Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Report Card: 36

When do I get to be entirely comfortable in my own skin? I've just turned 36, and I've been awkward my whole life. In many older women I see a confidence that I long for, and I've always hoped that by the time I'm forty I might, like these women, have grown into myself. But from where I'm standing now it feels a long way off, certainly further than four years.

Like so many women, I don't love my body. I don't hate it, and don't want another. Yet somehow I always feel the wrong size. If I were thinner, my clothes would fit better and I wouldn't have this muffin top peeking out my jeans; if I were fatter I'd be more beautifully rounded. My skinny friends are always stylish; my large friends just gorgeous; but somehow my thin bits are scrawny and my big bits are lumpy and I never, ever feel just right.

The only time I've loved my body was when I was pregnant. That's when I began to swim, my enormous balloon of a belly wafting below me as I meandered up and down the lap lanes. Once I had the babies I stopped swimming, however; I can't stand being seen in bathers. I love the feeling of being suspended in water, but every time I look at the swim bag I feel sick. I've tried sidestepping this with tank tops and big shorts, but I hate wearing them more than regular bathers; they just make me more obvious.

Yet the discomfort doesn't seem to have much to do with my body, per se. I can't imagine I'd feel different if I were glamorously thin with perfect olive skin. I would still hate being looked at, or feeling scrutinised by strangers. Really, the discomfort is about being noticed; and the physical side is only one aspect. At times this aversion has dominated how I've felt in public. I never used to sing, or laugh; I'd get highly anxious in shops or on public transport; I'd become flustered and stammer in coffee shops when the waiter came to take my order. I've only danced under the influence of exactly the right dose of alcohol, and usually not even then. Much of the time, I hate being observed; and I struggle with this.

I long to grow out of this discomfort, this desire to be invisible which has, at times, crippled me; I get so frustrated that I haven't managed it yet. But I'm beginning to realise it's a thing to keep working it, a gradually dawning state that will come with effort and patience, for when I look back over the years, I see change.

Although I never sang for many many years, now I sing every day. A few years back, having spent several years at a small church where singing was paramount, I realised it was time to get over my fear. I stayed at the church, joined a community singing group, and began singing to my kids. I've learned to listen, and to modulate my timing and tone; my singing voice has shifted from a whisper to a bray to something moderately tuneful. Not only that, but where once I stood stiff as a board, these days I find myself swaying, sufficiently lost in the act of singing to be able to move with the sound.

I used to get wildly flustered in shops, and at times I still get anxious. But gone are the days when I avoided them altogether; now I enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city streets. I used to get so panicky on public transport that I'd disembark early to avoid missing my stop; now, I stay seated til journey's end. For years I wore only black; but now I wear colour – lots of muted blues and greys, yes, but also pinks, reds and greens, impossible a decade ago. My black boots have been replaced by burgundy; my black Mary Janes by clogs sprinkled with flowers. Small things, perhaps, but indicators of change – though what slow change it is! At kindergarten, I smothered my pictures with thick black paint so no one would comment on their strangeness; they showed perspective and depth. At school, I found it easier to draw like everybody else, formulaic flowers and little girls in pink. Thirty years later, I am gradually unlearning the drawing, peeling back the paint, and depicting the world as I see it. I use words now instead of a brush, but it's the same game; and I'm finally doing it in public.

So at 36, looking back, I find things are progressing. Healing may be possible. It's taking a long time, quite literally decades, but I'm well on the way. No longer stuck in the desolate years of my teens, or that awful black hole of my early twenties, I feel like I've found good earth and am sinking down roots; I'm sending out new green shoots. And the more I unfurl in spirit, the more I unfold in public.

One day in my forties, perhaps I will blossom. I will put on a pretty dress without wincing; I will wear my bathers casually. I will write something long, and become one of those women I adore, big and bold and confidently present. When that day comes you will probably know; for not only will I be singing aloud, but you'll probably find me dancing.


  1. Lovely Alison, beautifully said - I enjoyed that!

  2. It all starts with teeny baby steps. The thing is that alot of people are so caught up in themselves that they do not notice anyone else. It took me more than a few years to realise that. I put off riding horses because I am not tall and slender with long elegant legs. I am of average height, with average length legs, a little pot belly and a chest that requires alot of physical restraining. I finally bit the bullet and found myself a dressage instructor to take on me and my horse and her first words were ¨You have a lovely seat, beautiful steady light hands and I would kill for your lower leg position¨ This from a woman who rides at a very high level and has the sterotypical equestrienne physique. She reassured in one lesson that I had every right to be on a horse despite my atypical physique. I no longer doubt my ability to ride a horse. However that confidence in self does not always carry onto every other aspect of my life. If I only could bottle that contentedness that I have with myself when I am on a horse.....

  3. Thanks CarCar LaJ...

    Daffodil - This blog is all about baby steps; and birthdays are a good time to look in, I reckon, when balanced by a commitment to other people's lives. I love the image of you on a horse - for me, perhaps it's the kitchen bench, or curled into my grandfather's armchair with a book - now those are the places I'm truly confident, at home in myself so to speak.

  4. Great piece, Alison.
    I normally love this blog because of all the "me too!" chimes it sets off in my head.But this piece set off an "Ohh that's the other side!" kinda ring. Because I'm the opposite.

    I've always been a bit of a show off. I wear a two-piece swimsuit, lots of red clothes, and laugh loudly in public. My natural inclination has always been to try and attract attention to myself. So I think my area of growth is to risk NOT being seen. To kinda "get over" myself and start noticing others more....

    I think writers are often spectators by nature and that is what allows them to quietly watch the world and take home their stories.


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