Breaking Radio Silence – The Look of Shame

This will eventually end up in the book ‘Breaking Radio Silence’ in longer form but here’s a shorter version.

One of the very first things I learned in life was the meaning of the word ‘ugly’ as it applied to me and it was a bad thing because I was fat and clumsy. When I was eight years old, my spine began to curve but everyone thought I was just slouching and lazy. Five years later, I was diagnosed with scoliosis, curvature of the spine but it was too late for non-surgical correction. So since I was eight years old (give or take), my body has been fat, misshapen, and lumpy. Because of my scoliosis, my physical activity has been limited in addition to me having damaged body parts due to being out of alignment. At this point in my life, I honestly don’t give a shit if someone thinks I’m ugly or if they even tell me because I’ve heard every variation of that and I’m still here. But the wound is there, and it always will be.

In the last six years, one of the things I’ve have learned to do is to reject shame and guilt I had no business feeling or taking on in the first place. It has taken me the past six years to understand the shame and guilt I have carried over the way I look and how to let go of it. One thing that has helped me is a memory I will always treasure:

One of my earliest memories is of my mother looking at me with enormous love in her eyes and a beautiful smile on her face as she said to me, “You are a beautiful girl.” I heard that all my life from her and I know she meant it with every fiber of her being. I remember all the times we went shopping together for clothes and how we always had fun together doing that. Because when it was just the two of us, it was all about having fun with no shame or guilt. That ended when my mother had her mastectomy, the first of many surgeries she would have after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. In addition to multiple, horribly-scarring surgeries, first and second-degree radiation burns, chemotherapy treatments, hormonal imbalances that made her gain and lose weight, and hair loss were enormous feelings of shame and guilt over what was happening to her.

And my mother only broke down once with me and cried over it. It was one afternoon when we were alone and she told me how she was so afraid my father might leave her because of her cancer and what was happening to her afterward. All I could do was hold her and comfort her as best as possible. Now that thought never entered my father’s mind though if he had left her my last words to him would have been, “You are dead to me.” But he always tried to comfort her even I did the opposite: I gave her a space to vent, to speak honestly and truthfully, and to say things that would make most people very uncomfortable. I won’t go into any detail past a certain point about those conversations, but I knew how people looked at her, with pity and revulsion, or worse, trying to bullshit their way around the ugly truth she lived with every single day until she died.

In the last decade of my mother’s life, I learned just how terribly she’d been raised. She’d been raised to have no self-confidence, no self-esteem, and worst of all, to believe she was ugly and worthless if she didn’t at least try to conform to some bullshit unattainable beauty standard. My mom spent most of her adult life on a perpetual diet, following exercise fads, and gaining and losing weight. Yet she never, ever forced any of that shit onto me. She always looked at me with love and acceptance, told me I was beautiful, smart, capable, and kind. She gave me the self-confidence and self-esteem she never had despite a lot of assholes in the world trying to take that from me. In her eyes, I always felt like I was good enough, like I was worthy of love and respect. I did my best to try and make her feel that way and I hope she felt that from me.

I would love to tell her I’ve learned to let go of a lot of shame and guilt over how I look and a lot of that is because I remember the way she looked at me. I have made a commitment to do my absolute best to look at people as they are and accept them as they are, and to try and be compassionate and accepting. Now that doesn’t mean I have to take shit from people because people who are mean and cruel, regardless of whether it’s thoughtless or thought out, deserve to be held accountable for the pain they inflict with their cruelty. I know can’t pull someone’s head out of their ass for them. But I can stand up for myself and for others and say this: there is NO shame in how you look. Ever.

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