This is a guest post written by Melissa Dinwiddie of Living a Creative Life.
Early on a Wednesday morning, about a month before high school graduation, I’d boarded a chartered bus with a bunch of other seniors, while the rest of the school was scurrying to make their first period classes. It was “Senior Cut Day,” and instead of books, our backpacks were stuffed with towels and sunscreen, because we were spending the day at the beach!
Now I was seated in the back next to my friend Jenny, who was filling me in on details about the dress she’d bought for Grad Night, when she reached down to scratch an itch on her calf.
Suddenly she gave a shout. “Oh my GOD!” she cried.
“What is it?” I asked, alarmed.
Jenny’s eyes were wide with shock. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “I forgot to shave my left leg!”
It seems silly now, but at age 17, such an oversight — on beach day, no less — was unthinkable. My mild disgust at Jenny’s disaster morphed into horror as she turned to address the bus as a whole. “You won’t believe this,” she announced, “but I only shaved ONE of my legs!” She laughed, the kids in front of and behind us laughed and rolled their eyes, then went back to their conversations.
I, on the other hand, was mortified.
Some part of me admired Jenny for her ability to laugh at herself, to let herself be imperfect in public, to use humor to deflect judgment, but this was a new concept for my teenage self. Up til then, my m.o. had been to do everything in my power to hide my imperfections. The very fact that I wasn’t perfect brought me tremendous shame. And yet here was Jenny, shining a spotlight on her “flaw,” turning herself into the butt of a joke!
What terrible things would result from the discovery of my own imperfections and flaws? In truth, I don’t know that I ever even articulated my exact fears to myself. All I knew was that keeping up the appearance of perfection felt absolutely critical.
It was also a helluva lot of work.
A zit was grounds for scheming up excuses to not leave the house. In dance class, if my belly wasn’t flat as a pancake, I tied a sweatshirt around my waist to camouflage it. I had only recently allowed myself to bare my right leg above the knee, after the surgery 2 ½ years earlier which left me with vicious scars on either side of my kneecap.
Though I was still horribly self-conscious about it, thankfully I was past the need to hide those scars, otherwise I’m sure Senior Cut Day would have resulted in heat stroke. Somehow I’d forgotten to pack a T-shirt, and I was just too ashamed of my body to go without a cover-up. Heaven forbid someone might discover that my belly wasn’t perfectly flat, and that my tiny breasts didn’t fill out my bandeau bikini top! So I hid them under my dark blue sweatshirt, and spent the day in physical discomfort and emotional misery, in constant fear of “discovery,” with sweat rolling down my torso.
Jenny, on the other hand, stripped off her sweats as soon as her feet hit the sand, exposing her stubbly left leg to the world — and her own not-perfectly-flat belly, too. She made self-deprecating jokes about her unshaved leg, and she may have felt self-conscious, but she didn’t waste energy trying to hide it.
Of the two of us, whom do you think had more fun?
I learned a big lesson from Jenny that day, which I look back on as the start of my long journey toward loving and accepting my body on its own terms. I still have moments of feeling shame and self-consciousness, of course — we all do — but I’ve learned what Jenny had already figured out back in 12th grade:
Disclosing shame has an almost magical power to defuse it. And embracing our perceived flaws creates space for so much more love than the exhausting effort of keeping up appearances.
Melissa Dinwiddie is an artist, writer, inspirationalist, and creativity coach, known for helping people live the fully creative lives of their dreams. She publishes regular inspiration on her blog Living A Creative Life, and hosts a free video Hangout every month, where all kinds of creative folks connect and fire each other up. Melissa’s first ebook, Creating Happiness: 9 Essential Secrets for Creative People (Established, Emerging, or Just Starting to Dream) is due out later this year. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.