Sex by Numbers: Taking You for Granted

ColumnStop wasting time being self-conscious and celebrate you at every age.

Sara’s wearing a sliver of a bikini. Her short, brown hair gleams in the midday light and is shellacked in an elaborate bouffant. People describe her eyes as electric-blue, around which she applies heavy kohl eyeliner. Her lips are a perfect cherry. She stands in front of the camera with one hip cocked and a half-smoked cigarette in her left hand. This is a photograph of my grandmother, a Polaroid taken when she was in her mid-30s. She’s about to go for a swim, and although no term sufficiently encapsulates her magnetism, there’s perhaps one that might come close: resplendent.

And now, although her age has more than doubled, my grandma doesn’t look much different, in fact, she’s perhaps even more gorgeous, with a well-aged face that testifies to a history of passion and fierce devotion.

“When I was younger, I fretted tirelessly about my perceived physical  imperfections,” my grandma tells me. “I obsessed over the fine lines around my eyes, I gritted my teeth over my post-pregnancy breasts, and even though you could see my ribcage, I convinced myself that I was heavy around my mid-section.” Obviously, my grandma now sees otherwise. “I look back at these yellowed snapshots and think, ‘Sara, you were beautiful. You were perfect. And you took it for granted, and instead wasted your time with useless, self-hating thoughts.’”

My grandmother’s younger gravitation toward insecurity and wasteful self-criticism are echoed among plenty of my girlfriends as well, no matter how brave and strong, how creative and commanding, in the hidden hovel of their heart is too often this anthem:  I’m not, I’m not, I’m not.

It’s this disproportionate focus on perceived lack that has really started to rub me the wrong way. Rather than celebrating their abundant gifts, there is a systematic zeroing-in on self-doubt. It frustrates me to see lovely, lovable female friends mired in such petty preoccupations. “Wake up!” I want to scream. “Stop taking it for granted, stop thinking about yourself so much, stop this self-indulgence. Don’t wake up 30 years hence and rue the potential and pleasure you frittered away in a misery of your own making.”

Yes, moments of weakness are inevitable, they’re naturalized aspects of our culture, and it would be naïve to claim complete freedom from insecurity. When such ideas crop up, there are two response modes: 1) Nurture the thought, obsess over it, and strengthen its synaptical sway over your psyche or 2) Recognize it as an untruth and take proactive steps to stamp out its source. Is it really so simple as making a black or white choice? For most of us, especially people privileged enough not to have experienced serious trauma like poverty or violence, maybe it is.

So when you were growing up your mother told you you were chubby. So when you were in high school the rich, popular girls made fun of your acne. So when you were in college your first real boyfriend said you weren’t as pretty as your roommate. So you have stretch marks and don’t wear a size-four pair of jeans. So the guy you have a crush on doesn’t like you back. So you don’t like your chin, your hair, your ass, your feet. To all of this, I can’t help but say: Get over it. Walk away from this twisted self-focus and redirect your energies into the world in useful ways.

I’ve spent the better half of my life wrestling with self-directed, self-sabotaging thoughts that didn’t serve my growth or optimize my life; and, since we’re talking about boys and girls here in Sex by Numbers, it made me a tiresome, ungenerous partner to a man I loved deeply. Luckily, he refused to tolerate my fixations. I wanted him to listen to me and understand how important my insecurities were. He didn’t have time for them. “Wake up!” he would say. “Stop taking it all for granted. Look at how life is a miracle, Abigail. Stop wasting it.” Tough love? Oh yes, it was. Did I have the scope to appreciate it at the time? Absolutely not. I was too busy putting a magnifying glass to my flaws and stapling them to my self-conception.

It was years before his message, one that I’d grown to consider a ritual flogging, burrowed its way into me and tattooed itself on my active consciousness:  Wake up, Abigail! Wake up, damnit!

And so I did. And it was the very clarity he painstakingly, patiently, generously taught me that prompted another awakening:  I have to leave you and find my own way. And so I did.

I’m learning that it’s ok to be alone.
I’m learning that, in fact, I’m not really alone at all.
I’m learning that I could have loved him better.
I’m learning that I can make it on my own.
If you give good to the world, it’s often returned to you tenfold.
I’m also learning to hear my grandmother in my head: “I look back at these yellowed snapshots and think, ‘Sara, you were beautiful. You were perfect. And you took it for granted, and instead wasted your time.’

Sex By Numbers is an ongoing look into the emotional and sexual lives of the modern day woman. Follow Abigail Wick weekly here for insight and inspiration as she explores the “sex” of women and the terrain they must travel.

Image: Max Charping