you and i and she and he are beautiful
Earlier this year, I joined a "boot camp"-style workout program. If you're not familiar with the boot camp fitness model, the idea is that you're more likely to push yourself physically if you're with a group of people rather than working out on your own, and you're also more likely to stick with it. Why I signed up for something I would ordinarily hate is another story. For now, suffice it to say that I'm in better physical condition than I have been for most of my adult life. I'm down 20 pounds and up a fair bit of muscle tone. This is the first time in my life that I have a) enjoyed exercise, b) exercised regularly, and c) had enough muscle to see and feel. I love it. I mean LOVE it. I might be a little obsessed with my biceps, which are far from Linda Hamilton-esque, but *I* can feel those guns, and sometimes I find myself rubbing my arm, enjoying how healthy skin over healthy muscle feels. It's lovely.
In the middle of one of these moments of (healthy) narcissism, I suddenly realized: I don't remember my mother ever enjoying her body like this. I don't remember ever hearing her say positive things about her body. Not what it looked like, not what it could do, not how it felt. Nothing. That is not to say that she said negative things about it all the time, but in general, I had the idea that she didn't think she was pretty or shapely or strong. I don't remember her ever reveling in what her body could do. I don't recall any sense of physical prowess, of excitement at a physical feat. I also don't recall her engaging in beauty routines just for the sake of enjoying them. She only did her hair and makeup for the stage (she was an amateur actress in her younger days) or for social events that also had an air of performance - an important business meeting, a church gathering in which she had a public role. I don't remember her ever dressing up for my father or even just for fun. I certainly don't remember any indication that she sometimes felt sexy or pretty or kickass. A memory came back to me of the time in my teens when she refused to buy a black bra for me because black was "sultry and seductive." Funny thing is, all of her underwear was pale beige cotton. So not only was sexiness not for teens, but maybe it wasn't for adults, either. (Not to say that you can't wear beige cotton and feel sexy - but by her own definition and actions, I didn't get the impression that she ever felt that way.)
I know that she was proud of her weight in her early 20s - below 100 pounds - even though she also indicated that she was underweight and didn't eat well and had self-esteem problems at the time. She seemed wistful about her youthful slenderness, but also a little ashamed of it. She never considered herself to be pretty, and envied her younger sister's looks. I thought my mom was beautiful when I was a little girl, but over time, after hearing her talk about how she was NOT the beautiful sister, she was the plain one whom boys never wanted, I think I learned that my ideas of beauty were wrong. She didn't like her skin. She didn't like her breasts. She didn't like her lips. She didn't like her hair. Eventually I didn't like them, either. I started to dread ever looking like her. This causes some problems for me now, on occasion, when I look in the mirror and see her staring back at me.
I don't remember her ever being fit. She disliked exercise and never engaged regularly in it. Exercise was a chore, one to be avoided. People who enjoyed exercise were weird. Physical prowess was something a person came by naturally, in which case being proud of themselves was vanity, or through fanaticism, in which case it was shallow, obsessive, and unhealthy (and still vain). If there is a physical activity that she enjoys, over thirty years of experience with her never revealed it to me.
Now, everybody doesn't have to be an athlete. And women don't all have to enjoy doing their hair and makeup or wearing frilly dresses. But I would hope that every healthy person would have a sense of enjoying living in their body and liking the way it looks and the ways it can be used, regardless of whether or not that body is "perfect" by societal standards. I suspect that my mother was (is? I don't really know her any more.) divorced from her body, in a way. There was no sense of liking any part of herself or wanting to take good care of her body for the sake of enjoying living in it even more.
I'm not sure what any of this really means within the context of her narcissistic personality disorder, or with regard to my experiences as an adult child of a narcissist. I do know that in the past decade, I have learned much about living in my body (which is, in many ways, very similar to the zen concept of living in the moment).
Two days after making these realizations, I saw an item linked by a friend, "I've Started Telling My Daughters I'm Beautiful." It strikes near my thoughts about my mother. Namely, if we want our children to feel beautiful for who and what they are, we need to let them know what we love about who and what we are.
I want my kids to be able to listen to their bodies and learn about them, and to eat and drink and work in ways that make their bodies feel really good to be alive. I want them to know about how thigh muscles can feel like springs when you run, and how nice it is to look in the mirror and love your eye color. I want them to know about dressing in ways that feel good on your skin, or look good to you in the mirror, or look good to other people not because sometimes looking good on the outside is not necessarily conformist, but can be a way of giving a gift to them through sharing what you like about the way your body looks and feels.
If I want them to be able to enjoy their bodies and the bodies of the women and/or men that they will someday love, I must show them how I can do that for myself. So I'm going to rest my hand on the curve of my bicep and tell my boys about how awesome that morning's workout felt and how I like the shape of my body and the things it can do.
Hopefully you can do this for yourself and your children, too.