By V.J. Knutson
Avoiding mirrors is my superpower. I learned it growing up in a house full of women. While sixteen-year-old Jo-Jo would stand in front of the large mirror above the living room fireplace, backcombing her hair, twelve-year-old June was posing in front of the full length, and I would be ducking out the backdoor avoiding mother’s scrutiny. At five, I already knew that when it came to beauty, I didn’t stand a chance.
Dubbed “Moose” by my siblings, I was broad-shouldered, thick waisted, and could throw a punch as well as any boy. My mother, not in the habit of using nicknames, just shook her head and mumbled, “No one will ever love you.” I didn’t need a mirror to tell me I was ugly; I had family.
Mother’s criteria for a successful woman: 1) complete the eleventh grade; 2) work as a secretary; 3) attract a husband; 4) marry and have babies. Jo-Jo rebelled, got pregnant at nineteen, and was whisked away into marriage, leaving June to fulfill the expectations. She was submitted to etiquette classes and later registered with a modelling agency. I’d sneak into her bedroom and glance through her notes, hoping to gain insight into to how to become more feminine, but I couldn’t walk with a book on my head, or sit with the elegance required. June had the figure of Twiggy and the looks of Mary Quant. I was still “Moose.”
I gave up hope of ever having an acceptable physique and focused on academics and athletics. I excelled at the first and was mediocre at the latter. My body was just too awkward.
“Stretch” and “Tree” were added to my list of monikers, and one male classmate drew a portrait of me that depicted big breasts on a pair of ridiculously long legs, which translated to “no hips” or “no ass.”
While June was receiving marriage proposals, I was being hit on by the fathers of the kids I babysat, or later, work supervisors. Confused, I sought guidance from my mother, who advised that some men will do “it” with anything that stands still, and I needed to not provoke attention. When I accepted a ride home from a friend of a friend that ended up in sexual assault, I learned firsthand that what my mother said was true: the police confirmed that my tight jeans and halter top were enticement for predators. I learned to loathe my body more.
I married the first boy who was willing to date me without making his erect penis my responsibility. We were both nineteen, and when after three weeks of marriage we had not consummated the marriage, he admitted that he just didn’t find me sexy. I was willing to bear that burden: I knew it to be true.
Separated at twenty-one, I threw myself into work and fitness. I worked out twice a day, put in lots of overtime, and chose rum and sodas as my meal of choice. Drunk, I was much more desirable, or so it seemed. Men from my past came knocking on my door, but I pushed them away. I couldn’t bear for them to see the ugliness underneath. When one of June’s suitors asked me out, I thought this must be love: surely anyone who would want me over her was willing to accept all of me.
I would marry this man and have his children just like Mother wanted. I would endure seventeen years of “if you loved me more” and criticisms that wore me down. My breasts were too large, my waist too thick, my legs too skinny—never enough. He played to all my insecurities, and I just kept trying harder, because I believed him. The day he told me he didn’t love me anymore, and in fact, had never loved me, I heard the echo of my mother’s words, No one will ever love you, and something inside me snapped.
I was forty years old, had just lost one-hundred-and-eighty pounds of no-good husband, and I was enough! If I didn’t love myself, I realized, no one else ever would. I had work to do.
First, I took a photo of myself in a swimsuit and posted it on the fridge door. Till I could look at that image and not cringe, I promised to dig deeper.
I set boundaries for myself, and goals that represented self-respect. I would no longer be a babysitter, mother, therapist, or punching bag for some man’s shortcomings. I wanted to be desirable and cherished, so I needed to know how that would feel. I stopped dating and started courting myself. When I was down, I bought myself flowers. I dined alone, trying out different restaurants until I learned what I liked. I took myself to the movies and discovered that I preferred a night in with a good book. I signed up for dance classes and auditioned for an improv company. I started a social club for dating misfits like myself—first rule of participation that members be friends only.
As time passed, that woman on the fridge didn’t look so bad. She encouraged me to go back through my life and look at old photos of myself. I was surprised to find an attractive young woman, who bore no resemblance to the me I had experienced.
The improv company—a murder-mystery troupe—hired me, and the first role I was assigned was a nudist named Ivana BeBuff. My costume was a form fitting, low cut, sequined gown, slit at the sides to accentuate my long legs.
“Just strut your stuff,” the director coached. “Exude your sexiest self.”
He had no idea the mountain he was asking me to climb, and I wasn’t about to tell him. Leaving self-loathing in the dressing room, I made my entrance as Ivana—a bombshell looking for a rich investor. The experience was life-altering.
After Ivana, came a line of female characters who inadvertently helped me learn that to be comfortable in my own skin, I just needed to exude confidence.
No one called me Moose anymore, or any other body shaming name, but I needed to confront my mother about her put downs.
“You weren’t like your sisters,” she said. “You were so smart, and such a tomboy, I honestly didn’t know how anyone would want to marry you. I thought I was preparing you to be independent.”
In a convoluted way, I get it. She didn’t know any different.
I gave up declaring myself as enough and decided that “I am” sums it up best. I spend my time now completing the sentence with nouns:
I am Grandmother, writer, teacher, artist. I am friend, lover, sister, seeker.
Funny how once I stopped worrying about my physical image, I started living my best life. I went back to school and completed a post-graduate degree, finally fulfilling a childhood dream.
My body, I now appreciate, is a sacred vessel: as unique and perfect as the spirit it carries.
VJ Knutson, BA (French), B Ed, writes to make sense of life. Her poetry and short stories have been published in numerous anthologies. A memoir and book of poetry are in the works. Visit VJ at vjknutson.org or onewomansquest.org. Twitter @Vjknutson and Instagram @1womansquest.
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