The first encounter with it that I recall was around eight years old while taking dance classes. One girl, Erin, I think her name was, was the teacher's pet. He treated her better than anyone else, always putting her on the front row and fawning over her, giving her far more compliments and attention than anyone else.
She was a good dancer, sure, but there were plenty of other great dancers in the class. I remember thinking how unfair it was that we didn't get anywhere near the same adulation, nowhere near the same encouragement or commentary. And even with the hindsight of almost thirty years, I can honestly say I was as good as she was. It made no sense.
I complained to my mother. I described Erin. Mom raised an eyebrow, having a clue as to what what going on.
See, Erin always arrived at class with really cute dance clothes, hair in curls and ribbons. I think she had earrings, and quite possibly a thin layer of lip gloss.
Mom's eyes narrowed as she came up with an experiment. For my next dance class, I wore a brand new leotard and tights. We put my hair in darling curls with bows. Mom even added a slight, natural-looking touch of blush on my cheeks, and maybe even a tiny bit of eye shadow.
Mr. Dance Teacher couldn't give me enough attention.
It felt good at the moment (Ha! Mom's experiment worked!), but afterward, I was hurt. The only thing that had changed was my appearance. I looked cute, so my teacher acted differently. Mom was irate but not at all surprised.
It was my first experience with the reality of the world we live in. There are times we all deal with it: we dress up for a job interview, we put on nicer clothes for church. But in day-to-day interactions, yes, we're also judged. And people treat us accordingly.
But here's the important thing: no matter how we change on the outside, we're still the same people inside.
Recently I came across a blog post that brought this issue center stage for me. It posed a question: If you could take a pill that made you physically thinner and prettier . . . but stupider . . . would you take it?
The comment section stunned me: the overwhelming response was yes, the readers (mostly female) would take such a pill in a heartbeat.
The responses made me want to cry. Yes, the Erins of our world may get treated a bit differently. But do these reader really think that being pretty and skinny in and of themselves make you happy?
For someone seriously overweight, this may hard to swallow; they feel as if they'd do anything to be thin, and if they were, they'd finally be happy. But you know what? That's not how it works. I know plenty of people (many close to me) who have lost 40 or 50 or more pounds, have looked fantastic at reaching whatever size . . . but then gained it all back. Why? Because being skinny didn't change them on the inside.
Having a new dress size didn't change their mental and emotional thermostat, the way they respond to life events and stress, the way they see the world. The same things that made them sad and happy and stressed and overjoyed before still did.
A lower number on the scale didn't change those things.
Consider this: I know plenty of people (and I bet you do, too) who have never struggled with weight issues but who are still unhappy and possibly even clinically depressed. (If being skinny makes you happy, explain that one.)
Newsflash: Skinny does not equal happy.
I've lived through this pill experiment (inadvertently, but literally). You can read that whole post here, but here's the nutshell version:
I was on a preventative migraine medication that made me lose a lot of weight. I ended up very thin (nearly 10 pounds lighter than I was at high school graduation) and looking great.
However, I physically ill all. The. Time. I felt no joy in life.
On top of that, I became, literally, stupid. One side effect basically made my brain fall out of my head. I found myself trying to focus on what my kids were saying to me and asking them to repeat themselves several times.
Once (not making this up) I had to count 3 + 6 on my fingers.
I was skinny. I was stupid. I was miserable.
As I weaned off the medication, I decided to wear a dress I could finally fit into after a good 15 years or so of being too big for it, knowing that the minute I was off the medication I'd never fit into it again. Because yes, I did enjoy being thin.
But that size did NOT make me happy. There is a distinct difference.
That medication period was a very dark, miserable time.
I had exchanged a physical improvement for the loss of my mind and intelligence.
I couldn't write then. I had a hard time reading, because frankly, I wasn't smart enough (couldn't focus enough) to follow. I was stupid, skinny, and utterly depressed.
I doubt I'll ever again be as thin as I was during those few months. While it's a nice pipe dream to think I could be, I recognize that if I ever fit into that peach-colored dress again, it'll be a fun moment, but it won't be the greatest source of my joy in life. The greatest sources of joy in my life are a lot more significant than a stupid dress.
During that time (and even since), I cannot count how many people have said they'd love to try that pill for the weight loss, even if it made them stupid. I always want to shake some sense into them, make them understand that losing who you are while being thin doesn't bring happiness.
Really, it doesn't. Happiness comes from within, not from a number on a scale, and not from a dress size.
I try not to care about the Erins among us, although I admit to being intimidated by drop-dead gorgeous women who look like they just walked off a Vogue cover. But here's the catch: I doubt they're happier just because they're skinny and pretty. They surely have their own life challenges.
No one escapes this life unscathed, curls or ribbons notwithstanding.
I'm not sure what the point of this is, exactly. On the one hand, I'm very aware that appearance is significant and that how I look affects how people treat and view me. It's an odd line to walk.
So I'm always sure to wear something a bit businessy-dressy for author appearances and the like. I wear casual clothes (jeans, sweats, t-shirts, and [who am I kidding?] pajamas) around the house. I refuse to visit the salon every few weeks to color my hair and get my nails done or to follow fashion trends. While I know it's important to make a good impression, I don't want to be an Erin.
There's a part of me that whispers that trying to be one of them will only make me miserable, because I can't be perfect. I can't be the most pretty. I can't be the skinniest.
But I can be smart. And I can be me.
No stupid and skinny pill for me, thanks.
The trick now is trying to teach my three daughters that balance: value your appearance. Present yourself well, but don't chase after perfection, thinking it'll make you happy, because it won't.
Never, ever, give up part of who you are for someone else.
I'm currently a bit chubby, but I'll stick with that if it means I'm smart and happy. Yes, I'm trying to lose weight (mostly so I don't have to buy bigger clothes, plus it's a healthy thing to do, and because exercise keeps my mood more even).
But no way would I ever again exchange smart and happy for something as shallow as thin or pretty.