It might surprise you to know that I hold no ill-will towards the boss who had to fire me. In fact, sometimes I consider reaching out to her because I liked her so much and I hope that maybe now that I’m not working there, we can actually be friends.
However, I have been having weekly meetings with an awesome life-coach who has been really getting to the heart of some of the disordered thinking and body image issues I have faced for my whole life. She asked me the other day to talk about something that triggered me, and I mentioned that it’s really frustrating to me that no matter how intelligent or amazingly talented a group of women may be, there will inevitably be diet talk in the conversation somewhere.
My coach asked me to dig in on that, and asked for details about what they had said, and if there was one person in particular that stood out to me. She asked me what I would have said, if I had been free to speak my mind, and suggested that perhaps I was angry at these women. Maybe I wanted to tell them to fuck off? Maybe I wanted to admit that “I’m so sick of these bitches”?
When I opened my mouth to speak, I started crying. I wasn’t angry after all, even though that was the expectation that came to mind. I was just profoundly sad. My old boss (let’s call her Jeannie) is truly one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. She is warm and caring and would remember details about my life, about customers lives, and would always ask about how things were going and engage in real talks with people about their grandchildren and their health, not because it was good for business but because she actually gave a shit about other people. She was so gentle and patient with everyone.
I only had to hear her speak about herself a couple of times, thank god. But it’s not something that I will ever forget. The venom, the loathing, the disgust in her voice when she said, “I’m so fat. I’m such a pig. I make myself sick. I can’t even look in the mirror. I’m so ugly it makes me want to puke” was enough to make the hairs on my neck stand up. I have heard people cursing up a storm, screaming at each other, but this was uglier than all of that. It came from a deep well, drawn up from the pit of her gut, and it was black as tar, viscous and oily and sticky. It crawled out of her mouth and hung in the air, lingering like a heavy fog, clinging and grotesque.
I started to describe to my coach what Jeannie said and I couldn’t even get through a sentence before my sobs choked off my words. It was like my heart was breaking. Here was a woman whom I had been lucky to meet, whom everyone was lucky to have been working with, who would bend over backwards to do anything for you, and she hated herself. Jeannie didn’t realize at all that I frequently wished I could be more like her. She didn’t understand how much I battled with selfishness, and how often I marveled at her ability to put other people first. She didn’t know the little efforts I made to emulate her, here and there, in my life.
Sometimes it occurs to me that perhaps Jeannie had no problem putting others first because she truly didn’t think she was worthy of being a priority. Maybe she was trying to make herself smaller, in every aspect, because she just inherently did not believe she had the right to take up as much space as she wanted. I think Jeannie struggled with the belief that a “nice” woman is a good woman, and that to be “nice”, you must be non-threatening, you must be quiet, and you must be (above all) small.
It makes me so sad that our society has trained women to believe that we have to earn our right to take up space on this planet by looking a certain way. Jeannie felt that she had to apologize for her very existence. As I talked about this with my coach, the sadness was so overwhelming that I had trouble breathing for a few minutes. How many women on this earth try and minimize themselves their whole lives, realizing too late that they were never allowed to live at all? How many women are forced to apologize for their audacity to take up oxygen without at least looking like a Sears catalogue model, if not Victoria’s Secret? How many women have raised daughters to value themselves by something as accidental and uncontrollable as their appearance, petrified by the knowledge that their daughters will inevitably, one day, fail?
Because that’s how the system is designed. Women are set up to fail, so that we are constantly aware that we aren’t good enough, and are forever, always, apologizing for it. Keep us small, keep us sorry, keep us desperate.
And the perfection of this system is that we then take up the reins and need no more guidance, because we’re more than willing to punish ourselves from here on out. Or, behind our hands and behind our keyboards, we punish one another. We take over the dirty work. We come to fully and whole-heartedly believe that women are products to be consumed, and that if consumers don’t approve of the product, the product should be shamed and sent to the back where it can’t be seen, like a bruised apple or a rotting steak.
Take it off the shelf…Nobody wants that…We don’t need to see it…Get it out of here…Put it in the trash where it belongs.
Jeannie, I saw you. I know you. Even through the unbelievable sadness and self-hatred, I saw you and you were dazzling. You deserve every square inch of space you occupy, every breath of air you inhale. You deserve your happiness. You are not unworthy. You are not a waste. You are smart, and strong, and powerful, and I love you. I hope you can learn to love yourself too.