When I was a child, I had these eyelashes (maybe you’ve seen my son so you get it). They were dark, and thick, and long. I didn’t know about them, personally, until other humans started making comments to me. “Don’t trip over those eyelashes!” I’d hear in the grocery store checkout line, or “Ever go skiing with those?”. I feigned irritation with all this attention, but the truth is I loved it.
It was the only thing I knew to be objectively beautiful about myself.
I was a tomboy. We lived on a farm for many years, so some of it was environmental, but it was more than that. I never felt like a woman, and didn’t know any women that I wanted to be like. The understanding of femininity that I was raised with was strange and fearful – a confusing combination of the shame associated with sexuality and the hyper-glorification of the mother role. I was terribly ashamed of my body but also rebelling against the skirts and braids my mother would have preferred me in.
Naturally, I chopped off my hair and dyed it ridiculous colors and wore baggy clothes that left every possible thing to the imagination.
But those eyelashes. I had learned, somewhere along the way, that if your eyelashes are long and dark and thick, something called mascara will make them even longer and darker and thicker. I became addicted to the stuff – this was the part of me that was beautiful and I could make it even more beautiful.
Early on, I picked up the nervous habit of picking at my eyelashes, but more specifically, picking the mascara off of my eyelashes. It drove my mom crazy. I didn’t know then it was anxiety, had no idea that this compulsion came from something deeper. Nobody knew. It was just an annoying little habit. As soon as I had picked it all off I had to apply it again.
I don’t think I was seen in public without 17 coats of carefully applied mascara from the age of 15 or so on.
I rarely even slept without mascara.
After having kids, once the anxiety came out of hiding and wasn’t so secret anymore, this nervous habit of mine got worse. Slowly over the years, my eyelashes fell out, and eventually, they weren’t so thick or long or dark. This made me pile on the mascara more heavily than ever to try and compensate. I felt shame and panic at the thought that I’d effectively squandered my “beauty”.
Beauty, it turns out, is not just in the eye of the beholder, but also in the voice in your head.
Do you know what it feels like to listen to a body that has never had a voice? It’s a stumbling form of communication at first: a lot of guesswork and frustrating missed cues. But you learn, and you get better.
That fledgling voice will tell you things you aren’t ready to hear, at first. Things you don’t want to hear. It won’t just tell you about the shame it felt when womanhood was upon it, or what it was like to find your first stretch mark.
It might remind you of the painful hunger it felt while you lay there at night breathing “go for the thighs” (inspired by Oprah), or of the high heels you convinced yourself and everyone else were “so comfortable” but left you hobbling for a week.
But you knew those extra inches gained or lost were worth it. You knew better than your hungry, pained body.
Someday, maybe, you’d give birth to a child and would simultaneously worship your body for it’s miraculous strength and hate it for being a stranger to your own eyes and hands. This would be the first time you would ever really acknowledge that your body had it’s own story, but it was unfolding in another language.
How do you learn to listen?
Along the way, I had gotten over skateboards and tent shirts and come around to wanting to appear feminine, but the truth is I was more terrified, ashamed and confused than ever. My two operating definitions of womanhood were still Sex and the City/Little House on the Prairie. I started wearing high heels and big earrings and more flattering clothes, choosing things that seemed the most obviously attractive, whether they made sense to me or not. I had very little intuition about what actually looked good or felt comfortable – I was just trying desperately to find a middle ground between the two extremes without looking like a fool (I’m sure I sometimes did).
A few months ago I wrote about embracing feminine energy and finding my intuition. I was beginning to realize that I was actually terrified of being a woman and didn’t connect with femininity in any way. It didn’t feel like who I really was – it felt like something that I put on to appear normal, desirable. I felt like a fraud.
I started to wonder if all the mascara and high heels and leg crossing techniques I had mastered over the years were actually the exact opposite of feminine intuition.
Suddenly, I had this yearning to do something gentle with my body. For years I had been into boxing, weight lifting and other rigorous forms of exercise (still love these, for the record). Yoga had always felt impossibly boring to me, but now I couldn’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, the real truth was that I had always just been terrified of it because I didn’t think of myself as graceful, flexible or beautiful enough to do yoga.
It turns out that yoga was almost instantly nourishing, healing and compelling. It helped focus and ground me. It connected me to my body, and made me feel elongated and sensual and strong. Yet also gentle. And compassionate.
I was learning to listen to my body instead of making my body listen to me. But it was just the beginning.
By my rough calculations, my eyelash count was down by over 50%. Would I really be myself when the only part of me that I’d ever believed to be measurably beautiful had been diminished?
Here’s a quick summary of the natural effect of giving your body a voice:
You learn to listen.
You have to listen.
Or, of course, you can choose not to, but now you know better and you’ll be haunted if you don’t so just trust me.
I decided that mascara was acting kind of like a crutch – it was preventing me from testing out whether the leg had healed, from seeing how many more steps I could go each day. I wanted to see if I could look in the mirror at the beginning or the end of the day without mascara and feel beautiful. Valuable. Accepted.
I didn’t, at first. I felt naked, not like myself. I wondered if people would think I was poorly or sad or maybe really tired. If anyone asked if I was ok I could easily make up a story about pink eye or being up all night with a puking child, right?
Obviously, this is ridiculous. I’m talking about going out in public without mascara, not revealing that I watch Bachelor reruns (I mean, that’s cool too).
Slowly, I started to feel like me. Beautiful, even. But what was really unexpected and striking is that moving on from fixating on this one solitary feature freed me up to appreciate so many other parts of me – parts I had barely ever noticed. Every day it would be different. Some days I would feel like my hair was so Last of the Mohicans I should be on horseback. Other days, catching my smile in the mirror would inspire a bright dash of lipstick. I recall admiring my ankles one day, a part of my body that has only ever endured scorn. I started daydreaming about all the short shorts I am going to wear this summer and actually began wearing sleeveless tops even though my arms aren’t perfectly toned. Wait a second, I have a really graceful collarbone!
We’re used to bossing our bodies around. We have things we have to get done, people to take care of, an image to keep up. Our body becomes the slave – slave to everything we need it to do and slave to everything the world says it should be.
What if our bodies were in charge? What if they had the master language, the master code – like a beloved elder, we trusted that they knew best and saw more than we could see?
What if they had a voice? And what if we listened?
It might mean ditching the high heels that are painful to wear, or taking a break from alcohol because you just don’t feel that great the next morning. It could mean pulling the trigger on joining a gym, or maybe going a little gentler on yourself than you have been.
I know for sure that it would mean eating could be about nourishing our bodies instead of rewarding or punishing them.
And that exhaustion becomes less of a status symbol and more of an invitation to rest.
You don’t have to have grown up ultra-conservative on a farm to be ashamed of your body. We live in a shame culture and nobody, ever, is good enough. We’ve all done crazy things to feel ok in these bodies without realizing that it’s these bodies we’re sacrificing. Silencing.
Maybe loving our bodies is just about listening.
Also, f*&k anything with an “underwire”.
So, how do you actually give your body a voice?
How do you silence shame to create space for that new voice? And then, how do you learn to listen? I’ll be exploring this in my 3 week email series “How to Give Your Body a Voice”. Sign up below to join the conversation.