In my debut novel, Sweet Dreams, the heroine is a forty-year-old nurse who has undergone a mastectomy. The hero, also a nurse, deals with erectile dysfunction. With class and humor, the story examines our long-held assumptions about beauty and body image.
Well folks, two things happened this week that convinced me that we need to further examine our perceptions of body image.
The first involves Kristina, a nurse-colleague and friend from work. If you can imagine the most decent, generous, hard-working woman you’ve ever known, then you have an idea of what Kristina is like.
Kristina has one child who is 15 years old; I’ll call him Sam (not his real name). Sam was born with a growth hormone deficiency. After many years of hormone supplementation, he grew to be five foot tall by his fifteenth birthday. Besides being shorter than most of his classmates, he is also thin. And he’s been bullied because of it.
This week, the bullying came to a head. Another child taunted and threatened Sam, and Sam threatened back. With a knife. It was a very serious threat – and was taken seriously by the authorities.
You can guess the rest. Sam is now in protective child custody, he may be placed into foster care until this is all resolved, he is not allowed back into any public school in the state … Kristina’s (and Sam’s) worlds have disintegrated.
And why? Obviously, this is not a simple situation with one simple cause, and there’s no one simple solution. The entire issue involves body images, bullying, mental health, etc. But in a world where Donald Trump can openly mock the physical disability of reporter Serge Kovaleski, and moms everywhere do not stand up and demand an apology … just sayin’. Silence is consent.
The second thing that happened this week also involves our body images, and self-esteem, and offers hope for our appearance-obsessed society.
Sunday morning, I drove five hours from the beautiful Sandhills of Nebraska to Eppley airport in Omaha. By chance, I tuned in to a radio station I’d never heard of called “No Labels.” The radio announcer interviewed a young man named Jason who spearheaded an endeavor called the Jubilee Project. As part of the Jubilee’s latest endeavor, Jason interviewed 50 people and asked a single question: If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?
“I want to be taller,” came one woman’s response. She then added, “When I was younger, I felt that I wasn’t quite adequate enough.” Another woman said, “My forehead. People always called me flathead.”
In lieu of the week that I’ve watched Sam and Kristina endure, these responses were very hard to hear. It’s as though people were still giving credence to their childhood critics years – even decades – later.
But, then, I listened to the small children who were interviewed by Jason’s Jubilee Project. The very first child was asked the question, “What one thing would you like to change about your body?” and she responded, “I think…maybe…I’d like a mermaid tail.”
And so it went. The naïve (or perhaps wise) children were comfortable with their existing bodies, and their ideas of “one body feature you would change” never involved dissatisfaction or shame. I couldn’t help but notice that while one of the adults wanted smaller ears (he’d always been picked on for his “Dumbo” appendages) – one of the children wished for big, pointy ears.
What the heck happens between the ages of 5 – 15? Why can’t we embrace diversity in body shapes, colors, and age? I honestly think part of the problem is that we aren’t trained to honor our own good opinions. We KNOW the truth – namely, that we are just as beautiful as anyone else, and that bullies and body-critics are stupid and wrong. We need to listen to our wiser, primitive, inner child and learn to embrace our features. And for God’s sake, if we see a child (or even an adult reporter) being poked fun of, we need to stand up and say something.
Please, please feel free to comment on this. I feel that there are solutions; we just need to think about them.
Finally, I’d like to end with a quote from author Marianne Williamson:
“A tulip doesn’t strive to impress anyone. It doesn’t struggle to be different than a rose. It doesn’t have to. It is different. And there’s room in the garden for every flower. You didn’t have to struggle to make your face different than anyone else’s on earth. It just is. You are unique because you were created that way. Look at little children in kindergarten. They’re all different without trying to be. As long as they’re unselfconsciously being themselves, they can’t help but shine. It’s only later, when children are taught to compete, to strive to be better than others, that their natural light becomes distorted.”
― Marianne Williamson