MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL – BY ELLIN CURLEY

A lot has been written about dieting and body image. What interests me is how we develop our body image in childhood and how this image haunts us through life.

Here’s an innocuous example. I’m short. Very short. I’m less than 5’1” tall. So it would be reasonable to assume that “short” would be part of my innate body image. But it’s not. I’m constantly surprised when I stand next to normal sized people and realize how much bigger they are than I am. I believe this is because I grew early and stopped growing early.

I’m third from the left, in first grade

Therefore, in my formative years, I was one of the taller kids in the class. When we lined up by size in first grade, I was near the back of the line next to a girl named Liz. Liz grew to be about 5’8” tall. I barely noticed as the years went by and everyone else continued to grow and I didn’t. It didn’t hit me until one day, in sixth grade, I realized that I was at the front of the line next to my peanut sized friend, Cathy. How did that happen? As a result, I’ve never thought of myself as small. I’m still bemused when people comment on how tiny I am.

Me with Tom, Marilyn and Garry in 2016 (Marilyn is short too)

My mother illustrates the more pernicious affects of childhood perceptions. She was adorable as a child but had a thick, black uni-brow. Insensitive parents and family members referred to her as “the ugly one”, in Yiddish. At the age of 13, she blossomed into a true beauty. This is not just an adoring daughter talking.

My mother was scheduled to go to Hollywood in the 1940’s for a screen test. She didn’t go because she got a severe case of Rheumatic fever that permanently damaged her heart. But throughout her adult life, no matter how many people told her how beautiful she was, her image of herself was always as the ugly duckling. She always felt totally inadequate physically.

My mom at about two years old

When I was growing up, my insecure mom overemphasized the importance of looks to me. This made me very self-conscious about my appearance. She often told me that she didn’t understand how women who were not thin and beautiful ever got husbands.

Ellin – NOT looking short!

It’s no wonder that it was only in my 50’s that I felt confident to go out of the house without makeup on – ever! Even to the supermarket. I always wore makeup at home as well, even when I was alone with my husband, until recently with husband number two.

It’s liberating to be able to finally feel acceptable without cosmetic enhancement.

One of Mom’s theater head shots. She was in her early twenties.

I believe that the self-image that is imprinted on us early in life stays with us forever. Extended therapy can improve the situation and strengthen the ego.

I think that it’s crucial for parents to make sure that their kids leave home with a positive body image. Too much emphasis is placed on physical appearance early on. So too many children, including me, grow up thinking that being beautiful is synonymous with being accepted, valued and loved.

Mom in her early fifties – still beautiful

We all need to feel comfortable in our own skin, whether we’re good looking in a conventional way or not; whether we’re skinny or “big-boned”, or whether we’re male or female. Neither of my children have serious body issues. I’m not sure if that is because of me or in spite of me.

Personally, I wish I could “do-over” my childhood and de-emphasize the physical. Maybe I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life as obsessed with looking “good” all the time.

Mom and me in 2002 – I’m 52 and Mom is 85

10 thoughts on “MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

  1. I never thought I was short either, even though I was always the shortest or second shortest girl in my class. I grew to 5’4″ which — in those days — was more or less normal height, but then through a series of accidents involving spines and suchlike, I shrunk. I’m not barely 5’1″, so we are the same height. And oddly enough, I don’t feel particularly short … except in the hospital where I was too short for a variety of tubes they needed to stick in my chest. They had to use pediatric chest tubes. That was a bit startling and the first time I felt really little.

    Anyway, you’ve never looked short to ME. You’ll always be tall from where I’m standing!

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    1. Seeing myself as short or tall is just an example of body image and how early it is formed. The true tragedy was my mother, who always saw herself as the ugly duckling she was as a child, even though she morphed into a beautiful woman. She never got to enjoy what must be a great feeling – knowing you are very attractive. That’s not everything, but it’s better than spending your life thinking you’re ugly. That makes you feel inferior to others, even though looks aren’t everything. They are something, especially to the delicate ego of a child.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ellin, you’re still “hot” with those killer dimples, beautiful face and slender figure. Tommy is a lucky fella.

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    1. Thank you! My mom was always told she had a great personality. So she grew up knowing she was smart and charming. So that helped a lot. But she always compared herself to others and usually came up short. She always needed to compete with others and be found ‘superior’. So she developed many neurotic perceptions and behaviors from her early years as the ugly duckling.

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        1. Luccia, I was always aware of being “The short kid” – from grade school to the Marine Corps to my career as a TV News Reporter. They used to have a box for me to stand on for some of my TV reports. We called it my “Alan Ladd Box”. I’m even shorter now in my “golden years”.

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  2. I grew up tall and thin. When I see myself with my classmates they are still, all much shorter than I am. So of course, I always thought I was too tall. I’m only 5’6″+ but still that’s a lot taller than any of my school mates.
    I think it was a terrible thing what they did to your mother, making her doubt her looks. She was gorgeous! She had a lot going for her as did/do we all. We are who we are.
    Leslie

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