Friday, May 22, 2009

The Problem With Being a People Pleaser

This would also be good reason for a freak-out.

And now for an interruption in our regularly scheduled programming (I owe you a dissertation on poo, I know.) The following is an announcement from the Emergency Charlotte Broadcast System. This is not a test. I repeat, this is not a test. (And it’s not a Thursday re-run today either.)

So I had my first official meltdown of this pregnancy today. Truth to be told I’ve been building up to it for a while now. A lot of you in the past have asked me how a girl with an eating disorder history and serious body image issues handles pregnancy and I’ve answered truthfully that each pregnancy was different. The second and fourth ones were pretty blissful. The third one was a nightmare. This one, it appears, is going to be rocky. I went into it a tad blithely as my last pregnancy (with my 3rd son) was pretty good in this respect. And it helped that I didn’t gain much weight - about 25 pounds - and so even up until the end people were still telling me I looked small.

I naively thought this time around would be the same. But it isn’t. Right away I gained 10 pounds which freaked me out. And I’ve continued to gain weight steadily to the point where I now have a very pregnant belly. I’m still not wearing maternity clothes but that’s only out of sheer stubbornness.

Back to this morning. For months now, I’ve been complaining to my long-suffering husband that I’m gaining weight much faster than the last go around and for months he’s been dismissive. But this morning my dear one rolled over and looked at me and said, “You know, you’re right. You are getting a lot bigger a lot faster.” Now before you think him hugely insensitive, this is the man who rubs my back every day and brings me popsicles and even cleaned up the mess when our 5-year-old decided that pooping in the wastebasket would be “funner” than using the toilet. Apparently the walls, floor, rug and doorknob were also “funner.” Besides, my husband was only telling the truth. Seeing my distraught look he quickly added, “But I still love you!”

That’s all it took to send me into a tailspin. After he left for work, I cried. Then cried some more after I got the older two on the school bus. And then took a nap and cried a bit more. The worst part? I can’t figure out why I care. So what if I am bigger? (And no it’s not twins, they checked.) The baby is healthy by all accounts. I’m healthy - at least physically, mentally may be another story. Isn’t that all a mom can ask for? Why is my body shape and size so important to me?

After mulling this over all day between eating half a watermelon unassisted and a few crying jags, the best answer I could come up with was, “I always have.” For as long as I can remember I have always, always cared what I weighed and what I looked like. It wasn’t a case of vanity. I’ve never been conventionally pretty. I clean up all right but I’m no beauty. On the rare occasions that men have been overtly attracted to me (and not just using me as a pawn in their power games) they’ve been more drawn to other aspects of me. Which is good because pretty doesn’t last and blah, blah, blah. Perhaps that’s part of why I care so much - I can’t make myself pretty but I sure can make myself thin! But that still doesn’t answer the question of why my appearance in general is so important to me.

Another reason that partly explains why being thin is so important to me is that especially for women, beauty is power. When you are pretty - or at least thin - not only do people treat you better but they find you smarter and more trustworthy and credible and funny. All without really knowing anything about you. Think of all the women in our society who are successful in realms not directly dealing with appearance (so exclude models, actresses, etc.). Now think of how we talk about them. Michelle Obama is one of the most visible and prominent first ladies of our time; she has a law degree; she is the mother to two bright daughters. What do we hear most about her? What designer she is wearing or how she got her sculpted arms or even Iman calling her unbeautiful. Condoleeza Rice? Secretary of State, shemecretary - did you know she has designer taste in boots? And had time to fit in Parisian shopping trips between trips to the UN? Even Hillary Clinton who has worked very hard to not make her looks an issue was first acclaimed for her prettiness and then pilloried for “letting” herself age. We women even use it against each other. We can do everything right but still not be “successful” unless we’re thin.

But that still doesn’t explain why I have let myself get sucked into this cultural nonsense. Until I hit on this idea: I’m a people pleaser. And one of the fastest and easiest ways to please someone is to conform to their standard of beauty. So if people like me more when I’m thinner and prettier, then that means they will like me less as I get bigger and therefore uglier. When you look at it from the perspective of being loved - after all, isn’t that what we all want? - then it seems very clear why this issue is so soul destroying for me. I can’t help that I’m getting fatter. I eat healthy. I exercise every day. My body is doing what it needs to, I suppose. Which means to me that people - the people I care most about - won’t love me anymore and there isn’t anything I can do about it. And since I seem to have no self-esteem, then I won’t love myself either. Seen from this light, restricting food actually seems like the lesser of the evils. Lose the love and respect of those around me or just lose the food? The answer is easy now. And scary.

See? Depressing.

In all fairness, I think that most of my friends and family will strongly object to my, frankly brutal, assessment of the capricious and shallow nature of their love. After all, that is quite insulting to them, is it not? And yet, I’ve seen this born out in my life before. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing - nobody actually cogitates “Huh, Charlotte’s not as cute anymore therefore I like her less.” - but some people do pull away from me the less I please them. Not everyone. But some will. Although I suppose it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy as well. I expect people to love me less so I pre-emptively pull away from them thereby making my own worst fear come true.

I do realize that the problem, regardless of what other people do, is ultimately in my own head.

Doesn’t the child that I’m doing this all for deserve a mother who can teach him - or, heaven help me, her - that they are lovable just by their very existence? I certainly believe that about my children already here. I would never love them any less no matter what they look like. So why can’t I love myself that way?

I hate it when I get self indulgent like this.

Image credit: Natalie Dee