Going back as far as my memory allows, my vision of myself was as the person I was told I was. If my parents said I was dumb, then I was. When my brother said I was fat, I was that as well. If a teacher placed me in the lowest group, then I was that as well.
I got to thinking about how we let others define ourselves. Sometimes looking back is a good thing, and in this instance, I believe that it allowed me to understand why I had such low self-esteem for much of my life.
As a young child I was called a whiner. I deserved that label for I could throw a whine-fest over just about anything. One of the few photos taken at that age shows me with fists clenched at my sides, head downcast and a huge pout.
When I entered school, the teachers treated me as if I was stupid, although that wasn’t the term they used. I felt stupid even though there was no way for my teachers to know that no one had ever read to me, that there were no books in our house and that I’d never been to a library? I didn’t know colors, shapes, numbers or letters. I didn’t know how to cut, paste or trace lines.
While my classmates worked on reading I sat alone, tears streaming down my face doing what was probably extremely simple for everyone else.
In early elementary grades I was placed in the lowest reading group. Even there I was so far behind that I was still trying to learn letter sounds while they read out of books. I understood why I was there, but was too embarrassed to be seen with them. When the teacher called my group up, I slid down in my desk and hid.
My paperwork was filled with red. My writing was nothing but chicken scratches, strange combinations of letters that sometimes turned out to be words. I had no idea about capitals or punctuation. The sad thing was that my teacher didn’t help me.
I felt stupid and ashamed, so during recesses I found the darkest parts of campus and hid.
Add to that the unkind words coming from my parents and siblings that solidified that feeling of being dumber than everyone else.
Somewhere along that time continuum fat-shaming began. I accepted that definition even though it hurt. Classmates taunted me. My brother humiliated me. My dad insulted me. My mother fed me.
So now not only was I dumb but I was fat to go along with it.
In fourth grade I took things into my own hands and began teaching myself. I asked the teacher for extra work and night after night I went over the lessons. I’d fill in the blanks, erase, then do it again and again until I mastered the work. I forced myself to read even though it made me cry. I began with small words that I could memorize. I made flash cards with old paper so that I could add more and more words to my reading vocabulary.
My grades improved. My confidence grew. But I was still fat and getting fatter.
When we moved, I scored high enough on a placement test that I was no longer in the lowest groups. That giant step helped me to change my perception of myself. I knew that I wasn’t stupid because I had taught myself to read, write and do math.
As time passed my academic accomplishments increased. I was placed in more difficult classes which I mastered. By the time I was in high school my entire class load was at the college prep level.
But I was still fat.
I joined the freshman basketball team. Now I was seen as an athlete. I was too short to score, but my hands were fast. I could strip a ball away any player that got near. I was feeling quite proud of myself. When the JV season ended I was moved to Varsity. I never got to play. Game after game I sat on the bench. I no longer felt like an athlete.
It was amazing how quickly my definition of myself changed. Athlete one week, not the next.
My dad told me I was ugly and I believed him. He said that no man would ever marry me and so I grew into an adult who felt unlovable. I was told that men would only want one thing of me and once they had that, they’d dump me.
When I began dating in college I felt somewhat better about myself, but nothing changed at home. My self-esteem was so low that when my brother’s friend attempted to rape me, I believed that I was only good for the one thing my dad had said. Men would only wanted sex from me, nothing more.
The man belonged to my brother’s fraternity. He must have told them what he’d done, for after that I had a date every weekend. I didn’t consider myself promiscuous, but others might have.
When my wonderful husband proposed, I was thrilled and flabbergasted. The unlovable person, the fat, stupid person was going to get married. So the next definition of myself was as a lovable wife.
I knew enough about marriage, from watching my mother, that I was the one who had to cook, clean and perform all those womanly duties. I hated them. I wanted to continue to work, read and write.Even so, I fulfilled the definition as best as I could.
Our house was clean enough. The laundry was done. Meals were cooked.
When children were born, I read magazines to learn how to parent.The knowledge I gained there helped me understand what I should be doing. Babies were not my thing, but once I could teach them things, I reveled in the definition of mother.
I had always dreamed of being a teacher despite how my instructors treated me. Sharing knowledge with my kids helped me see that I had the skills to be a teacher. I took classes at the community college to learn how to be a preschool teacher. When I was hired for the first job I applied for, my self-esteem shot up. I was a teacher! And I loved it.
But I saw myself as being something more than a snot-wiper and piss-cleaner.
I applied to a credential program, was interviewed and accepted. I was only able to take night and weekend classes, so it took years to finish my credential program. I was hired for the first t full time position that I applied for, a pleasant surprise.
I was a third-grade teacher at a Catholic elementary school. I offered my students the most educational program that I could do while still teaching the required curriculum. My students and parents loved me. I loved that definition of me.
In time, however, my principal’s idea of who I was changed. At first I was innovative and inspiring. But I kept getting older. She saw herself as a beloved principal, surrounded by young, cute teachers. She actually said that at a faculty meeting!
With that in mind, she chased away the older teachers, starting with Yvonne.After she left the principal hounded Marie until she resigned as well. She turned her focus on me, just as she had done them. I was told that my lessons weren’t good enough. She told me how to improve, then wrote negative evaluations when I did as she had said.
I began to believe that she was right, that I wasn’t a good teacher. I left.
It took me two years of working as a substitute to get another job. During that time period I applied for job after job. With each rejection I felt more and more incompetent. I was told that I didn’t know how to teach students of different cultures. They were right, so I enrolled in workshops, at my expense, to learn.
Next I was told I couldn’t teach in public schools because I didn’t know how to teach students who learned differently. They were right. Once again I sought out information on disabilities.
During those years I believed that I couldn’t teach those students even though I had had students like them in my classes at the Catholic school. But, the administrators who rejected me were right, or so I thought, because they knew better than I who I was and what I could do.
My weight soared. I kept buying clothes at larger sizes, then outgrew them. I pretended to diet, but failed at that. In my mind those failures reinforced the earliest definitions of myself: I was dumb. Too dumb to eat less, too dumb to understand dieting.
I didn’t want to be fat and hid it the best way I knew how. No matter where I was going or what I was doing I dressed to hide my body’s faults. I knew that it didn’t work, but my clothes were stylish and clean.
What was interesting is that my husband continued to see me as the slender woman that he married.
During that same time period I was a soccer coach, referee and player. At church I was a reader and singer. At work I was a great teacher, nominated several times for Teacher of the Year.
All these positive definitions were reassuring, but never completely erased the years and years of being told that I was less-than.
When health forced me to change my behavior, I lost the weight. I had to buy smaller and smaller sized clothing. Even when I needed less fabric to cover me, I still saw an obese woman whenever I dared look in a mirror.
Today I know that I look awesome, that I am intelligent, that I am a good wife, friend, mother and grandmother.
I no longer allow others to define me. That power belongs to me and me alone.
Sometimes I slip and cower in self-doubt when another story gets rejected or something goes wrong in a friendship. Back in the early days I would have carried that like a mantle, weighing down my shoulders. Today I brush it off and move on, a smile on my face.
I had to turn sixty-eight before I seized that power. Better late than never, right?
Perhaps someone who reads my story will take charge right now. They’ll say, I get to define myself, not you or you or you.
What a marvelous thing that would be.