Constructing a Positive Identity & Everybody Hurts – R.E.M.


Conformity?

This afternoon, I’ve been listening to 90s rock ballads and “Everybody Hurts” played immediately after “At My Most Beautiful,” both of which seemed oddly appropriate for Valentine’s Day.

But these made me think about all the ways we denigrate people’s physical appearances and the way we even agree to denigrate our own appearance. This morning, I was reading an article written by a former sufferer from an eating disorder. She claimed she’d gotten over the eating disorder–first anorexia and then bulimia–but also claimed that it was still a struggle on some days to not feel poorly about her body, or to think of controlling her food/exercise as a way of controlling her life. This story was all too familiar to me — I’ve been in that place, sometimes I’m still in that place. I believed I would be prettier if I was thinner, fitter, healthier. I pushed myself to the point that I was too thin, and thus not fitter or healthier and it’s been a long climb back. Now I’m scared that I’m on the other end of things–no matter how much time I log pushing myself to new limits. I worry about whether I’m eating enough or too much and I’m training for a half marathon in April. I’m scared of breaking down my body and I’m scared of letting myself down. It’s about perfectionism, to some degree, but also about feeling comfortable in my own skin–something I still haven’t figured out entirely how to do.

What I love about “At My Most Beautiful” is that it looks outward: the speaker finds himself most beautiful when he makes “you smile.” However, this also indicates the need for outside validation rather than searching oneself for that very same validation. Of course, so many of us seek this type of validation now. We need the prize to assure us we’ve done well, or at least someone to acknowledge that we exist on a regular basis. Please affirm me. That’s blogs are about (yes, I’m calling myself on this) in many ways, particularly public blogs. But “At My Most Beautiful” is what I’m discussing for now. In my opinion, since this song is sung by a man, it makes the song “sweet,” or at the very least, sentimental. However, if a woman sung it, I imagine people would be exist in the realm between indignant (feminism where have you gone?) to slightly nauseated. Certainly I don’t think it would’ve achieved the same level of popularity that it did when R.E.M performed it.

But listening to these songs made me wonder also how many of us really feel sad on a regular basis, and uncomfortable in our own skin. It made me want to reach out to my past self and to the friends who I know struggle with similar discomforts. One friend tells me from time to time that he’s loud and boisterous, and “kind of obnoxious” because he’s insecure–and when he starts listing these insecurities, most are physical. A professor I know takes on a deeper stage voice (and his voice is already joke-deep) and looks kind of like a body builder, both of which indicate insecurities–and perhaps insecurities related to his body. My friend L believes she’s happier because she’s spending more time at the gym, as she works through her divorce. But I’m worried that she’s using the gym for endorphins. We’ve both been underweight in the relatively recent past–within the past five years, anyway. And on the phone with me recently she said, “you should come visit. I’ve lost weight.” I know she goes to the gym two hours a day, most days, now. I worry about her and don’t know how to express this concerns, can’t imagine a scenario where this will play out well over the phone. So instead, I try to talk to her as often as possible, to remind her she’s real. We live 1500 miles apart. I feel like this is a I can do. Listen, be supportive of the divorce, remind her I care.

A woman I know feels like she lives in a body that’s not hers–and I’ve known her for a decade, always in a similar body. I didn’t know, though, until after my own struggles with disordered eating the degree to which she disliked her body. “I don’t want to be the bubbly chubby girl,” she said to me recently. “But for a long time that’s what I thought I had to be.”

And here I believed she accepted herself and envied her that confidence. I wanted that confidence, didn’t know where to seek it out. In some ways, I still don’t know where to find it and this worries me. I’m an adult–I should’ve figured this out at some point. But I believe my friend is still more confident than me in many ways, or has at least gotten better at passing, faking her way through it.

A friend recently mentioned to me that he tries to help others build a positive identity — that he believes people should seek pleasure in childlike things that make them happy. He advocates looking for the simple things and this makes me fall a little in love with him. I fall a little in love with people a lot of the time, I’ve found. My friend J hates when people use the word “retarded” because his young brother has autism. Whenever he asks people to use a different word, I fall a bit in love with him. Likewise when J gets the sad-happy look we’ve all seen when he mentions something about his ex. I fall a bit in love with most of my friends when I watch them interact with my dog. I fall a little in love with one of my married friends when I listen to him talk about his wife.

But I think we’re really bad about expressing these little affections for one another, and for generally telling people we care about them. Maybe we need that bit of validation to help us remember that we’re real. Maybe we need to know when people appreciate us, that small reminder that we’re real, that other people care about us–that people who don’t have to care about us do care.

Certainly when I was at my lowest point in regard to my disordered eating, I was pretty sure no one cared. I couldn’t expect them to, because I didn’t care. But I also realized I had friends who cared. And my parents repeatedly asked if I was losing too much weight (of course I told them no). I realized, coming out of that point, who my real friends were — and how special that relationship was, as well as how tenuously it existed. Even now, when I talk about my past–the parts of my past I’m more reluctant to put out to the world, I realize who my friends are — it takes a lot to be willing to take on someone else’s baggage, or at least a small portion of it, the way friends and loved ones are expected to do. And it takes a lot, at least for me, to trust someone enough to be willing to share these parts of my past, the soft underbelly of my life.

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