What do you see when you look in the mirror?
A conversation I had with a friend earlier in the day, along with the events of the past few days, had me thinking absently about perceptions. Not our perceptions of the world, not others perception of us. Rather, our perceptions of ourselves.
The question I’d put to my friend was, what part of yourself do you like best, physically? She was at a loss for an answer, and well, I didn’t have a reply either. The simple fact of the matter is, I don’t like myself at all. Never have, and by the looks of it, probably never will.
My battle with an acutely dissected self image began before I had constructed an image at all. Those of you who’ve been following the semi autobiographical side of this blog know that my childhood wasn’t exactly normal. One of my earliest and strongest unpleasant memories is of me with my dad, when I was eight or nine. That’s when our ‘sessions’ started.
Each ‘session’ would be ten to fifteen minutes of him standing me in front of the mirror, and pointing out the many ways in which I was ugly, and exactly how and why I was so ugly. How my nose was potato shaped, unlike his straight one.My face was too round. My cheeks were too chubby, I was too fat, too dark, too short.. basically too strange, not like him at all. The odd thing is that people tell me even now that I look like him on occasion, I mean obviously I do, he’s my dad. But he denied and denies it, vehemently.
These sessions started off sporadically, reserved for when he caught me alone. Eventually they became a near daily thing when he was home, extending well into my teens, and they happen now too. He’s always been painstakingly descriptive of everything wrong with me. I’m shaped like a hippo, especially from behind. Round, fat, dark, squat. Too many pimples and too many scars. Potholes, he calls them. I was nothing like him. Nothing like him at all. No one was ever going to look twice at me. NO one would ever love me, I was just too darn ugly. I was never going to get married, have kids, because of how I looked. If I wanted someone to fall for me, I’d better study, and study hard. A fat paycheck was going to be the only way I landed a guy. He’d modeled in his teens. A full time playboy, only working when he absolutely needed to. Girls would fall all over themselves to be with him. Write him love letters, the whole shebang. I was nothing like him.
I tried to change things. A lot. Crash dieted, worked out before he woke up every day. I didn’t want to be the fat, hated kid. My persecution didn’t even come from school, at school I was in peace. At home, every day with him was hell.
Then my teens happened. You know how girls are always paranoid about that guy checking them out, whether that other guy likes them or not?Yeah well, that was never me. Firstly because I always had more pressing situations to deal with. Secondly, because he made sure no one would ever, ever look at me twice without sniggering.
I was force fed every day. Piles and piles of food, sometimes till I almost threw up. I’m not blaming my obesity on my dad. I love my food. I love cooking and eating good food. But my relationship with food was incredibly convoluted. I’d be fed cheese and chocolates with everything. And that’s the most unobtrusive sight of all, isn’t it? Nothing wrong with a parent wanting his child to eat more. Not for these twisted reasons, though. I was barely out of my teens. Love, relationships, dating, these were alien concepts. He wanted to make sure I would never find out. He was terrified that someone might actually look twice at me. So he made sure that I ate, and ate, and ate. He still makes me clean my plate.
And then, inspite of all this, inspite of how I looked, someone fell for me. For the first time I had someone to please, and I did everything in my power to do so. His sister asked him if he was still talking to ‘that short fat dark girl’. He asked me to lose weight. First quietly, then with emphasis. I turned to bulimia.
I started with binge and purge cycles. Ate with dad, went into the bathroom and puked it out. Lost weight, and for the second time in my life I came down to my appropriate body weight. Dad noticed, and upped the feeding. I puked more frequently, sometimes just water to ‘rinse’ everything out. This went on till I started getting my old arrhythmia back, and I read up on congestive heart failure and oesophageal varices. I stopped puking quickly, and the weight crept back on. I’m fat again now, but I’m bulimia free.
Even outside home, I’ve always been perceived a little different, physically. (Mentally, I’m a nutjob, but a happy nutjob, so it’s all good). I remember back in my first semester in college, there was this one guy who could not place where I was from exactly. I gave him a new nationality each week. American, native american, mexican, indonesian, malaysian, korean, egyptian, vietnamese, armenian, persian, and more. Each time he’d say,” HA! I knew it!!!” And he’d believe it too. Till date I get asked in every exam, ‘so where are you from?’. There was even this long lost neighbor who told my friend when he saw me after 10 years, that I looked nothing like the fat Chinese kid I used to be. Obviously, none of this helped. Not with you-know-who steadily doing his chipping away at me. It’s not even been too long since the last session. Just last night I ate two boxes of shrimp followed by a big glass of sludgy mango shake. ( it takes generally half a box to get me full. The rest is just.. forced in).
It’s not all bad. I know I have a beautiful mind. I love it when people love the words I hide behind. I know I’m loved by a lot of people, people who’ve never seen me. That heartens me, that gives me strength. I’m not perceived as a monster. I’m not an oddity to a lot of people. And some of them, who know exactly who they are, can tell me I’m beautiful, and I almost believe them. I know they love me so much that I’d be beautiful to them even if I looked like an orc. Through their eyes, I will never be perceived as ugly.
While I try not to believe any of the comments anymore, more than a decade of ingraining will take its toll even on a concrete block. Today, I find myself in the weird position of being completely incapable of taking a compliment about how I look. Never. It just never makes an impact. You could yell at me till you’re blue in the face and it just bounces clean off. I get a lot of them, people tell me the oddest things. About my eyes, about my smile. Heck, even my eyelashes. It never makes any impact whatsoever, except from that handful I’d trust to walk me blind on the edge of a cliff. I don’t believe it, I can’t believe it. The me in my head still has a potato nose. She’s still the girl shaped like a hippo, the one who was affectionately nicknamed my ‘Buffalo’ at home. I’m still short, fat, weird. I’l dress up and walk out of the house and it hits me, how I look nothing like the girls my age. I’ve tried to accept that I’m never going to be a stick. My guy friends have convinced me often enough that no one likes the sticks anyway. It doesn’t work. I don’t want to even be a stick anymore. Just.. not me. I look in the mirror and some days, I want to fucking break the damn thing. I hate how I look.
But now, I claim a right over my perception of me. Even if I am ugly, that’s only right for me to say. No one else has the right to tell me that I’m ugly. No one. Ever.