Recently I posted a status on my Facebook page declaring I was having a “good hair” day. Only my best friend and confidant Amber could know what that meant. She immediately wrote back, “DO. NOT. CUT. YOUR. HAIR!!”
Amber knows me like no one else. She knows that when I start to acknowledge that I look good, panic sets in and I begin to engage in self-sabotage. She also knows that this little quirk of mine is a result of a repeated dynamic in my long and unhealthy marriage. Not a day of my 18 years with my (then) husband went by when he did not comment on my looks. To be fair, he never ever criticized my looks. He never told me I needed to lose weight or had cellulite. He always told me how good I looked. Every day. Actually, it was more how sexy I was. How hot my ass looked, or how physically painful it was for him to suppress his manly urges that were brought about by my foxiness. I came to despise myself for looking good and causing him so much pain.
When I would share my unhappiness with friends they didn’t understand. “My husband barely notices me. I wish I had a problem like yours”, they would say ~ and I would feel stupid for complaining.
Still, each time he told me how sexy I looked, I panicked. In my experience, there was a direct link from looking good to feeling obligated to provide something I wasn’t comfortable providing—and this connection was established well before my marriage.
When I was about 10 years old, I remember feeling extra special in my new poly-nylon print dress. Seriously, this thing was silky, clingy, colorful and just plain fashion forward. I reveled in prancing around my house in my dress feeling free and joyful and expressive and ok, kinda sexy. How could I not feel awesome in such a frock? Yet the moment I tap into that memory from 35 years ago—the memory of feeling pretty, and uninhibited, and expressive—I immediately tap into the memory of the “consequences” that came with those feelings. The consequences of being grabbed; being groped; and being touched in a way that caused me to feel instant anger and shame toward those feelings of joy and self expression.
That memory was the first of many similar scenarios during my childhood, teenage and early adult life. I became increasingly angry with myself as time after time, feeling attractive or just plain good about myself lead to manipulations and abuses at the hands of older male authority figures. How could I have let this happen again? I would wonder over and over. Then I would vow not to feel good about myself again.—a preventative measure.
However, it’s really not so simple. At such a tender young age, when we are the victims of the inappropriate actions of adults, our wires get crossed. Our brains are not yet developed enough to give us the proper perspective. Instead of seeing the situation fully for what it is, we are at risk for concluding that we are actually causing this behavior in the adult—that somehow we are responsible. On top of that it’s possible that we get caught in a vicious cycle because somewhere along the way we try to make sense of things. Very often the only way to do that is to “come to terms” with the notion that this is what makes us special, or lovable. So as we grow into adults we are at risk for subconsciously seeking this scenario out~because we equate it to worthiness and love.
It wasn’t until after I found out the truth about my husband that I began to see clearly why I stayed with him. I stayed because I had not yet seen clearly that I was subconsciously looking to repeat a pattern of behavior that had become my lodged in my belief system—the belief that my physical looks and my feelings of confidence and self expression immediately meant I was obligated to accept the unwanted advances of men. And here’s the clincher: Eventually I had decided that I was better to stay in an emotionally abusive and dysfunctional marriage where I felt preyed upon by just one man, than to be out in the world and vulnerable to any number of men. I understand now that though I had the illusion of safety while I was married, my marriage was slowly killing me without my notice.
So here I am, three years post divorce and thankful for my incredible friend and rock, Amber. When she says, “DO. NOT. CUT. YOUR. HAIR!”, I know what she is really saying is you have every right to look good and feel good and have fun and enjoy being with people. She goes on to remind me that I have the right to do all of those things and I have the right to say no. To internalize these two things—feeling good and saying no is a lesson I wish I had learned back when I was sporting that groovy poly-nylon dress. Unfortunately I didn’t and the majority of girls around the world don’t either.
So, at 45 years old—I’m strapping on my dancing shoes and heading off for salsa lessons with my friend Amber’s voice in my head: Dance, be free, feel good, look good, have fun. You get to feel all of those things—and you get to say no.