Stress depends on how you think about it.
Standing inside Dunkin’ Donuts, waiting to get a caramel macchiato with almond milk, wearing a pair of tight black pants, I’m ashamed of my body. I suddenly feel self-conscious when a man stands behind me. I think he’s looking at my ass and my belly, thinking about how disgusting I look.
I don’t know him; he doesn’t know me. He’s probably not even looking at me. Why do I feel so full of shame? Because I should look perfect. I should be his dream woman standing in front of him.
And if I am not, if I do not please him, something is wrong with me. I do not deserve to live; I should not be here. I should not be allowed to stand in this Dunkin’ Donuts’ line ordering a coffee.
I confront myself immediately. I know this is stupid—no, not stupid. I can’t speak to myself that way anymore, it only reiterates the self-annihilation I cause every day.
I am worthy. I am valued and I am valuable. I am loved by the people that are important to me in my life.
I carry my pain and anger from childhood, but also from ten minutes ago. It affects everything I do.
The truth of the matter is that I look fine. In fact, I look better than fine. I look beautiful. There is nothing wrong with me. There is nothing wrong with my body. There is nothing wrong with a 45-year-old wearing tight black pants.
Why do I have to remind myself that it’s OK to have an ass? It’s OK to have a belly. It’s OK to be a woman and it’s OK to take up space in the world.
Then the sadness comes and I feel ashamed of being ashamed. I feel like I should be beyond this body image pettiness. I’m a mother of three children. I’m a writer and a teacher, yet I still feel this way.
I feel afraid for my 12-year-old daughter, growing up with me. I hope that I hide my shame. I hope that I do better at home.
I hope that my recognizing it, naming it, and denying its veracity in the next breath will help my daughter know the struggle I go through, but will also help her to not have to struggle as I do.
In the meantime, I need to affirm to myself every day: I am valued; I am valuable. I’m allowed to wear tight black pants to Dunkin’ Donuts and order coffee. I’m allowed to take up space. I’m allowed to be in front of this man. I’m allowed to stand here and be.
Why do I enter into this cycle this morning? My day got off to a bad start: my three kids arguing about computer time.
“Only educational electronics in the morning,” I said.
“No, that was for the school year, not during summer,” my oldest whined. “We haven’t been doing that for the last couple of days, so we shouldn’t have to do it now.”
“But I’m your mother and I say so, and that’s all that you need to know.”
Then the middle one, Nicholas, cried hysterically, whined and yelled. “I want electronics! I want electronics!”
I know that when my son goes into his pain, I go into mine. I want him to stop, so I don’t have to go to my bad place. I tried unsuccessfully to calm them, and then my husband came in and shouted “No electronics at all this morning!”
The screams got louder and I pleaded, “No…no…that’s not what I was trying to do here!”
Now, I’m running late for work and I’m going to hit traffic. (I also need more tape because the sticker pass for the parking garage won’t stay up on this car window.)
Maybe my body image has just been the scapegoat for unaccepted and unacceptable emotions.
I leave the house, and tell my husband I’m in a bad effing mood and just want to scream and hit something.
My husband’s in a bad mood too and says, “I know how you feel; I’m having the same kind of day.”
Can we change our day? Can we control our emotions? Especially as parents, we want this for our kids. I feel like a failure as a good role model.
So, all this before arriving at Dunkin’ Donuts. I took off my sweater because I was hot, knowing full well I’d be freezing cold in the office later. I walked in with my tight black pants, and that’s when I raged at myself about my ass, my belly. My anger. My rage. My shame mingles with my guilt.
I carry my pain and anger from childhood, but also from ten minutes ago. It affects everything I do. I need to learn to control my anger.
Deeper still, I need to learn to control my fear. When my husband yelled, I felt scared—like a little girl, petrified of my parents’ arguments. But it was also like being with my abusive boyfriend—yelling at me and I knew what was coming.
Perhaps one answer to why I feel shame about my body is not about today. Perhaps the fear and anger I experienced in my body were tied up with how I see myself. Maybe my body image is not the issue at all; maybe it has just been the scapegoat for unaccepted and unacceptable emotions.
I grasp my macchiato and walk out the glass door, looking behind me, yet again.
Artwork by KAREN HONG