It’s Not the Standards, It’s That We Believe Them

The Ogre and I had an amazing night last night. It was the kind of night where after a few hours I started feeling giggly and schoolgirl-ish again, and I couldn’t stop smiling every time he looked at me. We didn’t do anything extraordinary…put the kids down, ate dinner, watched a hysterically bad movie, and then, you know, did some other stuff. But I was so stupid happy, anyway.

While I was getting ready for bed, he asked me a little about how the rape culture writing was coming. I tried to explain why my emotional issues are getting in the way of my writing, and then just gave up and showed him a music video that I thought pretty aptly summed it up. It’s The Killer’s video for Mr. Brightside, and do not watch it with kids in the room, k?

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What got me was the sort of inevitable way the girls get up when the chorus rolls around. They don’t seem to want to. Some of them even drag their feet a little. But once they’re up there, they sell themselves. Yeah, I realize they’re supposed to be hookers. That’s not the point. The point is, that’s how our culture trains girls to see themselves — as objects.

Don’t throw rocks at me and whine about feminism. I’m not talking about this theoretically. I’m talking about how for 19 years, I have daily looked at my reflection with disgust. How I went on my first diet at the age of 11. How after experiencing my body’s power to give life four times and its ability nourish and sustain that life, I mostly hate it for showing the wear and tear — the saggy boobs, the stomach jiggle. How the reason I was so stupid happy last night was because I managed to let go of my insecurity and doubt and actually be with my husband, instead of being trapped by my own fear.

I’ve told my husband point-blank that I’d give up my education, my talent for writing, anything and everything that I value about myself, for a good body. At the age of 30, with a solid marriage and four kids, I still measure my worth in terms of sex appeal.The worst part is that even though I know, intellectually, that this is exceedingly unhealthy and flat-out wrong, I can’t make myself stop believing that looks are where a woman’s worth really lies. Or at least my worth.

We talked about the video a little before I went to bed. He didn’t disagree with any points I made — including the important recognition of the woman’s complicity, her willingness to play the game, her enjoyment of it, even — but he did say that I can write my way through it, trying to untangle the threads of an unhealthy culture and figure out where it begins and who is or isn’t to blame, and maybe it will help me understand…intellectually. But I’ve internalized our cultural standards completely. If I hadn’t, they wouldn’t hold such power over me. The power of cultural standards depends on the culture internalizing them. That’s how they become standards…because everybody believes in them. It doesn’t matter, now, where it started and why and whose fault it is. I can’t blame the culture for a standard that derives its power from my willingness to believe it. The only way to pull myself out of it is to “seize my agency” (as he put it), and find a way to break free.

That’s easier said than done. I slept badly and woke up with a pounding headache and shooting pains in my jaw, because I had been grinding and clenching my teeth while I slept. I snapped at the kids, shot myself baleful glares in the mirror, changed workout clothes three times because I felt fat in three identical t-shirts, and propelled myself through 20 minutes of sprints with this awful voice shouting at my in my head. “This is why you’re fat, fatty! Go faster! Oh, what, you’re too tired and fat to make your feet move faster? Fine, then just give up and stay fat forever! You’re disgusting! You’re pathetic! You’re hideous! I hate you!” By the time I finished, I couldn’t catch my breath at all because I had tears running down my face. I spent ten minutes sobbing against the chain-link fence, wishing a wormhole would open up and just remove me from the space-time continuum.

That’s not how I work out. That was a very unusual thing for me, and it was even more disturbing for the viciousness of my own mind. It does feel like a prison, sometimes. There really is a part of me that actually hates myself for not attaining the cultural standards of sexiness. There really is a part of me that believes that if I am not desirable, I am worthless.

The Ogre was worried about me. None of this is a surprise to him — we’ve been dealing with it for years. I’ve grappled with it in and out of both therapy and the confessional. I am making tiny, incremental steps toward a healthier sense of self, which is why I was so stunned by what I did to myself this morning, and why he was so worried.

He suggested that I drop the rape culture post and re-read the Dubliners. “Paralysis”, he said, “is what this is. You know you have to make a choice, but our culture has paralyzed you in such a way that you literally can’t make that choice. Maybe reading Joyce’s take on that will jog something loose in your mind.”

Well, obviously I didn’t read the Dubliners, because I’d rather not feel even more awful today. Instead, I scrolled through facebook and read this post, and man, I should have just read the Dubliners, because I think it would have been more cheerful.

When your bare shoulders and stretchmark-less bellies and tanned legs pop up, I not only worry if my husband will linger over your picture. I worry how he will compare me to you.

As I wrap myself into his arms at night, I wonder if he is seeing you there instead of my mess of a body left over from pregnancy. I wonder if he thinks I’m lazy and that I don’t take good care of myself. I wonder if he wishes I looked more like you than who I really am.

And then the insecurity monster comes back to bite at our relationship again…me, begging for affirmation, and him tiring from saying the same thing over and over.

So, I get it. You’re on vacation and you want people to know. You’re hanging out with your girlfriends and want to remember the moment. You had so much fun at the lake and you love your new *modest* bathing suit.

Can I say it one more time? I’m not judging you.

But would you, could you, keep your boobs out of my marriage? You can have your memories, and we can have our sacred hearts. And we can all get along in beautiful harmony.

(Read the rest here)

That post killed me. I’ve been in those shoes. I used to despise girls in bikinis at the beach. I used to get furious at the existence of Lucy Liu, because my husband thinks she’s hot, and I was sure — sure! — that meant he really wanted a wife who looked like Lucy Liu, not fat-misshapen-Caucasian-me.

I don’t know exactly what changed and when. I do know that I no longer blame other women for looking better than me, and I no longer worry that my husband is secretly checking them out and undressing them in his mental bedroom. Even if he were, there’s nothing I can do about that. I trust that he doesn’t lust after other women, but I also trust that even if he occasionally does, he still loves me. And love trumps lust.

But more than anything, I’ve realized that the one doing the comparing is me, not him. It always has been. I’m the one who is constantly measuring myself against the photoshopped actresses pouting on the cover of Cosmo. I’m the one who wishes I looked like them. I’m the one who despises my body, with its stretch and sag and jiggle. I’m the one who wishes my husband could be with me, but that I could have someone else’s body, and someone else’s face, and let’sbehonest, someone else’s personality, too. I’m the one who is so sure that he must be repulsed by me, and so sure that he must be thinking of someone else, that in the end I’m the one wishing myself right out of his arms. I can’t turn around and blame him for it, anymore than I can blame the girls at the beach.

I know a lot of you are thinking that I have a seriously damaged view of myself, and you’re right. I do. I know a lot of you are thinking that you have the same problem, and that it sucks that as women, this is our cultural inheritance. You’re right, it does.

But my husband is right that it doesn’t have to be. We can stop playing the game, stop with the self-laceration, the endless comparisons, and the paralyzing insecurity. We can seize our agency and reject the cultural assertion that a woman’s worth can be measured on a 1-10 sexiness scale. But we can’t do that unless we figure out a way to stop believing that it’s true.

I’ll get back to you if I ever figure that part out. But if it involves having to re-read the Dubliners, it might be a few years.


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