lessons we learn, lessons we teach

Nearly a month ago – when I decided to stop being overly philosophical for the holidays – I wrote this:

The definition of female beauty – or the you can never be too thin mentality – is based on a male dominated society which seeks to repress women’s power. Or so some people think. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. I get where the idea is coming from but I’m not sure it’s still true today. But then again, when models are pre-pubescently thin and featureless is that a way of saying women should be children? Small, weak, powerless?

This is a big part of at least the beginning of When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies. I mean, I get that we come from a male dominated society, particularly looking at it from the early 20th century. But is it really reasonable to say that our issues with our bodies are “an outgrowth of a culture that makes women feel inferior” or is that a thing of the past?

Apparently I live in the land of wishful thinking. I want to believe that we are past that period of our history where women feel inferior. We don’t pass that on to our daughters anymore, do we? The world – at least within our culture and similar cultures – would agree with me, right? Women are equal, at the least, and certainly not inferior. Okay, so I am aware there is still a serious problem with pay equity. So, okay that part is still an issue. But I don’t want to focus on that part. I want to just skip ahead to fixing my own thinking.

But then I ran across THIS. It won’t let me embed the video but please do follow the link. It is so worth it.

This young woman could easily be my daughter. What would I be teaching my daughter, if I had one, with my fixation on weight and eating and seeing my size and appearance as a measure of my worth? What would my daughter learn about herself from watching me?

“You have been taught to grow out, I have been taught to grow in.”

I know you won’t all watch the video, so read the text but know you will be missing a vital piece. Hearing those words makes me cry. Hearing these words reminds me of the lessons I learned from my own mother.

Across from me at the kitchen table, my mother smiles over red wine that she drinks out of a measuring glass.
She says she doesn’t deprive herself,
but I’ve learned to find nuance in every movement of her fork.
In every crinkle in her brow as she offers me the uneaten pieces on her plate.
I’ve realized she only eats dinner when I suggest it.
I wonder what she does when I’m not there to do so.

Maybe this is why my house feels bigger each time I return; it’s proportional.
As she shrinks the space around her seems increasingly vast.
She wanes while my father waxes. His stomach has grown round with wine, late nights, oysters, poetry. A new girlfriend who was overweight as a teenager, but my dad reports that now she’s “crazy about fruit.”

It was the same with his parents;
as my grandmother became frail and angular her husband swelled to red round cheeks, round stomach,
and I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking,
making space for the entrance of men into their lives,
not knowing how to fill it back up once they leave.

I have been taught accommodation.
My brother never thinks before he speaks.
I have been taught to filter.
“How can anyone have a relationship to food?” he asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs.
I want to say: we come from difference, Jonas,
you have been taught to grow out,
I have been taught to grow in.
You learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence, you used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much.
I learned to absorb.
I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself.
I learned to read the knots in her forehead while the guys went out for oysters,
and I never meant to replicate her, but
spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their habits-

that’s why women in my family have been shrinking for decades.
We all learned it from each other, the way each generation taught the next how to knit,
weaving silence in between the threads
which I can still feel as I walk through this ever-growing house,
skin itching,
picking up all the habits my mother has unwittingly dropped like bits of crumpled paper from her pocket on her countless trips from bedroom to kitchen to bedroom again.
Nights I hear her creep down to eat plain yogurt in the dark, a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled.
Deciding how many bites is too many.
How much space she deserves to occupy.

Watching the struggle I either mimic or hate her,
And I don’t want to do either anymore,
but the burden of this house has followed me across the country.
I asked five questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word “sorry.”
I don’t know the requirements for the sociology major because I spent the entire meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza,
a circular obsession I never wanted, but

inheritance is accidental,
still staring at me with wine-soaked lips from across the kitchen table.

Lily Myers

I learned I should be invisible. That I should never ask for what I want. I learned that I should not push my own needs forward. That I should sneak. That I should hide. That I should not appear to eat or want to eat. That I should jump on whatever the latest fad diet is. I learned that people would judge me based on how I looked or how clean my room was. I learned that the superficial was more important than what was inside me and that intelligence was not valued.

Why did I get fat? Did I rebel from those lessons? Did I simply find that the sneaking food, hiding what I ate, was somehow satisfying? I shouldn’t take up space in your world. I should be ashamed of the space I need. And where did my mother learn those lessons? From her mother? Is it the mother’s fault? Is it easier to blame the women for me than to accept the inheritance from a male dominated society?

Things are changing, but they aren’t finished. The past isn’t gone. It lingers in our beliefs about what we should look like, how we get our needs met, who we want to become. It lingers on in little girls believing that Barbie is the ideal and that they should let the boy win when they play tennis so that the boy will like them. Do we still teach our little girls that lesson?

I’m afraid we do.

I don’t have a daughter. If I did, my obsessions, my behaviors, would still teach that lesson. I’m not good enough unless I’m beautiful. What you – society tells me is beautiful is what I will believe.

I don’t want to focus on those things as I strive to change them. I want the easy answers. I want to learn to eat when I’m hungry and not when I’m not but never have to address why I don’t even know when I’m hungry. Never have to think about why I need this space around me. I have created this space. I have padded this body. Don’t look at me, don’t judge me, just stay away and I know you will because my body will disgust you. Maybe I will never understand this part but I hope that it doesn’t mean I can’t change the behaviors.

I hear, by the way, people saying that they only want to teach their children how to be healthy – to eat healthy, to respect their bodies. And there is not a thing wrong with that. I just fear that there is a very fine line between encouraging healthy behaviors and reinforcing fat shaming and body hatred. I don’t have the answers, however. I haven’t even found them for myself yet.

Oh, and by the way, if you enjoyed listening to the poem – the next one is well worth listening to as well. In fact, if you like this kind of slam poetry, just keep letting them play for a while.

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10 thoughts on “lessons we learn, lessons we teach”

  1. Interesting analysis of the issues surrounding women & their weight. I say, “hell, yeah– take up space.” In fact, I’m much more confident as a heavier woman than I ever was as a reed thin one. Why does all of this matter so much to you, Zazzy? My advice: do what works for you and say “whatever” [loudly] to other people’s opinions of you. FWIW.

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    1. I don’t know why it’s important Ally, just that it is. Perhaps because I’ve tried to change a thousand times and I keep ending up in the same place. I am probably more okay with myself than I ever used to be – though I know it doesn’t sound that way.

      Understanding that others have these same feelings, that maybe we were taught not to take up space, that at least some of us learned to be invisible helps. I am not comfortable taking up space. I’ve never been reed thin so I don’t have the comparison. I suspect that if you carry these feelings of not fitting, that reed thin doesn’t make them go away. Gotta deal with the feelings.

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      1. I agree. Once you process the feelings, then things fall into place. Didn’t learn that growing up, but know it now. I’m sure that you’ll figure it all out one of these days.

        And onto something entirely different. Do you know about Alimentum, The Literature of Food? Just found this online journal and immediately thought of you. Looks fascinating.

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  2. I have read that before but I don’t remember where! I have tried not to pass on some of my not-so-finer qualities to my kids, but it’s hard to avoid it. I’m a worrier, and a perfectionist. I have to accept that about myself and be honest with my kids that it’s not always a happy(or healthy) way to live. I love Ally Bean’s comment about taking up space–HELL YEAH. I take up plenty with my big mouth. LOL

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    1. I think talking about it so your daughters know that you’re aware of some things that don’t really work for you is the best way of not passing it on. I’ve been aware of some lessons from my mom and others in my life, less aware of others – and in total denial that this could still be a feminist issue. And it is for some of us, not, I hope for all. I may have to accept who I am – again. I wish I could feel confident as me.

      I love your big mouth and your confidence. That is a way of taking up space, isn’t it?

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  3. I love that poem/video! So much truth in it. Now that my daughter is a full-fledged independent adult, I watch her (almost slyly) to see how much of me she’s picked up. And as a self-loathing woman, I watch her with fearful eyes. Oh please don’t let her inherit my worst traits! But here’s the thing about kids. I have a son and a daughter. They both sat around the same table for dinner every night for umpteen years (one still does on most nights), silently picking up cues from their mom and their dad. So who’s the confident one, the one taking up the most space in any group, the one who has taken life by the horns and is on a grand ride? The daughter, the younger of the two. The thin, almost (but not quite) brash daughter. She didn’t learn confidence from me! Maybe from her dad. Family dynamics are difficult to sort out. And then there are those pesky genes.

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    1. Did you talk to your kids – like Margaret – about the things you like and don’t like about yourself? I think the mix of nature and nurture is fascinating to see how it plays out in individual people. Maybe your daughter was genetically inclined to be more outgoing and confident – maybe she saw how your lack of confidence hurt you and decided not to go that way. Talk to her. Ask.

      We were all exposed to the same parents. All three of us ended up with Dad issues and the whole we will never be good enough for him thing – but his issues were really obvious. Mom was a lot more subtle and I think I picked up more as the only girl, her messages were a lot about being a girl. At least as far as I could tell. I remember a time that I swore I would not be like her. I would not manipulate to get what I wanted, I would not be passive-aggressive, I would not be a doormat. And those things I mostly did not re-create in my self. I can be passive aggressive and I have to watch for that in myself. I also can be a skilled manipulator so it’s important to me that I try to get what I need on my own – since I still suck at asking for it. It’s the subtle things I didn’t even realize I was picking up that made an impact in the whole self-loathing part.

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