My daughter believes in the Tooth Fairy. At 45, I believe in The Cornstarch Fairy, who visits me once a week and adds a teaspoon of her thickening agent to my body while I’m sleeping. I’ll come back to the pertinence of these age appropriate fantasies in a minute.
As a psychoanalyst who works mainly with women, I hear lots of amazing and upsetting stories of all kinds. But over the last 20 years, there’s only one type of suffering I can honestly say I’ve heard reported every single day I’ve practiced. My female clients reveal it explicitly and implicitly, and my male clients regularly refer to it when talking about the women they love: women at odds with themselves due to some form of self loathing. What’s come to sadden me the most about these stories is that we learn this self-loathing from the women around us, most destructively, our mothers.
Throughout our history women have been undermined and restricted in movement by men, and having been so steeped in that mindset, we’ve learned to undermine not only ourselves, but our girls.
Historically, conventional beauty was, in some ways, attached to survival. If a woman were beautiful she had a better chance of securing a husband who could afford her things she couldn’t access on her own, like financial security and real estate. Today beauty is obviously still an asset, but women continue to chase physical perfection with a fervor that belies the strides made toward the equality of the sexes.
How women feel about their bodies physically, sexually and with regard to age, expresses itself on a continuum from mild to severe, from casual self-deprecating comments like “I hate my hair,” to the devastation of eating disorders. How we see ourselves in our own bodies, and how we see the physicality of women and girls around us precludes the fuller appreciation of who we are.
We teach self loathing to each other and our daughters through comments we make about ourselves and other women, and through our conversations with each other. And we do it all the time without thinking. I’ll give three examples of how this gets played out (all real with slight changes to protect anonymity).
1. An actress in her early 20s is at the premier of a movie she’s in. The film has been critically acclaimed by The New York Times, and she feels excited and proud. Her mother comes up to her when the film is over and says what a shame it was that her outfit in the movie made her look so heavy. In that moment, who the daughter is in the world evaporates. Her mother doesn’t see her. In those few words we see a mother who can’t access the fullness of who her daughter is, and a daughter who’s denied access to the fullness of her mother.
2. A woman in her 30s says that even though she loves her family, it’s hard to visit because she knows her mother will focus on her weight. This feeling is common in women and becomes tied in with the attendant fantasy any of us would have: I would be more loved by my mother if I were thinner. The mother wants her close, yet she drives her away.
3. I’m having breakfast by myself in a quiet hotel restaurant. There’s only one other person there, a middle-aged woman who tells the waiter she waiting for someone just as another middle-aged woman enters to join her. It becomes clear it’s a business breakfast, and that although they’ve had a phone relationship, this is the first time they’re meeting in person. As they greet each other, one of the women refers to being in town for her daughter’s college graduation. The other woman exclaims, “You don’t look old enough to have a daughter that age!” to which she responds that she has an even older daughter who just had a baby, so she’s a new grandmother. Again, the woman comments in an exaggerated tone, “You’re kidding! You don’t look old enough to be a grandmother!” Age takes center stage and everything else disappears. There is no acknowledgment of her experience of the graduation or the birth.
We each have chances to change this legacy, and it can be done in the minutia of the day. When my daughter looses a tooth, we can revel in it as a rite of passage, or I can make her self-conscious about the gaps in her smile. I can complain in front of her that aging has only to do with an intensification of self-loathing, or I can teach her that it’s a normal shift in living we all make.