A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Dodging the Mainstream

When I was a teenager I got a subscription to SEVENTEEN and GLAMOUR magazine. Magazines designed to draw girls just my age towards the mainstream ideal of young womanhood. The magazines played it safe and were quite superficial. I found the fixation on external appearance off putting and I soon lost interest in them. When I went to college occasionally I would look over various "women's" magazines and be appalled by how repetitive and predictable they all were. The hot topics never changed (not to this day even): weight loss, make-overs, tips on sex and a female celebrity interview of some sort. I felt insulted. Where was the intellectual challenge? Why was I being directed over and over again to focus on my physical appearance? And why were women being homogenized into a particular model type that we all were supposed to aspire to? One of the most frustrating things I found about many of the magazines was that they were created by women and many women obviously loved them. Why? To this day I have trouble even looking at the covers of these magazines, the pull of them can be intense, saying "Be like us. Do what we do." But I just don't want to.

But obviously, many women do not feel as I do. Women's magazines are flourishing as they have done for decades. But I am very out of touch with both the women who buy these magazines and the magazines themselves. I live on the perimeter of society rather than in the mainstream. But even I am aware that too many women suffer from eating disorders in a large part due to striving after some physical idea of perfection. The logic seems to go: "If I look a certain way, then I will be accepted and praised." The problem is it's a false logic. Being accepted and praised, being loved has little to do with appearance and I think deep down most people know this. Human beings are a motley group, no two look alike and most are no where near looking like magazine models. We come in all shapes, shades and sizes. And yet, there is beauty in us, even the homeliest person on the planet has something attractive in his or her expression, voice, hair, walk, eyes or the various combinations thereof. To judge each other, in all our wonderful variety, by some static ideal would be not only insane but impractical. We have to get along with each other in order to live our lives. We try to take people as they come, hopefully trying to minimize fixating on each other imperfections. This is called being a decent human being, accepting people not for what they look like but for who they are.

This fixation on appearance is especially intense for girls. My impression is most eating disorders first form around the age of twelve when girls are just entering puberty. It is the age of raging hormones when breasts and hips begin to transform one's shape and there is a deepening interest in sexuality. I remember things felt pretty intense for me starting at age twelve. I had gotten taller, put on a normal amount of weight, began menstruating. I had a clique of friends and we obsessed about "the guys". I was as self-conscious as the next girl but I don't remember worrying much about my weight, there was no change in my eating patterns, which I'd say were pretty normal. Occasionally a few of my friends would decide to get dressed up and go to school but I always opted out of that. I wasn't a tom-boy but I also wasn't interested in drawing attention to myself using young and awkward feminine wiles. I guess, even then, I wanted "the guys" to like me for myself and not the dress I wore or the attitude I took.

After going to a public junior high school in Brooklyn, I went to a private high school in Manhattan. Even between the two boroughs there was culture shock for me and I did not like my new and much smaller school so far away from all my friends.
I was the Brooklyn girl with the Brooklyn accent, an accent I quickly outgrew. I mostly kept to myself though I did have one other friend that first year at school. We were misfits, not interested in following the popular girls but not quite confident enough in ourselves as we were. It was around this time that I began feeling emotionally disturbed. I just didn't want to fit in to fit in. Sure, I wanted to look nice but it wasn't the most important thing in my world. I missed my friends and I missed "the guys" and I had little desire to make new friends and adapt to this foreign private school. It was around this time that I got and then discarded SEVENTEEN and GLAMOUR magazines. I still wanted to have a boyfriend but I felt too shy to socialize and find one.

Perhaps I was fortunate in some ways not being pulled into the world of "normal" girls who cared more about their appearance than their school work. Who cared more about seducing boys and messing around. Who liked reading the magazines and going shopping. Those girls who had little ambition outside their relationships. I was more introspective, my inclinations more artistic. I had no older sisters and my mother was not overtly feminine. I didn't attach to any female role model for beauty and success. As high school progressed I found a couple more friends who were all creative. We talked about art, books, society and each other. We didn't have boyfriends. We focused on each other instead. I cut my hair short, in typical adolescent fashion, I began wearing black a lot. I was rejecting the feminine stereotype of beauty and following more of a counter culture attitude. I flirted with the idea of becoming a lesbian but I really didn't have the courage or enough of the inclination to embrace that lifestyle. I remained a frustrated heterosexual who emotionally relied too much on her friends for support. Then, in my senior year of high school I began going out with Saul. By the end of the school year we would both no longer be virgins and I would enter into a five year relationship with him.

But I would lose something in the process, some sense of having an independent spirit, some sense of personal power. And I would lose my two best friends who had come to mean a lot to me. We were growing up and growing apart from each other. Ironically, because I was in college (well, actually three in succession) I was sucking up a lot of knowledge and feeling greater confidence in my ability to reason and write. I entered the mainstream, I had a steady boyfriend and I was going to a good college and I was doing well there. I was in the up and coming generation of young college educated women. But I still stood aloof from my peers and acquired no female friends and no female role models. Still on some level I felt weak and ineffectual. Saul was my steady companion. He was smarter than me, better read and more competitive and I think I placed myself beneath him in the scheme of things. I adapted to what he liked but found myself liking what he liked so it wasn't much of a problem. The problem for me at the time was that I didn't have much ambition to do anything with my life and so I drifted along beside him.

There is no good manual for becoming a healthy woman, you live with your good luck and your bad luck and you learn through trial and error. But the message being sent out to women through the media is still way too superficial. Look good. Get rich. Be a star. Marry a star. It's a portrait of a society that is out of reach and full of itself. It doesn't give much needed direction to women's lives. It has little substance and quality. It is still exclusive and stereotypical. To find the substance and quality women need you have to do some research. It's out there, it's just not what's most popular.

Believe it or not, I worked on this for over five hours and I'm still not satisfied with it. There's the temptation to delete it or leave it as a draft and not post today but I have to remember the work I've been doing here lately is not about perfection, it's a weblog, some daily thoughts, a first draft. I wish I could write a polished essay each day but I'm too much of a novice. And in some ways keeping this daily appointment to write here is the most important thing. It's been about a week so far and I've been really enjoying the discipline of writing every day. I hope I keep it up.
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