Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Not talking about looks

This post was originally written as a comment to my friend Deb's post The Mirror Within. Deb is a great wordsmith, so please do go check her Bright and Precious blog at once! Her post was prompted by this one written by Kate at Our Little Sins: I love her insightful writings, do check her out too!

I grew up being told very very often how beautiful I was, particularly by my paternal grandmother. Probably because of the missing arm, she wanted to make sure I didn't feel less pretty or "normal" than other girls.
me at 6, at a lunch out with family friends,
an archaeological tours group (the beauty of growing up in Rome...) 

But then I grew up, and my nose started growing and widening, and I got a double chin, and my calves weren't in proportion to the length of the thighs, and another few genetically inherited traits, then I got pimples, and greasy skin, and bushy eyebrows, and all those other little things that afflict teenagers.
in front of Hera's temple in Selinunte (Sicily), in 1989,
13 yo feeling yucky within my body (also had my period...)

All of a sudden I realised I wasn't beautiful at all, and I had all this list of things I wasn't happy with about my body. And of course that stupid missing arm that just made me so unattractive. Regardless of the amount of make-up or hypothetical plastic surgery or fancy clothes, I could never fix or change or permanently hide that, and the absence of my left arm has always been a heavy burden in those days. I soon realised I could not ever be popular or look as good as the others, so I gave up on the make-up and the looking pretty and I started consoling myself with food.
At least, since I'd also always been told I was very smart, I cultivated my brain and my geeky interests a lot, so my looks didn't worry me that much for a few years.

Until a well-meaning person said I looked just like my father. I think I was 16 and a half. You don't say that to a 16yo self-conscious girl who can't fit in and who's having big issues getting along with her father. The father that is quite overweight.
So with that, I became obsessed about losing that weight. I think I was around 64kg. Not really fat at all! Unless you're that age and that unhappy with your life.
That was all that mattered. Losing weight to look different from my father and to get a boyfriend. Because of course you can't get a boyfriend if you're not thin and pretty, right?
I can't remember the exact timeline, but I did lose the weight, and I did get boyfriends, and I did start skipping meals and replacing them with cigarettes and coffee and booze, and I know that a few months after my 18th birthday I reached my lowest weight of 45.7 kilos.
I have to thank my best friend at the time for forcing me to eat one night we double dated, when she realised my last "proper" meal had been the day before; I was on the brink of anorexia, when you start totally losing the feeling of hunger after weeks rejoicing every time you feel its pangs and ignore them.
I think I stabilised around 52 kilos after one year, but I was still preoccupied with my weight until I came here to Melbourne, when I was 21 and needed that change.
And then, as you know, my life became busy with other things, and I was just too occupied with seeing this beautiful country of ours, and too preoccupied with the heroin addicted ex, to be worrying about my weight!
And after the kids were born, I even stopped caring about not being dressed to the nines :)
Sosi took this photo, here I am in my Mum uniform,  ready to play!
I've  also stopped wearing my prosthetic arm since Sosi was born

Now, I'm not saying that all this happened just because my grandmother called me beautiful. But that sure didn't help: I grew up thinking I was beautiful, and then I became a frumpy teenager (because all teenagers feel frumpy at some stage, even if for a short time) and I felt plain ugly.
I don't want to run that risk with my kids, I don't want them to waste precious years worrying about their appearance rather than cultivating their mental gardens and enjoying all that this beautiful planet has to show us.
And because of what society is like, I have to make a real effort about it, I can't be naive and expect the kids to not be bombarded by body image comments. So many "you're pretty", "you're beautiful" etc coming even from within the ranks of the family. As much as I never comment on exterior qualities, I know there's a lot that gets through from other sources. Just today, Sosi wanted to say something nice (after the "fight" we had), she caressed me and said "pretty Mummy". So I replied "thank you sweetie, but it doesn't really matter being pretty if I can't be a nice person", because I had yelled at her, so I really had a dirty conscience...

I know what you mean Deb, one finds oneself making comments about people's appearance, it requires A LOT of training to force oneself to say different things.
It is such a trial and error job, I do hope that I'm saying the right things to Sosi. Casi too, but being a boy he will likely be less affected by people's judgement of his appearance.
Like when Sosi wears something nice and she asks for an opinion, I make a point to pay a compliment mostly to her choice of clothing, rather than her actual physique: "you look elegant" or "you look very summery and comfortable!" seem better choices than just ignoring her request for approval.
I do tell them they are cute and lovely little humans, I have said to them "you are beautiful people", and I hope they realise I mean they have nice qualities, but I'll make sure as the years roll by that this message is reinforced, that their beauty comes from the good aspects of their personality and their behaviours.
cute little human fairies

Probably because of the arm I have a different perspective: because I could never be as beautiful as others, I just stopped caring about my looks (beyond cleanliness and appropriateness I mean). And I really don't care about others' either! Though I do still frown a bit when I see mothers in stilettos, more worried about their pretty clothes than playing with their kids, I really don't get that.

Maybe that's why it doesn't come so difficult to me not commenting on Sosi's looks, unless she prompts me to. But I do comment on how intelligent she is... but that's a totally other story for another post...


  1. Bravo! I can't wait to read the follow up post about commenting on "how intelligent she is"! ... So much to learn from you, Sara. x

  2. So pleased that you are back Sara!! I followed your comment back from Debs post. Seems we are all talking and thinking about beauty at the moment.

    So sad to hear that you had all that to deal with in your adolescence. I wouldn't go back there for anything!

    I think that the point is that we can never know how complex people's issues are. So we need to be sensitive.

    I also try to be more specific about complimenting Miss A on things. I have also opted to empower her to choose her own clothes so she often looks very individual(that is putting it nicely - again my judgement)!! I also let her choose what she does with her hair. She is very "wild child" at the moment!

  3. It is hard sometimes to parent when the world goes against our values. I came here via Deb's post too.
    I get what you said here "Probably because of the arm I have a different perspective: because I could never be as beautiful as others"
    because I have a genetic disorder that is very external and cosmetic in nature as well affecting me internally.
    Reading all these posts has really challenged and made me think twice about how I compliment people.