Wednesday 15 June 2016

Breaking free

I grew up with the unshakeable knowledge that nothing in life comes easy. "You have to work hard if you want to get somewhere in life", my parents would tell me over and over, and this lesson has served me well.
However, the 'work hard'-rule didn't only apply to school, piano lessons and our family business. It also applied to every other aspect of life.

I remember one summer day when I was eight years old. It was a shitty, cool summer, with lots of rain and grey skies, but this particular day was sunny and warm - and best of all, it was a Sunday. My sister and I begged my parents to go to the outdoor pool, the happiest place on earth for us at that age.
My father readily agreed - but my mother was more reluctant. "It's so much work", she protested, and listed all the things she would have to do if we went: Packing a lunch, shaving her legs and bikini line, getting blankets, towels, sunscreen, bathing suits, and all the other paraphernalia a day at the pool required.
My sister and I persisted, and in the end she grumpily agreed.

I didn't understand her initial reluctance until years later. The problem hadn't been getting all our stuff together; the problem was that she didn't have several days ahead of time to prepare. As an eight-year old, I was blessedly unaware of body insecurities. Sadly, my mother wasn't. For an event like going out in public wearing a bathing suit, she would have cut down her calories drastically for several days before. She would have put in a couple extra sessions under our at-home sunning bed, because being tan makes you look slimmer. She would have also made sure that her pedicure was fresh, her bikini line smooth, and her tummy as flat as possible. No fries or ice cream for her, that's for sure.

By the time I entered the angst-ridden world of being a teenager, I had learnt the lesson well. Every upcoming event in my life had to be prepared for. Any upcoming party required meticulous planning: Making sure my hair was freshly dyed, outfit was planned and new items of clothing purchased if necessary. If the outfit was showing off my legs, I made sure to shave them just before heading out the door, ensuring absolute smoothness. If it revealed my stomach, I would eat no sweets the week before, cut back during my meals and drink as much water as I could stomach.

Having the misfortune of acne-prone skin, I slathered on heavy foundation every day. That in itself wasn't unusual; most of my friends were experimenting with make-up. However, I was so ashamed of my imperfect skin, that I hid the foundation in my room, applying it in the morning behind closed doors. I imagined that nobody would see that it was make-up, but that people would hopefully think my skin was naturally smooth and flawless. Being inexperienced and too heavy-handed, this was never the case; but I felt better having my mask firmly in place.

Unlike some girls who enjoy experimenting with make-up and hair, I did it because I assumed I had to. Being a woman meant wearing make-up and making the best of her, didn't it? And my mouse-brown hair and imperfect skin were definitely not my best. So I would get up half an hour early to get ready every morning, dye my hair once a month, and faithfully do the three-step cleaning routine all the magazines told me to do every night: cleanser, toner, and night cream (face- and eye-cream of course).
Dieting was another necessary evil of being a woman, and while I had only dabbled in it as a teen, once I turned 19 and gained 20 pounds in a few short months, it turned into a full-blown obsession.  

I thought about my weight every minute of every day. It was my first thought upon waking up, and my last one before falling asleep. Every upcoming vacation, date, or invite to a social occasion triggered a slight panic and the determination to "get ready" by trying to lose weight. Without weight loss, I didn't deserve to go. Life was hard work, remember? And being a woman meant you had to try be the best you, meaning you had to be as close to perfect as possible.

The unhealthy relationship with my body continued until I was in my early thirties. Having started in my early teens, it went on for nearly 20 years.  But, luckily, I managed to break out of this abusive relationship and learnt to love myself.

I remember being at work several years ago, talking to one of my male colleagues and having a sudden epiphany. Looking at him closely, it occurred to me that all he had done this morning to get ready was having a shower and getting dressed. He didn't even blow-dry his hair (I asked). And yet, nobody thought twice about it or looked at him differently.
Inspecting every single person I came in contact with for the rest of the day, particularly women, I noticed that many of them were make-up free, with hair that had been tied back in a casual ponytail, and they seemed perfectly at ease.  

And I realized: Nobody cared what I looked like. All that mattered was how I felt about myself.
I could go anywhere I liked, and didn't need to "prepare" my body for it.
There was no "work" needed beforehand. I could show up the way I was, and enjoy the event, and nobody would judge me except myself. And even if they did? Who cares.

I had wasted two decades being worried about what other people thought about my appearance.
Being so worried about my perceived flaws, I would miss what was happening around me. I let fear take away my joy of living.
I had said no to so many things because I thought I wasn't ready, or deserving, or good enough.

But I was. I am. And so are you. Few, if any, people will ever judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves. The moment I finally stopped doing that, was the moment when I said wholeheartedly yes to life. Yes to every experience, yes to imperfections, and yes to the recognition that while I am flawed, it is okay to be.

This is one of my all-time favourite quotes, and I read it daily:

“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; 
or you didn’t go swimming in

warm pools and oceans all those years 
because your thighs were jiggly

and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out
on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big
juicy creative life, 
of imagination and radical silliness and staring
off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart.
Don’t let this happen.”

(Anne Lamott)

Let's forget about perfectionism, and stop waiting for that one day when we will be ready: skinnier, or more toned, or more worthy. Let's live now, let's put on that bathing suit unashamedly, and eat dessert, and don't worry about the lines around our eyes. 

Life will be over in the blink of an eye, and until that happens - let's enjoy the hell out of it!


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