Dark Days —
Trigger warning: Discussion of suicide.
This past weekend, our family went to a local school carnival, where our daughters, Linny (5) and Lottie (3), had a blast riding tiny versions of exhilarating rides, bouncing in giant inflatable houses, and playing games of chance that were tilted heavily in their favor.
And in one corner of the carnival, they had their first experience getting their entire faces painted. Linny (who loves superheroes) asked for Spider-Man, while Lottie (who loves cute and cuddly animals) asked for Hello Kitty.
A cluster of middle school girls were also getting their faces painted as kittens or mimes. Waiting alone outside the tent, a larger girl in an ill-fitting t-shirt waited her turn. She looked to be around 12 or so.
When Linny’s face was done, the girl sat down and the face-painter asked what she wanted.
“Spider-Man,” she said without a moment’s hesitation.
My daughter went as Spider-Man for Halloween last year and we got her a Spider-Man backpack this year. In response, several people pointed out to her that Spider-Man is for boys. When Linny mentioned it to me, I told her they were wrong. Spider-Man is for people who like Spider-Man.
This has satisfied her as an answer and she continues to enjoy playing with, and as, the web-slinger. I hope she continues to enjoy what she enjoys, even when confronted with people who seem to think that superheroes are for boys only.
And when I saw the older girl ask for the same face paint without hesitation or shame, I thought, “What a cool girl.” Aside from superheroes being for boys only, there’s another assumption that dressing up as a superhero is for young kids. That middle school age is when we, as a society, begin to pressure our children to grow up and to start “acting their age,” whatever that means.
That this young girl was confident enough to know what she wanted, to wait patiently, and to ask for it without any obvious signs of self-doubt or recrimination was refreshing to me. It also gave me hope that as a young, fat girl, she might have the strength to endure the body hatred that she has no doubt already been exposed to and will no doubt endure throughout the rest of her life.
But I know from my own experience how one can exude outward confidence, while struggling with self-doubt triggered by the words and actions of others. Throughout my childhood, my parents instilled a resilient self-confidence that created a dissonance between what I thought of myself and what I knew others thought of me. I liked me, others didn’t.
Yes, their words hurt, but I’m certain that without that buffer of self-confidence, I would have internalized their insults more than I ultimately did.
I hope that is what I saw in the girl with the Spider-Man face. After she was done and she started to leave the pavilion, she passed another cluster of thin and conventionally attractive girls who were not painted and seemed unlikely to do so. As she walked by the group, the fat girl smiled and waved to one of the girls in this group.
It was a fleeting gesture aimed at somebody she knew and liked, and she kept walking without saying another word. Thank goodness, because as she passed by, I watched the faces on those girls as they giggled about her Spider-Man face paint. Whatever the fat girl’s feelings about the one she waved to, the feelings were not mutual with this group
Like a punch in the gut, my empathy triggered that old, familiar pain of reaching out to someone and being scoffed at in response. It was moments like these that threatened to breach that dissonance and damage my self-worth. And while moments like these definitely scarred my barrier of self-confidence, they never fully broke it down. So, instead of loathing myself as unworthy of the attention or affection of others, I grudgingly accepted that other people didn’t think I was as awesome as I clearly was.
As painful as that grudging acceptance can be, it is the very thing that sustained me through adolescence and into adulthood, and allowed me to salvage my confidence enough to turn my desire to prove my worthiness into the ambition and confidence to express myself on this blog and in the various creative projects I have undertaken throughout my life.
I hope that fat girl has that same counter-balance to the public scorn and hatred, that same self-assurance that she’s awesome, even if others don’t agree. She seemed solid and poised, not a single shred of doubt that she was anything less than awesome. I hope she carries that with her through her own adolescence and into adulthood.
Sadly, too many young people never have a foundation of confidence installed by positive parents and role models. Without self-confidence, the words and actions become the seeds of self-destruction, as the hatred becomes internalized and the dissonance dissolves.
This week is the 38th Annual National Suicide Prevention Week, and as Deah points out in her blog, it coincides perfectly with the second National Weight Stigma Awareness Week, which is September 24-28.
Heather wrote a deeply personal account of her own struggles with self-confidence, as well as her attempted suicide, and explains how weight stigma contributes to suicidal ideation. Deah provides some startling evidence backing her up.
And, of course, there are the tragic results of a society that dehumanizes fat people and fat kids to the point of taking their own lives. Heather created the Collateral Damage Tumblr to honor the victims of weight stigma who took their own lives.
Nobody should be made to feel unworthy of life for any reason, and especially not for the body they have. As parents, we can inoculate our children from internalizing messages of hate and loathing by instilling confidence and self-worth early and often. And as a society, we can take a stand against bullying by defending those who are degraded by others.
There are many reasons why people commit suicide, but one of the biggest reasons is the absence of self-love. If you do not love yourself or your body, then it becomes easier to accept a world without yourself or your body. I hope that each of us will use what limited influence we have on others to promote self-love and to encourage all people to embrace themselves, their bodies and their world with all the love and acceptance their hearts can hold.