I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Category: Body Image

The Mirror

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Homework

I am in the middle of a yoga training with Colleen Saidman Yee. She has designed thought-full and specific sequences of poses to enhance or mitigate significant emotions and life transitions. All with a goal of achieving peace and confidence in ourselves, in order to be able to say: I Am Enough.

Our assignment this week, among other things, was to look in the mirror, see ourselves, our souls, and say I Love You. When I looked in the mirror, I felt so silly. Who says that?

Why not? Why don’t we give ourselves permission to love ourselves?

It brings up a long buried memory. I am at the wedding of our neighbor. My first wedding. I am about 8, perhaps. I am wearing a fancy dress and my mother did my hair in her favorite way, pulled back into a top-knot. I feel excited and grown up. At the wedding we are chit-chatting with another neighbor who remarks how pretty I look. Feeling confident and pleased, I respond, “I know!” My parents are embarrassed and scold me. One should be modest and humble, not braggy and conceited. The neighbor smiles indulgently and defends me. But the damage is done. A lifelong struggle with how to be in this world begins. Pretty? Smart? Assertive? Confident? Bossy? Slutty? Ambitious? Bitchy? NICE?

It is more socially acceptable to commiserate: I am so busy. I am so tired. I have so many problems. Or to be self-deprecating: I’m too heavy. I’m too thin. I’m too old. I hate my hair. When was the last time someone asked you “How are you?” and you answered: “I am beautiful, healthy, and strong. I like my job. My kids amaze me. My husband loves me.” Well, dammit, that’s how I am. I’m tired of complaining.

Don’t get me wrong. I could complain! My beauty is one of a middle-aged woman now. My wrinkles, age-spots, thinning eyebrows, and jowls (wtf?) shock me. SHOCK! I am not passionate about my job, but it’s interesting. I wish I had more time for yoga, both practicing and teaching. I’ve been hurt. Badly. A lot. I worry about everything. But… I am who I am and I am enough.

What is beauty anyway? We women are encouraged to meet an impossible external standard. Tall, thin, fit, young. Those of us who come close work very hard to get closer to the standard and feel like failures when we don’t. Those of us who don’t come close work very hard to get closer to the standard and feel like failures when we don’t. Or, we give up. As we get older, perhaps we find more peace with who we are and how we look, but our fading looks are a bittersweet reminder of the fleeting impermanence of youth and of life.

We look in the mirror and see our soul shining through our eyes. The same soul from 50 years ago, from 40 years ago, from 30 years ago, from 20 years ago, from 10 years ago. Real beauty is self-acceptance. Self-confidence. Pride. No more wishing to be someone else. No more wishing to be richer, thinner, smarter, nicer, more successful, more popular, more badass, more happy. We are enough.

Besides, it’s not about me anymore. I want my daughter to be happy and to love herself and to know – really know – her value. If I can’t model that kind of love and confidence for me, what makes me think she can do it for her? If my love for myself is a bit tentative and embarrassed and filled with buts and what-if’s, my love for her is fierce.

Dear girl, you are enough.

You Are Beautiful

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Beautiful Girls

I was at a modern dance performance the other night. Talented young girls from a nearby dance conservatory. I marveled. There was a range of ages and ability levels and body types. All beautiful. From the lean and graceful ballet-types to the curvy and sturdy athletic types to the more gawky and awkward types, striving to be more comfortable and graceful in their bodies. Well, that’s it isn’t it? We’re all striving to be more comfortable and graceful in our bodies aren’t we? What those girls don’t know and can’t appreciate yet is how beautiful they are. Every single one of them.

My heart was with them. I feel. I remember. The 10,000 hours of grinding and repetitive technique classes and rehearsals. The thrill of getting singled out for a solo. The devastation of not getting singled out for a solo. The excitement and anxiety of the weeks leading up to the performance. The costumes. The makeup. The theater. The lights. The audience. Practicing. Worrying. Not eating. Because that extra pound lost would make a psychological difference in how I felt about myself. In the costume, on stage, in my body.

Chatting before the performance with a mom in the audience, the conversation turned to anorexia. Of course. Girls and dance. What else would we talk about? A girl, not one of the dancers but she is in the circle of high-achieving New York metropolitan families who appear to have it all, is struggling with anorexia. Her mother was a dancer. Aha! Familiar territory. I wanted to pounce, to rush in and solve the problem. The mother must have eating issues. How could it not wreak havoc on her daughter and the whole family? I felt for the girl, the mother, the family. I don’t know them. I hope they are getting help. Because…

Anorexia can be deadly.

So much of it is shrouded in shame and secrecy. It starts innocuously enough. You notice that if you eat less and lose weight that your breasts and hips get smaller. That’s a relief because you’re not really sure you want breasts and hips and a butt anyway. Besides, you have to watch out for men, because they only want one thing. Much better to get those curves under control. Besides, you start getting compliments, maybe even from your mom, about how good you look. Then, maybe you start exercising more. Dancing, running, sports. Now you’ve lost weight and added muscle. Looking good girl! Besides, if you work out every day, you can burn off more calories. Yes! Then, you start getting off on feeling hungry. Feeling hungry means you haven’t overeaten. In fact you’ve probably lost more weight. All good, right? Well, now you’re in dangerous territory. You enjoy being hungry and don’t want to eat. Your dysmorphia intensifies. You look in the mirror and like how thin you are, with no awareness that having your ribs show is not attractive. And you want to be even more thin. And even more hungry. It is a vicious and dangerous, sometimes deadly cycle.

The family panics and wants you to eat, but that is terrifying to you. The absolute worst possible disaster to befall a girl with anorexia is to gain weight. It is very difficult to treat. Recent research is showing that rigid anorexic behavior is linked to increased activation in the area of the brain that controls habit and is tied to anxiety. Her brain is stuck in a groove that doesn’t respond to medication or therapy and is prone to relapse. The girl has to replace her habitual patterns around food with something else. Her family needs to help by changing familial patterns. It is tremendously complicated.  And difficult.

And the sadness of it is that these girls do not realize how beautiful they are. In their world, there is pressure to look good, pressure to succeed, pressure to appear to have it all together. Everyone else seems to have it figured out. But the secret truth is that no one has it figured out. It takes years to gain perspective and experience – resilience – to appreciate you.

You are beautiful.

There is increasing awareness of eating issues. Mybodyscreening.org has a 3 minute quiz to screen for whether or not you may benefit from clinical help related to an eating disorder. My teen self would not have passed. The enjoyment of food and the fear of gaining weight remain an on-going conversation that goes on in my mind and makes me sympathize with the thinking that one never fully recovers from an eating disorder. It hovers in the background.

So, beautiful girls, here is my wish.

May you feel strong and be healthy. May you move with grace and ease. May you stand tall and enjoy your breasts and hips and butt. May you taste food with pleasure. May you dance with confidence and enjoy the exhilaration of moving to music. May you know that you are not alone. May you know that you are beautiful.

Image:  La Danse (I), by Henri Matisse

Making Peace With Barbie

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Unapologetic

Barbie is polarizing.  In case you’re not aware of the current debate, Mattel is paying Sports Illustrated to be part of the magazine’s 50th Anniversary “Legends” issue, on sale today, by featuring 55-year-old Barbie in a promotional campaign named, “Unapologetic.”  Get it?  Both brands have banded together in an aggressively defensive posture, proudly asserting that their objectification of women has been good for women – that the famous SI Swimsuit cover models are now legends and successful businesswomen, just as Barbie has provided amazing leadership roles models for girls.  Hmmph.

I was not allowed to play with Barbie.  My mother, an early feminist and charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine, scoffed at Barbie.  Blonde, with a ridiculously unrealistic figure, she was deemed a too-sexy airhead and not a good role model for a serious, smart, ambitious brunette.  She arguably spawned a whole generation of dumb blonde party girl jokes, some clean and some not-so-clean, but all presenting blondes as superficial, like:

Blonde Barbie 1, standing across the street from Neiman-Marcus couldn’t figure out how to get across the street to go shopping.  She spies another blonde Barbie coming out of the store.

Blonde Barbie 1:  “Yoo-hoo!  Hi! How do I get to the other side of the street?”

Blonde Barbie 2:  “You ARE on the other side of the street!”

Ha, Ha.  Makes me laugh every time.

While my mother’s judgment and scorn of Barbie seeped into my thinking, one of my favorite memories was playing with Barbie at a neighbor’s house.  There were a lot of kids in the family, a lot of built in playmates, and the girls had multiple Barbies and all the accessories:  a lot of cheap, pink, plastic stuff which I coveted.  Or maybe it was the built in playmates I coveted.  Even though Mattel dutifully introduced lots of alternative dolls who were not blonde, we all wanted to be the main event, the popular center of attention, the blonde Barbie who got Ken.  At least that’s what I remember wanting and squabbling over:  to be the popular girl who gets the boy.

So when my daughter was a little girl and wanted Barbie dolls, I paused.  The judgmental voice was still inside me.  Barbie!  What a misogynistic toy.  No way!  But there was another voice inside me.  I don’t want my daughter to feel embarrassed or ashamed for wanting to fit in with other girls, the way I felt ashamed.  Barbie is, at least potentially, a strong woman and embodies the imagination and the dreams of the girl who is playing with her.  Barbie is a way for a girl to imagine being a woman.  What do girls want to be?  Well, aside from princesses who rule, they want to be women, like their moms and the other grown women they see.  What better way to play out the kind of women they want to be than through play-acting scenarios with dolls and other girls?  The best part of playing with Barbie was styling her hair and changing her outfits.  Because what better way to play out the kind of woman you want to be than by trying on different outfits, different personas?  It’s how we learn, imagine, and grow.  And Ken?  Well, he’s a sexless accessory – very safe for a young girl.  You know there’s going to be men in your life, but you don’t quite know what their role will be.  It’s all about you and your Barbie avatar, represented by your hair and clothing and overall style.  Like the prom, it’s about the girl and her dress not the guy.  He comes later, or should come later, after she figures out more about who she is and who she wants to be.

Still, when we tackled a construction project on our house which required my daughter to move out of her room, I was not sorry to pack up a variety of partially clothed Barbies with tangled hairstyles into a bin and stick it in the attic.  When the construction project was over and she got her own room, she was not interested in her naked Barbies any more.  Or maybe she was, but I was happy to encourage her to forget about them and leave them languishing in the attic.  Several years later, she begged me for a baby doll, a real baby doll that drank a bottle, wet her diaper, and cried.  I was stunned.  Who is this girly girl of mine?  I tried to honor who she is and searched for the perfect baby doll.  But it was too late.  It was not the perfect baby doll she envisioned, she was now a teenager, and my judgmental voice had been too dominant. 

Around this time, my daughter and I watched Legally Blonde, the romantic comedy where blonde California girl Elle Woods shows up her superficial boyfriend and his more seemingly appropriate fiancé, the elite prep school East Coast brunette, Vivian, by using her life experience and her knowledge and intuition for a big courtroom win.  Blondes Have More Fun; They Have More Friends; And They Are Smart and Win!  I loved the movie.  Maybe you can be fun-loving and smart?  It softened my judgmental voice.

When I heard about the marketing campaign for Barbie within the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, the judgmental voice kicked in, aghast.  And then I realized that it’s not Barbie I object to.  I’ve made my peace with Barbie.  In fact, I admire Barbie.  She is adorable and accomplished and has created many hours of imaginary play for girls everywhere who deserve more credit for knowing that success is not just about unrealistic physical measurements and a come hither stance.  What I object to is that Mattel thinks that Barbie needs to pose for the SI Swimsuit issue, a magazine for men not for young girls, in order to gain publicity for the doll and presumably to sell more dolls.  Are these men going to buy Barbie dolls?  Barbie the lawyer, doctor, astronaut, teacher, corporate executive, artist, politician doesn’t need to model in a sex-lite magazine for men.  She is better than that.  Hey, what I’d really like to see is 55-year-old Barbie embarking on her meaningful midlife encore career while on her meaningful midlife spiritual journey for enlightenment, discovering that loving others is more fun than desperately seeking love from others.  I guess that wouldn’t sell very well.

Image shows the cover-wrap of Sports Illustrated magazine’s 50th anniversary annual swimsuit issue. (AP Photo/Sports Illustrated)

It’s A Good Thing?

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The Masks We Wear

Martha Stewart is an easy target.  She seems to have no idea how ridiculous she comes across in her ivory tower of affluence, kind of like Effie Trinket from the Capitol in The Hunger Games.  I haven’t paid close attention to Martha since she was convicted of lying in 2004.  I’ve been aware that she has managed to have continued and impressive business and media success post-jail-time.  I certainly believe in redemption and that people should be allowed second (and maybe even third) chances.  Whether Martha has redeemed herself is debatable.  Truly I don’t know her, other than the masked persona she presents to the public.  I should not pass judgment.

I did admire Martha during her heyday in the 90’s.  Her approach to keeping a beautiful home and her emphasis on the importance of gracious entertaining was completely foreign to me and my upbringing where it was a miracle that Chicken and Potatoes (or some variation thereof) appeared at the kitchen counter for dinner every evening from 6:30-6:40 pm with two introverted working scientist parents who were clueless about how to host a party and so they didn’t.  I wanted to cook delicious food, have friends over for elegant dinner parties, and fantasized about being as organized as Martha.  Her calendar, published every month in her magazine, amazed me.  She was the tastemaker of the day (and an extraordinary business woman).  When I got engaged, I begged my mother for her book, Weddings, to inspire my planning.  My mother scoffed, as she scoffed at my desire for a wedding dress, but I wanted my one and only big party of my then-young life to be happy, tasteful, beautiful, and I did not trust myself to plan it without Martha’s guiding aesthetic. 

Since then, my values have shifted and my Martha aspirations have faded, betrayed by her jail stint.  So, it was with mild curiosity that an article in Thursday’s NYT caught my eye.  (The print edition, of course.  Where else would you have the joy of discovering and reading about topics that you might not see otherwise?)  The article profiled Martha describing her beauty routine.  Wow.  The serums and potions, the variety of high end products used, in conjunction with daily, weekly, monthly sessions with a retinue of beauty service providers, like her facialist.  There was not a speck of humility or irony in this article.  No acknowledgement that she is incredibly lucky to have the time and money to live such a luxurious lifestyle and that most of us could never afford the products and services she uses.  And perhaps most of us would not choose to spend our money and time this way even if we could.  Though, wouldn’t it be nice to have the opportunity?

As I quickly jumped to judging Martha scornfully as ridiculous and irrelevant, I paused and backed up, asking why is the New York Times featuring this article anyway?  They must think there is an audience of women readers who will want to know what are the best skincare and beauty products we should all be using, according to Martha?  (Note to the New York Times, if you are interested in providing truly useful beauty service journalism, then a summary of the products mentioned would have been helpful.)  If Martha gets up hours before she needs to leave the house in order to slather creams on her face and body, should we all be doing that?   Just because my beauty regime consists of a shower and an occasional swipe of lipstick doesn’t mean all women are minimalists.  And maybe my ascetic and controlling minimalism is the flip side of the same coin.

Now, I am the first to acknowledge that appearances matter.  Plenty of studies have shown that attractive people are judged to be more competent and are more successful in life.  I’ve spent many days in my younger years panicking that I didn’t look “right.”  At this stage, I am a bit defiant about freeing myself from the constraints of time-consuming and money-consuming beauty regimes.  I would rather spend my money on healthy food, yoga and vacations with my family.  The article did make me wonder about the New York City audience that the NYT serves (myself included).  We take great pains to care about those less fortunate while we are thoroughly caught up in the striving, the effortful and materialistic striving to be on top.  Like Panem’s Capitol we are curiously bubbled, out of step with how the rest of the world lives.  Isn’t this the same newspaper that featured the plight of homeless children in a bid for reader attention and sympathy?  And now we are slavishly looking to Martha for beauty regimen how-tos?  Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?

Women and society need to have the confidence that beauty comes from within and from how you behave.  It is more important to figure out how to look and feel your best so that you can be your best self and contribute the best of yourself to your world without getting caught up in being beholden to a public persona, a mask, that requires so much upkeep.   Imagine how much good we could do if we devoted the money and time we spend on beauty products and our effortful and materialistic striving to helping someone else, to making a meaningful and productive contribution to our community?

Cartwheels

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I Am Not Playful!  (But, If It’s Not Too Late, Could I Be?)

On our morning rush to the train station, we drove by a neighbor whose 8-year-old daughter was waiting for her school bus and happened to do an amazingly perfect cartwheel just as we passed by.  “Ah,” I smiled.  “I remember when I was good at doing cartwheels!”  Pause.  “Who am I kidding?  I was never good at cartwheels!”  We laughed.  The daughter of unathletic scientists, I grew up as a bookworm – usually one of the last to be picked for a softball team.  After all, I throw like a girl.  Any athletic ability I have has been hard-won as an adult.

I remember wanting to be good at cartwheels.  Every year we would get to the gymnastics part of the P.E. curriculum and I would be in awe of (and jealous of) the girls who seemed to effortlessly fly through the air.  These girls were pretty and social with each other, banding together with seeming ease and confidence.  I was not one of the popular, pretty, confident girls.  (Though I pretended to be one when I was a older.)  When I was 8, practicing cartwheels in my front yard, I was a watchful and lonely only child who was afraid of going upside down in a cartwheel or a handstand.  Practicing over and over again for that fleeting blissful moment when I felt a hint of that thrill when I maybe kind of sort of did it.

I have experienced that thrill in yoga, practicing handstand over and over again, flying upside down – against the wall, of course!  Sometimes there are fleeting blissful moments when I feel perfectly balanced and hover away from the wall.  It’s enough to make me wonder if I could do a cartwheel.  At 51.  Maybe kind of sort of.  Maybe it’s not too late.

Like life, I show up at yoga, bringing every facet of my personality and all my emotions.  Good, bad, embarrassing.  All of it is on my mat.  There is my regular class, where I feel deeply connected to my teacher, am friends with the other students, and feel confident of my abilities as yogini.  I situate myself in the back row with the other regulars, checking in with my friends and even joking around – like high school seniors goofing off in the back of the bus (not that I was ever a back of the bus kind of girl).  Then there is an assortment of classes in Manhattan that I slip into irregularly.  I might know the teacher, but I don’t really know the other students.  I breathe, enjoy the sensation and familiarity of the poses, and the feeling of sneaking some peace in the middle of my work life.  Manhattan has the trendy, competitive thing going on.  Classes can be crowded, the average age is about 30, and everyone knows their way around Surya Namaskar A and B, jumping back to Chaturanga while nonchalantly tossing in a handstand.  I expect the crowded competitiveness in Manhattan and deal with it by ignoring it.  Aggressively.  Refusing.  To Participate.  I have found some quieter classes where there is a wider range of ages and abilities where I feel more comfortable.

So, it’s with some surprise that I have found myself struggling in my suburban local studio where I did my teacher training and feel at home.  Checking out some of the more advanced classes that don’t always fit into my schedule, I’ve found them crowded with people I don’t know.  Hey, this is my place!  What are you doing here?  I have found myself feeling on the periphery as the regulars take their place.  Sizing myself up against the group and feeling like I don’t measure up.  Younger, stronger, more confident.  It’s enough to make me want to not even try.  That’s how I deal with competition.  I shouldn’t have to prove myself.  Hang on though, why is competitiveness showing up on my mat anyway?  That’s not yogic!

The teacher – one of the younger, popular, pretty ones who I simultaneously adore and am jealous of because she seems to sail through life with a sense of humor and a keen sense of love and compassion for others, possessing a range of qualities that I regularly feel lacking in – urges us to be playful and to get in touch with our inner child as we attempt some challenging arm balances.  Sigh.  I hate being urged to be playful.  I Am Not Playful.  But I know what she’s aiming for and I love her so I try to go with the flow.  With each vinyasa though, I get angrier and increasingly frustrated.  I don’t want to work this hard and I can’t “do it.”  The regulars are doing it, why can’t I?  In the past I would have been in the front row proving that I can do it.  I don’t want to prove it any more.  Wait, that’s not true, I do want to prove it.  The conflict makes me feel angry and sad.  And kind of victim-y.  Am I going to have to phase out advanced classes from my repertoire?  Have I hit my peak and it’s downhill from here?

Is it too late?

I look inside for my inner child.  My inner child is anxious, watchful, and lonely.  She is not helping me find a playful approach to arm balances.  In fact, she’s just making me feel angrier and sadder and more sorry for myself.  I lie in Savasana weeping.  Sad that I am not playful.  Sad that I was such a forlorn little girl.  Angry at feeling out of place in my home-base studio.  Angry at not being “the best” at yoga.  Jealous of the teacher for being so popular and easeful.  Jealous of the other students for being so strong and self-assured.  And tired, so tired, of not being able to find the joy.  Ready to slip out of class unnoticed and invisible, my community of yoga teachers and friends notices me and my tears and embraces me with love and compassion.  Perhaps I do not need to be anxious, watchful, lonely, and unnoticed anymore.  Perhaps I can let my forlorn inner child go.  I may never be a very playful person but I can be joyful and grateful.  After all, my body is healthy and strong and I have loving friends and family.

I remember buying yoga pants once and the size that fit was “Large.”  All I could think was, “Gee, if I’m a large, what are the large people wearing?”  And so it goes.  If I am struggling in yoga class, what do the less experienced people do?  Well, I think they don’t even show up.  And that’s a shame.  Because the benefits of yoga come from breathing and meditation and the process of discovering.   A person of any age and any level of fitness can breathe and meditate and discover herself.   Perhaps that is my next step as a yoga student and a yoga teacher.  There will always be someone “better” than me.  The trick is in finding some peace in the process, some joy in the discovering, and sharing it with others.  Maybe I will never do exotic arm balances, but maybe, just maybe, I will kind of sort of do a cartwheel someday.  Or maybe, more importantly, I will help some inner girl to do a cartwheel.

“Spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their habits”

Shrinking Women, by Lily Myers – a Mother’s Perspective

A young and pretty, seemingly gentle and polite, college-aged woman steps up to the microphone.   She is slender, wearing a dress.  She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.  Preparing herself to take up space and say what few dare to say.  I listen, transfixed, as the words calmly, rhythmically, insistently pour out from her.  This brilliantly crafted slam poem, Shrinking Women by Lily Myers, captures women’s conflicted relationship with food (and men) and the role that our mothers (and fathers) play in passing down attitudes and behavior towards food.  We are, like her mother, “… 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.”

Our obsession with thoughts of food takes up space in our brain that could be used to greater purpose, or at least another purpose.  Like the important details she missed in a school meeting when wondering whether or not she could have another slice of pizza, I too have sat in important business meetings and focused more on the plate of gooey, rich, delicious brownies in the center of the conference table than on what is being said or what I could be saying.  (Is the brownie worth the calories?  How many calories is it anyway?  If I eat only half a sandwich, then I can have half a brownie.)  Have we women missed chances for greatness because we were too busy wondering what, if anything, we could eat?

My obsession with thoughts of food has receded as I’ve gotten older and become less interested in quantities of food, more uncomfortable when I overeat, and a master at orchestrating my disciplined repertoire of regular meals while accommodating the rest of my family’s appetites.  It was different when I was younger, regularly swinging between eating a lot of “bad” food and then punishing my over-indulgence with an abstemious diet and a lot of exercise.

When I discovered I was pregnant with my daughter, 18 years ago, I vowed to raise a girl with a healthy relationship to food and a proud enjoyment of her body.  I fear I have failed.  In my desire to model “normal” food behavior, here is what I fear I have taught my daughter instead.

  1. Bye, I’m going to yoga now!  = Thin and fit is good.  Prioritize eating healthy food and exercising over other activities and even people.
  2. How do I look? = Looking good is important in order for people to think well of you, even if you have to shop beyond your means.
  3. Breakfast is ready!  = Don’t skip meals, especially not breakfast.  But don’t eat too much!  Control your appetite!
  4. Quinoa and chick peas for lunch.  = Be self-deprecating about your healthy food choices, relegating them to breakfast and lunch while enabling men and others to make fun of you while they opt for larger portions, red meat, and, of course, dessert.
  5. I’ll just have a bite of yours.  =  Dessert is forbidden.  Control your appetite!
  6. I prefer 85%.  = Hide your chocolate so you can enjoy it in private without revealing that you do love and desire deliciousness after all and are not always in control.

No wonder my daughter long ago declared that breakfast made her nauseous and irregular meals have become her norm.  Like Lily, she has been taught accommodation.  Tired of my judgement, but too obedient to rebel, she also swings between respectful mimicry and impatient hatred, as she explores just how much space she is entitled to take up.

I hope that she cherry-picks what she has inherited from my food habits, taking what is constructive and enjoyable while discarding what is destructive about my obsessive control over nutrition and portion sizes as she finds her own way.

And that she never apologizes for asking a question…or for taking up space.

Here is the full text of the poem.  I encourage you to watch the video of her powerful performance.

Shrinking Women

By Lily Myers

Credit:  Button Poetry

Across from me at the kitchen table, my mother smiles over red wine that

she drinks out of a measuring glass.

She says she doesn’t deprive herself,

but I’ve learned to find nuance in every movement of her fork.

In every crinkle in her brow as she offers me the uneaten pieces on her

plate.

I’ve realized she only eats dinner when I suggest it.

I wonder what she does when I’m not there to do so.

Maybe this is why my house feels bigger each time I return; it’s

proportional.

As she shrinks the space around her seems increasingly vast.

She wanes while my father waxes.  His stomach has grown round with

wine, late nights, oysters, poetry.  A new girlfriend who was overweight as a

teenager, but my dad reports that now she’s “crazy about fruit.”

It was the same with his parents;

as my grandmother became frail and angular her husband swelled to red

round cheeks, round stomach

and I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking

making space for the entrance of men into their lives

not knowing how to fill it back up once they leave.

I have been taught accommodation.

My brother never thinks before he speaks.

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

you learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each

thought off your tongue with confidence, you used to lose your voice every

other week from shouting so much

I learned to absorb

I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself

I learned to read the knots in her forehead while the guys went out for

oysters

And I never meant to replicate her, but

spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their

habits.

That’s why women in my family have been shrinking for decades.

We all learned it from each other, the way each generation taught the next

How to knit

weaving silence in between the threads

which I can still feel as I walk through this ever-growing house,

skin itching,

picking up all the habits my mother has unwittingly dropped like bits of

crumpled paper from her pocket on her countless trips from bedroom to

kitchen to bedroom again.

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.

Watching the struggle I either mimic or hate her,

And I don’t want to do either anymore

but the burden of this house has followed me across the country

I asked five questions in genetics class today and all of them started with

the word “sorry”.

I don’t know the requirements for the sociology major because I spent the

entire meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza

a circular obsession I never wanted but

inheritance is accidental

still staring at me with wine-stained lips from across the kitchen table.

When Backpacks Made The Outfit

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Now We Are Seventeen (and a Half)

Now We Are Six

When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six,
I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

– A. A. Milne, 1927

Ah! The first day of school!  So full of promise.  Remember?  This year, I will be organized and brilliant.  This year I will be friendly and popular, a role model.  This year I will be new and different, the amazing me I aspire to be.

When you are a 17-year-old girl entering your senior year of high school, the stakes are high.  Where else to play out your dreams of being a better, bolder you than with your outfit?  The first day of school outfit.  Remember?

It was simpler when a cute backpack gave her all the confidence she needed.

I should have asked her what she was going to wear.  But I didn’t want to attach too much importance to The Outfit.  I’ve spent my life thinking that if I looked right, then I would be successful and people would like me.  I imbued my outfits with so much importance.  I don’t want that for my daughter.  I want her to know she is beautiful, completely and thoroughly, inside and out, regardless of what she wears.  I want her to know she is loved, completely and thoroughly, regardless of what she wears.

Besides, she is more creative with fashion than I ever have been.  She watches fashion in music and entertainment and is keenly aware of who is wearing what and what looks stylish and flattering.  She is my style consultant these days, not vice versa.  (Though she cares what I think.  Still.  Thank God.)

Besides, I believe that at 17 you should be trying on different looks, different personas.  You don’t know who you are at 17.  Now is the time to practice being independent and grown up, especially during your senior year of high school when you have the safety net of a home base.   I purposefully did not ask her what she was going to wear.

When she came downstairs that morning, I paused.  Long enough to think.  But I didn’t think.  I went to blurt-out mode instead.  In my sternest MOM voice, I proclaimed:  “You can NOT wear that to school.  Those are hooker stockings.”  Really.  I said that.  “Hooker” is hardly even in my vocabulary but it poured out of my mouth.  (Ironically, they are my stockings.)  Who was that woman I turned into in that moment?  What happened to all the wisdom I’ve accrued over the years?  What happened to putting myself in her shoes and gently suggesting that her outfit was not appropriate for daytime nor for school?

I don’t want to face the fact that my little girl is beautiful and sexy and ready for a boyfriend, or at least a date.  I don’t want to remember some of the outfits I wore to high school that make me cringe now.  I remember, at the height of my thinness, wearing skinny jeans and stiletto mules.  I wanted to look sexy.  My mother said I looked cute.  I didn’t want to be the mom who was clueless about her own daughter, the way my mom was.  I want to give my daughter support and freedom to explore.  And yet…I lashed out.  Frightened, embarrassed, protective.  Don’t make the same mistakes I made!  Don’t be too sexy!

Don’t be too sexy.  Ah, that is the crux of it.  The judgment about looking too sexy.  Smart girls use their heads, not their bodies.  The judgment about being too sexy.  Good girls have more worthy activities to pursue than dating boys.  The fear.  The fear inherited from my mother’s stabbing.  The fear I’ve buried from my own murky memories.  Did that really happen?  I am not sure.  But judgment and fear – of sex, of food, of all things pleasurable and delicious – is not what I want to pass on to my daughter.

My nasty, thoughtless judgment merely solidified her own uncertainty about her outfit, her anxiety about the day and the upcoming year.  She didn’t defy me.  Another 17-year-old daughter might have said, “You can’t tell me what to wear!”  My 17-year-old rushed upstairs in tears and changed her clothes (to an amazing, adorable, and appropriate outfit, by the way).  I apologized.  She apologized.  We gave each other space.  But there’s no taking those words back.  No getting that day back.

How many days, how many years would I like to get back and do over?  We don’t get them back and we can’t do them over, but we can learn from them so that the next day, the next year, is better than the last one.

When we circled back to speak about the day, it was her half-birthday.  I gave her Rosemary Wells’ Voyage to the Bunny Planet (thank you my friend for the suggestion), where the day that “should have been” gets reimagined.  She said that she was sad that she would never have that day back, the happy and confident first day she had dreamed of and hoped to memorialize with a photo.  She shared her dreams for a fun and social senior year, in spite of the rigors of an AP-heavy workload and the anxiety of applying to colleges.  And then she confided that she wishes she could hang on to being 17 forever.  I too want this time to last forever.  To hold my girl close.  To magically turn the bad days into good ones.  But it is her time.  Her time to grow up, to become a woman, to figure out what makes her happy, what interests her, who she is.  Fly, beautiful girl!  Find your passion.  Live your life.  Don’t let me hold you back.

Every 3 Hours, A Drunk-Driving Crash Claims the Life of Someone Who Was Not Driving Drunk

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Elizabeth, My Surrogate Sister

It is the anniversary of my cousin Elizabeth’s death.  She was killed by a drunk and stoned driver in 2002 on Labor Day weekend.  A tragedy that stunned me profoundly.  I think of her regularly, and always on Labor Day, and wonder what might have been had she lived.   What more might we have shared?

She was eight years older than me and did not live geographically near me.  It was not until we were both adults that we became close.  I was an only child, so she was the closest I got to having a sister.  How I wanted a sister!  How I still want a sister!  A sibling is not only a built-in playmate and confidante, they share your family history.   How amazing it would be to have someone to share the burden of aging parents and mid-life questioning.  Did that really happen or am I crazy?   Cousins are also uniquely special.  They share your broader family history, while offering you a chance to experience your family through an expanded lens of memories and perspectives.  A different connection can emerge.

One of my first memories of her as her own person was when she visited us one summer.  She must have been 16 or 17 and I would have been 8 or 9.  She slept late.  That is my main memory.  I wanted a sister and companion!  I didn’t understand the teen clock.  My parents wouldn’t let me wake her up early.  Elizabeth was always a night owl, while I was always a morning person.  My parents threw a party (a rare occurrence) during her visit to introduce her to some people her age.  I remember being jealous that my favorite baby-sitter and she hit it off.  I desperately wanted to be older and didn’t understand why they didn’t want me tagging along.

My parents and I visited Elizabeth in 1980 when I was 17 and she was 25 and living at Twin Oaks, an intentional community.   I always admired her idealism and her desire to live according to her values.  This visit made a big impression on me.  I had very little exposure to other ways of living other than how my small family lived with its controlled and orderly routines.  A community of people and families who lived with limited privacy, ate communally and shared resources was eye-opening and mind-boggling to me.

As adults, we cemented our bond during our times together at family weddings and funerals, sharing confidences that we shared with perhaps no one else.  Her sister-in-law’s too-young death from breast cancer.  Her wedding.  My wedding.  Her niece’s wedding.   My family was so small that I felt compelled to value my relationship with Elizabeth at any cost.  She was extroverted and social, idealistic and spontaneous – quite a counterpoint to my shy and careful reserve.  I adored her.  As any little sister would.

One of our most obvious differences was in our weight and our approach to food.  She was sometimes quite heavy, especially when younger, struggling with overeating and what she considered to be an addiction to sugar.  I was sometimes quite thin, struggling with over-exercising and an overly controlled rules-driven approach to eating.  Our dialog about weight and eating was one of the first truly intimate and honest exchanges about the psychology of eating that I had with anyone.  I came to see our struggles as the flip sides of the same coin.  Heavy or thin, we are all connected in our challenge to balance a healthy enjoyment of eating and a confident sense of self and body image.

She found the perfect career for her personality as a nurse-midwife on the Texas-Mexico border.  Her intelligence and her nurturing empathy endeared her to all.  At her funeral, the church was overflowing with people.  Hundreds of people, from near and far, shocked by her senseless loss, wept and mourned this wonderful woman with so much zest for life.  I learned how to be a friendlier and braver person from her.

Elizabeth left a 10-year-old daughter who will be 21 this month.  She is beautiful, with her own (but similar) personality.  Curious about people and the world, gentle and determined, intelligent and adventurous.  When Elizabeth was killed, I vowed to stay part of her daughter’s life.  Aside from sporadic but heart-felt support of MADD, it was the best way I knew to deal with my shock and my grief.  While our connection ebbs and flows, through emails and occasional visits, our attachment is genuine.  I still cannot fathom why Elizabeth was killed.  I can only hope and trust that my relationship with her daughter will stay strong and serve a purpose.  I can see the essence of Elizabeth shining in her daughter as she grows into her own distinct self builds her life.   Elizabeth would be so proud.

Don’t drink and drive.

Source:  NHTSA 

Long, Beautiful Hair

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Free Flowing Woman

I cut my hair super short for the first time before entering Intermediate School in 7th Grade.  This was the summer fraught with breasts, bra-buying, and unwanted sexual attention.  I said I wanted to cut my hair because I thought it would make me look older and more sophisticated.  But really, I wanted to stop the clock on puberty.  Since then, my hairstyle has been a barometer of life transitions.

Seventh grade is up there as one of my more miserable years.  When I arrived with my super short hair, I was teased for looking too boyish.  Couldn’t they see my breasts?  I am so definitely a girl.  I spent the next 5 years growing my hair long, twirling it into a ballet bun, only to cut it all off again before college.  And again when entering the work world.  And so on.  Each drastic hair cut a harbinger of some kind of important change.  For me, short hair on a woman is bold and unconventional, two qualities I feel I lack.  Cutting my hair was freeing, allowing me to adopt a braver persona, like when I cut it right before going on a solo cycling adventure.

The last time I went super short was after the birth of my son.  I thought the style suited me.  Super chic for my work world and super easy as a working mom.  I could show off my cheekbones and wear fun earrings.  Strong colored lipstick would emphasize my girl-ness.  My husband thought it added to my aloof allure.   Mainly it was easy.

The man who cut my hair specialized in “precision” haircuts.  Remember those?  Sharp and angular.  I would show up every 6 weeks and sit in the chair and turn over all control to him.  Whatever you think looks good was usually my attitude.  He was the professional.  I trusted him.  He would take out his razor and cut and shape, with precision.  I left, looking like a sharper version of myself, for the day.  And then I would wash my hair and everything was back to the same.

As I got older, sitting in that chair facing the mirror became less and less appealing and more and more of a chore.  I started joking, I don’t care how you cut it, just make me look younger.   Then I kind of stopped looking in the mirror.  It had just become a personal hygiene errand.

Around this time, one of my yoga teachers and mentors gently suggested that my hair was boxy and severe and why not try letting it ease out a bit?  Hmm, but what about my cheekbones?  At midlife, the short hair made my thin face and prominent cheekbones look drawn and stressed, not elegant and regal.  Hmm, but what about looking chic for work?  Doesn’t a trendy male stylist know more about what’s up-to-date than a suburban yogini stylist?  At midlife, maybe chasing after chic no longer meant sharp and angular.  Hmm, but what about easy?  I don’t have time to blow dry my hair every morning.  She reminded me that once it gets long, it would be super easy to pull it back into a chic chignon.   Hmm, but aren’t I too old for longer hair?  Long hair is for young girls and sexy women.  Not for a middle-aged mom.  Hmm, but what about bold and unconventional?  Maybe, I could be bold without needing short hair.  Maybe, I could embrace what is good about what is conventional in me.  Maybe, it was time to be the free-flowing woman I know is inside me, the one who has long, beautiful hair and fabulous scarves and lots of jewelry.  Certainly, she is bold and unconventional.  What an amazing woman!  It was time to let her out.

Since my yoga teacher was a hair stylist by day, I found myself cautiously sitting in her chair about 2 years ago, about the time my mid-life enlightenment was in acute mode.  We looked at me in the mirror together.  Ready to relinquish control over my style, I allowed her to familiarize herself with my hair.  She told me about cowlicks, something I never knew I had!  We discussed the impact of cowlicks on how my hair looks.  My previous male hairdressers simply had cut my hair so short, the cowlicks were cut away.  She laid her hands on my shoulders, drawing attention to how I hold my tension, constantly, and encouraging me to let my shoulders soften.   We talked.

We talked about yoga.  Which means we talked about life.  Everything came up.  Love, death, sex, karma, work, friendship, anxiety, depression, eating, monogamy, reincarnation, trauma, diets, vacation, neurogastroenterology, god.  She is outspoken.  I am reserved.  She has beautiful, long, sometimes wild auburn hair.  (She’s a free-flowing woman.)  I have wavy, still fairly short, dark brown (mixed with an increasing amount of gray) hair.  I admired her ability to express strong opinions with assertiveness and confidence.  Chronically non-confrontational, I was not always sure I agreed, but I would marinate on things she said, taking it in and adding it to my mosaic of understanding.  Gradually, we peeled away more layers to reveal more of what is inside.  I was touched that she shared as much of herself as she did.

I have relied on a stream of professionals to advise me on life.  Therapists, Executive coaches, Personal Shoppers, Makeup and Hair Stylists, Bosses, Trainers, Teachers, Attorneys.  Surrogate parents and teachers who I thought knew better than me about what was best for me.  When I was younger, many of these advisors were men, men I relinquished control to.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve made a conscious effort to choose women, aware of and uncomfortable with the sexist quality of my deference to male authority and of the way I have felt competitive with other women.  The quality of working on a project with a woman is different.  More collaborative and explorative.  As I grow more sure of myself, asserting my opinion first in writing and next, cautiously, in speaking, I am discovering that disagreeing does not mean I have to avoid the person.  I don’t have to be a good girl and do everything they advise me to do.  Rather, revealing what I think and who I am leads to a more authentic and deeper connection.  The other person has a sense of who I am and does not expect me to be just like them.  How boring would that be?

Instead of going through the motions of a haircut making small talk, I am practicing how to develop a friendship.  As I build this friendship and nurture my lengthening hair, nurture the bold and conventional, sexy and nurturing, chic and free-flowing, maybe I am learning to trust myself.  After all, who knows me better than me?

A free flowing woman laughs and loves easily. She is not constrained by rigid rules in her head. She wears original, unusual, creative jewelry and scarves. She is open, not judgmental. She says yes to adventure and has a spark of spontaneity.

One of my yoga teachers shared this poem with me.  (I did not write it.)  But it has informed my metaphorical desire to be like a free flowing river:

Flow
Be as water is
Without friction
Flow around the edges
Of those within your path
Surround within your ever-moving depths
Those who come to rest there
Enfold them
While never for a moment holding on
Accept whatever distance
Others are moved within your flow
Be with them gently
As far as they allow your strength to take them
And fill with your own being
The remaining space when they are left behind
When dropping down life’s rapids
Froth and bubble into fragments if you must
Know that the one of you now many
Will just as many times be one again
And when you’ve gone as far as you can go
Quietly await your next beginning

Saying No to Botox

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Beauty of a Certain Age

Newsflash!  According to the New York Times, the holy grail for beauty for executive women is “eternal early middle age.”  As if working women everywhere did not have enough to worry about, it is now crucial to achieve the “cosmetic sweet spot:  old enough to command respect, yet fresh enough to remain vital.

Phew, I am on trend.  At 50, I am situated right smack in the middle of the ideal 45-55 age range.  But I am closing in on 51.  Only 4 more years left to remain vital!  Only 4 more years to chase whatever elusive career goal I have been chasing.  I still don’t have a corner office.

Maybe I never will.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

When I first started working in the business world, I was very proud and eager to succeed.  I worked hard and moved up quickly.  I started managing people well before I was 30 and felt I needed to look older in order to command respect.  At 25, I was sometimes the only woman in the conference room which usually meant there was an expectation that I would clear the coffee cups.  I was determined to look the part of a successful executive woman and not be the one waiting on the older executive men.   Hello shoulder pads!

When I moved to a glamorous company in a senior managerial role, at 35, the first thing I did was makeover my image to be more sophisticated.  Perhaps if I looked the role, I would prove that I belonged in the role.  I bought new clothes with the help of a personal shopper and updated my hairstyle and took care with my makeup.  My anxiety about whether or not I would be successful in this job was fixated on “looking right.”

When I was brave enough to ask for and talented enough to get a 4-day workweek after the birth of my son, I made the mistake of not cutting back on my shopping.  You see, I was still ambitious for the corner office.  Still optimistic that I would get promotions and salary raises, advancing in my career and paying for my shopping crutch.  Still anxious that I needed to look a certain way in order to succeed, I filled up my insecurity with expensive clothes that the saleswoman picked out for me, because I did not trust my own taste to find my own style.  As I spent more money, I became more secretive with my shopping expeditions, hiding the packages in the back of my closet.  Of course this story ended badly.  My husband found my credit card bill and was shocked.  Rightly so.  It was shocking.  I had to take out a loan to pay it off and return to a 5-day workweek.  I jeopardized my marriage and squandered my precious time, precious time with my children, just to “look right.”

When “early middle age” hit (newsflash, it’s not eternal) and I realized that I was not going to achieve the corner office (and didn’t really want to chase after it any more anyway), and that it mattered what I did not what I wore, and that my kids were quickly growing up, I went to the other extreme.  Rather than cover up my gently sagging skin with more makeup and rejuvenating injections, I now wear less makeup than ever, barely managing a swipe of lipstick.  I don’t want to spend money or time on extravagant trendy clothing or weekly manicures.  What little disposable income I have now goes to the college fund.  And my gray hair?  So far, I don’t have a lot so I don’t color it.  I refuse to color it.   I’ve spent my whole life dressing up as someone I thought I should be.  Now I just want to be me.

I feel sad and somewhat dismayed by how much time, money, effort and energy we women spend on our appearance.  When young, we are so afraid we don’t deserve our job.  When middle aged, we are so afraid we will lose our job to a younger, more stylish and up-to-date competitor.  We are so preoccupied with other women and their appearance, judging them on how they look and not always on what they accomplish.

I am not naïve.  I know attractive people tend to be better liked and more successful.  I know that feeling good about how I look can help me feel and behave more confidently.  I know that if I had the money and the time and the corner office, I might gladly be swayed to spend it on rejuvenating treatments.  And who knows what I will do when I hit “late middle age.”  It’s easy to be defiant, even disdainful, when you still feel in your prime.

But surely there is something to be said for a woman of a certain age.  She has lived and loved and learned who she is.  She has experience to share.  She has earned her gray hair, her wider hips, her worry lines and her laugh lines.

I remember when Botox first became accessible for cosmetic use about ten years ago and thinking how strange it will be if no one’s face ages and no one’s face shows emotion.  At that time I decided I did not want to succumb to Botox but wondered if I would be able to stick with that decision as I got older.  My mother had a facelift after surgery left her with an ugly scar on her neck.  I was surprised that my beautiful-to-me mother felt the need to look younger and prettier…more vital.  If my mother couldn’t stand “late middle age,” how was I going to cope with it?

For now, the role models I admire are many.  Annie Lennox baring her face and her soul, when she was 48, on her solo album Bare.  Cyndi Lee embracing her gray hair in May I Be Happy.  Jamie Lee Curtis writing empowering children’s books on self-esteem and discussing body image with More.   Hillary Clinton, whose hair is still making the news and whose accomplishments are truly impressive.  Perhaps the best role models of all are my beautiful middle-aged friends (early, middle, and late) who still dance at the ballet barre or ace their serve on the tennis court or stand on their heads in the yoga studio or rule the executive suite or cherish their families.  My beautiful middle-aged friends awe me every day with their love, courage, resilience, intelligence, humor and grace.  Beautiful because of their wrinkles earned from living life.

When I look in the mirror, I visualize the same face I’ve always seen in my mind.  But when I really look in the mirror, and see, really see my face – I see the dark circles, the loosening skin, the mottled complexion with “age spots.”   I see the jowls (yes, jowls!).  I see the wrinkles.  I also see my clear and hopeful eyes that are no longer too shy to make eye contact with anyone, not even with me.

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