“Whatever, Grace. At least I have the body of a REAL woman!”
It was Junior year in high school and my friend M. had tossed this stinging remark my way, each word as sharp and pointed as little knives. What we had been previously talking about, I don’t recall. All I remember is feeling muted shock. Then red-faced embarrassment. And finally, a resigned and heavy sadness.
In today’s modern world, I would be referred to as being Petite, with my 5’1 frame and slender figure. Growing up however, was a different story. I was a tiny slip of a thing, a “little lump” as my old-world immigrant Grandma would disdainfully call me in Cantonese. My parents were no help in this department either, as my dad would always chastise me about how I needed to grow taller or else “no man would want me as a wife”. In my typical teenage fashion, my deadpan retort back to him would be, “Yeah, whatever, dad!”. However, I found that each time he criticized my appearance, an extra layer of shame and self-loathing was built upon my still-impressionable psyche.
As a pre-teen and then a teenager, I watched as all my friends sprouted in height and developed curves and confidence, wielding their new-found sexuality like a brazen weapon. Hiding underneath oversized black band shirts and shapeless shift dresses, I wondered if I would ever get there myself. With my diminutive stature and no boobs or curves of which to speak of, I felt small and powerless amongst my peers and in the world. After all, one of my most favorite UK indie rock bands at the time (Silverfish!) had a popular shirt for sale that had these bold words emblazoned on the front: “HIPS TITS LIPS POWER”. Seeing this shirt as a validation of my insecurities, it all but confirmed to me that since I didn’t have sizable hips OR tits, I subsequently didn’t have an iota of power either.
Because of my deep insecurities about my height and my figure (or lack thereof), I was consumed with a unshakable sense of despair and unhappiness. Feeling as if no one could possibly understand—after all, my friends were taller and more filled out, so how could they relate—I hid behind a façade of a smiling teenage girl with a penchant for slightly off-color jokes, an abiding love of 80’s John Waters teen comedies, and a devil-may-care attitude about what anyone else thought of me. I was always ready to share a laugh with my friends, always affable and available. The honest truth was, I was desperately sad and unhappy in the skin I was in, to the point where I was having suicidal thoughts regularly. But who would’ve known? Everyone saw a friendly and sweet girl, albeit one with ‘alternative’ tastes in fashion and music, but someone who always had a smile to offer.
I dealt with this by writing furiously in my journal and seeking solace in music and literature. I found inspiration and encouragement in the words of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, and strength and solidarity in the music of Bjork, PJ Harvey and Kim Gordon. These were strong and fiercely independent women who conversely did not shy away from their vulnerability and decidedly more feminine traits. The singer Bjork in particular left quite an indelible impression. With her small 5’4 build, charmingly elfin features and distinctive voice which could vary from a primal howl or wail to sweetly hushed staccato whispers, I was utterly entranced. Despite the childlike innocence she displayed at times, her sexuality was hers to own and her strength and fortitude was palpable…when she sang,
“And if you complain once more, you’ll meet an ARMY OF ME”
You best believe she meant it. Seeing this sprightly creature oozing body-positivity gave me permission to revel in my own uniqueness, and slowly start down my own path to body confidence and self-acceptance.
Since those angst-ridden high school days, it’s been a long road to learning to accept and treat my body with love and compassion. Although I move with much more confidence in the world now, I still have my days when I get down on myself and have to silence the inner critic within…the one who tells me it’d be nice to have bigger boobs, that it sucks being so short, that my legs should be longer, etc. Even after all these years, I’m still a work in progress and that’s ok. I’ve learned that mainstream beauty ideals are simply a glittering illusion and that nowadays, beauty comes in all shapes, forms and sizes…both big AND small.
If I could go back to that day in time when my high school friend shamed me for not having the body of a “real woman”, I would tell that sad, petite 16-year-old girl that although it wasn’t seemingly apparent, she has real worth and value in this world. That despite being small, she is strong, powerful and emotionally resilient.
As for my high school friend, I wish she could see me now. I am sensitive and a little awkward at times. I am passionate, kind and loving. I am a good friend. I am a creative and inquisitive soul. I am a weirdo with a dorky sense of humor. I am flawed, but I am real. I AM a real woman.