Serena Burdick is the author of Girl in the Afternoon: A Novel of Paris. Today she’s sharing a deeply personal essay about insecurity, body image, and coming into her own at 40.
It seems the inevitable woman’s curse is to compare our selves with other women. I guarantee that my husband does not obsess over the guy he saw with perfect pecks. Most likely he didn’t even noticed the perfect pecs, or the guy. I, on the other hand, have had to learn to appreciate the gorgeous woman clinging to those pecks without wanting to look like her.
I’m a healthy, 40 year old mom who grinds her own grain for homemade bread, feeds her children kale shakes and does her daily yoga. I can say with confidence that I am attractive. I’m no model. I’m not stick skinny and I have average everything, but I feel blessed to wake up with this strong body every day. Yet there was a time when average, or even attractive, wasn’t good enough, when strength and health meant nothing over beauty. A time when I was convinced I could be prettier. Thinner. Happier.
No one in my life, now, can imagine my struggle with plastic surgery. But I have the scars to prove it, internal and external.
My stubborn strength and my ability to endure, in this instance was my downfall. I suffered the torturous pain of plastic surgery with the same stoicism with which I had suffered years of eating disorders. After all, I was in Hollywood. My manager told me I’d have to lose weight and I was too attractive for character roles. At my next audition a casting director handed me a book on dieting. I was 5’4” and weighed 120lbs. Not exactly a fatty. But I didn’t have the strength to say, I’m good enough as I am, and I’m going to do this my way.
The blessing of age is that I can say it now with conviction and pride. But at 22, I didn’t have the self-confidence. Instead, I skipped dinner and called a plastic surgeon. I already had breast implants. Stuffed those in at the tender age of 19. Why not more?
In the surgeon’s office, I told him I wanted liposuction everywhere. He started ticking off body parts on a form as if I was already disassembled. “Arms, inner thigh, outer thigh, hips, butt, stomach.”
“And my cheeks,” I piped up. “Can you make my face thinner?”
As if on cue he flicked a switch and the bust of a Roman statue appeared on the wall. “See the shape of those cheeks,” he indicated the chiseled image—marble, not human, I’d like to be clear on that point—then leaned over his desk, wagging a finger in my face. “Your cheeks are about 3 centimeters too small compared to your chin. You’re going to need cheek implants.”
Cheek implants? I’d never even heard of such a thing, but images of Sophia Loren bloomed in my mind and I nodded my consent.
As a doctor, it was his responsibility to say, I’m cutting into the nerves in your face. There could be permanent damage. Paralysis. Facial dropping. Facial ticks. And as a human being it was his responsibility to say, you’re a beautiful woman. This is insanity. Get out of my office. He said nothing, just looked absently out the window as I signed away my body on a sheet of paper full of legal words I didn’t bother to read.
I was scared, but I also felt brave, as if I was finally going to win the battle I’d been fighting with my body. I had the weapons, after all, suction wands and knives. How could I lose?
Only, the night before surgery I dreamt the doctor mistakenly sucked all the blood from my veins. I woke up in a panic. What if I died on the operating table? My parents were far away and I hadn’t told them what I was doing. I wanted my dad to tell me I was making a terrible mistake. I wanted my mom to tell me I was beautiful just the way I was and I shouldn’t go through with it. I didn’t call them. Instead, I got up and drove myself to the hospital.
I came out of a five-hour operation shaking violently. All the way home my teeth chattered. It felt like daggers were piercing my skin. “Why am I shaking?” I kept asking, but the guy I had convinced to drive me home, a guy I worked with and barely knew, had no idea.
The stop/go of LA traffic was excruciating. I had a catheter in. No one told me I’d have a catheter. No one told me I wouldn’t be able to walk, or eat. This poor guy had no idea what he’d gotten himself into. He’d planned on dropping me at home and going to work. Instead he spent the night packing me in frozen bags of peas and trying to calm my violent shaking. An intimacy neither one of us was prepared for.
The next day my catheter was removed, the guy went back to work, and I was utterly alone. The pain was blinding. This was worth looking eight pounds lighter for? I thought with horror. Every inch of me had been stabbed and sucked. My face was bandaged. Stitches lined the inside of my mouth. My eyes were black and blue. I unwrapped my face and took a photograph of my swollen, blackened self. A self I couldn’t recognize.
I lay on the couch for a week. I didn’t eat. I drank as little water as possible because yanking myself into a sitting position and shuffling to the bathroom was unbearable. When I was finally able to venture out to the grocery store a woman handed me a pamphlet on domestic violence. I did this to myself! I wanted to shout. Do you have any pamphlets for that?
The worst part was that lovely girl I’d taken for granted, the one I’d grown up with and into, the girl who had always gazed back at me in the mirror…she was gone. Turns out 3 centimeters make a lot of difference. It was as if the nightmare I’d had before surgery had come true. Only it wasn’t blood that had been sucked out of me. It was my identity.
I’d love to say I had a great epiphany in that moment, but I just felt confused and angry. It took a long time before I found a way back to myself, before I understood that I would lose the war against my body if I kept fighting it. What I did understand—staring at my bruised, swollen, unrecognizable face—was that I was going to have to find a way to heal not just my body, but the separation of myself from my body.
My first step was having the cheek implants removed, which left one side of my face damaged. The left corner of my mouth would no longer pull into a smile. Ironic, really, to lose ones smile along the way. Also, it turns out that a woman’s breasts can continue to grow after the age of nineteen and I found myself with enormous breasts that I never wanted. Even though I was terrified I’d be left with hideous mounds of stretched-out flesh on my chest, I had the breast implants removed as well. I was determined to find the body I’d done away with.
Still weak from the last surgery I would ever put myself through, I locked up my LA apartment and flew to the coast of Maine. Sitting on the rocky beach, listening to the rhythm of the waves, I felt the strength of my heart that was still so willing to pump all that blood through my veins. The life has not been sucked out of me, I thought. There’s still time to forgive myself.
Eventually, my body forgave me too. My breasts found their natural shape and my smile returned. My eating disorders dissolved with therapy, maturity, and a supportive husband. Now, I roll out of bed for my 6am spin class because it makes me happy and gives me energy to get through my day. I eat a salmon and kale dinner because it tastes good, and indulge in chocolate and wine because they also taste good.
It still takes daily awareness and patience for me not to fall into the self-deprecation we women are so good at. But it was finding a way into my body instead of out of it that saved me. If nothing else, my past serves as a reminder to keep that connection to myself. If we stay close to our bodies and listen with intention to what makes us feel good, what makes us powerful, healthy and strong, we’ll find it’s never surgery or radical diets, it’s appreciation, acceptance and kindness.
Related Reads: A Holistic Approach to Image and 4 Ways to Cope With Pregnancy and Postpartum Body Image.
SERENA BURDICK lives in Western Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons. Her brilliant debut novel, Girl In The Afternoon is in stores now. Follow Serena on Instagram @girlintheafternoon and twitter @SerenaBurdick.