During our chat last week for an article on eating disorders, she eloquently expressed something I'd been feeling but hadn't been brave enough to articulate. "I think now I'm at the point where I'm just sick of feeling negative and feeling this way about my body," she said. "So I've just shifted my thinking to, 'this becomes boring to always want to be thin.'"
I'd been feeling pretty bored with habitual body bashing myself, but I didn't see a way out of it. Wasn't self-deprecation just one of those unavoidable pitfalls of being a female human, like cramps or mascara-induced eye injuries?
"I was just immediately programmed to think the way my mother did and her family did. Now I have a choice," Margaret continued. "I have a total choice now whether I want to buy into something that never worked for them and never worked for me or just forget it and move on to other things."
And with that simple statement, Margaret Cho went a long way toward deprogramming my automatic tendency toward self-deprecation. She showed me that the anti-me autopilot switch could be flipped.
I was an absurdly overconfident child. That is, according to my mom's recollection and to faded photos of a self-assured, sequin-sporting child of the early nineties. I'm well aware of the age-inappropriate Madonna lip synching routines I insistently performed for party guests. And I don't remember modesty ever being an issue while unabashedly bragging to strangers about my straight-A-laden report cards. But my mom's absolute favorite mortifying memory is of a chubby-cheeked, unfortunately self-styled four-year-old arrogantly admiring her reflection and definitively declaring to the mirror, "I'm so cute!"
While the dignified adult I pretend to be wishes she'd have kept that revelation under wraps, I can't help but call upon that pre-adolescent version of myself to ask a couple of really pressing questions: When do we turn against ourselves? And when we do learn to engage in chronic, negative self-talk, are those really our voices we're using to spew hateful, critical words? Or are someone else's messages overpowering what we actually think, see, and believe?
Like most adolescents, I immediately buried any discernable shred of self-assurance deep beneath an armor of teen angst and awkwardness. Seemingly overnight I morphed from a cocky kid on the playground to a sullen, self-loathing pubescent nightmare.
But surrendering to what I believe to be a tragic trend in female self-esteem, I carried those adolescent anxieties about appearance and achievement into adulthood. It was completely natural to criticize every perceived flaw and automatically negate any incoming compliments. Every day was an exercise in ruthless comparison to friends and strangers, and every night a reflection on how and why I'd never measure up.
And then suddenly, that smug four-year-old refused to stay silent. I started to catch myself questioning every self-sabotaging thought. All those mechanical reactions toward my reflection of disgust and disdain suddenly seemed exhausting and, well, boring. Most importantly, those formerly instinctual, involuntary responses didn't feel authentic or accurate. I realized it wasn't my voice or my judgment at play in those moments of cruel criticism. I'd just become so accustomed to engaging in self-flagellation, it never occurred to me to question whether I believed I deserved it.
HuffPost Women shared a picture on Facebook the other day of a great t-shirt that reads, "YOUR BODY IS NOT WRONG / SOCIETY IS." Sure, it's a sweeping generalization about "society," but it's a novel idea, isn't it? Imagine if we all got fed up, took a note from women like Margaret, and realized once and for all that we have a choice about how to feel in our bodies. I think I might choose to stop being bored and start feeling okay.