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On Better Terms

The older I get, the more I feel the need to re-evaluate relationships that have become more work than satisfaction. That means not spending a lot of time battling internally about how much emotional energy I’m putting into any aspect of my life. If it doesn’t bring me some joy or peace, I lose my patience much more quickly than I used to. One perpetually challenging relationship has been the one I have with my body.

I have been at odds with how I look and feel in this skin as far back as I can remember. I thought of that last week on International Transgender Day of Visibility, and how amazing it is that we now honor the struggle of people who have been afraid to be who they are. I am not transgender, but I grew up in the 1950s and 60s with the constant underlying knowledge that I liked girls more than I liked boys. Because there were mostly two ways to be in my small world at the time—masculine or feminine—I struggled profoundly with feeling way more of the former than the latter. My mother always suggested girly clothes that didn’t feel quite right, and all through junior high and high school, the dissonance was palpable and painful. The way I walked, sat, and moved my hands always felt big and awkward and boyish, while I was surrounded by feminine girls who flirted with boys and looked tiny and adorable in their short skirts. It didn’t help that high school was also the very time I began to gain weight.

I wish I’d loved that young version of myself the way I do my older self.

Most of us who struggle with our bodies began this grim relationship when we were young. If we didn’t see people like us in magazines, or if our mothers urged us to “do something with that hair,” or if we felt the opposite of those around us, it was like being branded with a mark that would make everything seem like an uphill battle. I was in awe of girls—and boys—who seemed light and confident about who they were and how they looked, even though I’m sure they all had their own insecurities. To me, being in my body felt like spending my life in a house I didn't like, designed in a way I couldn't relate to.

When I meet young lesbians today, I see a much stronger sense of self than I had. I look at them dressed in what makes them feel comfortable, with short, stylish hair and a pride I would have paid money for. I remember going shopping with my friends once when I was in high school. My mother had given me some money, so I felt like I could get what I wanted. What drew my eye was a very tailored madras blazer. My friends were looking at dresses, and eye make-up, while I was putting on the jacket and looking at myself in the mirror. I felt cool and cute—words I never used to describe myself at 15. I felt like myself, a sense I'd rarely experienced. When I returned home with the jacket, my mother looked at it and asked disappointedly, “That’s what you bought?” I kept it, but never wore it, believing as she obviously did that doing so would have been wrong.

Lifetimes have passed since then, and I have, gratefully, spent many years as a proud lesbian, so much more comfortable in my own skin than I ever imagined I’d be able to. I still struggle with gaining weight and trying to lose it, though I've finally found a workable enough relationship that balances food and movement and grace. But loving this body still doesn't come naturally. These days, I spend hours looking at myself on the screen in Zoom meetings. There I am—gray hair, many wrinkles, unstylish eyebrows, and the skin of a nearly 70-year-old.

But instead of hating myself for looking the way I look, I realize that person on the screen and I really are on better terms than ever. I know who she is, where she’s been and what she’s done, and I am fully aware of all there is inside that body and head. I wish I’d loved that young version of myself the way I do my older self. I realize what power there is in really claiming this person. It’s what I hope for everyone, of course—the ability to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel proud and forgiving. I'm often so grateful to see my own smile these days, to be in my own body, and to finally feel like my relationship with this person is worth it.


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