22.ugly duckling

“His jaws were open, his tongue hung from his mouth, and his eyes glared fearfully. He thrust his nose close to the duckling, showing his sharp teeth, and then, ‘splash, splash,’ he went into the water without touching him, ‘Oh,’ sighed the duckling, ‘how thankful I am for being so ugly; even a dog will not bite me.'”

The Ugly Duckling (Hans Christian Andersen)

I’m going to say right now that my experience with body image and eating problems is not at all as bad as it often is for others. I don’t starve myself all day (well, maybe once), work myself to death (too lazy), and I never took diet pills (I hate meds). I did cut, though, and apart from wanting to make visible my invisible hurts was both out of feeling ugly, and also wanting to be ugly to protect myself.

It’s like The Ugly Duckling: one minute he’s weeping how his mother wished he was never born, the next he’s feeling grateful that a dog didn’t bite him.

My mother certainly said things that made me wish I was never born, and I think I mentioned before how one of her favorite topics was my body: mother would get on me for my weight since I was 13. She’d tell me how ugly my hips and thighs were becoming as my preteen, then teen body started to mature. I remember so many times after seeing the doctor her scolding me for putting on weight; apparently the doctor would tell her behind my back about how fat I was. She’d talk about wanting to travel, but not wanting to be the stereotypical “fat American family.”

She even talked endlessly about her own weight, too (which, because of my grooming, I took to be my fault): “Your dad said if I was the weight I am now when we met, he wouldn’t have married me,” and “I used to be so skinny before I had kids.” She would very quickly give up any attempt of health, and when she got mad, destroyed any encouragement she gave me for trying to be healthy.

Like everything else, I’ve likewise long given up trying to figure out if I was healthy or not. I still have no idea. People tell me one thing, the mirror and mother tells me another thing, so I really don’t know.

What I do know is that, when I’m depressed or angry, I sometimes just not eat, skipping meals. I’d still feel hungry sometimes, but it’d still be a struggle to get myself to eat something. I remember even thinking, “What’s the point of eating? I’ll just get hungry again.” In those times when I had to force myself to eat something, I’d try to remember what a friend or my therapist told me, the most effective being when they expressed sadness over me not eating. I had to force down feelings of ugliness and worthlessness all the same with each swallow.

Sometimes I’d cut at those feelings, like I said, expressing my self-hatred through violence against myself. “If I wasn’t so ugly, pale, and female, maybe mother would’ve liked me more.” Then there’d be the times I’d cut to, again, make myself ugly: Maybe if I didn’t look the way I did, dad wouldn’t have made me his girlfriend. Maybe my uncle wouldn’t have sold me, raped me. Maybe women would like me better, and bad men would like me less, not say those “hey sexy” comments that make me want to die. Maybe it’d stop good men from being afraid and/or awkward to be around me. I feel like my very body is provocative: it doesn’t matter what I do, I’m just filth that attracts filth, that repulses good people.

There was a saint named Margaret of Cortona (one I should give her own article one day), who fled to a flirtatious and promiscuous life from her broken home. She eventually lost the man she was a live-in girlfriend to, having to take herself and the son she had with him to the streets. Eventually she became a lay religious, when they took her in. She wore their modest clothes, but she feared her beauty. She saw the glances, the attention she still got from men. It was enough to make her want to cut her face. She had the knife. She was going to do it, but her confessor, Friar Giunta, stopped her.

They say to copy a saint’s sins is a sure way to hell, but I didn’t care.

I have a faint scar on my cheek, another on the bridge of my nose. I remember looking in the mirror when it was still fresh and bleeding. I felt very satisfied with my handiwork; I thought that this will stop the bad attention I get, invite better attention with no one feeling threatened by me. I’m still sometimes disappointed that it faded so much.

My priest friend didn’t like that I did that, nor whenever I do anything to harm myself. My first spiritual director, he would get angry; he once asked in a very frustrated tone, “Do you want no one to love you?”

Not really,” I thought, though back then I said nothing.

Abuse, no matter what manner of abuse it is, teaches all kinds of lies. It teaches us lies about love, about life, about integrity, and yes, about our bodies, even if your body wasn’t the thing physically attacked. Sexual abuse taught me that I am dirty by default. Physical abuse teaches that one is another person’s punching bag, unworthy of gentle, wholesome touch. Racial abuse (different from the modern understanding of racism; actual abuse due to race) taught me that the color of my hair and skin makes me count for less than another with a different hair or skin color than me. Meanwhile, the emotional abuse I suffered taught me all of that, and more.

In any case, and in whatever abuse we maybe have suffered, the truth is something we have to learn, not just with the books and intellect. These things help, no doubt about it, but it’s our hearts that were hurt, our bodies. Somehow, we have to learn the truth physically and emotionally as well as intellectually.

I don’t know how to do that, especially not physically. I don’t want to be caught up in extremes. I’m usually afraid of touch, receiving or giving: for the former, I’m scared they’d grab or hurt me, and for the latter, I scared it would be seen as me coming on to them.

On that first point, some people (especially some priests) seem to act extra anxious around me. “Maybe if I were uglier,” I’d wonder. “Maybe if I were a man, or at least androgynous enough to not cause a stir.” Maybe…but these are just maybes.

On the second point, some would patronize me for not wanting a hug or whatever; one likes to remark how I said I don’t like hugs when she’d open her arms to hug me anyways, saying she’s “just a hugger” (“so get used to it“). One laughed at me, telling me to have a sense of humor as he reached to put his arm around me again (I threatened to punch him before he had the chance).

Other times though, and it’s rare… it feels nice when someone gives me a hug, a handshake, even just a brotherly pat on the shoulder. One time someone took my hand and put the other on top of it when I was crying. Stuff like that stayed with me as healing touches; those few times, I felt their love.

Honestly…I don’t know what to do. I’d avoid people, but that just puts me in a bad way in another way. I’d grapple with not eating, and eating my feelings with sweet things. I’d get breaks from feeling this way, but they never last too long. I’d want to die. I’d want to disappear and hide my ugliness, like The Ugly Duckling did as he went to hide, waiting for winter to pass.

I just hope that one day I can likewise turn into a swan, and say, “I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling.”

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