something that sounds as simple as doing nothing.
Women, so many of us are broken. But I believe (I have to believe) that we can be whole again. That we can live lives free and unashamed. That we can learn to turn our amazing capacity for love towards ourselves. I don’t know how yet, but I am hopeful we can learn together.