Hannah and I met in the intricate web of the online community. At first, it felt a little like looking in a mirror. Our journeys are similar in so many ways. I'm constantly learning from the way she continues to process with strength, bravery and hope. I am so thankful for her voice and her friendship. This piece spoke to me and I hope that it will speak to you, too.
It was a small thing, really,
A shining, sensuous line on an Instagram photo, a lilting curve on a red dress that was a token of hope for my future. Everything was going to be ok, because of this picture. It was my ticket to happiness. I had arrived at near-perfection, to the version of myself that I wanted to believe I was. I had toiled & dieted & whiled away hours on my parents’ hand-me-down treadmill & I had somehow, haphazardly, arrived.
I stared at myself, smiling back at myself through that carefully selected Instagram filter, and surveyed my handiwork. Perfectly posed, I wore a sparkling, bare-shouldered red dress that hung just right on my chiseled figure, complete with those ever-fleeting twin lines down my hard, tired stomach to remind me I was ok.
I’ve always chased those lines, but always with a certain half-hearted, lackadaisical sort of effort until the day I found out that they were, in fact, necessary. I knew he would see it, this photo-craft of mine, because he religiously explored my social media as a kind of coffee-and-Hannah liturgy, and I knew that I should have been content with this expression of care and interest in my self. But beneath this breakfast ritual of his I knew was something deeper, more insidious: his interest was not in my self but in my projection, in the image I painted with deft, feverish brush strokes swept across my canvas for his approval.
I was art & artist, and he was the only critic that counted.
Of course he had never explicitly told me what he required of my body, but damned if I hadn’t learned how to take a hint. As a child, I had studiously memorized every line, every unconscious expression of my mother’s face to ensure that I was pleasing her – or at least, if I was not, why & how I could repair the situation. I carried this glorified paranoia into adulthood, trying to win affections by tailoring my self & my body to the whims of the people I wanted, and wanted to love me. As a victim of an evangelical upbringing that had glorified and fetishized women’s bodies and sexualities, he could not see me as truly human, but rather as his adaptable plaything – a doll to be dressed up in his ignorant, stringent standards.
This grooming was carried out in strings of subtle hints; of pokes & prods in the “right” direction. I mentioned working out more; he took it upon himself to create for me the perfect m most “effective” gym routine. That was kind, right? That was helpful, right? He would express pleasure in my appearance only when I forsook my polka-dots & frills and wrapped myself in leather and navy and black. He would comment, on occasion on my paleness, my roundness, my general lack of stature; they were never quite insults, but they weren’t compliments either.
As a feminist, I had accepted myself as good enough for me, but I began to realize that, perhaps, I was not good enough for everyone else. Still, I had chosen to pursue this man, and I found vestiges of control & autonomy in that decision. I could not see that he had swallowed me.
I promised myself that as an empowered feminist woman, I was making all these decisions for my body and my image as an autonomous person, taking care of myself because I loved myself.
But self-love can be a fickle muse, and even self-absorption is sometimes a poor indicator of her presence.
The poorly translated, wildly-out-of-context passages began thronging in to defend my efforts: “I’m being a ‘good steward of my body’!” “I’m beating my body to make it my slave!”
Anyone – any idea - can bend scripture to suit its purposes, even the demons of fear & self-loathing.
Perhaps those two especially.
Late at night, in front of the mirror, my eyes were my sheers, lightly trimming the limbs that were almost right & wildly slicing the ones that were not. The next morning, in the cold light of day, my first priority was enacting the work that my eyes had selected for my improvement in the night. I would never dare look at my full reflection in the hard light of morning. The raw, tired, fly-away, pock-marked sight would’ve been to much for my fragile sensibilities to bear.
And then some nights, no smooth lines would appear, and my senses would become so overwhelmed with the cellulite and the softness and the imperfections I could not sheer away that I would resort to beating the offending body part until I caved under the pain.
My best friend told me early & often that I was suffering a case of “cognitive dissonance”, and finally the confusion became too much for me to bear. I left him, this man that I wanted, confused how all my efforts towards freewill & the pursuit of happiness had backfired against me. How had my own feminist language and thought led me astray, empowering me to step right into abuse?
I had changed all my means without changing my ends. The language of personhood and feminism had warped to fit all my old mantras of people-pleasing and submission. I believed that it was enough to love myself, like that Drake song – “I love me enough for the both of us.” It was empowering, in a way, believing my self-love had been enough to sustain me. That I didn’t need anyone else.
I still cannot look in a mirror before nightfall and a solid layer of makeup, but everyday I try to look at a little more of my naked self and feel less shame. I am trying to learn how to expect love from others, and not only from myself. But now in the morning, my priority is to do a little something to mend, slowly, the damage that has been wrought on my person and on my body. My many years of failed relationships had not taught me that to love someone, even oneself, is not just to weep over them and write them sonnets, but it is to take care of them in all the daily pain of monotony. I had never cared for another person in stability and acceptance – how could I know to offer that to myself?
I have learned that the things I want are not always what’s best for me, and loving myself is knowing the difference.
I am still trying to find a power that does not hurt me – that does not tear my soul apart even as it moves my feet forward.
I am still hoping for the day when I can say, unabashedly, to the heavens, “I am mine.”
But today, in all the humor and light-heartedness that only time can bring, I look at myself, with those beautiful, pointless lines down my belly and in all my red, sparkling, painful splendor and say, with a grin:
“You will be mine.”
Hannah Paasch is a preschool teacher, rock&roller & a self-described mysti-cynic. She sings in a band, loves on babies, and often spends her free time plotting to destroy purity culture & the patriarchy. Today you can find her in Nashville, TN & online at The Night Train.