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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Filling in the Blanks

Throughout life I've watched girls and women utter "I'm not pretty" or "I feel fat" or any other assortment of phrases looking to their friends to tell them "No way, you're pretty" or "You're so not fat" or some other validating statement. I've always thought that most of them don't really believe what they are saying, they just want to hear someone else tell them what they already know. But I'd say "I'm ugly" time and time again and deep down in my soul I understood this was true. No matter how many times my friends would deny it, I never felt anything different. I'd dismiss their support rationalizing that they were my friends so of course they would say that even though inside their head they were agreeing with me.

The summer before I began college we were asked to send in a picture, our intended major and two interests. I mailed in the form and one of my senior pictures and didn't think much about it. So when the freshman register, or as it was more affectionately called the dogbook, was delivered to my dorm room I had a dull ache in the pit of my stomach - here in book form was one of my biggest nightmares.

The dogbook, although I'm sure every administrator would deny it, was a place to troll for dates - a locale were one picture and two interests would define your worthiness to the opposite sex during the early phases of college. The tradition was that you or your friends would look through the book before one of the school's dances and call and ask for dates. It had evolved to a bunch of girls sitting in a dorm room with dogbook in one hand and a campus phone book in the other. Skimming the pages targets would be identified, phone calls to guys no one had met were made and invites to be the date of you or a friend to whatever dance was looming were extended. You could sometimes hear the guy on the other end of the phone rummaging for and then flipping through the pages to find the name and evaluate the picture and decide in an instant if you were worthy of his time. This, was my biggest nightmare that I didn't know I'd ever had come to life. I never dated in high school - attending an all girls high school made it easy to avoid it since you'd have to actively seek out guys at other schools. When I dreamed of going away to college I added meeting the perfect guy - one that would probably have to be blind - into the mythical world where somehow all my fears of men would just magically disappear.

So when they announced our first hall dance - "The Sweetest Thing" (theme chosen by it's relation to Sweetest Day) I desperately wanted to join my friends, but I had no joy in the idea that somehow I'd have to find a date. I left it up to my friends - they could pick someone and make the calls. I scurried off saying I needed to go to a study group and let them have their fun. There was no way in the world I wanted to sit by and watch them giggle and make calls as guys rejected me based on my looks. I knew that my best bet for ever dating was my personality and the dogbook was not going to aid in that pursuit.

When I arrived home my friends announced that they found someone and proudly displayed the page with his picture. I was pretty astounded - staring back at me from the page was a cute guy and his interests didn't include reading in braille. How in the world did he agree to this? Did my friends offer to pay him? They gave me his number and told me he wanted me to call. He'd been confused that I wasn't with them at the time they called. Most people didn't let their friends go through this process without sitting by and witnessing it. I dialed the phone - this I could do because talking was easy for me. Everything went well. We talked for more than an hour, he showed up that weekend and didn't run away. After drinking at a pre-party in someones room we headed to the dance and had a fantastic time. We hung out afterward and when he left he kissed me in the lobby of my dorm. All was good. But it did nothing to make me feel any better the next time a dance arrived.

The dogbook was my secret hell. No matter what amount of guys said yes when my friends asked them out for me made me feel any different about it. And when the process took more than a few phone calls it just affirmed my opinion of myself - no guy wanted to even spend one evening as my date even when I was buying the beers. For an ugly girl this tradition was torture.

When I started looking back on the years I discovered something very interesting about this - it coincided with a weight gain. Just as finding out that my dad abandoned me had. So I searched the database in my brain and scanned my life. First time I remember a boy in elementary school looking at me in a way that I knew meant something - I went home and binged. Anytime I felt a guy getting closer as anything more than a friend - a weight gain. And when I'd go out and no guy would come within 10 feet of me, even though I was wearing what one of my friends affectionately labeled my "fuck off" face, I'd go home and eat. When I let myself date anyone - I'd push them away waiting to see if they came back and then when they didn't I filled the space they left with food. Wow, there was a pattern here. My fear of abandonment, being judged on appearance and food were all wrapped up in one pretty little picture called an eating disorder, my own special version that involved binging but never purging. I imagine that somewhere in that lovely subconscious I'd combined seeking comfort from food with binging enough to gain weight to make myself  unattractive to any guy that was blind to my ugliness. For a very smart girl and then woman I'd done a pretty good job of not unraveling this one for a while.

So as this realization dawned I started to look back at other memories - maybe they held more answers. And then I thought of a constant refrain in my life: "You'd be pretty if _________" the blank being filled in with "lost weight," "didn't talk so much," "weren't so opinionated," blah, blah, blah, and I'm sure it hadn't helped my self-esteem. No wonder I had the urge to argue with anyone when they paid me a compliment that had to do with anything other than my intellect. It became very clear to me from an early age that I was a "smart girl" and there was no room in my life for any other label to stick. No matter how much I would stare in the mirror the reflection that looked back at me was never "something" enough to appear pretty.

I'd look at childhood pictures and someone would say "You were so cute, what happened?" and what was really gentle teasing became the truth to me. So later in life when I'd sit around with my friends and we played the game of "I'm not _____" or "I'm too ____," I wasn't looking for validation of myself, I really believed what I was saying. My negative self-image was off the charts.

So once the origin of how these blanks had been filled in was revealed I decided that the first thing I needed to work on was accepting a compliment. I didn't have to agree with the person, I only needed to thank them for their kindness. I wasn't pulling off this facade though. I was once told "That 'thank you' would be more convincing if you didn't make that 'this guy is crazy face' as you said it." So, this act needed practice. I'd bite my tongue time and time again when I wanted to say the person was wrong. I still haven't perfected it. And, there are still a few times when I can't resist the argument. Not so long ago I was talking to someone and he told me "you're gorgeous." My response "let's not get carried away, we both know that isn't true." Discussion ensued and when I told him the "You'd be pretty if, fill in the blank," story he told me that he didn't care who said that or if they were teasing or not, "It's a pretty shitty thing to say." I know that the people in my life never intended to create this issue for me, but it's amazing what words can do - sometimes they do speak louder.

 But, toppling a belief system so ingrained in the psyche can't be done just by identifying it. And so now, after all these years I need to learn to fill in my own blanks even when I still believe the answers that were inserted earlier. I'd taken the test and the teacher had marked which answers were wrong, but I couldn't seem to find what answer was supposed to fit in there. Maybe one day I'll discover that magical right answer to complete the sentence "You'd be pretty if _________."

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