If I’ve learned anything in my years studying myth and story, its that stories matter. The stories we tell about ourselves matter. The stories that are told about us matter. Today is my second day into this project, and I’d like to tell a bit of my story, and how the way I grew up influenced how I came to live in my body as a child, adolescent, and adult.
My parents divorced when I was five, and, after a contentious custody battle, my dad ended up with primary custody of my brother and myself. This was a fairly unusual state of affairs in the 1970s. In some ways it was hard for me, growing up in a household without women. My grandmother did come to live with us after my grandfather died in 1982, but she was very old-fashioned about the role women should have in the world.
Each of us grows up bearing the burden of, shall we say, a certain narrative structure. I talk about this all the time in my workshops. Were you the “athletic one” in your family? The “pretty one”? We ingest the ways that our families talk about us from the time we were small, and its up to us as adults to decide if that is a narrative that still serves us. Often, it doesn’t.
I love and respect my dad deeply, and what I’m about to say isn’t meant to denigrate him at all. He, like all parents, raised my brother and me out of his own woundedness, his own brokenness. Part of that brokenness was a result of his divorce from my mom, which he did not choose. Some came before. In any event, the recurring narrative I remember from growing up was that I was capable of anything, but that was mostly predicated on the assumption that I used my looks as a tool. He chose my name out of Playboy magazine (Allison Parks, playmate of the year 1966-yes I looked it up). I was a pretty enough child, I suppose, and smart. I suppose he figured that the combination of looks and smarts would take me anywhere. However, (and this is how I remember it), there was always this message that my primary responsibility was to be attractive and pleasing to men, and that any power that I might have would be based on my ability to use my looks to manipulate men.
Once I started going through puberty in my early teens, I stopped being such a skinny stick of a kid and started to get curves. That was when I began hearing the “you need to lose weight” narrative. I remember being about 17 and hearing this in a really clear way. I had recently taken a job cleaning a stable, which was giving more exercise than I’d had before (I wasn’t an athletic kid-more bookish), and I’d lost about 25 pounds, which got me down to 139 lbs at 5’11”. I thought I was looking pretty good at that point, and was feeling confident, but he thought I was still too fat. I gained the weight back, then more in college, and he freely expressed his opinion about my body for many years, up to the time I got engaged to my husband (you’re going to lose weight for him, right?).
I think the fact that I continued to lose and gain weight (mostly gain) throughout my adult life was a combination of rebellion against authority (you can’t tell me what to do!) and a feeling that I was safer if I was fat. I wanted to avert the male gaze, and being fat was a good way to become invisible.
Anyway, telling all of this has left me feeling wrung out. More tomorrow.