Body image wasn’t anywhere near the top of my list of priorities when I was a teen. Years of abuse had left me feeling disconnected from my body. In some ways, my body felt like an enemy that often brought pain and discomfort. I had no idea how my classmates had the inner energy to be concerned with how many digits below size 10 their clothing sizes were, or how anyone could spend hours in front of a mirror fiddling with their hair until they achieved a perfect look.
Years of abuse do things to a person’s psyche. On one hand, my friends, who knew nothing of the abuse in my family, constantly criticized me for having low self-esteem. On the other hand, my parents never let a day go by without reminding me how worthless, ugly, and fat I was.
Looking back as a middle-aged adult at my teen years, I see that I wasn’t ugly. I wasn’t obese. Though my beauty wasn’t striking enough for talent scouts to discover me as I walked down the street, and my clothes weren’t in the desirable single-digit range, I look back at my young face and the numbers that measured my body size at that time with regret.
My parents’ mindsets were so warped that all the images around me had become warped. Still, a wisp of awareness remained. Instead of looking through glamour magazines and longing to look like a model, I noted which of my classmates were popular, and decided it would be all right to be just a little bit like them. So instead of going from a size 14 to a size 5, I thought it would be nice if I could be just a little bit skinny.
Instead of wanting to change my nose or skin tone, I decided it would be all right to be a little bit pretty. I used this philosophy with everything. Sports—my parents didn’t allow me to join a team since the cult we belonged to didn’t allow any activities on the Saturday Sabbath, so I decided that even though I was good at basketball and a fast runner, that it was only safe to be just a little bit good.
Of course this left me very limited, constantly fighting an inner battle that said that whenever any strength or talent presented itself, I must minimize it or force it down entirely. Why? Because any time I dared to stand out, my parents got wind of it and read me the riot act. In my family, standing out meant anything at all that caused even the smallest public notice. Writing an essay that the teacher read to the class or creating a piece of artwork in school that was deemed worthy of hanging on the wall—those acts were seen as threats by my parents.
Their riot act consisted of belittling, followed by threats, and if that was enough to provoke me to talk back, the threats were followed by corporal punishment.
“You think you’re so smart, don’t you?” my mother would sneer.
“You think you’re better than your father, huh?”
If I answered in a respectful way, usually a trembly, “n-no,” sometimes my mother would back down, cross her arms, and decide how much menial work she would pile on me to make up for my impetuous flaunting.
My father, though, was a different story.
“N-no?” he’d mimic.
Refusing to answer his ridicule was no escape. He’d push his square-jawed face into mine and repeat, “Did you say ‘N-no?’ Are you a sniveling little brat? Yes, you are a sniveling little brat.”
Then he’d turn away and just as I caught my breath, he’d swing back toward me and flat-hand my face, or whatever part of my body his palm happened to connect with.
And once he started, he didn’t stop until he was exhausted. At least, until his physical body was exhausted. His anger was boundless, always hungry for more violence.
And I would shrivel up a little more inside, until my goal of being just a little bit skinny, or a little bit artistic, or a little bit of anything, seemed an impossible goal.