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.


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