I love my life. I’m blessed with incredible friends. We get each other. They’re my people. My husband is always there to bring out the best in me. We’ve built a true partnership. I’m living my childhood dream of being a full-time author. Not a day passes that I don’t feel blessed to spend each day doing what I love most. I’m grateful for my life. It’s beautiful. But it hasn’t always been this way. Like many women, I’ve struggled to create my identity. It began in elementary school.
When I was growing up kids at school told me I was an “ugly loser.” I was bullied, excluded, and picked last for gym class. I was called an “anorexic bitch” because I was thin and told “you should die” on many occasions. Nothing hurt more than the cruel things people said. It wasn’t just my peers. Popular culture told me I was too short, flat chested, big-nosed, and boring. My pores were too big and the hair on my arms too dark. The “video vixens” that populated MTV at the time did little to improve my fragile self-esteem. I was nothing like them. That didn’t stop me from gorging on popular culture. As a teenager, the guys I crushed on told me all kinds of things. I was a prude, a slut, a preppy, a goth, too smart, and too stupid, all at once. The one thing no one ever told me was: you are enough.
The ideas I internalized created an audio that repeated over and over again in my head. It told me everything about me was wrong. The way I looked was awful: bad skin, ugly face, greasy hair, and scrawny limbs. I was awkward and uncoordinated. I was untalented. I was unremarkable. I was either too quiet or too loud. I never knew when I should speak. I berated myself for both my silence or for saying “the wrong” things. Nothing I did seemed right. I was perpetually uncomfortable in my own skin. Despite putting up a good front, at the core I feared I simply wasn’t enough.
What we think impacts what we do. It’s no surprise that I made a lot of poor relationship choices that didn’t serve me or anyone else. When you can’t find your voice you start to disappear and holograms appear in your place. You try on different identities as if they’re trendy outfits, waiting for some sort of external validation. I wore my heart on my sleeve one week and built a fortress around my feelings the next, as easily as changing my shoes. I participated in toxic friendships, chased guys who didn’t value me and thus brought out the worst in me, and caused all kinds of embarrassing melodrama. I excused the hurtful behavior of others as somehow my own fault. I lied to myself over and over again.
After a heartbreaking rollercoaster romance and devastating breakup with the guy I thought was “the one” and for whom I nearly lost my career and sanity, I was forced to reevaluate my life (see my Open Letter). I pushed the pause button and took stock. I took ownership of my own life, the narrative in my mind, and my identity. I claimed responsibility for the quality of my thoughts and correspondingly, my life. After doing some work, weeding out negative relationships, and following my authentic voice as a sociologist and writer, I began to wonder about other women’s experiences. I conducted extensive interview research with women about their identities and relationships.
I discovered that I was not alone. The details differ, but the overarching narratives are the same. Many women carry wounds from their childhood as well as their disappointing or failed romantic relationships. I’ve heard countless stories about women settling in life and love, chasing partners who withhold, chipping away pieces of themselves to try to appear a certain way, and excusing hurtful behavior as somehow their own fault. I’ve also heard innumerable stories of daily body image struggles and self-deprecation. Women who agonize every day about what they do or don’t eat, sucking their stomachs in, squishing themselves into Spanx, over or under exercising, staring at their pores or wrinkles, and worst of all, berating themselves for every “flaw” and every choice. Women who cloak themselves in feelings of failure. Each story implicitly comes down to one question: Am I enough?
Based on my interview research I developed a concept called “low-fat love.” To me, low-fat love is about settling for less than we really want and trying to pretend it’s better than it is. Think butter substitute instead of butter, but with our feelings. We accept low-fat love for all kinds of reasons: we don’t think we deserve more, can get more, or will get more. We try to fake ourselves out and subsist on less than we want leaving us feeling empty, starved, and craving something more. Wanting to share what I learned from my own experiences and those of my interviewees, I wrote a novel titled Low-Fat Love. While I had previously experienced success as a nonfiction author, this was my first foray into fiction: frankly I didn’t even expect anyone to read it. I think that was a blessing in disguise because I didn’t hold back. The book is raw and honest. To my surprise, the novel became a bestseller for my publisher. It hit a nerve. I was suddenly inundated with emails from strangers who wanted to share their stories with me. At book talks and conference presentations, readers lined hallways, waiting to whisper their most intimate stories to me. Stories of loneliness came up time and again. I learned many people are dissatisfied in their lives but too afraid to let others know, so they put up a front which makes them feel fraudulent and more isolated. Even friends shared stories with me about domestic violence, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders, and loneliness (none of which I knew about).
It was an incredibly humbling experience. I wanted to somehow honor the stories women were sharing with me. I was also developing more insights and needed to dig deeper. I conducted a new set of interviews with fifty-six diverse women ranging in age from their twenties to seventies, from all across the United States. Each woman could select to complete an interview about relationship with a family member, romantic partner, or another person from her life that she perceived as dissatisfying, or her interview could focus on body image and identity. The deeply personal stories they shared were heart-wrenching, emotional, and incredibly brave. The women expressed feelings of anger, resentment, regret, love and compassion. I felt deep empathy for the women and their struggles, and visceral responses to their pain and hope. Visual artist Victoria Scotti and I collaborated, selecting seventeen representative interviews and created a collection of what we term “textual-visual snapshots.” In essence, there is a visual concept representing the themes in each woman’s interview, followed by a short story written in the first-person and drawing directly on the woman’s own language, and a final portrait representing her emotional journey. The final portraits also offer an alternative to the kinds of representations of women we see in pop culture. We titled our book: Low-Fat Love Stories. Because the stories were so raw and I wanted to do justice to them, this project took many years to complete. I hope it as a source of wisdom, empowerment, and inspiration.
Based on my own struggles and what I have now learned from countless women who have generously shared their stories with me, I have some things to pass on. These are the things I know for certain.
Life is far too short to waste it on negative energy. Create an affirming audio in your head, one that helps you live your best life. There are no struggles you can’t overcome. Positive thinking is always a good start. Don’t settle for diet relationships and low-fat love. You deserve the real-deal. No one can create or fill a hole in your soul. You have power and authority over yourself. The most important relationship you will ever have is the one you have with yourself. Invest in it wisely. Always have your own back. Find your voice and don’t waver from it. Integrity and authenticity are everything. Without them it’s impossible to feel good about yourself. The “likes,” “shares” or “comments” you get on social media are not a measure of your worth. Build a sense of self from within by finding and pursuing your passion so you develop a purpose. That purpose will serve as your compass as you navigate your own path. Bet on yourself. You are possibilities. You are enough.
Author’s note: Dedicated with love to Madeline. Special thanks to Dr. Victoria Scotti, Dr. Sandra Faulkner, and Celine Boyle for clarifying my thinking around these issues and boundless gratitude to the women who trusted me with their stories.
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Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent scholar (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Chair of Sociology & Criminology and Founding Director of Gender Studies at Stonehill College). She is widely considered an international leader in the fields of arts-based research and qualitative inquiry. [...]