Female, 38, White, Los Angeles, CA
RK is a dear friend of mine and one of the women I interviewed for this project. Upon her request, here, she interviews me. I reveal parts of my past that contributed to my struggle with feeling beautiful. I also confront my skin deep understanding of beauty perpetuated by our society's limiting standard, and I realize my painful ignorance about how much I've been influenced by it. I have a lot of learning and growing to do. The women involved in this project, like RK, have been my teachers, my healers, and my cheerleaders. I hope they are for you too.
Me: Ok. I’m gonna let you lead.
RK: You ask the women you interview “Is it hard for us to say we’re beautiful”. Let’s start with that question to you, but, let me add that when I, an African American woman, look at you, I see someone who meets the standard of beauty according to the current societal definition. So, I’ll ask like this, “Why would someone like you have a hard time saying that you’re beautiful?”
Me: I think for me it’s not about the way I look on the outside. I feel ugly on the inside. As a little girl, I had this unspeakable need for attention. I needed people to tell me I was beautiful, I needed people to tell me that I was important, I needed people to tell me that I was special. I sought it out. I performed well in school, I performed well for my parents, for my piano teacher, my athletic coaches; so they’d tell me.
When I was eight, I ended up “performing well” for a neighborhood male who was much older than me. He took advantage of my need for attention in a sexual way on a couple of occasions. Even though I was an eight year old I felt responsible because I was the one that wanted the attention. And I enjoyed the attention. I didn’t stop it. So I didn’t tell anyone after it happened. I didn’t tell anyone because I felt guilty about it. I felt like it was my fault.
Growing up I had silly issues too. I didn’t fit the standard of beauty. I had really bad acne. I was never as skinny or poised or pretty as the girls in the magazines or the popular kids….
RK: What do you mean by when you were growing up you didn’t fit the standard of beauty? What was the standard of beauty to you?
Me: It was always changing. I was the new girl a lot. My family moved every two years or so during my childhood. For every new town we’d get to, I had to update my look to fit in with the other kids. I was always working to update my appearance for acceptance. It didn’t matter if I was being myself. What mattered was fitting in.
Me: And I feel like an a%&hole saying it to a black woman who’s experience has been more difficult...or deeper or maybe...[I stumble on my words]
RK: [she saves me] At the end of the day it has nothing to do with the physical. It has to do with feeling worthy.
Me: When I moved to Southern California in middle school, there was a large Latina population at my school, a lot of whom were being bused in from poorer neighborhoods to this affluent town where I lived. I was walking home one day, and truthfully I didn’t remember this, it was my mom who reminded me because she was walking behind me...a bunch of girls on the bus pulling away from the school rolled down their windows and started yelling things at me about being stuck up, or a boyfriend stealer, or an ugly white girl who thinks she’s all that, that kind of stuff. The next day, one of those girls punched me in the face in the middle of science class when the teacher had her back turned. I didn’t say anything. I was so confused. I hadn’t spoken to a soul my first few days at school.
I guess some of the boys that those girls on the bus were dating had said I was cute. Maybe it was because I was the new girl and different, or because I was white and not Latina. I don’t know. I can understand now why the girls were justifiably angry with me on many levels.
RK: For women in the minority communities, the standard of beauty is this white standard of beauty and here you come, no matter what you look like, because you’re white it automatically trumps them. It just sucks because you were definitely going through your own personal trauma and issues.
Me: So the a%&hole in the room was really the boy that thought I was “pretty”?
RK: But they’ve been conditioned too. Men have been conditioned to think certain things about female beauty. We’ve all been conditioned at the end of the day. It’s a worth issue, not a physical issue, because minorities have been told that "we’re not worthy". That was intentional because it had to do with power of one group of people over another; power over minorities, and power over women too. Keep going.
Me: So...most of my life I was always trying to gain approval from whatever audience I could drum it up from. Then as an adult, I became an actor [haha]...and I needed to feel that I was beautiful in the eyes of the film and television industry. I struggled at first to get work. I got messages from other actresses that I needed to be thin so I tried to lose weight, but didn’t lose much. I booked a few things here and there, but not much.
At the same time, I was newly married and having sex for the first time and it brought up that sexual shame I’ve had since I was eight years old and I felt ugly all over again; through and through. I felt fat and disgusting and hideous because of that shame. It didn’t matter what I actually looked like. I felt gross so I thought I looked gross and I wanted to hide my body.
Then someone from my acting team called me and told me he’d noticed I’d gained a few pounds and that I needed to lose some weight (“maybe five or ten pounds”, he said), if I wanted to compete for leading roles.
I kind of snapped. I said to myself “FINE! I can play the game!” So I dieted and lost five to ten pounds. Then I started booking acting work and I sort of felt better, except the other actresses I worked with were on weird diets of cigarettes and sniffing oranges and I always felt like the bigger girl because I wasn’t as disciplined as them and I was larger than them, which is a weird thing to say, but I was.
Then I got divorced. So I felt more hideous and disgusting and not beautiful and wanted to hide from everyone because of that failure. Finally, I hunkered down and studied to become a personal trainer because I needed some control over SOMETHING. As I was learning about all the different ways I could alter my body, I started to really diet and really exercise. Then I lost more weight and built a lot of muscle and people started saying to me “you’re so beautiful. I want to look like you.” I kept hearing that again and again. And I booked more acting roles. Then I was like, “This is a little gross, but THIS is what I need to do to maintain some form of the positive feedback I’d always been craving.”
Every time I got a compliment I felt that “ding” go off in my head. “Oh you’re so thin and strong, how do I get to look like you?” I became addicted. I was terrified of losing those compliments, so I would wake up every morning and touch my stomach to make sure it hadn’t gotten bigger overnight. If I wanted a piece of chocolate, sometimes I would pick it up and throw it in the trash can and cover it with disgusting goo so I wouldn’t eat it. I would overexercise so much I couldn’t stand the next day. I was starving all the time. I was dizzy all the time. My period stopped for three years. I actually felt more and more ugly and depleted and exhausted, but at least I could control other people telling me I was beautiful. I still felt ugly all the time [my voice gets emotional]...[I take a deep breath]
So now, I actually feel beautiful physically because I’ve stopped exercising so much and restricting my eating so much and I have a new husband that is telling me all the time that I am. He says “I love you now, I love you when you gain five pounds, I love you whenever.” Hearing that again and again and again, it is finally starting to sink in, but I couldn’t say it to myself.
Then talking to other women of all different shapes and sizes and skin color about their struggles and knowing that I wasn’t the only one that was struggling with feeling beautiful, and them actually listening to me with big compassion even though I fit the generally accepted standard of beauty in America, I started to care less and less about meeting that standard. The more women I hear from, the more I realize I didn’t realize how privileged I was to be born into the body and circumstance that I was.
There are women out there feeling so much pain BECAUSE women like me are losing weight to get those parts on tv and film and perpetuating that standard of beauty that isn’t realistic for most people. To meet the industry standard I wasn’t healthy. I dipped over into disordered eating and obsessive exercise and destroyed my body.
As of now, I’ve gained some weight, I’ve started exercising less, and my period has come back, but it’s a little iffy. I’m eating as much food as I want to, but it’s still really healthy. I’m just starting to figure out how to be truly healthy again, but the disordered eating and exercising habits I formed are hard to break and the whole spiral of it all sent me down a road of deep depression and anxiety so I’m also on an anti-depressant medication….that was a long story [nervous laugh].
RK: Did you ever feel comfortable coming to me as your friend to say you felt this way? We’ve talked, but it was those scheduled coffees. In the middle of the night during an anxiety attack, who did you turn to? Were you able to talk to anybody?
Me: No. I sort of tried. And I was embarrassed. I purposefully didn’t say anything because I knew that if I’d told anybody I was struggling as much as I was, they would have either told me to stop whining and being silly because I had it good, or they’d tell me what I needed to do; which was eat more and exercise less. It was scary for me to gain the weight I needed to get my period back. My male doctor told me, “gain some weight, but don’t gain too much or you won’t feel good about yourself.” I’m glad I took the risk because on the other side of it I feel much better. I just….
Me:...I guess, I didn’t feel the need to tell anyone either because I was being supported by the unfair standard of beauty out there. Positive feedback isn’t always helpful.
RK: It can be damaging. Not just not positive. Damaging.
Me: Yeah. It disgusts me now to think that I was so susceptible...
RK:...no, you’re human. We’re all human and you’re trying to survive and that’s the other thing. As an African American woman, I’ve been in survival mode ever since we moved to an all white neighborhood as a kid. Even though I’ve thrived and I’ve been successful, it’s still been while in survival mode. And in the acting industry, I’ve been in survival mode because part of it is that in order for me to make a living at this thing I want to do, I have to conform to a look; the hair and the body and all of it.
If we get to the root of these issues of bodies and race and ethnicity, we can free ourselves to accept our beauty, but we have to get to the root of the system at play.
Me: That’s where as a female I got lost. I always thought, "how do I break the system"? I can’t break the industry system, which is a smaller system than the political system, unless I’m in it, but I couldn’t be in it unless I was skinny, so I got skinny. But then I didn’t change anything. I just accepted whatever role they would give me.
RK: Is there a way to take ownership and do something different, like our own content?
Me: Yes. But that’s a lot harder. Doing this is hard. [ha]
RK: Where are you now, honestly, in your journey; in your relationship to your beauty and who you are?
Me: Physically I don’t care as much anymore. I don’t want to spend time caring about it anymore. Plus, I have way less control. I’m getting older. I’m gonna have grey hair, my boobs are already starting to sag. Anytime I do a jumping jack, I pee my pants a little. Odd mole things with hair growing out of them are appearing on my skin at random and I don’t have time to care.
RK: I’ve got one of those right here on my chin [she shows me in the camera].
Me: I honestly do still struggle with not wanting to gain too much weight. I got so disciplined with my self-control around food and exercise. I think because I dipped over into disordered eating (even though I was never diagnosed so I don’t know for sure), it’s a real struggle to break the habit.
I’m praying a lot about feeling ugly on the inside. I’m telling my husband that I want him to tell me how beautiful I am as a person instead of physically, so I don’t feel I have to maintain the physical or think about it any more than I want to. He’s getting better at it. There is some healing happening, but it’s a process. It’s not easy.
The more I talk to other women, the more beautiful I feel because I feel connected to a community working toward acceptance of themselves and each other; a community that will point out my short-sightedness or ignorance about what beauty actually is, but not in a way that shuts me down. I’m being held accountable and I need to be.
RK: At the end of the day when it comes to embracing your beauty, beauty is not the physical. Beauty is worth and when you’ve been told over and over again that you’re not worthy, that affects you and it manifests in the physical. We’ve internalized Ageism, Ableism, Racism...and we live in a country where the system is race based. We’ve all been conditioned and it’s gonna take a lot of work. A lot of work. A LOT of work. My final question for you: what are some action steps that you take for you so that you can embrace your beauty (and not just the physical because we know it’s not physical). To embrace the thought that you are worthy?
Me: Doing this project. Bravely admitting my faults and struggles and fears and conditioning and responsibility. Writing to my new acting team to thank them for sending me on roles that are kick ass women and refusing parts that perpetuate the current standard of beauty. Doing activities that make me feel beautiful like coloring, painting, or playing music. Wearing clothes that are my size and throwing away my old clothes that are too small. Not looking in the mirror so much. Telling my doc not to tell me my weight on the scale. Drinking a little bit more wine and eating a little bit more chocolate. And becoming close again to my community of people like you where I’m accepted for who I am and where I am at with all my faults and all of my mess ups; a group of friends and family in which I don’t feel judged. I just feel held accountable in a healthy loving way.
Me: That was really special. Thank you for teaching me with your questions.
RK: You’re welcome.
Copyright © 2020 transcription and editing by Teri Reeves