Coming out of twenty years of self-hatred culminating in a nervous breakdown and burnout is quite the experience. Exhilarating. Uplifting. Sure, there’s some sadness there–all that lost time! I could have been happy instead of losing two decades in misery! But how can you not revel in the new realisations?
Can life really be like this? you ask yourself. Is it really, really possible I can exist without putting myself down every single second of my existence? Can I just discuss with people without second-guessing my every word; without thinking I’m offensive and everyone will hate me because no matter what I say, I always put my foot in my mouth, I blabber too much, I’m annoying or uninteresting? Can I eat at a restaurant without being ashamed, without obsessing about ruining the other guests’ meal–they’ll be seeing little disgusting, flabby me biting into that burger and thinking, “Why is that unattractive fat woman eating? How does she dare show herself here?”
And how about romantic attraction, friendship, sexual desire? Can I exist without thinking anyone who’s close to me is doing me a favor? Can I be in my relationship without thinking my husband’s here out of laziness, and the reason he still sleeps with me is that he’s an extreme introvert, and it’s too much of a bother to find someone who’s not flabby, disgusting, fat? Can I have sexual fantasies without feeling guilty–not guilty because of religion, repression, or any sort of ethical reasons, but because, honestly, how do I even dare think anyone would desire this utterly unworthy, unfuckable creature that’s me?
When I started writing A Natural, I only told my best friend and my husband. I was convinced the world would ridicule me in the way described above. Where does she get off writing erotic stuff, people would say. The book still turned out to be pretty good as a novel, so I thought, to hell with it! Why not publish–under a pen name, of course. Maybe people would actually see the plot and won’t dwell on the fact that an utterly unbangable disgusting woman has the audacity to write sexy stuff.
Strangely, and to my utter surprise, putting sexual content on the page, and furthermore giving my female protagonist many of my own traits, didn’t put readers off. One male reader told me he imagined me in the place of my heroine, whom he fantasized about. This brought the spontaneous thought to my head: he doesn’t know me or what my body looks like! He’d surely change his mind if he saw me.
Are you marvelling yet at the level of self-hatred I was steeped in for two decades? It gets worse.
What about falling in love? Romantic attraction has always been hard for me. The same thoughts as above dominated the narrative in my head: how dare I feel anything towards a smart/attractive/desirable man? Surely, I’m not just under his league, I’m practically non-existent in his world. And non-existent would still be okay, but my brain went into high-school-movie mentality: I was the awkward nerd in the corner, ogling the attractive, popular football player. The whole school (the metaphorical school, in my mind) would point fingers at me and mock me: Look at that disgusting being! She even thinks she counts as a woman! She even wants love! How dare she? Doesn’t she know she’s a worm at the bottom of a pile of shit, unworthy of serious consideration?
Surely, all I deserved was scorn and ridicule. Now, if I could be thinner, if I could cure my trichotillomania so my face would look okay-ish instead of a ravaged eyebrow-less landscape, if I could stop binge eating, if I looked different…or if I wasn’t abrasive, aggressive, brash! Maybe then I’d be a proper human, worthy of others’ admirartion instead of scorn and rejection. I mean, sure, I’d never really be attractive, but I wouldn’t be disgusting anymore.
Yet still somewhere inside, my strong and assertive inner self was striving to free me from all those misconceptions.
After publishing my book, something changed. Not only had I found my calling–writing, as you might imagine, and dramatic, psychology-laden writing at that–but I’d also dared to put myself out there. And as a result I received not ridicule and contempt, but applause and admiration. People were asking for my opinion on their writing. I had to start refusing beta reading and editing, which I did for free for a time, because I just didn’t have the time to help everybody.
Moreover, strangers on social media thought I was pretty. Not disgusting, but actually attractive. Not random creeps looking for a victim, either; people whom I developed relationships and became friends with.
I pushed further. I took full-body images of myself in my ballet clothing and posted them with the hashtags “mombod” and “bodypositivity.” Surely, I have flaws–many, many of them! Most of the pictures showed a slightly chubby woman, which made me cringe, but by that point I had began to understand that much of it is in my mind. The reactions of strangers told me nobody thought I shouldn’t be happy, or I shouldn’t enjoy life, love, sex. I pushed further, posting a photo of the most horrific part of my body–my stretch-mark ravaged belly. Now, people call them “tiger stripes,” but I have no stripes anymore; the whole skin is a tangle of plastic deformation (sorry, once a physicist, always a physicist!). Even that photo elicited one single negative response: “Ugh, why would I wanna see something so disgusting?” the young man said, echoing my own thoughts of mere days prior. By that point, though, I was rapidly getting over it. It was obvious that most of my beliefs up to that point had been mere misconceptions, and I had, moreover, misunderstood how others see me. It was time to free myself of all that self-deprecation and hatred.
I won’t go into the other factors that helped me heal. Suffice it to say, there are certain people, who, knowingly or not, made me challenge my beliefs and realise just how ridiculous I was being. Just as an example, once, while we discussed all of this, my best friend asked me, “Surely, you don’t think your partner of sixteen years stays with you because of laziness and inertia?”
I mean, yes, that’s exactly what I thought. A borderline borderline brain is expert at making everything look like rejection.
How do I feel now? I feel I am allowed to have emotions. You might think it’s a small thing, but it truly isn’t. Walking to my therapist today, I contemplated how inconceivable it was only a year ago for me to admit openly I am attracted to someone. Or, how Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria made it nearly impossible for me to say, “I can’t help you right now because I’m busy.” Or how hard it was to change in my ballet school locker room without feeling mortified about my body among the other students, women my age or older, but thin and flat-bellied and looking wonderful in underwear (Mothers all! How do they do it?).
Once, at ballet, we were discussing our bodies, as women sometimes do in such environments. I pushed my leggings down and showed my teacher the horror of my belly. She gasped and said, “Do you want to have it fixed?”
Well, I don’t really care anymore. Even if I had the money for plastic surgery, I’d rather give it for an awesome trip, or something I’ll enjoy more than a flat belly. Also, it doesn’t matter. I’m the best in my ballet class, though chubby and booby and all things contrary to the traditional picture of a ballerina. I’d rather be that than have a flawless body.
Flawless is boring, after all.
After the decades of struggling, the best one can hope for is the realisation that none of it matters. At all. Nobody will love you for your outside. And if they do, that’s not a person you want to be with anyway.
“That, my friends, is a great book.” –Rebecca Hefner, author