I remember a time when I purposely put on very little makeup to go out with friends so that my beauty wouldn't outshine their own. I refused to wear lipstick because it would draw attention to lips that I knew were naturally pink and luscious. Toning down the mascara humbled long lashes. Softly lined eyes filled me with secret pride and red-faced embarrassment.
I remember a time when exasperation and disgust drove me to tears because every shirt in my closet clung to the rolls of my belly. I spent two hours fixing my hair before heading to the grocery store so as to trump the message being sent by my body that I had let myself go. Turning to the side, I noted with malicious approval my double chin: see, I am fat, I assured myself.
I would rather not return to either scenario, for both of these versions of me rely on the worthiness of my appearance to determine the quality of my whole self. I am desperately, annoyingly, profoundly and debilitatingly conscious of how others view me.
My mother recently reminded me of a hike we took as a family during which we came upon a small brook of rushing water. Some fortuitously placed stones made crossing it a quick, if not slightly tricky possibility. My eight-year-old self balked. My mother remembers that I took one cautious step onto a stone and then intentionally plunged my foot into the stream, proclaiming "I can't do it!" Then, as now, I could not bear to witness others watch me fail. Better to pretend as though I already knew my limitations rather than testing them in front of an audience.
Then, as now, I literally could not stomach public embarrassment. Throughout my teenage years and into my twenties, I refused to eat when I would only have access to a public restroom. What would happen if someone heard me use the toilet and giggled? What if I let out a raucous, triumphant fart and everyone knew it was me? As you can imagine, this made any kind of traveling extremely difficult. I would nibble on crackers for two straight days and then, overcome by fatigue and hunger and resignation, I would eat. I ate quickly and feverishly, hoping to crush my anxiety under the sheer weight of the food I consumed. Unsurprisingly and inevitably, within twenty minutes I was wracked with cramps and diarrhea. How could I not be? My poor, poor tummy. It was denied food and then assaulted with it. I spent entire vacations seeing, smelling, fantasizing about the foods I would not allow myself to touch.
How I ever decided to study abroad in France for a year, I'll never know. Stay tuned for the next installment in which I discuss, among other hefty issues, croissants, brioche, and fresh fruit tarts.