Guest contribution by Marisa Vega – The first time I realised that my mother might be sick, I was 22 years old. I was listening to public radio and the programme featured an expert who was talking about “Body Dysmorphic Disorder” and how it was a problem afflicting a growing number of girls and women in the United States. At the start of the discussion this expert began running through a checklist of some sort — you know, the kind of “Is this you?” quiz you’d see in a magazine such as Glamour or Seventeen. I could almost see the headline: “Do you have Body Dysmorphic Disorder?” The man must’ve been fifteen psychological symptoms into his rundown when I realised, “Oh my goodness, this list my mother! This list is my mother to a T!” It was a scary thing to come to terms with, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The scarier part was that over half of those symptoms appeared to describe me as well.
I guess I could start by saying I have always had issues with my personal appearance. And when I say “issues,” I have to admit, they’re largely imaginary. I’m a decent looking woman. I’ve got plenty of hair and all my teeth. I’m at a healthy body weight, and men generally find me attractive. Yet, for most of my life, I was extremely unsatisfied with my looks. My figure was too curvy. My thighs were too fleshy and my legs were too short. My breasts were too big for my frame and they made me look heavier. My eyes were too small and my nose was too big. I wanted plastic surgery. I wanted to be taller, more svelte, like the models and actresses I saw in the media. I was obsessive about my workouts and, should I ever miss one, I’d feel terribly guilty. Moreover, I was very fastidious about my dietary restrictions and any time I ate something less than healthy, I’d feel weak and beat myself up mentally for it.
Taking it back
I’m sure most women can relate to what I’ve described to varying degrees. Who among us hasn’t wanted to wave a magic wand to change this or nip that? Who hasn’t judged herself for eating something fried and fattening or for missing a morning workout? But I was at an extreme. I remember one time, being with a man and his telling me that I was beautiful. I pushed him away and blurted out, without a moment’s thought, “No, I’m not. I’m ugly.” I also remember him groaning and asking me if I even knew how much of a turnoff that was. I put my head in my hands and said, “I know, I know. I don’t know what’s wrong with me…”
But then all of the sudden I did know what was wrong with me. And I knew the source, but what was strange about this source was that it didn’t add up. After all, my mother always told me that I was beautiful. She was a wonderful mother, in that respect. She never belittled me or criticised my features or figure, yet somehow I always got the sense that if I didn’t take care of myself, if I wasn’t pretty, she wouldn’t love me anymore. How could I not feel that way, when my mother constantly criticised other women? Women who, in my opinion, were more attractive than I am — and that includes my mother. My mother is, (and this is setting aside all bias, if you please), exceptionally pretty. Even now that she is nearing fifty, people regularly mistake her for over ten years younger. Men turn their heads and open doors for her. And, even though she doesn’t seem to realise it, she receives positive attention wherever she goes.
The problems at present
Nevertheless, my mother’s relationship with physical appearance is an unending barrage of negativity. When she opens up a magazine or turns on a television, she starts up right away with what she doesn’t like about a person, and when I say “person” I mean woman, because rarely does she critique anybody outside the “fairer” sex. I’ve long since given up trying to point out to Mom how sexist her criticisms are, because no matter what I say my mother is forever harping that, yup, this actress’ breasts are fake. Another’s might be real, but they’re too small and misshapen. This newscaster has chicken legs. And she calls herself a dancer? She’s too chunky at the waist. Another woman might have bad hair, bad teeth, and bad skin. She might be too wrinkled. Too mannish. Her head can be too big for her body. Her hips too wide. She’s too fat. Too skinny. Bow-legged. And “her hair isn’t real, you know?” If I ever were to comment, “Oh, that so-and-so is so pretty!” I always heard back, “No, she’s not. There’s something I just plain don’t like about her body…”
I’m sure most people would be thinking at this point, “Oh, wow, your mother is horrible!” But the truth is she’s not. She’s incredibly warm, kind, and nonjudgmental in person. Rarely does she say anything negative about somebody else’s face or body if they aren’t famous and (I suppose) somehow beyond the veil of scrutiny. Rarely does she say anything negative about anyone real, that is, unless she’s with me. My whole life I’ve had to bear witness to how wretchedly cruel my mother can be to herself. Not a day goes by without her complaining about how ugly she is, and it’s only gotten worse as she’s grown older. It’s terribly sad, but my mother almost never leaves the house without a full face of makeup. In the rare event that she does she’s been known to wear sunglasses, even when it’s pitch dark out. She spends a good thirty minutes to an hour per day fussing in the mirror, and I think her irrational worries about her physical appearance are a hindrance on her social life.
When my mother and I are together, she asks me at least twenty times a day if she looks wrinkled or fat, and delivers long, unsolicited monologues about everything she’s eaten and all the days she’s exercised that week. She thinks she needs plastic surgery and also mentions that to me every time I see her. It’s gotten to the point that I just plain don’t want to hang out with my mother sometimes, because it’s too much of a bummer. When I look at her face, I see my own. When I hear her criticising herself, it’s as though she’s criticising a future me. And as much as I want to help her, I know that I can’t. I’ve tried to reason with her all my life. And there are only so many times you can tell a person that they’re beautiful without you having to reassure yourself that you’re beautiful, too.
What I’ve learned
I know I’m fortunate to have realised that my mother is sick, and that I was headed that same direction, some years ago. If it wasn’t for research, friends, and a healthy dose of self-reflection, I don’t know if I’d ever have found a sense of equilibrium. I’m happy to say that I’m finally at a place where I’m fairly confident in how I look. I realise that being shapely is a blessing, and being petite is no handicap. I can look in a mirror now and see that my legs are, well, legs and my eyes are just plain huge. It baffles me that there was ever a time I wouldn’t leave the house without a slathering of eye shadow and a pair of high heels… that I’d worry about indulging in a savory treat once in a while… that I’d have to do intense cardio virtually every day.
I know I’m not in the clear just yet. I’m still my own worst enemy, and far more judgmental of myself than I’ll ever be of anybody else. But I feel like I know myself better; I can spot the warning signs. I don’t feel the need to get dolled-up to go to the grocery store. I don’t care if people think I’m gorgeous or sexy, because I know that I’m a good person and that’s what counts. I don’t plan on ever being the sort of woman who lies about her age or weight, nor do I ever want to be the sort of person who’d say that Alicia Keys has a weight problem (sure, Mom!). At the end of the day, I realise my mother might be a bag full of insecurity, but hey, I don’t have to follow in her footsteps.