by Susan K. Olson—
I spend a lot of time watching my daughter skate. In summer and winter alike, I shiver in the bleachers while she glides over the ice, silver blades flashing. She twirls, she spirals and she jumps. I tend to close my eyes when she jumps. She’s been at this for three years now. I’ve watched her grow stronger, more confident and more poised. I’ve watched her win competitions, and I’ve watched her lose. I’ve seen her anxiously take the ice for a test, and I’ve glimpsed her joking with her friends at the end of practice. Of course, I’ve also seen the other side of skating. She’s hit the ice chin first, spider legs, arms sprawling wildly. She’s hit the ice rear first, with an inelegant thud, her special padded pants catching the worst of it. She’s spun until she was dizzy, and I’ve seen her blank grin as her head wobbles briefly, a nearly-imperceptible tell. Even after all the crazy things she’s asked of it, though, her body remains relatively unscathed. Her skin is smooth, beautiful. Her teeth are in her mouth, her bones unbroken, her muscles intact. All in all, skating has been—for her—remarkably injury-free.
Until recently, that is. Recently she’s been complaining of pain in her foot. She bobbled on an easy spin at a competition and completely skipped a jump. She sits out periods of her practice times. She limps to the car. The doctor says it’s plantar fasciitis. It’s a bit unusual for her age but not unheard of. The combination of flat feet and lots of pounding action from the skating jumps resulted in the fascia in her foot becoming inflamed and painful. It’s not the end of the world. There are orthotics and stretches and ibuprofen, and if she’s diligent, it probably will go away.
But she’s mad.
This body—lithe, lean, willowy and strong—hasn’t let her down before. Oh yes, she’s had to work hard for what she knows. She has had to accept the lumps and bumps and bruises as part of the deal, but it’s never thrown a roadblock her way. There’s never been something she couldn’t learn just by sheer will and plenty of practice.
“Why can’t the doctor just fix this with a pill?” she pouts, throwing the instructions onto her bed. “Why is my foot made so wrong?” She flops on her bed with a loud sigh.
She is 10. She takes drama classes. This sort of reaction is not unexpected.
GETTING OURSELVES ‘RIGHT’
I hate to see my daughter feeling so betrayed by her own body. Most women I know have spent a lot of time fighting with the bodies they’ve been given. We begin declaring our bodies to be substandard while we’re still young—middle school, usually. They are too small, too big, too tall, too short. Our hair is too curly, too straight, too thick, too thin. Our eyes are all wrong, our noses and teeth too. We’re too athletic or not athletic enough. Everything is subject to critique and self-ridicule. We list our failings like a litany, beating the bullies to the punch.
And then we begin the project of getting ourselves “right.” We troop into the gym with a list of perceived failings to overcome. “I plan to pound my thighs into submission,” remarks a friend. “Take charge of your abs,” reads a magazine cover. We diet to gain or lose weight, buying books that tell us secret methods. We pay surgeons to correct that which we can’t change on our own—perfect vision is an outpatient surgery now, and any number of plastic surgeons are ready, willing and able to change nearly any part of our body for the right price. What we can’t fix, we can disguise. The right makeup puts cheekbones in place, the right belt creates a waistline—or so the fashion magazines lead us to believe. Most of us do so much in search of a perfection that is always just beyond reach.
One morning when my daughter was younger, she wandered into the bathroom while I was getting ready for a special event at work.
“What’s that?” she asked, as I put mascara on my lashes.
“What’s it do?”
“It makes my eyelashes look longer.”
“But why?” she asked.
“Well, it looks better.”
“No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t look like you,” she said. “Take it off.”
She stared me down, hands on tiny hips.
I took it off.
If this were a made-for-TV movie, I’d have thrown the mascara in the trash and never worn it again.
I put it back on in the car.
I didn’t want to go to the fancy work thing with just the eyelashes God gave me. I wanted something more. I have told my daughter over and over that looks don’t matter, that brains and character are what counts. And I do believe my own words. I do.
But I still play the game—a little lipstick, a little mascara, some oh-so-tight foundation garments, a vertical stripe and high heels. I don’t look perfect, but I look—better. Is it so wrong to want to look better? Of course it isn’t, but might it be worth examining to what end better is pursued?
Susan K. Olson is assistant dean of students at Yale Divinity School and a teaching elder (pastor) in the Presbyterian Church, USA.
This article is excerpted from the March 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.