Fcuk Pretty

 

Coming out to my 91yo grandmother, that spring I first broke the news to her about dating a woman, did not proceed according to plan.

My mother’s mother took a long moment, squinting at me intently, before she spoke.

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“So…when are you going to lose the weight?”

I sputtered back incoherently, shifting quickly into defensive mode while still trying to confirm if she had heard and understood what I had said. But once begun, Gram was not to be dissuaded. From critiquing my body, she moved on to my brother’s, and then my brother’s wife. When her litany of complaints reached the circumference of my preschool niece’s thighs, I stood up to leave the room.

“I don’t understand what happened,” my grandmother’s querulous lament followed me. “You used to be so young and thin.

“You used to be pretty.” 

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This is not a story about living in a fat body, though I do and I could tell it. Nothing has felt so loud as flesh pressing out against my clothes, belly spreading across my seated thighs.

This is not a story about living in a thin body, either, though I have and I could tell it. Nothing has felt so fragile as bones emerging from flesh, the butterfly wing of my collarbone arching delicately below my throat.

This is a story about sight.

About the reclamation of seeing.

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Living through the verdict of someone else’s eyes, we are always vulnerable.

Just before I met the man I would later marry, I lost a third of my body weight in six months. Lost it through the proverbially healthy “diet and exercise” approach, like pacing my kitchen floor at 2am, wondering do I dare to eat a frozen grape. Lost it with the prayerful wish never to find it again.

When my new lover spoke three magical words — “you are beautiful” — I wept.

I wept because what I heard him saying was, “you are pretty.”

I heard: You are finally thin enough to be pretty. Thin enough to be looked at.

Thin enough to belong.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The memory of that moment fuels my disgust with the Dove Real Beauty Sketches. Few designed-to-go-viral advertisements bother me more than these, which all build off the premise that every woman deserves to be told she is beautiful. (Which is mere stand-in for tell a woman she is beautiful — and she will buy your products.)

One of the best known of these advertisements is the 6-minute short, “You’re More Beautiful Than You Think.”

Perhaps you’ve seen it? A series of women sit down with their backs to a sketch artist, who then draws their faces according to the self-description each woman provides. Before she can see what he has crafted, however, the sketch artist does a second portrait, this time based off a description of the woman provided by another project participant. The grand reveal is meant to show how we are all more beautiful in the eyes of others than we let ourselves feel.

It’s not a horrid sentiment. It is, however, a horrid film.

All of the women are thin, conventionally attractive, and (with one exception) white. When asked “general questions” about the face of a woman they had met earlier, what word do they repeat again and again? “She was thin, so you could see her cheekbones.” “Her chin was a nice, thin chin.” “Her face was fairly thin.” 

Asked to evaluate her portraits side by side, how does at least one woman describe what she sees? Her self-description, she says, “looks closed off and — fatter. Looks just kinda shut down, looks sadder too. The second one is more beautiful.”  The whole commercial weeps even sappier tears than I had at my most grape-starved.

The word “beauty” used in this way is a lie, a trick. It is the brittleness of “pretty” dressed up in a mink coat.

Thin and pretty.

Thin as pretty.

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I can gauge how “pretty” I look to my family by how they treat me. At my thinnest, my father will take picture after picture of me. “Our daughter looks like a supermodel!” he once exclaimed in an aside to my mother — then bought us all champagne at dinner. My mother herself later told me that when I had passed the bread basket without taking a slice, she nearly wept from joy.

On fatter visits, they buy me not champagne but coats. Fall jackets, full-length raincoats, woolen overcoats. The coats are black or otherwise drab: navy blue, mud brown, olive green. Shapeless and voluminous, always with a hood to hide my bulky face. The last time I wore a gift from my mother in the rain, a cabbie refused to unlock his taxi doors until I first flipped back the hood and showed him my lack of menace.

During a recent winter visit, I refused my mother’s repeated offers to buy me yet another of these shrouds, showing off instead the coat I had recently acquired for myself: fitted, no hood, blood red.

If anyone, relative or not, is going to avert their eyes from me in public?

I want to be sure they have first seen what they are looking away from.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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“Washing Up”

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Mine has never been a face one calls pretty. Nor have I much cultivated “pretty,” preferring to spend most of my adulthood somewhere on a continuum from “couldn’t be bothered” to “get out of my way.” I get angry, ugly haircuts that stylists occasionally refuse to perform, insisting that I see a barber instead or their coworker one chair over, who has less compunction about shaving a woman’s head to the felted length of putting-green grass.

I’m not sure what lies at the root of this: did I reject pretty, did pretty reject me? Did anger tempt me like forbidden fruit, or drive me forward with its drill instructor’s bark? Or maybe ugly simply felt like the safest travel companion, the only one of the lot that did not salivate at my approach but lumbered along in silence, grateful for whatever company I offered.

Nearly 20 years ago, I came across Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, a book that spoke to me less through its language and more through the images Halberstam had collected: faces and bodies actively rejecting the terms I was wrestling.

Forget pretty, forget ugly, transmute angry.

[Beauty, though. That still shone through, spirit revealed through certain electric crackles in the eye or set of the jaw.]

A pair of photos by Catherine Opie haunted me. One, a delicate woman’s back with the word “DYKE” tattooed in ornate font across her neck; the other, the back of the photographer herself, with two stick figures and a child’s drawing of a house cut into her skin and bleeding. Why these two photographs?

Perhaps for all the days home feels carved into my back also, even as longing is painted across my face.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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“Self Portrait as Quadruplets”

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I did not remain thin long, after getting married. The reacquisition process common to human metabolisms, in part, and also the fear that arose from living in a thin-pretty body, unprotected. Beneath their tender sheath of skin and muscle, my bones felt mere porcelain — one swift drop and they would shatter. Or perhaps the porcelain was my flesh itself, awaiting its own moment to break into pieces.

Nor have I returned to thin, five years after my divorce.

This fact distresses my mother immensely. We tried to discuss the issue once, each of us stepping carefully through our words as if they were landmines, both of us as reluctant to blow the other up as ourselves.

“I love you so much,” my mother explained, “that when I look at you, all I can feel is how that fat must feel. It must be so uncomfortable. I feel so uncomfortable, looking at you and loving you like I do.”

As I tried to explain how it seemed the furthest thing from loving, to tell me she feels physically unwell every time she looks at me — as I tried to suppress the shuddering desire to eject my mother from her imagined donning of my flesh, my body is not a coat for you to wear — I looked into her sad, stony face and knew no explanation could reach her. She needed this to be true; she needed this to be how a mother loves her only-and-precious daughter.

A quiet echo in my head: “So…when are you going to lose the weight?”

My mother hurts my feelings the same way her mother for so long hurt hers. She loves me the same way, too: just as she herself was mother-loved.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Motion swells. Emotion swells.

Hearts can swell with pride or love. Bellies swell with new life. Music swells to its climax, and a swelling river overflows its banks. Swelling waves threaten arctic sea ice.

Swollen is the leftover and the damage. Swollen and bruised. Swollen ankles. The swollen rhetoric of a bombast.

“Your face looks the same as always, only swollen,” a long-time friend remarks on my continued weight gain of the past few years, then pops a hand over her mouth, abashed by what she has just said aloud.

“Yes. I look mostly the same,” I nod in soothing agreement.

The same, only not swollen. Swelling. 

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I began trying to photograph myself at the start of this year, after several years of not only not taking selfies but also forbidding others from capturing my face.

I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I captured fragments instead: one ear, the top of my head or the curve of my gut, the healing scar on my left leg. Anything but what made me not-pretty: what made me enough to turn my mother ill.

I last communicated with my mother on Valentine’s Day. While I ache each day to hear her voice, I will no longer make myself available to a love unable to distinguish between feeling hurt and causing hurt, between feeling shame and being shameful. Between her body and mine.

I hope one day we can repair the rift between us.

In the meantime, I have begun taking selfies.

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“Selfie Reflection”

“Fcuk Pretty” is part of an ongoing memory project. 
The entire series can be found here.

438 thoughts on “Fcuk Pretty

      1. Of course. Can’t tell you how much I think about this subject everyday. Fluctuating between being evolved enough to know the opinions of our society and internalized hatred of ourselves as women are irrelevant and looking at myself in the mirror and thinking I’m not good enough. It’s fucking insidious and it helps to know I’m not crazy to think this is a bunch of bullshit. Sorry for being so crass. If I was a man I probably wouldn’t give a fuck about how crass I was 😊

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No apologies needed! Please consider my blog a safe space for sharing whatever vulgarity and crassness you need to expel, after contemplating all the craptastic messages society expects women to internalize and embody.

          I’m been known to channel a bit of my own inner Dr. Seuss^ on the subject too, from time to time.

          [^the modified version, obvi]

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Lovely read! Thanks for sharing. I too have always struggled to understand beauty and body image. It’s incredible how a human being’s worth is so closely attached their looks these days. I vow to improve my mind and character above my appearance, always.

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    1. Thanks! There does seem to be a strong impulse for many of us to draw value judgments about a person on the basis of their physical appearance. And it is haaard to deprogram that reaction (whether about our own looks or someone else’s) — so commitments like the one you have made can be really critical.

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  2. I love this a lot, oh my goodness the “concerned” mom…

    I remember being a preteen, looking for something under the couch, when my mother ‘discovered’ I had stretch marks on my lower back – and yelled at me for it!

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    1. Ouch! Oh Haajarah, I’m so sorry — what a terrible reason to get angry at a preteen (or anybody, really). I hope you found what you looking at under the couch, at least.

      And perhaps then threw it in her general direction… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beauty is a social construct. Always has been, always will be. I became aware of that at a very early age and never strove to become “pretty”, like, ever because I knew that this society’s idea of “beautiful” was forever beyond my reach. Instead I became “interesting” and it’s worked for me. I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone considers “pretty” or “beautiful” anymore. I’m me, and that’s all I have to be. You’re you, and that’s all you have to be. Screw anyone who tells you otherwise.

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  4. Such powerful emotions and so well-written! I believe most females suffer from this love-hate relationship with our mothers. I know I do 🙂 Mine felt determined in telling me how skinny I was and now she feels she must tell me how fat I’ve become, even one month after I had a baby! I’ve had to stop her in the midst of starting on my daughter who was 3 at the time…

    I like your idea of taking selfies and I think you look quite fine! We have enough every day stress to live with and don’t need our loved ones adding to it.

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    1. I’m so sorry to hear how painful your relationship with your mother can be — and I certainly agree that many mother-daughter relationships are fraught in this way. Breaks my heart for all of the energy expended in such an unloving way. So, I guess what I’m saying is…more selfies and self-love for everyone! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a wonderful thing to have stumbled across your account!! I love your writing style, humor and honesty. Looking forward to catching up on all your posts and eagerly await new ones!!

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  6. Thank-you. I have noticed the same thing amongst the ‘elders’ in my circle as well. Focusing on body image rather than mental wellness which to me is totally backwards. When are we going to learn to stop shaming and blaming! I have seen both sides of the spectrum, being much heavier and being so thin that I was weak. People and found flaws with me either way. I say screw them as well, the problem lies with them. When are we going to learn that lifting someone up is far more rewarding than pushing someone down? Family or not, we have to protect ourselves from the negative crap, you are brave. That is far more sexy and attract than any tapered waist or tight thighs could provide!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree absolutely on the “it’s their problem, not mine” aspect to social shaming. And also with your observation that size itself does not change our feelings about our body in a way that at all resembles the script telling fat people how much happier and better our lives will be, just as soon as we get thin. I have been thin and self-hating just as much as I have been fat and self-hating — I say good riddance to both! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a powerful message. You know, we can have toxic people in our families too. People who just don’t see who we truly are and our real beauty although you would think they should as they are family and they should love us no matter what… It’s been 10 years since my husband, our son and myself moved to Australia. The best thing that ever happened to us besides meeting each other. We are far away from certain people, especially my mother. Over the years, especially after having had children my body changed and I did gain some weight. Not a crazy amount but still. When we went back for a visit the first time one of the first things my mother said to me after saying hi was how much weight I gained. As we stayed at their house we had many meals together and every time I ate something I felt her watching me. I have to add that she too carried some weight… Our daughter was just about 9 months… and still she judged…
    When we went back it was similar but I actually had tried to lose as much weight as possible before traveling back as I didn’t wanted to hear her telling me how much weight I had not lost… Compared to the first time we visited I had shed 8 kilos which was a lot for my weight and the size I am. And still, one of her first words after not seeing me for 4 years was that I still had not managed to lose the weight…
    Last time we went back (beginning of this year) I didn’t care anymore. When she started to tell me again that I should finally drop the kilos I just looked at her and told her to shut up and deal with her own issues the way she chooses to. I told her that I’m comfortable and happy with how I am and that my husband and my kids love every gram on my body… She shook her head and told me that I’m stubborn and that she only means well…

    I’ve learned over the last years that some issues are not your issues but the other people’s. As much as you try, you will never get rid of that. As a friend of mine said: No matter the fact that a plate is white, if that person wants the plate to be black the person will see the plate black. You and everyone else can try to explain it to that person but they will never believe you that the plate is actually white… does that make sense?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that does make sense. So often we see only what we expect to see. Or we look at things and people through the lens of our own emotions — and then call the resulting vision “truth.”

      Thank you for sharing your story with me today. I’m glad you got out of that trap of toxicity and stood up for yourself!

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    2. Thank you! This is my life. So sad for mother-daughter relationships. At least I’ve done the best I can not to repeat the damage with my own daughter. I have never commented on her size, and whether she weighs 80 pounds or 800 pounds, my love for her will not change!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. this gave me a different perspective on the “beauty appreciation” campaigns that we so often see in the media. although I would note, there were 3 p.o.c. in the sketch art video, as I recall. Although the thin white lady got a majority of screen time, and the others were only brushed over.

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    1. Oh sorry, did I overlook someone? (I had to really cut that section of the post short, or I’d have gotten bogged down in points not-central to the particular story I wanted to tell.) I think the basic point still stands, though — that these advertisements are primarily working to reify already existing standards of normative [raced, classed] gender. All the way down to their One Direction-inspired ethos [“you don’t know you’re beautiful”] and the teary-eyed gratitude on display at the end.

      Y’know what I’d like to see, if Dove were ever to remake these? Some woman who, instead of weeping at the final reveal, goes the absolute other direction. “Hey! That’s me?? I AM GORGEOUS!!” And she marches out, henceforth never to feel bad about her looks again.

      Unlikely in an ad, but anyhoo. A girl can dream, right? Thanks for engaging me on that point!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. exactly. It still enforces an idea that we should be shameful or apologetic about our self love. We should not, under no circumstances, cease to be vocal about how we love ourselves. The whole crying bit enforces the very idea that we are weak and fragile things who must be told they are pretty by someone else. The optimist in me wants to say “hey at least it’s a step in the right direction, at least they’re TRYING to empower women!” But are they really?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “Empower” is a tricky word, I think, given how overtaken it has become by capitalist imperatives [Empowered by shopping!] and how elided into emotions detached from all action [“I feel so empowered when I listen to this song!”] Instead of talking about being “empowered,” I try to always translate the word into “increasing my/your/our capacity for doing [X].”

          That’s where the lie in the Dove ads shows up, IMO. What “capacity” of these women do we actually see being increased? To my eye, they leave more capable of feeling good about buying certain products and not much else. In addition to your point: how the ad reinforces the idea that women must depend on the perspective of others to judge their own worth.

          So no, I don’t think Dove is trying to do anything beyond improve its bottom line. Which I’m not mad about — they’re a company, that’s what companies do — but nor am I going to be taken in as if these ads represent a whole new way of doing…anything.

          [I also gotta mention, cuz it bugs the cr@p outta me: wtf with using a POLICE SKETCH ARTIST to capture these women’s self-descriptions?? How does that not just dovetail right into the same tired stereotype that women are inherently unreliable, lying, can’t be trusted, etc???!!!!]

          Liked by 1 person

        2. These are some super interesting points that you’ve brought up. I’d like to keep these in mind because it’s an argument about these ads that I’ve never heard before, so thank you for opening up my own mind a bit more.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. You’re quite welcome. 🙂

          And thank YOU for being such a good sport — and sticking around through the onslaught of a bunch of ideas *I* have been stewing about for a long time [my computer’s got a massive file just labeled “empowerment??”] but haven’t gotten around to organizing into a post yet! 😛

          Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m with you on this. Fuck pretty. Nothing like “pretty” lasts with age, you know what does? Your inner beauty. You are a grown woman who is in love and that is beautiful. I commend you for posting something so personal on the internet which is fueled by trolls and those who seek to hurt you with words. You are a brave, bold, fiery, BEAUTIFUL soul. That. Is all that matters. Much love. -GlitterxZombie

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    1. Thanks for your support and encouragement, Glitter Zombie! [GREAT name, btw!] And actually, for all that the internet gets a bad rap, people have been absolutely WONDERFUL in their responses to this piece. I think I’ve gotten comments from upwards of 150 new people in the last six days — all moving and generous and supportive. I have been feeling quite undone at the beauty of humanity right now, as a result. 🙂

      best wishes,
      alice ❤

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  10. A brilliant blog! thank you for sharing what so many think but never dare to say,I am thin because I am afraid of the judgement.I go through starvation to remain so, for fear of rejection.I cannot take it.Maybe one day I will stick my 2 fingers up at society and those close to me and shout just let me be. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks, I am glad to know my words resonated for you. As someone else who spent more time than I like to admit starving myself too, I hope you won’t mind if I share a few more words with you:

      Please know that you deserve space. You deserve food, and pleasure, and air in your lungs — air to breathe deep, air to sing loudly, and air to shout your own damn truth as loud and as insistent and as beautiful as only your truth can be.
      As your truth already is.
      As you yourself already are.

      I am holding space for you in my heart. I will hold it for you, until you are ready to claim all of the space that you need and want.
      alice ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Wow! As a teenage I find it hard to love myself. Especially when all I see around me is different ways to change myself. But it’s people like you who help me find my confidence and hope!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The best suggestion I can offer, Ms. Hurricane: look inside. At the end of the day — at the end of every day! — that’s really the only place you will find the guidance and answers that are best *for you*. Oh, and welcome to blogging!

      best wishes to you, today and every day,
      alice ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Totally can relate with you. In the past few years i put on quite a lot of weight and relatives have been quite generous in their observation and criticism. It’s really depressing at times. It’s a relief to know that I’m not alone. You are very brave.

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  13. This post was so well written! I totally agree with you on how one shouldn’t let anyone’s opinion get to them as long as you are happy with yourself. You ARE beautiful, inside and out.

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  14. This is powerful. My relatives act the same way because of my weight as well its scary how much I actually relate to this, nice to know I’m not alone,it’s opened my eyes❤️ amazing !

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    1. I’m sorry to hear how your relatives treat you — and pleased that I could help in some small way as you work your way through and out of that pain! 🙂

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  15. Coming from a childhood where my mother told me that no one wants a child with an eating disorder but would also call me fat I can relate a lot to this post and feel that more people should say fcuk pretty

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    1. Oh Hazy. I am terribly sorry for the unfair things that you were told. No child deserves that! Fcuk pretty — and fcuk other people’s opinions about our bodies altogether.

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  16. You have enunciated perfectly what so many of us feel. The look of embarrassment in the eyes of our loved ones…for so long I have been The Fat Sister. Not the Funny Sister, The Strong Sister, The Younger Sister. Just The Fat One. It fascinates me that the people who most of make kind comments about my physical appearance are my chemo patients. Perhaps because they, in their fight for life, see ME, nit my carrying case. They could give two shits about my weight. They love me for fighting with them, for loving them, for holding space for them. They also love my super short haircut which I hope clearly announces to the world that I am out of fucks to give about what anyone thinks of my looks. Thank you for your candor. You are amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What an important lesson. And what a stark reminder of how trivializing it is, to obsess about weight (someone else’s or our own) when life as a whole is so much bigger and deeper and more precious. And so vulnerable, too.

      From one buzz-cut woman to another: Thank you for the beautiful and critical work that you do in the world!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. awesome piece… i too am crafting a piece about the profiling one is forced to endure by society just for being “different” from the “crowd” as we speak…

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  18. It is tragic that even those dearest to us can confuse love and protection with fat-shaming, but I am so pleased you have begun to take selfies. Taking selfies on good and bad days has helped me immensely in becoming more comfortable with myself. I highly recommend using snapchat to take selfies. The filters are so fun and constantly changing, and you don’t have to send the pictures to anyone. I often find a truer smile when there are bunny ears or flowers on my head. I wish you luck with the rest of your journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I love that idea of taking whimsical selfies! 🙂 And I am glad you are finding it a fulfilling process — we all deserve to feel at peace with our bodies, in both good times and bad. Best wishes on your journey as well!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. This post is amazing, well written, thoughtful, funny and heartbreakingly honest…I, like probably 90% of all women, can identify with a lot of what you have written about…and it feels good to read something so relatable!

    Thank you.

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    1. I’m so glad it resonated for you — this is one of the things I think is so valuable about writing personal narratives: we all need to know we are not alone. Thank you for sharing!

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  20. My grandmother once cried as I walked to her door in shorts. Then she took me out and bought me some new clothes. I was torn… because my fat made her cry… and I needed the clothes. Oh, and that was like… 25 years ago. I feel your pain. Great post!

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  21. I read it once, and the once more. This, I don’t know what to write really, but I’m amazed. Not just at the fact how well you write this, but also because it is so true. Beauty really comes from within and you shouldn’t change because someone think you should. Thank you for this post, I really needed to read this!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I hate to say this is “brave” because it sounds so condescending but it is so brave. We are made to feel bad when we don’t fit the mode and we hide because of it. This blog is so amazing because of how you face the world and tell them this is your face. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand completely what you are saying — I have a similar tugging relationship with using the word “brave.” 🙂 That said, I am deeply moved by your comment and your praise. Thank YOU!

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  23. My dear soul sister,
    Being fat and skinny throughout my life, I have come to realize that when I focus on taking care of myself first, then looking outside to others and the outside world, my world becomes more beautiful inside.

    When I stay in my home office more, submerge myself in reading or writing constantly, it becomes my crutch to constantly be in my head with self-pity, negative self-talk and other demons that arise.

    It is human nature to have these thoughts and opinions of the self when I seclude myself from the other humans, who experience the same things.

    Perhaps the caliber of emotion is not the same, but nonetheless, every human being is experiencing their own grief and pain. What is important is to understand my own emotions and know that I am connected with every living thing.

    Whatever I project is what I attract. It is up to me to make the shift of consciousness before I expect others to do the same.

    Be kind to yourself, spiritual sister. You are loved in so many ways!

    Be well,
    ~Kat

    Liked by 1 person

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