Highlights for My Body Image Breakthrough
- My quest for confidence (0:55)
- The problem with fitting in (1:40)
- Back when any kind of attention would do (3:20)
- The truth about our worthiness (8:10)
- How you feel about yourself affects what you choose (11:15)
- When it’s really not about you (13:20)
- Looking back to look forward … and to reach out (15:05)
My Body Image Breakthrough, Part 2
This is the second part of my 3-part series about how body image plays a role in confidence and relationships. Click here to read or listen to Part 1.
Last week, I talked about how my body image nightmare began, what I made it all mean, and how I kept myself small in an effort to protect myself from disappointment, criticism, and life. Basically, from myself and my negative-thought prison.
This week, I want to tell you where I started looking for confidence. Since I didn’t have a lot of it myself, I began searching for it outside of myself.
My Quest for Confidence
When I say, “I began searching for confidence outside myself,” I don’t actually mean that I woke up one day and said, “Hey, Shawna, wouldn’t it be nice to have a cup of confidence to go with your breakfast sandwich?”
No, it wasn’t like that at all.
I’m sure most teenagers – and well, let’s be honest, a lot of people at every age –mostly seek validation from their friends. I think it’s part of a teen’s developmental process to pull away from our parents and start looking for our own identity and independence.
That was me … I wanted to be cool, I wanted to be liked, and I wanted to fit in.
The Problem with Fitting In
Fitting in is complicated because human beings have a hard-wired need for love and belonging. But we mistakenly believe that if we can just fit in, then everything will be okay.
But, according to Brené Brown**, fitting in doesn’t fill that need.
She says that fitting in is actually the opposite of belonging because we are morphing ourselves into what other people want us to be – fitting in means not being who we really are!
To fit in, we put on this façade, this mask, that we think other people will want, and we get them to like that falseness. We don’t give them the opportunity to like who we really are. So, fitting in isn’t belonging … it’s actually a block to true, meaningful belonging.
When I was a teenager, fitting in meant drinking with my friends, trying cigarettes, skipping school (which was so much fun!!!), and having a boyfriend.
Fitting in also meant being thin … which I was not. I wore a size 12 or 14, and by high-school standards, I felt fat. I wasn’t fat, but that was the only neon light flashing in my brain 24/7.
Back When Any Kind of Attention Would Do
Junior high and high school are when kids start “going together” and claiming people as boyfriends and girlfriends.
You know what I mean … that’s when all the drama starts, the crying in the bathrooms and at dances. What was everyone crying over anyway?
I felt left out, which I made mean that I was unworthy!
When I was 15 years old, I got my first real job, and it opened me up to a whole new world – more responsibility, different social skills, and I had my own money. I became part of a world of adults.
I worked at a local grocery store chain, and because I was so young, I couldn’t work inside the store. My job was loading the cars in the parcel pickup lane at the front of the store.
Let me tell you … working outside all day in the brutal summer heat was not all fun and games, but we managed to make it fun by competing every day for who got the most tips.
I was the only girl working in that flock of teenage boys, and being a girl either worked for me or against me. Customers either wouldn’t let me touch their groceries because I was a girl and “girls shouldn’t be doing this,” or they felt sorry for me and wanted only me to load their car … and then instructed me not to share the tip.
Ohhhh, my early lessons of gender inequality and misogyny…
Most of the guys I worked with were great. But to them, I was just one of the guys. They often joked about how they never saw me as “a real girl.” I guess that was because we did the same job? I don’t know.
The bottom line is they weren’t interested in me, which was okay, because I wasn’t interested in them, either. But it was fun! I made my own money for the first time, and I made some friends.
This is where I began getting attention. It wasn’t always good attention, but at that age, my ego was craving any kind of attention.
Guys from the nearby ice cream shop would ride by on their skateboards and chat me up, and some would drive by in their cars and say stuff.
I was finally getting the validation that I had been waiting for, even if sometimes it came as disgusting catcalls or lecherous offers.
I actually met my first boyfriend while “working the curb,” as we called it. (No, it wasn’t a prostitution thing, as much as it sounds that way.)
He was a cashier at the same grocery store, and he would come outside on his breaks and chat with me. Eventually, he offered me rides home after work, then we moved on to getting something to eat or going to a movie.
It was a very slow process, but I didn’t mind. I liked the attention, but I was terrified, so slow was the only speed I could go.
Over time, he became part of my family. My younger siblings loved him and so did my mom. My dad, not so much, but he pretended to (for my sake, I guess). I can only imagine that his 15-year-old daughter beginning to date was an unsettling process, especially when my new boyfriend was a few years older than I was.
But at work? We gradually became the sweethearts of the grocery store … everyone loved us! And they seemed really invested in our relationship.
In hindsight, it seems a little strange to me that this scenario gave so much fuel to my dimly lit candle, but at the time, it was evidence that I was good enough – he liked me and everyone we worked with liked us together. I felt like a princess.
I know that sounds crazy – a grocery store princess?! Seriously?
But it’s true. Having that positive feedback meant I must be making the right decision … and did you notice how none of my decisions were based on what I, personally, thought or wanted?
That’s because I didn’t have much self-worth. My body was bigger than a size 2, and I made that mean that I wasn’t good enough.
So, how could I be trusted to make a good decision when what I was really doing was feeding my poor bruised ego?
The Truth About Our Worthiness
The truth is that I was worthy, and I had always been worthy … but as a teenage girl, I was nowhere near that self-aware.
My self-talk was completely negative and revolved solely around body image. So, I figured, “If this older guy likes me, then I must be okay … I must be good enough if he likes me.” That was the social currency I was trading.
Social clout is everything when you’re a teenager. It’s a commodity that’s traded faster than shares on the New York Stock Exchange! Hence, the need for some social currency.
There are many ways to increase your social currency…
Acceptance by way of fitting in is a social currency, athletics is another, and I suppose grades can be currency with a certain crowd.
Who you’re dating or have dated is the one I’m going to focus on.
When you’re a teen – or any age, for that matter – and you want to feel better about yourself because you’re low on self-esteem, one of the ways to boost your self-confidence is to be found attractive by someone else.
Having someone ask you out is a huge boost! Becoming someone’s girlfriend is another…
Are you following me here?
The path to increased self-esteem for most teenagers is to have someone else think that they’re great!
This external validation is what drove me. It didn’t matter how great my family thought I was … as a teenager, what mattered most to me was what my friends thought.
The first year and a half of our relationship was not good, but I didn’t realize how off it really was … I didn’t have anything to compare it to.
But when I found out that he was still dating his supposed ex-girlfriend during most of that time, he and I had a big fight and broke up, and I bombed my SATs because all I could do was cry – and to this day I still hate Cinderella’s “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone).”
I took him back.
Because I needed him. And yes, I loved him.
But if I’m being honest, I needed him to love me to make me good enough, and my real fear was that if I broke up with him, no one else would ever love me.
So I went back. Over and over.
Even as he cheated and gaslighted me every time into believing that I was crazy, I went back … because I felt that I wasn’t good enough, and I needed to be with him to prove to the world that I was worthy.
How You Feel About Yourself Affects What You Choose
As I said last week, when we don’t have a good mental image of who we are and what we look like, that has a direct impact on our own appreciation for ourselves.
And when we don’t feel good about ourselves, when we don’t appreciate ourselves, we don’t always make the best choices because our mind crack is skewing our mental picture of who we are.
I didn’t make the best choices for seven and a half years. The first year and a half sucked, the five years in the middle were good, and the last year was a nightmare.
It was better to be with him than to be alone.
Or so I thought. That was one of the million lies I told myself because I didn’t believe in me, and I stayed with him until I couldn’t stay anymore.
I stayed until the one thing happened that I couldn’t overlook: he got someone pregnant. And not just any someone, either, but a coworker who was almost twice my age and who had pretended to be my friend while gathering information about my relationship with him, and then screwing my boyfriend behind my back.
It was the ultimate betrayal and humiliation.
The grocery store princess had fallen from her throne, and everyone loves to gawk at the scene of an accident. The people we worked with couldn’t look away. I was front and center of a real-life soap opera for all to witness.
And there I was, about to graduate from college. It should have been the happiest time of my life, but I was devastated beyond my wildest imagination.
Still, I couldn’t look away any longer. His promises and pleas were nothing more than lies to keep me with him, so he could have his cake and eat it, too.
I cried myself to sleep for months, and the toll this took on me was devastating, both emotionally and physically.
When It’s Really Not About You
The most disturbing part is that I immediately made his cheating mean that I wasn’t good enough – I wasn’t thin enough, I wasn’t pretty enough, etc.
I told myself that if I had been thinner, he wouldn’t have cheated. If I had been more of everything (you name it – insert here), he wouldn’t have cheated.
I knew the cheating was his fault, and yet, I gave his action meaning about me!
I didn’t even realize that I was carrying around this backpack full of heavy-ass rocks. My belief that my body wasn’t good enough to keep my boyfriend from cheating was enough to keep me in a bad place for such a long time.
His cheating was the evidence that my mind needed to further prove my unworthiness. “See? He cheated! You’re clearly not good enough, or he wouldn’t have done that!” was the conversation that was going on in my head all the time.
If I just could’ve been better, then I could’ve prevented that … and then I could’ve stayed with him, and I could’ve played out the fairy tale that had been running in my head for the past seven and a half years.
I continued to carry that heavy-ass backpack for a very, very long time.
It took me over 20 years to really see that I created that story … that I gave his actions meaning.
My mind created a very powerful story about my unworthiness based on his actions, but I’m not the only one.
SO many women make up the same stories about their unworthiness, when we are worthy, no matter what!!
Looking Back to Look Forward … and to Reach Out
This has been the hardest podcast to write.
Revisiting that sad, unsure, and self-conscious girl has been tough.
It pains me to honestly look at where I was, what I allowed to happen around me, and what was going on inside my head.
I can see how far I’ve come, but it hasn’t been easy to feel the insecurity again and then share it. It’s actually heartbreaking.
But it’s been worth it because I want young girls and women to know that their worthiness isn’t about their body.
You are worthy because you are here, breathing, and on this planet. Don’t let anyone ever make you feel less than, as I did. Don’t buy into messages that you’re not enough just the way you are.
Learn from my story.
Next time, I’ll talk about how I got freedom from myself and others.
** Brené Brown is one of my favorite people on the planet. If you haven’t yet seen her work, do yourself a favor and google her or watch her two super-famous TED Talks. They absolutely changed my life!