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Elizabeth Slade: Weeding out core beliefs between our parents, ourselves

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” 
— William Faulkner

Outside the garden is springing to life. All my old friends are bursting up — bleeding heart, lilacs and here come the peonies with their fabulous powder puff blooms still in tight fists. With them also come the plants I spend weekends removing only to find them back again — ferns, milkweed and the ever invasive pachysandra.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about core beliefs — those ideas so deeply rooted that we aren’t necessarily conscious of them — the underground plants that are dormant for a season or two and then spring to life thrilling or vexing us. Most of the time we act from our core beliefs without even realizing. Then something seismic happens, an earthquake say, and in this time of cracked earth we can glimpse what is under our decisions, at the root of these beliefs.

For me this big event was losing my mother. She was a single mom until I was 10, thus many of my deep-seated beliefs can be traced back to her. As a result of her death, the pressure to uphold these beliefs has begun to dissipate; allowing me to open them up for review. For example I don’t believe that smaller is better and my body should be a wisp, yet I look away from the wall of mirrors during Zumba class. I begin to take examine this contradiction with interest.

I tell my friend Ziggy about my observation and she encourages me to look right in the mirrors, to challenge the ways I’m dodging the issue. And so I do. The next time I’m in the room of mirrors I watch as we all look away from ourselves, except the one man in the class who studies himself, using the mirror to get it right. We are an eclectic group of people.

We are tall and lithe in a jogging bra and tight pants to short and stout in a bright purple T-shirt and sweats. While we do our final stretching I’m looking at my thigh. I decide not to think it’s fat or thin, flabby or strong, old or young. Instead I begin to think of my mother’s thigh, all that was left of her leg after her above-the-knee amputation. I think of my daughter’s thigh lying across me while I read to her in bed. I think about how we have, then lose, then find ourselves within this body costume we’re given.

I start to ask women about their core beliefs, and in particular their body beliefs. Everyone I talk to has much to say, but most tell me they’re not ready to be quoted in an article on the subject. I am shocked. I think I may have unwittingly stumbled into a culturally electrified topic, one which makes even the strong and beautiful women in our community uncomfortable.

Ziggy tells me, “There’s something very intimate about how we feel about our body, and sharing that can make people feel vulnerable.”

“But Ziggy, this is big. Only the man was watching himself in the mirror, so he’s the only one who’s going to get really good at Zumba!”

“That may be true,” says Ziggy, “But our culture has some strange ideas about women and their bodies and we’ve inherited them. Women are not friends with their mirrors.”

This is not news. The better part of our adult lives has been flooded with research, books, studies, articles, truckloads of dissertations on the topic of women’s body image to the point where we all know we should be fighting the media’s Barbie expectations and yet in the privacy of our own off-the-record-lives we continue to struggle mightily. This not-new idea about our bodies hasn’t broken the ground, penetrating to the level of beliefs. The surface looks clear but the old root systems prevail.

I lie on the lawn and listen for my mother’s voice, waiting for her diminishing phrases to arise and nothing comes. When I was a child my mother was preoccupied with thinness — hers and, by extension, mine. Listening for her voice I realize it was never explicitly stated, but even so, I felt clearly my mother’s ambivalence with her own body, the weight she carried thinking about weight, withholding dessert. Her appraisal of my body wasn’t lost on me either and adolescence was a painful experience as a result.

Amy Dryansky, local poet and author of Grass Whispers says, “Both of my parents dieted off and on for years (neither was really overweight), I was subject to all of their fads: grapefruit, high-protein, low-carb, etc., and I absorbed the message that what we were physically (not tall and willowy) was not desirable. That stayed with me for years, and really only recently, with yoga practice, have I mostly shed that core belief. Interestingly, the other big core belief passed on to me was that I could be whatever I wanted to be. Kind of hard to reconcile the two.”

Are we looking for reconciliation, or is it time to upend the kudzu? Time to eliminate the very belief that keeps us from being who and what we want to be in this world.

My daughter, who is 10, is just now entering the stage where she wants the door closed when she dresses. Out of the bath I see her strong body beginning to change and admire her open appraisal of the situation as she stands before the mirror. She is private, but not shy or critical about it. It’s doing what it’s supposed to do — like the bulbs emerging and blooming in the yard. Whether she will fall down the well of self-consciousness, insecurity, and comparison mind I can’t yet tell. I stand behind her wondering how can I influence the kind of thinking will she inherit about her body?

Later Ziggy and I are sitting in the warm spring sun when she appraises her bare legs. “Ugly legs,” she tells them halfheartedly. After hours spent talking, contemplating, reflecting and writing about body belief, I think, “What if we all decided today to get in this game for the long haul? What if we decided to be constant gardeners, repeatedly and ruthlessly uprooting even the slightest signs of this old belief? We quit it with the put-downs and we say ‘This body is good enough.’ What if we agree we can stop being critical of it, that in fact we must stop being critical of it?” For our daughters and their daughters, let’s choose instead to find it as it is and accept it. I, for one, am ready to take a look and learn to get it right in the Zumba mirrors. I’m ready to root out this tenacious crop of pachysandra and start living freely.

This choice is important; deliberately creating family beliefs, selecting the ones that hold us together and make each of us more powerful to do our work in the world. But even more crucial is the persistent, unglamorous part requiring our daily attention to how we view ourselves. We can’t simply remove it once and expect the invasive species to be gone. This is our way of honoring the garden — to know that it is ground and to choose to be active caretakers over what thrives there.

Elizabeth Slade, author of the novel “Rest Stops,” lives in Leeds with her spouse and three children. She can be reached at egslade@newview.com.co.

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