A chance remark. An offhand cruelty. A well-intended suggestion that went wrong. If you think what parents say about their children's appearances doesn't leave a mark, think again. Six attractive, engaging, intelligent, vibrant women remember the worst (and the best) of it.
Margaret Cho, 39, soft-spoken and serious, is a comedian.
I was on this radio show, and the DJ asked me, "What if you woke up tomorrow and you were beautiful? What if you woke up and you were blonde, 5' 11", and you weighed 100 pounds?" Well, I probably wouldn't get up—because I'd be too weak to stand. In our culture, we don't see people out there with normal-looking bodies. We should all feel beautiful. If you feel beautiful, you will be more political, more active in trying to stand up for yourself, you'll be in more control of your life, have more sense of power over what you're doing.
I started to need to feel more positive about myself after I came to Hollywood. I got criticized a lot for my looks—people thought that I was too fat and that I wasn't pretty. Also, because I'm different—because I'm not white, I'm Asian, I'm not superskinny. I was anorexic for a time when I was about 24, when I was doing television. I was told by network executives that I had to lose weight. I was forced to. I went on a very rigid diet and became very sick because I wasn't eating at all.
My mother always had body issues, and I really feel that she passed that on to me. She'd had two kids and couldn't retain her old body. She handed down this disordered eating to me. She was always on a diet and always exercising, but not getting any joy from it. It was a punishing activity. Before I reached puberty, she was always so in love with my body, and saying, "You're so thin, you're so thin, just stay that way."
My father...one time when I was maybe 9 years old and dancing in ballet—I loved it—he said after a recital, "You're the fattest ballerina." It so destroyed me that I never wanted to dance again. He wanted to prepare me for a world that was not going to accept me because I think he experienced so much racism. He'd say, "You're not pretty. And you're not going to be pretty." I absolutely believed him.
Now I feel great and settled in myself and the way I look. It took a long time to get there. You need to look in the mirror and compliment yourself. I have these little rituals of being very fastidious about my skincare and drinking a lot of water, and I see the results. When we care for ourselves, these are acts of love. Do romantic things for yourself. Over the years, I've become a dancer, which is a big part of my life. I do belly dancing and burlesque dancing. Now I'm comfortable enough to do shows naked. This is a huge change from feeling superinsecure and freaked out to feeling totally comfortable with myself. It's about celebrating the body as opposed to trying to banish it.
Tiffany Jackson, 23, is a professional basketball player. With a strong Texan twang and down-to-earth manner, she conveys a sense of self-assurance.
I was always taller than everybody else. In the eighth grade, all the guys were shorter than me. My mom told me always walk with my head up, I'm beautiful. She gave me such positive messages when it came to my body. She'd tell me, "Walk in the room like you own the room." And then I'd complain, "People are staring at me." She'd say, "No, you're beautiful. That's why they're looking at you." I think after a while that just kind of stuck with me.
When I was 14, I was already six feet, or at least 5' 11". My dad was giving me confidence as far as basketball goes. Your dad always has that look: "This is my daughter; she's so precious. She's so great." I just always felt so loved by him.
I'm very proud of myself. I love my body. I work really hard on my body, so I love that I get a chance to show my body off.
Mary Wilshire, 54, is an illustrator who has drawn female superheroes for comic books. Thoughtful and frank in conversation, with a girlish voice, she has delicate features and an elfin quality.
I've been addicted to food and had issues with compulsive eating all my life. My background was all English. It's a whole set of values and it's all based on how you appear to other people. If you grow up in a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant setting, the way you appear to other people is everything. You must appear perfect. You must be well-groomed. Your table manners must be impeccable. You must not have any problems. The message I received as a child was that it's wrong to be who you are.
My father was a very scary, active alcoholic, with guns in the house, who had been severely beaten as a boy. My mother started to withdraw into depression when I was about 7 years old. They gave her shock treatments. She was in and out of institutions. I'm 10 years old and there's nobody there. No one is taking care of you. I have to take care of my dad and my sister and myself. I couldn't deal with that.
At 13 I felt I was the most loathsome, unattractive creature in the whole world. I was alone in the house without a mother. Food was there for me. Food made me feel better. The fatter I got, the more loathsome I felt. Ten days after my 13th birthday, my mother committed suicide. I knew it was coming. I didn't cry. There were no tears. I was alone with my insane father. The night of my eighth-grade graduation ceremony, the little girl sitting next to me said, "Where is your mom sitting?" And I said, "Oh, my mom committed suicide last year." She began crying. I was so disconnected from my feelings, that was my coping mechanism. I had to be the perfect robot. I was also eating a lot. The grief, the terror, the rage that I was not allowed to express, it came up in my body.
My father's message was: "Take care of me, take care of my emotional needs. And suppress your own feelings, your needs, at all costs. Do not behave like a child." The idea was that women are meaningless and unimportant. With my father, there was emotional incest. Maybe I wasn't trying to cover myself with fat to protect myself from a creepy dad, with no mother to protect me—but that was the result.
Raising daughters, I've tried to protect them from the negative messages I received. Many of us are unmothered mothers. So instead of feeling you're a bad person because you eat too much, you give yourself permission to cultivate unconditional friendship with yourself. Feel compassion for yourself. What God wants from a girl is for her to be who she is. This is your highest spiritual purpose.
Chelsea Vienna, 24, is a professional makeup artist. She talks about her struggles with bulimia and anorexia with intense feeling and conviction.
My parents divorced when I was 2. We saw my father every week. He would say to me at dinner, if I wanted a second helping, "Chelsea, you really shouldn't be eating that because it's going to catch up to you; you're bigger than your sister." He never said, "You're fat and ugly," but with my other girlfriends around he'd say, "They're so pretty," or "They're so talented."
My father was very picky about women. It was very much about looks and it still is, for him, to this day. All these women he was dating were thin and beautiful with big breasts. The comments were all about appearance, "Did you see how beautifully her hair was done?" or how she dressed, "That's high-end style," never about the personality, never that she's a genuine person, always about the way she looks. I thought: "If I look like that, will my dad accept me more? My father is never going to love me, because of the way I look."
My father actually referred to my mother as frumpy after the divorce, saying she used to be hot, she used to be beautiful. My mother is the best person in the world. I became very enmeshed with my mother. I wanted to take care of her.
I was 9 years old when I started menstruating. I matured very fast. You start to resent your body. My mind had not caught up with what my body was doing. It was so confusing. I felt almost like a freak. It caused me to encounter things I wasn't ready for. Guys three or four years older than me would start to give me attention, not even knowing how old I was. Mentally you're not ready for it. You start to blame your body, because it feels like you're being punished for the way you look.
At 14 I was dating a guy who was 17, 18. It was a very destructive relationship. I fell into a deep state of depression. I was very aware that my body was getting me in trouble. I was being very promiscuous. I was self-mutilating, in a way, with sex. I was punishing myself. It was a destructive act that I could do and that made me feel bad.
I was 16 when I developed anorexia. I was a big girl, voluptuous, curvy, five feet, one inch and 135, 140 pounds. I was sick of the attention I was getting for my body. [I felt that] if I could not be seen in a sexual way—seen for my body—I would not get hurt. When I was hospitalized at the Renfrew Center, in my senior year of high school, I weighed 72 pounds. I lost half my body weight in less than a year. I lived on Halls cough drops and water for days at a time. I barely could walk. If I thought there was anything in my stomach, I felt dirty, guilty, and bad—about sexuality, about not being good enough, the relationships I'd been in, being a failure—I held all my problems in my body.
The Renfrew Center cost more than $1,000 a night. We used all my college money. My family got together the money to put me in the hospital. It was the best place ever; they put me on a nutrition plan. I reconnected with my body and had a better understanding of myself. This is not about food, this is about something else, let's get to the bottom of it. Abandonment by my father. My father was still in our lives, he supported us, we saw him every week. But it's still, to you, child abandonment. How do I feed that little girl who is inside me?
As far as body image, I'm still not 100 percent. I stay away from negative influences, from people who put you down. One thing I realized is that it doesn't matter what you look like. It's how you are inside. If I run into someone I haven't seen in a long time, I never say, "Oh, you look great." Because how they look isn't what matters.
Deborah Voigt, 47, is an opera singer who has wrestled with her weight. In 2003, the Royal Opera House fired her because she couldn't fit into a little black dress. Voigt has since had gastric bypass surgery and lost more than 130 pounds.
I always had a distorted image of my body, even when I was a kid. A lot of attention was paid to weight in my family. My mom had always fought with her weight, been on one diet or another. She had self-esteem issues around her weight. We were constantly going on diets. She'd say, "You need to take some weight off." I felt very self-conscious. I was aware that I was bigger than my small friends at about age 15, 16, 17. Now, when I look at pictures of myself at that age, I was a normal, voluptuous girl with curves in the right places, but I thought I was too big. The weight ballooned. My dad may have felt my weight was a reflection on him in some way. He was very much a "Food Marshal," watching everything I ate. Hearing the cookie jar opening at night, he'd ask, "Who's opening it?" It was me.
I wish things had been different. I would not pay that kind of attention to my little nieces if I saw they'd put a lot of weight on. I'd tell them they were beautiful the way they are. And then I'd invite them out for a bike ride. To make them feel there is something wrong and that something drastic needs to be done is not the way to do it.
By the time I went to have the surgery, I couldn't even shop at Lane Bryant anymore. I was above a size 28, 30. Gastric bypass seemed like the right thing to do. My parents are very happy about my weight loss...though my mom did mention I had put on a few pounds. She'll say that, and then she'll say, "You look great, though." It's a contradictory message. My parents did do the best they could. They saw me very unhappy for most of my life.
At the Opera News gala last week, I had people telling me I'm beautiful. And it's hard for me to hear. It makes me uncomfortable. Something in me doesn't want to believe it or can't believe it. I lived a totally different life for such a long time.
Psychologically, I still think of myself as a really fat girl. I think I like the way I look, but I can't ever be satisfied. What will it take for me to accept myself the way I am and love it?
Cindy Cheung, 38, is an actress who has a radiant smile and projects a quiet strength and authority.
Once, my mother said, "You might not be the prettiest girl in the world, but I think you're beautiful just the way you are." I'm pretty flat-chested; my mother is too. We'd be in the fitting room, and she'd say jokingly, "Sorry! Sorry I didn't give you more!" She's putting us both down in a little offhand joke. The message was, "You're lacking in this department—that's a sad little thing we have to accept. Unless you want to get a boob job." She always says, "I'm built like a football, and you're long and lean and beautiful." But she still says "Sorry!" about the boob size. The specifics are very revealing about how she feels about me and herself.
My dad is kind of a square, really conscious about health. He asks, "Are you eating right and exercising?" That's his way of showing his care and his love. I inherited a lot of healthy attitudes from him. I go to California every year for pilot season. In the industry, at auditions, they can be cruel. You can tell when you walk in and you're not "hot" enough; they're done with you very quickly. My mom will ask, "You sure you don't want a boob job? It can really help your career." I have to actively tell myself I'm not lacking.
The casting call will say the role is for an "average woman." And the actresses look like mannequins. They're perfect, those proportions that conform to Hollywood's idea of a beautiful woman. They might look fabulous in a magazine. But when you get close, you see they're gaunt, they're hungry, they're not happy. You can see it in their eyes.
When I see a TV show or a magazine with a woman who does not have those very specific proportions, I'm happy. I'm happy for her and for me and for women. I'd rather have a few great roles than a ton of roles based on superficial elements. I have a pretty healthy sense of my body image and of myself. But it does take work and awareness in the roomful of mannequins. A technique I learned in acting school is to notice my breathing—it makes me very connected to my body and to the present moment.
Love Your Body!
Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, March 11, 2014
© 2014 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.