How Hard it is to Truly Be Okay with Yourself

Me in Montagu. 43 years old, no makeup, no highlights, sun damage and laugh lines. It's okay. It's me in Montagu.
Me in Montagu. 43 years old, no makeup, no highlights, sun damage and laugh lines. It’s okay. It’s me in Montagu.

Some months ago we spent a few days in one of my favourite places in the world, a house high in the mountains outside the Karoo town of Montagu. I love it there because there is nothing to do but swim in the dam, go for walks, read, eat and sleep. I can’t get agitated on social media because there’s no signal and my partner, removed from email, can’t worry about work. So we drink wine and make fires and sit long under the stars and our children are happy and it’s heaven. On our first evening there we came back from a late-afternoon dip and, as the shadows of the pines starting getting long and it was time for that first glass of wine I put on a sweater, went into the bathroom and automatically reached for my lip-liner. Because we were going to have drinks and snacks and chat and admire the view. Because I had been in the water and my makeup had washed off. Because… I’m a girl and if I don’t look pretty? Well, that’s a problem. I saw my reflection in the mirror, a woman of 43 with two children and a career and opinions and a brain and I looked away, out the window, at the trees and the big, blue mountain and I thought what the fuck am I doing?

Here I am in a remote holiday house with my husband and two daughters – the people who know and love and get me better than anyone in all the world – and I’m putting on makeup? It was a strange and sad moment where all the terrible, messed up messages I have internalised during my years on this earth hit me in my gut. I put the lip-liner back and went outside and looked out over the beautiful valley and tried to remember the incidences in my life that had led me to believe so doggedly in my own unworthiness. And how, in this world, I was going to save my daughters from the same fate. I remembered the earliest message where, compared to my cousin of the same age, I was labelled by family members as the ‘clever one.’ And, as any girl will know, you don’t want to be the clever one.

I remembered, many years later, a boy I was desperately in love with telling my best friend at the time he didn’t like me anymore because I was ‘fat’. I was 15 at the time and while I was never skinny, when I look at pictures of myself at that age I was definitely not fat. Still – I was mortified and ashamed, and it was the first time I have a clear memory of declaring war on my body – reading up on diets; taking small green slimming pills that made my heart race; sprinkling artificial sweetener on my All Bran Flakes and weighing myself every day. The idea that there was something wrong with me had taken root in my unconscious mind, and this belief would become more pronounced as time went by.

And, while I have learnt a lot in my time on earth, this is one thing I don’t really know how to change. How do you unlearn the negative messages that have been reinforced your whole life long? How do you decide you’ve had enough of this nonsense and you’re going to accept yourself just as you are – if not for yourself than for the amazing, clever girl children you’re preparing to send into the world? I read something once that posed the simple question: ‘when will you be thin enough?’ and I wept. A while back a girlfriend said something to me that was very scary and very true. She said, ‘your children don’t watch you with their eyes; they watch you with their whole being.’ I can tell my daughters what I think – propagate feminist values; go on about women’s rights; insist that no matter what they look like they are important and they have value, but when they see me unhappy because my jeans are tight; when they watch me eat salad while everyone else has pasta – all the words amount to nothing.

Last week my 8-year-old brought her school photos home. I could see she was unhappy. She sat beside me on the couch in silence and I let her be until I saw the big tears running down her cheeks. It took a while for her to admit that she was crying because one of her school friends had said she was fat and now that she looked at the photos of herself, she knew that it was true. I turned the TV off and I asked her sister to give us a few minutes alone. I didn’t really know what to say, to be honest. It was one of those parenting moments when you want to go, ‘hey, you know that manual? Now would be a good time.’

I opened the iPad and showed her pictures of herself taken at a recent ballet eisteddfod. I asked her what she thought of that little girl in the pictures. We found more pics, holiday snaps taken on the beach. I asked her if she agreed with what her friend had said. My daughter is little; there is no fat on her body. She had to concede that what had been said to her might not, after all, have been true. And then we talked about the fact that everybody is different. Some people are shorter, others are tall, some have dark hair and some are blonde, and some people will be heavier while others are lighter, and that the way you look has no bearing on who you are. I reminded her of the importance of always being kind and remembering that the outside of people says nothing about the inside. And she cheered up and started smiling again and we went and made hot chocolate, but it was a sobering moment which made me wonder, in spite of my best efforts, if I have failed miserably at my job.

Because the truth is, while I’ll order the Hunga Busta burger, throw back beer like the best of them and roll my eyes at women who succumb to cosmetic surgery, that’s only part of me. There’s another part, and one I’m not proud of, that looks at herself in a bikini and feels dismay. That has to beat down the guilt of devouring an XL portion of fish and chips on a Sunday in Kalk Bay. That secretly, while planning a holiday, determines to lose 3kgs so I can wear all the clothes I like. And who is very much a product of her environment. And what if it’s that version my daughters really see? How do I project an image of okayness when it’s not something I always feel?

But then, more than projecting a Stepford Wives-type image of perfection (which I could never achieve anyway) I’ve always been a firm believer in leveling with your kids and being honest no matter what. I mean, they see through your lies anyway. Could it be that there is room for ambiguity and contradiction in this ongoing conversation? After all, little about life is simple. Maybe if we keep talking and I ask them the right questions their (really awesome and strong) sense of themselves will be their lifeline when society tells that them the way they are is wrong. And maybe – this is my hope, anyway – because of the way they’ve been raised, they’ll be better equipped than I was to bounce back from the blows their self-esteem will suffer. For me, all I can do is put the makeup bag down, take a deep breath and go hang with the people who love me.

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62 thoughts on “How Hard it is to Truly Be Okay with Yourself

  1. What an absolutely fantastic blog. I have battled with self-image and self-belief all my life and only now, in my 50s, am I beginning to be comfortable with myself. I caught myself putting mascara on to go and swim at gym the other day, and thought, “Seriously? You’re seriously putting on makeup that’s going to get washed off, or even worse, to create black streaks down my cheeks?” I am who I am with or without makeup. Nothing’s going to change that.

    As you say, we want to instill confidence in our children, but I know my boys have watched my lack of confidence and self-esteem while growing up and I wonder why they are unhappy with themselves at times. I don’t know how we undo those negative voices that we grew up with – at times, I have told them (out loud) to go away and leave me alone. They have driven me mad (literally at one stage, landing me up in hospital), but now I am gentler with myself and try loving myself more.

  2. Love your stuff and thanks for this one. I still don’t think we have answered the fundamental question in our own minds – is it OK to be overweight? If the answer is yes,we have one thing to teach our daughters. If it’s no we have something quite different to teach them. Like all of us, you dither in the article between both answers.:-0

  3. The work I have done, both as a coach and as a human who had deeply engrained negative messages, leads me to believe that acceptance is key. Not of self but of the presence of these messages. When I started to do that it seemed to diminish their power over me. Fighting them or even actively working on them seems to give them fuel. I saw them and then moved my attention to a deeply held but positive message. I gave that attention and slowly but surely the power of the negative diminished. My Dad called me “Bosmangat’ my whole life (referring to a large behind even at 45 kgs in Matric…). So whilst its still a held belief it has no power because, once I have ‘seen’ and acknowledged it, I am able to move on to other deeply held positive beliefs. It requires one to become an observer of self as this then allows one to step away in a quiet but focused way.

  4. Thank for this candid, beautiful and resonating post that speaks to the vast majority of us women. What a perfect reminder what is most important in life — to ENJOY this beautiful world as we are with those we love most.

  5. Wow, what a great piece. I am not a woman, but I hope that I now understand a bit better. And you know, guys have the same problem, just with slightly different targets…Thanks

  6. Excellent post that resonates with so many of us, as others have said. Wait until the decision of when, if ever, to go grey comes along. I’m 57 and have been dying my hair for decades. Decided to go grey this year (though still putting a few blonde highlights on top). When I meet people I always feel this need to explain my grayness. Sort of defensively. It is aging especially as most are still dying so in comparison I look older. But it’s ok. I decided the other day that I still need to be a role model to my daughters. If I am constantly bemoaning my age, trying to look younger etc, then I’m sending them a message that getting older is something to dread. Actually, it is simply another stage of life with some wonderful benefits (doing your own thing, travel, lack of encumbrances and many more), you just don’t look as great. So what. That’s what i tell myself but it is hard to fully internalise.

  7. I’m more comfortable with my 60 year old body than I was when I was 20! But this journey and acceptance has been made easier – with a little help from (girl) friends, who together with a sense of humour – the reading of mindset changing books and articles such as yours – and a granddaughter whose promise deserves fulfillment – contributed.
    Thank you!

  8. I think my daughter of 4 & a half may ‘have’ it. A few nights ago when reading to her she suddenly said “you are beautiful Mom”. Surprised by this sudden unrelated statement I asked what about me was beautiful and she put her hand on my chest over my heart (she knows it is on the left hand side) and said “you are beautiful in here”. I hope that she always remembers that this is what counts.

  9. This rang home so true for me. I don’t like how I look, yet I try really hard to hide it from my two girls. Yet they probably (read definitely) see right through it!
    I love what you did with your daughter. It is an amazing way of building her self esteem. You don’t need the manual- I would love it if you were to write it!
    Thanks again for an amazing post.

  10. And here I sit, at the age of 74, with tears running down my face because every word you say is true!

  11. For men it is similar but also different, men yearn for and live in the applause of others, it is the essence of their self worth, when that applause is removed the trauma can be devastating, they hit out at their nearest and dearest because they are angry at this absence of applause. Only when they have painfully learnt to live without it and find meaning through self giving love and service of others without any expectation, do they find a new way of being.

  12. Letting go is something all of us can do! Doing it everyday is practice…..like meditation. That really helps to connect to the true you deep inside!!
    Forgiving, truly forgiving and sending pink light to the other persons heart, the person who put those nasty spells (words are spells) on you. You literally send the pink light from your heart to the persons heart and say: ‘I forgive you for not being the person that I wanted you to be, that releases me and it releases you’ see the change. This includes doing this forgiveness process to yourself more than any one else and do it as often as needed…..whenever something you think about yourself that is negative or an old memory of self, go back to those times and that age and forgive yourself for holding yourself back!!!! I use allot of different techniques in my sessions, but this is one that is easy and works.

    Balance in life and self love comes with allot of practice.

    Boundaries of thought processes and boundaries that you put up and say NO MORE to people who are out to hurt you or your precious children is one of the biggest self love processes you can practice!

    Lots of love and light to all the beautiful people! 💞❤️💫

  13. Beautiful blog. Early this morning I was lying in bed reading ‘Captivating- Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul.” by John and Stasi Eldredge. It also talks about why we care so much about being beautiful but have so many misconceptions about what true beauty is.
    Thank you so much for being brave enough to post this. We all need to come into the light and claim our power as beautiful women inside and out.

  14. Awesome post, Im sure every woman on planet earth will read it and nod! We all believe krap about ourselves, compare ourselves to others, to this ‘ideal’ out there that we ‘should’ be. It’s bollocks but we do it anyway. Something that has changed my mind about my view of myself, is hearing a line somewhere, a while ago, that your 50 year old self will tell your 34 yr old self to WEAR THAT DAMN BIKINI, you look fab in it. That changed my life, really it did. I put on a bikini, hesitate, think back to pics of myself 10 years ago, the ones you look at and go ‘wow, I looked fab and when I was back there, I hated that skirt/bikini/tummy flab/whatever’ and I think pfft, today I may feel fat or krap, but in 10 years time I will look at a pic of me in this, and go WOW, HOT! hahaha. My 50 year old self will be proud of me wearing this today. I distrust my feelings in this moment, my probably-warped view of my body/whatever, and I put it the hell ON, and go and have fun. My future self would want me to. This has really changed my life ;) x

  15. A reflection with which many of us can identify. People who are comfortable in their skin, regardless what age, shape, size or colour that skin is, are the most compelling and beautiful. Perhaps your daughter needs to ditch that “friend” of hers. Another lesson we have to learn, unfortunately: how to spot the frenemy.

  16. Thank you for sharing this. It’s very true that children pick up on everything adults do, especially when it comes to managing weight because of how popular it’s become. We all want to wear all of the trendy clothes and look like airbrushed models. I’m struggling with weight for the first time in my life, and I’m starting to realize that life goes by too fast to worry about smaller sizes.

  17. It is such a delight to read your comments again.

    It is like you are reading my mind – thank you for sharing.

    Kind regards Manda Traylor

    Always just 5kg short of my ideal weight…

  18. Your blog is always relevant but this one is of huge value. When I’m pleased with my weight, my family think I’m ill because I look drawn and lined but all I see is the low number. Thank you for this, Susan! Keep dispensing your wisdom with the wit and vernacular that make us laugh while we learn.

    1. Aw, thank you, Sunny! It’s weird how all women think that the skinnier they are the better they look. I have a friend who is already thin, but goes on crazy ‘detox’ diets and loses even more weight. Her face gets gaunt and her hair goes limp, but she is thin as a reed and therefore happy. It’s a terrible kind of madness. Big hug x

  19. Wonderfully written about something I think all women go through, I have a daughter, she will one day most likely feel too fat/skinny/short/tall/ugly/whatever and I will have to be the one doing the encouraging while also trying to look myself in the mirror and accept and love myself.

  20. Thanks for this. I’ve learnt that even the strongest and most admirable women struggle with self image. And to just admit it is even liberating, because the mere idea of having this “issue “, if you’re supposedly a liberated, sensible woman who should know better, feels shameful.
    I’ve also found that self-compassion is more important than self confidence (for me anyway ) because confidence often implies a kind of denialist strength, when I can’t realistically deny my flaws. The ground of confidence is sometimes shaky, but compassion or love doesn’t require perfection.

    1. Thanks so much, Lee. I have yet to meet a woman who doesn’t, on some level, struggle with this stuff. And it feels like while we collectively deny it we keep the status quo in place. Here’s to the sisterhood xxx

  21. Awesome read :)……. and ja… think our kids see it like it is. Maybe we should listen to their innocent honesty more? he he and for the record – I was told “Im the not so clever cousin”… :) xxxx keep well!

  22. i love this and your point of view. I do find it really hard to be okay with myself and just being confident . and I mean i know I can’t change my flaws , but i still obsess over them . thanks for posting this , it was inspirational . I love the picture . and the no makeup look . it’s really cool to be that open on the internet . :)

  23. Thank you, hon. Yesterday a friend helped me update my blog which meant I had to stare at that picture for an hour and a half. I cringed throughout. But… you know. Have a divine day xxx

  24. The messages we pick up as children are deeply ingrained. My mother battled with her weight all her life. I spent many an hours while she went on various machines to reduce her lumps and bumps and partook in various diets to lose weight. My dad also used to (gently) ‘tease’ her about her weight but I remember being deeply ashamed when as small children we joined in one day and she ended up in tears.

    Later as a teenager my dad made a comment about my inheriting my mother’s bum. I weighed 50kg at the time and I was a size 8. I became anorexic, my weight dropped to 41kg by the time I was 21. I recovered – at 55 I weigh a healthy 58kg. I eat proper food and I don’t do faddy diets to maintain my weight.

    But those deeply ingrained values are still there. The voice in my head sneers inwardly when I see anyone who has allowed themselves to become overweight. I justify it on the grounds that it can’t be healthy. While that may be true, I know that it is partly because I would rather die than end up like my mother – fat – even now.

    Despite my best efforts – deliberately not going on faddy diets, encouraging my children to eat healthy food but not depriving them of things like cake, sweets and soft drinks, focusing on talking about healthy eating and exercise rather than diet and whether you can or cannot have a large slice of chocolate cake smothered in butter icing for example – my daughter in particular has absorbed those negative body image messages, whether from me, media generally and/or her friends that being ‘fat’ (she is a size 6-8) is to be avoided. She does eat well but she is totally preoccupied with never stepping outside the door unless her makeup is perfect, her hair is straightened within an inch of its life, and she is self tanned to a ridiculous shade of orange and everything she owns that is white also turns orange.

    I must ask her next time she is home what she thinks about the subject and how she picked up these ideas about herself.

  25. Sounds like you had quite the get away.

    A tip about the negative is that we never really unlearn, but quiet down the input. When the positive is lounder it really does not matter what the negative is saying. Be the example by living out the positive.

    You are doing great.

    Regards,
    Clifford T Mitchem
    Advocare Distributor
    Nutrition + Fitness = Health
    http://www.AdvoCare.com/13087657

  26. Nice one! Beauty is a mind-set that we need to pass down to our daughters, along with confidence and valuing your mind as much as your body.

  27. Hi Susan, your blogs always make me smile and think and be grateful to share this beautiful earth – and South Africa – with you. Have a lovely day with your beautiful family! Judy-from-Langebaan-visiting-my-sister-in-Brisbane-Australia:)

    1. Hi Judy, thanks so much for this lovely comment! Hope you had a great stay in Aus. I just got back from Sweden which was lovely, but it’s soooo good to be home. All the best! :-)

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