My First Mile: Overcoming a Lifetime of Negative Beliefs About My Body

I wish someone had told me, years ago, that the way I saw myself at 10 or 15 could be the way I’d see myself at 25, 35, 45.

Certain self images can and will change but others will be stubborn as hell to budge.

I had weight issues growing up, but not the variety that our society pays attention to: I was underweight. In fact, I think I may have even fallen off the growth charts at some point. I remember catching colds frequently and being teased about my small frame. I turned down friends’ invitations to the beach because I didn’t dare get into a bathing suit. But most damaging of all was what I came to believe about my physical ability.

Moving was not my activity of choice. My mother said to me once that she could stick a book in my hands as a child and forget that I was in the room. I preferred daydreaming, reading, writing, and drawing. P.E. in school was an exercise in torture and humiliation from elementary school on through high school. Unlike the physical education that my son is now getting, my schools didn’t emphasize wellness, or at least that is not what I remember. What I remember is cringing at dodgeball, kickball, softball, and relay races. P.E. was about competition and winning.

And yes, when it came time for the captains to pick their teams, it would always come down to me or the fat boy as the last candidate. Maybe no one felt good about this because I remember their sympathetic and uncomfortable looks, even at 10 or 11. I was a nice girl, everyone liked me, but competition is competition.

Am I being melodramatic and overly sorry for myself when I say that I still tear up when I think back on that? Over 30 years later I can still feel the wind blowing over my hair and hear the muffled sounds of chatter as I stand there waiting for the captains to make up their minds and wishing that I could disappear.

As a teen I learned to forge my parents’ signatures to get out of P.E. and swim classes. I discovered that I could wear gym clothes that passed for regular clothes and sit out the rest of class after attendance was taken. I took myself out of the category of humans who could do things with their bodies. “I’m not an athlete,” “I’m not good at sports,” “I don’t exercise” all became part of the identity I would, for years to come, describe to others.

Thankfully though, life became more humane after high school graduation. I enrolled at a women’s college despite their graduation requirement of a year of P.E. credits. It was in college that my eyes opened to real physical education for the first time. The choices seemed endless, and kind: yoga, ballet, strength training, aerobics…yes, there were competitive or “hard” sports like lacrosse and squash but the menu was inclusive. I came to look forward to each semester when I could try something different. By senior year, I felt safe enough to even sign up for tennis. But my tennis instructor, also the coach for the women’s team, soon put me into the bottom group of the class so she could focus on the more talented players. “Your forearm is so thin,” she had said to me. “You’ll never be truly good at tennis.” I wasn’t trying out for the varsity team; I just wanted to try.

And so it went. I didn’t become a permanent couch potato as an adult, but I have been up and down. I joined a gym for the first time at 27, after a bad relationship break-up, and continued for a couple of years. And I tried yoga for the first time, as well as ice skating and rollerblading. With each sport the person teaching me would say the same thing: “You are really good for someone who has never done this before.” It was nice to hear, but my own messages about my athletic potential overpowered their words. I continued to dabble in yoga on and off over the years, but I abandoned the others.

It is ironic that I ended up marrying an athlete, seeing how I had always been intimidated by athletes. And then I birthed an athletic son. I also work with many successful professionals who had once been athletes. The last ten years of my life have been a gradual armchair lesson in the transformative value of sports, of believing in your body, of developing teamwork skills, perseverance, and a goal-setting mindset through sports. Most eye-opening was the fact that many “athletes” were not necessarily born but made…made over the course of many years if not decades of physical obstacles and self-doubt. It was this shred of belief that perhaps my body isn’t so different from everyone else’s that at 41 I overcame my lifelong terror of the water to learn to swim.

And last week, on Memorial Day, I ran my first mile without stopping. I never thought I could run. I was one of the last to finish in my high school running assessments, straggling in the rear with my lungs hurting. It was Max, who ran his first half-marathon at 48, who said that I could do it. Even after I had broken my ankle, even after undergoing surgery, even after believing for nearly 40 years that I didn’t have it in me to run more than 30 seconds before gasping for air. Max has been running with me, coaching me gently a few times a week. He didn’t know me when I was 10 or 15 or 20. He doesn’t know the person that has been occupying my thoughts all these years. Instead, he sees the woman I never met: beautiful, athletic, capable of anything.

Last Monday, when I could feel that I was running much longer than I ever had in my life and without any pain in my lungs, I began to cry, trying to juxtapose what my body was doing against all the pictures that were passing by of my days as a child. I did it. I finally did it.

running_onlyou

 

 

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How to Love and Be Kind to Yourself

A major eye-opener for me over these last few weeks that I have been doing my “emotional work” is the fact that I don’t love myself enough. It’s an odd thing to say, when you think about it. I do think I love myself, or otherwise I wouldn’t be so scared of dying. But it’s true that I am not kind enough to myself. I am not kind to myself the way that I am kind to others.

This is more rough draft and homework than it is prescribed solutions, but here are some ways I’ve come up with to “love” myself more:

1. Find something good in the mirror.

Whenever I look in the mirror or at a picture of myself, the first place my eyes go to are the features I don’t like. There are parts of my face and body that I have not been satisfied with since the time I was 10. If they have been there since I was a child, then I guess they’re not going away without surgery. I haven’t really made peace with these parts and maybe I never will. But one thing I – and we – can do is at least balance that picture a little, so that in our minds we are not just a package of all that is wrong with the human form. Occasionally I’ll look in the mirror and actually like my eyes, or my cheekbones. I like how the muscle in my calves is getting more and more defined now that I’m running more. I need to look at my face and body with different eyes, and let go of the mental picture of the ideal woman that I have been holding myself up to (and falling short of) all these years.

2. Catch yourself doing good.

Positive behavior reinforcement is big at elementary schools now. Catch kids doing good as opposed to giving attention only when they’re “bad.” This could work wonders on me too. Instead of closing each night with guilt that I still haven’t gotten around to cleaning off my desk or that I had fed soda to my child once again, I could instead think about the things I did well, regardless of how simple they may seem. After all, if my family goes to bed well fed and peacefully, how badly could I have done?

3. Banish “I’m such a bad mom” or “bad” anything from your vocabulary.

It’s amazing how rampant “I’m such a bad mom” is. I can’t begin to count all the times that this self-condemnation has rolled off my tongue whenever I made a mistake, and I can instantly rattle off different examples of the ways my friends have used it. “My daughter has a cavity. I’m such a bad mom.” “My kids had to walk all the way home in the heat. I’m such a bad mom.” “I forgot to give my son cough syrup. I’m such a bad mom.” Or sometimes it goes before the confession: “I’m such a bad mom. I am so critical.” “I’m such a bad mom. I let him watch t.v. all afternoon.” And sometimes there’s no example. Sometimes I just say, “I’m such a bad mom,” period.

Maybe we say this so often that it’s lost its meaning, but can you imagine doing the opposite? What if we said, “I read Goodnight Moon 7 times without stopping. I’m such a good mom.” or “I stayed up with her when she woke up coughing. I’m such a good mom.” Alright, so it sounds almost silly as I type that, which goes to show just how foreign the concept of praising ourselves is.

4. Correct your mistakes.

I had to start doing this recently, to save myself from falling into an abyss of guilt and self-hatred.

I’m at the point in my life and parenting where my past issues are catching up with my son’s entry into tweenhood. It’s new territory for me and I’m sometimes employing familiar but unhealthy tools to relate to my child. More than once I had broken down into tears the instant he stormed out of the room in frustration. Yes, I had a reason to get angry, but as the adult it is my responsibility to react maturely. I could have handled things differently. And so during these times I sit in my room while he sits in his, blocked off from each other by our closed doors. This is usually when I do hate myself, when actual words of reprimand start going off in my head: I’m such a bad mom. I’m awful. I am screwing him up. I have one chance to be a mother and I am messing this up. I am awful. I am awful. I am awful. 

Everything feels so dire when I start thinking like this. And then I realized one day, I have a choice. I can’t take back what I said, but I can make things better, and save us both from sinking into what will one day be an ocean of hurt.

This happened last night. I said something that didn’t come out the way I had intended, but it doesn’t matter, because it had come out and it had hurt him. After I pulled myself together I walked into Fred’s room and told him in tears that I was sorry I had hurt him. I explained to him what I had meant, and that my anger and frustration had prevented me from reacting better and from choosing my words more carefully. He nodded at me slightly and went back to his crossword puzzle. Five minutes later, he came into my room to ask me for help with the puzzle. Twenty minutes later, his arms were wrapped around me as I sang him to sleep.

My point here is not that “I’m sorry” is enough, and that anything can be fixed with an apology. What I’m trying to say is that while I’m on the path of learning how to do better, I can expect to make mistakes, but I have the power to correct them as well.

5. Talk, connect, be vulnerable, ask for help.

You’ve all been so supportive as I swung back and forth on this over the last few weeks. Ultimately I do believe that we poison ourselves when we hesitate to share with others the parts of ourselves we don’t feel proud about. Keeping things secret implies shame. I have a stepson, and for years I kept this within our immediate family only. My mother made me swear to not tell anyone that Max has a child from a previous marriage. There is so much stigma around divorce in my culture, particularly from my parents’ generation. Then one day a friend told me she didn’t learn about her half-brother until she was 18. She said, “The fact that my parents kept everything so hush-hush made it seem like there was something so bad and so wrong about my brother, like it was shameful for him to exist.” Her words changed me. I couldn’t bear the thought of any child having to be made to feel that way, and ever since then I have been open about my stepson’s presence in our lives.

The same holds true of all those different parts within us. Mental illness. Suicide. Divorce. Abuse. Illness. Dysfunction. Failure. Mistakes. Struggle. Hardship. Plain old bad luck. When we cling to this and hold it inside we are equating it with shame which contributes to our self-loathing. But maybe by opening up – whether it’s on a blog or with one trusted friend – we can begin to redefine shame, and give it a new name: human.

On Self-Consciousness, the Fear of Being Judged, and Struggling to Write

I’ve been having a hard time over the last couple of weeks mustering up the energy to write. The struggle is not new; I get hit by this every so often.

Emotional and physical fatigue is my biggest culprit. I experienced extreme highs and lows over the last couple of weeks that included a death in the family. I don’t sleep as much as I should on normal days, so the last couple of weeks have taken a bit out of me.

The other block is a renewed self-consciousness. I’ve received only support and encouragement ever since I posted about my experiences with anxiety, and friends are now even forwarding articles to me on being good to myself. But in the aftermath of those personal posts are the uncomfortable feelings of having said too much. Do my friends look at me differently now, even though my achievements have not changed? When I meet people, are they smiling at me out of pity or judgment? One friend confessed quietly that she had suffered from depression as well, but added, “But I’m not about to go around telling everyone about it.” Though she was speaking only of herself, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was also making a statement about my choice.

How do writers balance authenticity and vulnerability?

There are two sides in me, constantly, that either fuel or drain my motivations to write. There’s the side that expects the best in others – their open-mindedness, their compassion, their acceptance, their lack of judgment. And then there’s the side in me that fears the worst. My culture has instilled in me the importance of keeping secrets and keeping face; the reality of my life has shown me the toxicity of holding everything in. Since I started writing almost five years ago I’ve been gaining strength in my internal battle against the needless shame of being human. I had made the decision that having a voice outweighs the fear of being judged. It’s a seesaw I ride on every week that I write, and I hope that in time the nobler side wins.

Image courtesy http://www.ynaija.com

 

 

 

On feeling important and valued, and a Tale for the Time Being (in progress)

I usually alternate my book posts and my “life” posts, but today I’m going to write both.

My first read of the new year is Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Booker Prize finalist, A Tale for the Time Being, which I’m still in the middle of reading (and enjoying quite a lot). It’s the story of a writer, Ruth, who finds a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on shore near her home on a Canadian island. When she opens the lunch box she finds the handwritten diary of a seemingly perky teenage girl, Nao, in Tokyo. She begins reading it, and learns quickly that Nao is in fact planning to kill herself. Nao recently returned to Japan with her parents after having spent her whole life in California, and she is being bullied relentlessly at school and her father is unable to find employment. Her father, thinking that he is of no use to the family, throws himself in front of an oncoming commuter train in a failed attempt to end his life.

What’s struck me so far, aside from the fact that the language is a lot lighter and funnier than what my description may lead you to believe, is the idea of feeling important. Nao writes in her diary:

“I hope you understand that I don’t think he [her homeroom teacher who participated in her bullying] was a bad man. I just think he was very insecure and could convince himself of anything, the way insecure people can. Like my dad, for example, who can convince himself that his suicide will not harm me or my mom because actually we’ll be better off without him, and at some point in the not-so-distant-future we’ll realize this and thank him for killing himself.” (page 78)

Both Nao and her dad have suicidal fantasies. Neither feels wanted. Nao feels unwanted for obvious reasons: her classmates actually hold a fake funeral for her in homeroom and make no bones about the fact that they don’t appreciate her existence. But Nao’s dad’s sense of not being needed seems more self-imposed. He’s unable to provide for his family, feels ashamed for not fulfilling his role, and believes that his family will be better off without him. (I haven’t read any evidence of his family actually rejecting him.) It’s only after he sees Nao’s devastated reaction that he realizes he was wrong in his perception of his place in the family.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of feeling entitled – to love, to owning a space in someone’s life. This theme struck me because I’ve felt both loved and not in different areas of my life, and I have known others who have felt the same. What makes us feel wanted and needed? And how do we show others that we want and need them?

For all the griping I’ve done about the often too-close relationship that I have had with my mother, she at least gifted me with a strong self-worth within my family. And because she took her role as a mother so seriously, I carried that importance with me when I became a mother too. I know I am needed, by sheer title alone. I know my place in our family, I know I have a critical role to fulfill, and I know that my loved ones would be devastated if anything were to happen to me.

That may sound obvious to many, but I mention it because I’ve been surprised and hurt to hear important people doubt their self-worth and their place among loved ones. I know that people have walked away from families, or have ended their lives, due to distorted or real views of where they stood in their loved ones’ lives. I have no answers here, only questions.

~~~

My early experiences with close friendship were not as positive as my experiences with family. The first “real” friendship that I have clear memories of was with a friend I’ll call M. She and her sister were daughters of my mother’s friend, and we used to all hang out whenever our moms played mahjong together. Then M turned 13 (I was about 11) and she suddenly became mean. She began putting me down about my clothes and my house and led her sister and a couple of mutual friends to begin excluding me, until after a year or two of on-and-off psychological bullying I stopped  accompanying my mother to their house. (And no, I never said a word of any of this to my mother…)

That early experience did define the value I held of myself in terms of girlfriends. I rarely took initiative to start friendships or to pursue them deeply. I left the ball in others’ court. Among groups of friends, I never expected to be included. Then one day during sophomore year I was shocked when a classmate invited me to join her and her friends for a movie. I remember thanking her profusely and she looked at me as if I were crazy. I honestly didn’t realize that my reaction wasn’t normal until I saw her face.

Emmy changed my life, and she gave me the confidence to find more friends like her.

All of this leads me to my next question, which is how do we show others that they are important to us? And the answer is not as forthcoming as I had thought. I am trying to think back to Emmy, and how she made me feel wanted. She was never the sentimental or affectionate type. In fact, she was pretty no-nonsense and blunt. But she included me. She listened. She waited. She always answered my phone calls with “Hey, Seal!” as soon as she knew it was me on the other line, no matter how unenthused she may have sounded when she picked up. Likewise, I think back to the other people in my life over the years who have made me feel valued, and I think about what they did to convince me of it. They included me. They listened. They waited. They were glad to see or hear from me, and they showed it.

It made me think about how I am showing the people in my life that I value them.

How often do I ask questions, and hope to get a long answer? How often do I pick up the phone, and how often do I let it go to voicemail? How often do I carve out time for others, and how often do I say “Unfortunately, I’m working” or “Hurry up!”? When was the last time I invited a friend out for lunch, instead of waiting to be invited? When was the last time I asked for help? When my mother called last time, couldn’t I have mustered a more enthusiastic tone when I heard her voice?

While I know I am important in friends’ and family’s lives, do they know how important they are in mine? I’ve had an extreme need to assert my  independence for most of my life, and in the process I’ve failed to show some of the people I care about most just how much I really need and value them.

Can you relate to any of this? Has rejection or bullying touched any part of your life? Do you allow people into your life and space easily?

Thoughts on blogging by an ordinary blogger

My blog is four years old today (!). That’s four years longer than any plant I’ve ever owned, a little less than half my son’s lifetime, and a third of the life of my marriage.

I’m not putting myself down when I call myself “ordinary.” By ordinary I am referring to clout and status in the blogosphere. It’s not unlike money and status in the off-line world. By both accounts I am ordinary. But do I think I am a good person who lives authentically? Yes, in both worlds, I do. I don’t have tips here on how to get big and successful, but if you want validation, you might find some here today.

I started blogging because I was interested in writing again. I could’ve simply written in a private journal, but maybe what I wanted was to speak up and be heard, by somebody. When I began looking back after a couple of years, it became clearer and clearer to me that I wanted to write because I had spent most of my life silenced. For many different reasons, not the least of which was growing up in a culture of shame, I had been trained to shut my voice down and to take up less space. We all have a voice, and it is a matter of whether or not we want to activate it. After all those years I wanted to activate mine.

And so I started, with many false starts. I had different blogs with different themes and names and nothing stuck until Only You. I named Only You for my son, then five years old. I liked having him be a part of this new life, and partly for that reason I have never considered abandoning this blog, even during stretches when I had lost motivation and confidence to continue.

But Only You was also me, because after having been consumed by motherhood those previous five years, I felt my identity fading out once Fred entered his own world of school and friends. And yet there was no previous self that still existed that I could go back to. Blogging helped me to re-draw the outline of who I was and to fill it in again.

So below are some thoughts, looking back on my four years of blogging:

On motivation

I was never a prolific blogger, and I have gone through peaks and valleys in terms of posting. For me the biggest motivation drainers are lack of physical energy, low writer self-esteem, and perfectionistic tendencies.

I’m going to sound a bit self-pitying here but in the name of honesty I’m just going to come right out and say it: I used to be inconsistent in part because I wasn’t sure if anybody cared. Writing to an audience of busy mothers I’d felt apologetic for my long and heavy posts. And when I found it hard to write – and I have gone as long as two or even three months without writing – I also didn’t explain my absences because I’d assumed that no one would notice if I disappeared for a while.

Of course, what I’ve learned is that 1) as a blogger you need to take a leap of faith and start from there; and 2) creating a community will help lessen that fear of “Who’s going to care?”. It’s a catch-22 because the less you write, the less likely it is you will gain a community and the less accountable you will feel about showing up. For a long time I was caught in exactly that negative cycle.

I also decided to follow my heart in adapting my blog. I was losing a bit of steam writing about motherhood, most likely because my world had shifted. Since the summer, books were becoming a greater part of my life, and I really wanted to start writing about reading. So I took a chance and added books as another blogging theme. I was a bit nervous about changing my blog but being able to write about my passion has refueled my motivation to write.

Finally, I’ve learned to not care as much. I used to approach writing each post almost as if I were drafting an essay for publication. That kind of pressure is what it takes to kill any chance of getting a blog off the ground. I’m still struggling to find my voice after all these years, to write more the way I talk, but I realize that won’t come unless I keep writing and keep practicing.

On community

I’m not going to say the predictable just yet. Instead, I want to say that it took me a while to get the hang of community, the on-line kind. I started out as a “mom blogger,” and soon learned that there is a whole subculture in the world of mom bloggers. There are the big players and you can choose to be a part of that whole scene or not. I’ve strung along to see what the fuss was all about, but I often ended up feeling more alienated and alone than anything else, like being back in my freshman year in college when I was struggling to find my niche. Any social situation that reminds me of those adolescent times is a sign that I need to move away. And so I did.

I also took things a little too personally in the beginning sometimes, feeling hurt if, for example, someone I followed didn’t follow me back. I’ve long let go of that need for tit-for-tat commenting and visiting, because the truth is I often can’t follow back the same people who follow me. Trying to keep up on-line is overwhelming and I understand that everyone else is going through what I go through. It’s not personal. There’s huge freedom in being able to visit a blog simply because you enjoy it, and not worrying about obligation of any kind.

And now I’ll say the predictable: I love my community. It is hard to talk about this without sounding trite or resorting to cliches. I blogged last Friday about the things that bring me down. Well, the people I’ve met through blogging are what bring me up. It is not better or worse than having friends off-line, but there is a certain amount of ease in building relationships on-line. Our first impressions are made not through appearance but through the most intimate parts of a blogger: her words. We can know quickly if we click or not, and with each post we feel we’ve gotten to know the other person a little better. Words are my favorite medium for bonding, and so I love being able to build authentic connection through that.

On validation and vulnerability

Like most bloggers I’ve done my fair share of obsessing over statistics, followers, comments, and shares. Are people reading my posts? What do they think about what I’ve said? Why did I just lose a follower? I never had any goal to amass a huge following, but still, I probably spend more time than I need to checking on my stats.

A few times I got syndicated on larger sites, and it was like small midwestern town girl meets the Big City. My stats skyrocketed during those brief periods of exposure, and it was there, in the scary streets of Blogher and Mamapedia, that I also encountered my first trolls. It was kind of a surreal experience, being told I was an incompetent mother who needed therapy or at least a few good self-help books, all because I’d written about the regrets I’d felt and the lessons I’ve learned from fighting with my husband in front of my child. Since then I’ve had little motivation to put my words out there again, in such public venues. It’s not so much that I’ve allowed myself to be intimidated into silence as it is my lack of desire to share myself with so many people whom I don’t know. It’s like I’ve decided I like my small town better than living in Los Angeles. My goal isn’t to make the big time.

Putting yourself out there and being vulnerable to judgment as both a person and a writer is one of the hardest things you can do. It’s impossible not to be self-critical and to fill yourself with doubt, honestly paralyzing doubt that makes you question if there aren’t easier and safer things to do with your free, unpaid time. So if nothing else – even if I don’t have a ton of followers or page views to show for my four years of blogging – I can say that I’ve shown up, year after year.

Do you blog? If so, what’s helped you stay in the game? As a reader, what keeps you coming back to a blog?

On beauty and looking “American”

asian woman

photo credit: Time

I was going to post something more innocuous today until I read the status update of an Indian/Japanese-American friend on Facebook: “It’s really hard not to take this personally.” She had posted a link to the angry outbursts on social media over the fact that an Indian American was crowned Miss America last night.

I’m not going to rehash the racist and other asenine comments here. But the issue made me think about what it means to not look “American” in America, to be bombarded with images of beauty that are not only difficult but literally impossible to attain.

I am Asian and I grew up in America. I was and am petite – thin framed and with a soft face that, for better or worse, makes me look perpetually youthful or perpetually childlike depending on your interpretation. As a child I went from worshipping Snow White and Cinderella to worshipping Charlie’s Angels, especially Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd, and Jaclyn Smith. I was much less interested in the brainy and skinny Kate Jackson, whom I probably had more in common with than the other three sexier and more curvaceous Angels.  I wasn’t much older than my son is now when I began collecting celebrity magazines and analyzing actresses’ facial features and bodies. The cruel secret that I didn’t know at the time, when I didn’t yet know to distinguish white from brown from yellow and continued to hold up pictures in front of the mirror to compare against my own face, was that I would never, with any amount of exercise, diet, hair color, make-up, plastic surgery and positive thinking, look like a beautiful Caucasian – American – woman.

In late night talks in my women’s college dorm, after spending our days studying English literature and economics and feminist theories and doing good in the community, my Asian-American girlfriends and I would sometimes trade tips on how to look less Asian and more white: clothes pins to elongate our noses, hydrogen peroxide to lighten our hair, blush applied strategically to create more angles on our even faces. We would envy friends who were blessed with double eyelids.

According to ethnic identity theories, it is often during college that we in the 2nd and 3rd generation would become curious about and appreciative of our heritage, after having spent our adolescence rejecting it. We would enroll in ethnic studies classes, look for same-ethnicity peer groups, and start using chopsticks in the college dining hall. I followed lockstep with this model minus the chopsticks, but the one thing that stayed was the dissatisfaction with my appearance. I often felt self-conscious and less than in student gatherings and campus parties, allowing my appearance to stand in for who I was inside, and worrying that others – including and perhaps especially members of the opposite sex – would find me as attractive as I found myself.

My mother used to say to me, “In Hong Kong you would not be small. In Hong Kong you would be so normal. The girls in those beauty pageants are all your size.” At some point I had seen a photo of Hong Kong pageant contestants, and indeed many looked like me – petite, narrow shouldered, narrow-hipped, small busted. I still judged them against the American ideal though, thinking, how pubescent they looked, how unwomanly. But at least now I knew that somewhere in the world, even if 6,000 miles away, someone like me was not so far off from the standard of beauty.

Whether it was my surroundings or maturity I don’t know, but I started to obsess less and less with my appearance after I moved to Japan when I was 30. I went for a personal challenge, and ended up staying for nearly a decade. What’s interesting is that the emphasis on beauty in Japan is even more insidious than that in the U.S. In Japan you’ll never see any woman running around with a suit and sneakers, or with hair wet from the gym. Hair is perfectly coiffed, nails are clean and polished, and make up is flawlessly applied. Beauty is not just aesthetics but evidence of personal responsibility. Still, it was during my years in Japan that the expectations of beauty began bouncing off of my now hardened skin and ego. Definitely it made a huge difference to be surrounded by images of people who resembled me, but I was also living on my own and in a foreign country for the first time, and running a $1.25 million department in a Japanese company as the sole woman manager. I was doing things I never thought possible during those earlier years when I hid behind a mask of learned helplessness and obsessed over things I couldn’t change. Working in Japan I barely had time to pee let alone manicure my nails, and I was the most satisfied with myself I’d ever been.

America literally looked different when I came back, five years ago. Barack Obama was running for U.S. president, and my son was introduced to Dora and Wendy Wu on children’s television. However, as evidenced by the reactions to President Obama and to Nina Davuluri, the new Miss America, there are still many places in our country where the American face is supposed to look one way only.

At the moment, I am at a loss as to how to make any changes at all, except to start with my own child. We don’t talk much if ever about people’s appearances, and usually when Daddy can’t contain himself and has to tell Mommy she’s beautiful.  And we’re fortunate enough to be able to choose where we live: in an open-minded and internationally diverse town with like-minded neighbors. This year my then 8-year-old caught a glimpse of the Academy Awards red carpet for the first time, and watching him react was like watching him land on another planet. Why are the women so tall? Why do their faces look like that? To watch Hollywood is to open the American dictionary of what beauty should be, and I closed that book fast. I don’t know how long it will last, but right now we are going to bask in our 9-year-old’s world in which it is decency and not looks or narrow expectations that define us.

Caring about what others think

I did something this week that was uncharacteristic of me; I turned down a social invitation even though I had no excuses, and I told the truth why.

A friend of mine had invited a rather large group of women to get together. I didn’t have anything on my calendar at the time, and, as members of my friend’s social circle, the women on the guest list were no doubt interesting, intelligent, and successful people. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t go through with it. (Couldn’t or wouldn’t – the two feel almost the same). I thought about the continuous small talk I’d need to engage in, the repeated explanations of what I do for a living, the awkwardness of sitting alone once small talk exhausts itself and the person has moved on to someone else, or has already found her niche. Not that I am anti-social or always awkward socially, but I’m outgoing and friendly in certain situations, in certain moods, and with certain people. And very likely 10 or even 5 years ago I would’ve put on my networking mask, told myself I needed to get out of my comfort zone, and gone. This time I questioned what was so wrong with being comfortable. And so I turned down the invitation and, instead of offering an excuse, I simply told my friend the truth (tactfully so, of course).

I remember when not caring about what others thought was such an alien concept – a shock that it was even a concept at all. I was 30 when I was introduced to a gentle 43-year-old divorcee on my first day at a new job. After we exchanged hello’s, my boss told me privately that Mina had come a long way since she turned 40 and became single again – better able to hold her own and less anxious about what others thought of her. That evolving to this emotional freedom was even a possibility in a woman who didn’t seem all that different from me was inspiring and hopeful. Emotional independence became a silver lining in the inevitability of one day turning 40: I had something to look forward to.

I’m now there – or here, rather, and I’ve noticed myself indeed drawing the line more and more. Over the years, marking this boundary has evolved from consciously choosing to responding instinctively to a desire to take care of myself. The PTA begging for volunteers, another friend asking for a favor, someone organizing a big party, a client asking for a last minute appointment, acquaintances wishing to get together when we travel. How and when to mark one’s territory is rarely an easy decision, because in some of these situations it’s the choice between being selfless and being selfish. It’s always been hard to make the selfish decision, but I find myself doing it more as I get older.

But it’s not always about sacrificing. Sometimes it’s about what others would think, and a matter of preserving the image that you want to project.  What would others think of you if you acted out of self interest, or chose to reveal the real you? I absolutely knew that I was taking a risk in telling the truth when I turned down the invitation. Though I consider the hostess my friend, our friendship was initially born in the context of a presumably shared professional and social status. I’m aware of the kind of image I should portray – someone confident, someone sociable, someone successful. So why did I risk presenting myself as a socially inept wimp? Because I believed that my friend deserved more than a lie, if even a white lie. Maybe deep down I wanted to “come out,” so to speak, to say, this is the real me. (This is probably why I keep a blog; it’s the one place where I can be authentic.) I’ve also recently come to believe that not liking big crowds is not a weakness; it’s a preference the way I like wine better than beer, or staying in the city over camping in the woods. I have social skills; they just don’t include working crowds of strangers.

Choosing to honor yourself – to not care about what others think – is also about asserting yourself: telling someone that the line starts back there, asking for your money back, telling an acquaintance, friend, or loved one that enough is enough. I think that for many women this strength, if latent before, kicks in during motherhood, when you have no choice but to protect and stick up for your children. I have one clear memory of being on the playground when we first moved back to the States, and Fred and I watched from the swings as a woman I’d never seen before picked up Fred’s bike helmet from the bench and put it over her daughter’s head and strapped it on. We were both incredulous, unsure of what her motive was, and for a couple of minutes I found myself hesitating to go up to the woman. Finally stirred by my 4-year-old’s increasingly insistent cries of “Mommy, it’s not right!” I swallowed my discomfort in confrontation and walked up to the woman. If I can’t do this for myself, I thought, I need to at least do it for my child, to signal to him that he has boundaries to be honored and to model a proper way for standing up for oneself. Assertiveness is not just marking your territory but becoming aware that you actually have a territory to mark, and that territory is defined by respect.

I remember so many women in college and in the years after who seemed to already be at the place that would take me four decades to reach, so it was reassuring when I later came to hear about women who started to come into this emotional independence in middle age. Why so relatively late for some women? For me part of it may be sheer exhaustion from having done so many things at the expense of my own needs and my desire for authenticity. I’m also much more aware of the passing of time now, and I’ve grown more assertive about how I want to spend the time that I do have.  Certainly it’s a greater inner strength that did require all those years to develop. I have a self now that I didn’t when I was younger, and more faith in myself and in others that I will not be chipped away with each no, disapproval and judgment.

How about you? Do you tend to worry about what others think?