This morning, I did something I shouldn’t have.
I poked around online and saw that someone had made a snide comment about something I had done with one of my books. It wasn’t directed at my writing, but at me, and the comment was such that I felt bad about myself not only as an author but as a person.
I know I should stay away from reviews. I know that I am asking for trouble by daring to look at them, and most of the time I don’t. Not everyone will like my books, or me, and that’s okay. But I did look this morning, and I can’t change that now. I had woken up feeling energized and productive, optimistic about my day. Then I saw this thing, this one comment, this speck of a blight on an otherwise fine day, and I felt myself deflate. The comment pricked a hole in my happiness, and I felt confidence begin oozing out, abandoning me.
My first thought, as I sat there experiencing this, was: “I’ve felt this before, and recently.”
In fact, I felt it the other day at the gym.
Now, I’ve never been a skinny girl. Even when I was a child, limbs everywhere, spending my evenings running around the neighborhood with the kids down the street, I was never one of those people with a naturally slim stature. And when I entered middle school, and there was less running around the neighborhood and more studying (and more practicing my trumpet, and a sudden abundance of sweets and snacks available at the school cafeteria during lunch), I started noticing a change in my body.
My awareness of others and how they perceived me was changing too.
Seriously, like this.
I started noticing how my body compared to others’ — not only to the bodies of my friends, but the bodies of celebrities, people in advertisements, people on magazine covers. I started noticing that my hair was unfashionably wavy — not in a glamorous way, but rather in a Hermione Granger pre-Goblet of Fire way — and started spending hours in front of the mirror trying to make it lie flat. I wanted it to look like the hair of the popular girls. Of course it never did look like that, and sometimes this made me angry and sometimes it made me cry. My skin was changing, too; I started experiencing breakouts, and thus began years of trying different medicines and creams and dermatologists. I started wearing make-up to hide my skin, which of course made it worse. I started examining every inch of myself in the mirror with a harsh, critical eye.
For much of middle school, I felt somehow less than all the much prettier, much less awkward girls around me. I was obsessed with creating a different image for myself, a more like them image, and sometimes it hurt. After all, we aren’t meant to be something we’re not.
High school was better. In fact, I pretty much adored high school. I was still awkward, but I found peace in, of all things, band. I excelled at playing my instrument and I earned leadership positions, and I studied hard and continued to make great grades. I didn’t always like myself when I looked in the mirror, but who does? The important thing was that I had great friends, and that I was busy. Even when I felt at my ugliest, I didn’t have time to linger in the resulting sadness for long. I was just too busy.
Then college hit. For a while, all was well. Then I changed my major and slipped into a period of depression. I would say that throughout my early twenties, I floundered personally and creatively. (Again, who doesn’t to some extent? But regardless . . . ) I ate too much and did too little. I gained a good deal of weight, which I didn’t fully realize at the time, but now that I’m much healthier, I can look back and see it, and I cringe.
Things are different now. I’m a writer, and I’m happy. I’ve found what I’m supposed to be doing, and it’s not always easy, but it is always right. That, among other things, has given me the confidence to start taking care of myself. I’m eating better than I probably ever have, and I’m more active than I’ve been since those early neighborhood ruffian days. On the whole, I am proud of myself, and happy.
And yet . . .
The other day, I saw a woman at the gym. She was one of those impossibly gorgeous and fit women who doesn’t seem quite real, like she was magicked to life directly from the pages of the latest issue of Shape magazine. There I was, enjoying my workout, taking pride in the sweat dripping down my back, the burning of my muscles, and, yes, even my reflection — because I could see the evidence of the work I’ve been doing, how my body is changing and becoming stronger — but then.
But then. I saw the woman.
Seriously, like this. Except blonde. And not Kate Beckinsale.
Let’s call her Elizabeth Hornswoggle because I don’t know her real name and Friends never gets old. (Oh, it does, you say? Well, you are wrong.) The minute I saw Swoggle, I felt that same prick in my happy bubble, that same stab of sudden vulnerability and inadequacy and shame that I felt when I read that comment this morning. All at once, the fact that I had only a few minutes ago felt great about myself and all the work I had done meant absolutely nothing. I looked at my reflection and felt ugly. I felt less than. I got angry at myself: Why did you eat that cookie the other day? Why don’t you run more often? Why don’t you look like Swoggle over there?
I pushed myself through what was left of my workout, though Swoggle had drained my confidence. However, I spent much of the time inspecting my reflection for flaws and probably not getting as much out of my exercise as I should have.
But here’s the thing, and I realized this later, once I worked past that initial sickening surge of self-loathing:
1) Swoggle didn’t drain my confidence. I allowed myself to lose confidence at the sight of her. I allowed myself to have this unhealthy reaction.
2) The question Why don’t you look like Swoggle over there? is totally irrelevant because I will never be Swoggle.
I am not Swoggle. I am Claire, and my body is not hers, but mine. Instead of allowing the sight of her to make me feel bad about myself, instead of wishing obsessively for a body like hers and letting the impossibility of that derail me, I should focus on me — my body, my workout, my health. What I can do for myself within the confines of my own life and its demands upon me.
I have worked hard to become a healthier, more active person, and in my more positive moments, I am proud of that. I have always struggled with eating too much, with inactivity, with hating my own reflection. I have never been a skinny girl, but it’s not about being skinny, and it’s not about trying to be Swoggle; it’s about being healthy, and happy, and me, and I’m finally getting to that point.
In fact, incidents like what happened with Swoggle occur far less frequently now. More often than not, I look in the mirror and am happy with what I see. I have learned to be kinder to my reflection, and to myself in general. I am still learning.
Unfortunately — and surprisingly — I think it has become easier for me to adopt this positive mindset about my body than about my writing. And the really sad thing is, I see this so often in other writers as well.
How I think writers — including me — often perceive themselves. Source
We writers are by nature a neurotic, obsessive, highly emotional bunch, and many of us are also natural information seekers.
We are curious, inquisitive. We want to know things. So we seek out
new life forms and new civilizations information about what others are writing, and how they are writing, and how quickly they are writing, and we fixate.
We allow ourselves to feel somehow less than if we are not living up to whatever phantom expectations we have set for ourselves by comparing our work to the work of others — or, perhaps even more destructively, trying to make our work like someone else’s.
We read beautiful books and instead of thinking for a brief moment, “Wow, that was great, I wish I could have written that,” we think, “I will never be able to write like that,” and we dwell on that feeling of less than, of lack. Instead of accepting that of course we will never write like that because that author is that author, and we are us, we allow ourselves to feel inadequate, or that we are doing something wrong.
We allow our minds to take us to these unhealthy, unproductive places that so distort our own perception that when we look at our work, we see not the beautiful parts, not the strengths, but the flaws. We ignore the truths that we are working hard, that we are learning, that we are growing as writers with every new word we write, until we cannot perceive those truths at all. Our perceptions of ourselves become so distorted, in fact, that one offhand comment, one thoughtless remark, can shatter the confidence we have worked so hard to build.
Why do we do this?
Because we are trying too hard to be Swoggle — to be the girl on the cover of the magazine, to be the popular girl, to be the bestseller, to be the cool girl who always has something clever to say, to write faster, to run farther, to look younger, to write cleaner drafts.
But we will never be Swoggle, friends. Why waste our time trying? It’s not about being Swoggle.
It’s about seeing Swoggle and still being able to look at your work, look at yourself, and know that it may not be Swoggle but it’s still pretty damn great.
It’s about seeing Swoggle doing her thing and then going right back to doing yours — continuing to work, continuing to learn and grow and build, and push yourself, always pushing yourself — with sweat dripping down your back and your fingers cramping and your brain hurting and MAN you could use a cookie right now and BY GOD YOU SHALL HAVE IT. And you will still think you are beautiful and capable after eating it because you are.
(It may even be about Swoggle saying something mean about you, or giving you a disdainful look because you do not look super attractive when you work out, and you not giving a flying flip because you’ve got too much to do and accomplish and learn to care what anyone else thinks, and what kind of a name is Swoggle anyway?)
It’s about letting your Hermione Granger hair flow free like the WIND, and loving your flaws just as much as your strengths, because without any of them you wouldn’t be you, and the things that you can do — your potential, your beauty, your stories — wouldn’t exist.
Let’s look in the mirror and be proud of what we see. Let’s look at our work and be proud of what we can do — what we have done, what we are doing, what we could do and will do because we’ll never stop working. Let’s work so hard that we feel too good about our progress to care what others think, or what others do or look like or say.
Let’s be kind to ourselves.
Let’s be ourselves.
And let’s rock it.