When I was thirteen, I borrowed a shirt that was really not a shirt but just a big, red handkerchief, from a cool girl at camp to wear to a Moulin Rouge-themed dance. I admired myself—my stick straight hair and sticky lip gloss–in the bathroom mirror. Then I made myself dizzy trying to look at my own profile in order to gauge the true size of my nose. I pulled at what I perceived to be excess fat. But in that hot handkerchief-shirt, I could understand all of these “flaws” as nearly forgivable. Tonight, I thought, someone will want to grind with me. I felt just like Bridget Jones, who wore a shear shirt and a black bra to work though she frequently felt fat.
At this time in my life I was not allowed to watch R-rated movies but a friend’s liberally-minded mother had taken us to see Bridget Jones’s diary—hiding this from my parents tormented me with guilt. Even as a thirteen-year-old, I identified with Bridget. Sure, she was a vapid consumerist who drank and smoked too much. At thirteen, I didn’t. But what was relatable to me even then was that Bridget was just a woman struggling with her insecurities and looking for acceptance in male attention. So many of us, whether in our mid-thirties or early teens, are disproportionately preoccupied with our body image and the related struggle of appearing attractive to the opposite sex. These concerns, learned from media images of idealized women and the dominant heteronormative culture, persist regardless of sexual orientation, at an age before girls might be interested in actually having sex.
After the dance I sat in bed and mimicked Bridget’s short-hand writing style in my own diary:
Went to the dance this evening. No one wanted to grind with me. I shan’t worry. Wore amazing, trendy handkerchief shirt and danced the night away to Christina Aguilera-Moulin Rouge songs. Would be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me that I am not “going out” (this is just a thing people say. No one “goes out” anywhere with anyone) with any boys while other girls have “gone out” with three or more boys this summer.
So many of my diary entries were about feeling chubby and unwanted. In high school I received some male attention and made up for those lost middle school years by keeping a list of boys who had crushes on me. My entries mostly included the inane, boring details of flirtations, written with a touch of feigned humility about my newfound gentleman suitors (to fool who? Me?): Max told Ben to tell me that I’m hot. I’m not sure why he would do that!
In these diaries, and even in my more recent diaries that I’ve re-read, I’ve found the persisting centrality of men and relationships to be distressing. For years, I’ve been critical of traditional, marriage-oriented storylines and how they influence my life. But I notice that I remain preoccupied with my appearance. The aesthetic goal I have in mind, subconsciously and occasionally consciously, is always one that is supposed to appeal to men. This kind of preoccupation is not vanity. It is immensely difficult to unlearn the idea that self-worth is measured in attractiveness to men.
As part of an ongoing project, I sent out an email to the Ma’yan staff and to family and friends asking them about their experiences rereading old diaries. I organized these email responses thematically and will be presenting them on the Ma’yan site in separate weekly installments. This week’s post focuses on the preoccupation with body image and boys. In reading responses from email contributors, I discovered that I am not alone in the experience of re-reading diaries and finding, with sadness and frustration, how many pages are dedicated to perceived imperfections and boys. Our email contributors include our Program Director, Talia Cooper, our Program Expansion Consultant, Andrea Jacobs and many who would prefer to remain anonymous.
I had all my old diaries going back to 6th grade., I came across them and spent some time reading them. I was struck by how many of the entries made reference to dieting, and weight loss. I performed well in middle and high school. Was consistently on honor role, involved in Jewish and secular pursuits. Had solid friend groups. For all intents and purposes I was a well-adjusted pre-teen and teen. At the same time, as a girl who hit puberty on the early side, I was subjected to persistent sexual harassment from peers, older boys and men that I had no place to process. Rereading my entries, I felt so much compassion for my younger self and simultaneously felt like I could trace the issues that still sometimes plague me to the impact of sexism and how caught up I was in a culture that measured my worth in pounds, dress-size and attractiveness to boys/men. It’s clear that I would have benefited from some feminist guidance—someone to help point to the fact that what I was experiencing was not okay, not personal, and had a name – sexism. I noticed the way I was attuned to other forms of oppression – racism, classism, anti-Semitism, but that sexism in the small and big ways it impacted my life daily was not visible. Part of what makes me sad when I re-read my own journals or listen or read other women’s reflections is that many of us are successful despite these experiences and yet – who might we be if we didn’t carry all this around? –Andrea Jacobs, Program Expansion Consultant
I thought about relationships all the time. I recently found a post from high school in which I wrote “I know this seems so anti-feminist of me, but I feel like I think about him all the time! Ugh!” That was something I struggled with: the cognitive dissonance of being a lifelong feminist and believer in the power of women, and yet having negative feelings about myself and my body. I didn’t want to talk about this struggle with other women because I worried it negated my feminist flag waving. So my journal became an important place for me to work some of this stuff out, until I learned how to talk about it with others too.—Talia Cooper, Program Director
My friends and I would log who our “crushes” were, or would write down who our “top 3 [crushes]” were. I remember one time writing in a diary “today I dumped Dana (my nursery school boyfriend).” I think I wrote it in my diary because it sounded ‘cool’.
As far as what my pre-teen-self thought about relationships and sex, I think that is like most of what I wrote about. I think I was genuinely concerned that there was something wrong with me because I was shy around boys and also was not really interested in any specific boys.I think I also wrote that I really hoped I was not a lesbian. At that age, I was so confused about being shy that I assumed my lack of passion for boys meant I really might be a lesbian. And I was really upset by the idea of that.
I haven’t written in a diary in years but, whenever I did, I’ve been disappointed. The writing came out cliche, like a voice-over from a 90’s television show that my sisters and I would mock. It lacked the nuance of my own thoughts and the dimensionality of my internal and external life….Instead, my diary became a chronicle of the occasional “important event” in my life. These were all boy-related: The story of Natan asking me out or the weekend I discovered Zack liked me, or that day Schiller told me that Matt told him he thinks I’m hot. This literary compilation was all romantic triumph without the social anxiety or rampant insecurity usually present in these efforts. If I were writing for an audience, it would be a remarkably good PR effort. Or maybe my middle school experience really was that charmed.
In a few of my diary posts, I made reference to recurring themes and characters and questioned these topic choices. “Why do I keep mentioning Ari? Do I like him?” and a few months later “even though I keep mentioning Ari, I’ve come to realize that he’s just a good friend and that’s exactly how it should stay.” Sure, young me. That makes sense.
We often hear that middle school is “so awkward” but what we refer to as awkward are actually painful feelings that persist past the point of middle school. Email contributors describe how their younger selves faced standards they thought they fell short of: they should have gone out with someone by now, should have been more interested in boys, should have been skinnier, and should have acted older than they felt. Adult women feel that they should be skinnier, should be dating someone, and should be younger. Girls are encouraged to record their feelings though they are rarely encouraged to share them with parents, teachers or peers. Contributors write about the experience of suffering alone, without an external outlet to enable them to realize that what they feel is part of something pervasive, learned and magnified by external factors. Girls should be told at a young age that the problem is not how they look but how they are expected to look.