Friday, January 08, 2010

Twenty-Ten: The Self-Respect Diet

In a hyphenated word, my New Year's Resolution is more of a New Year's Affirmation: Self-respect.

Self-respect can be cliche, signaling a cascade of "love yourself" slogans. I've mostly despised self-love. After all, I think I'm terrific enough. What I really wanted was for all the rest of humanity to think so, too. Even more, I wanted one special person to single me out and say, "Damn gurl! I love YOU." Self-love, by comparison, felt vanilla, anemic and predictably unromantic. Unlike Jerry Seinfeld, I didn't want to sweep myself off my feet.

Self-respect, as I understand it now, may be a better way to describe self-love. It's the core of it, anyway. Self-respect says, "I start and stop somewhere. Know that about me." It's a sense that if all others abandon me, I will not abandon myself. Self-respect puts value on my perceptions, needs, ideals and wants. Self-respect means I consult with me before I listen to you.

And it's something I haven't understood before (maybe ever). I used to think of self-respect as being "proud" of your achievements. I thought it meant honoring your talents. Perhaps I knew on some level that self-respect meant standing up to bullies (like the playground kind that called me "Teeny Sweeney" or the boy that flushed my purse down the toilet in 7th grade). Self-respect is, at core, built on that inner "no" that resists being degraded by someone else's minimization of your personhood. Another way of saying it: Self-respect means "I don't take no shit!" But I didn't know that, really, until now.

I was raised on kindness over anger, turning the other cheek, looking at yourself when criticized to see if there is a ring of truth in the accusation so you can grow and become a better person, or at least, so you can get along better with that pickier person. I might only look at myself with defensiveness and anxiety (what if I can't change?). But I always looked. I have a self-examining scrupulosity that rivals a germaphobe's anxiety for hygiene while trapped in a gas station bathroom.

So if you yell at me, tell me I'm doing something wrong? I might verbally kick the dirt, work up a counter-argument lawyer-style, scrunch my eyebrows and cry... but by morning, I'll be doing the thing you expected. Because more than any other impulse in life, I want to get along.

Until... getting along becomes an act of self-disregard. Have you ever fasted for more than a day or two? If you go without eating for a week or more, your body gets used to not eating. You don't feel hungry any more. Food takes on a weird look, like it's for droids and you're the only real human with the dignity to not stuff items of color and texture into your mouth. You reserve the orifice of the mouth for speaking and kissing, in that order. Eating=taboo.

Then the fast ends. You break it with a banana or a bowl of soup. And within an hour, Oh. My. Goddess. Your body screams at you for depriving it. Every pretzel, panini and popsicle appear as divine gifts sent for your exclusive consumption. That's when you realize: I was starving myself. Food=body respect.

The suppression of self-respect works similarly. The more I "went along, to get along," the less I respected myself. Eventually, I lived in a state of chronic, unacknowledged hunger. In the last two years, I learned what happens when you don't respect yourself. You sneak food. Eventually you throw it up (it's unhealthy stuff you snack on). And then, slowly, you have to rebuild a diet that nourishes you... and your kids.

This is the year of the self-respect diet. Wonder what's on the menu?