by | Oct 3, 2021

Delila Olsson, author, with shawl

He started to follow me into the dressing room but, in a rare act of self-protection, I asked him to wait at the door. “Fine,” he said with obvious annoyance, then shifted his attention once again to the phone in his hand. “I need to see them all before you choose one!” he called out as I disappeared into the dressing room, a saleswoman trailing behind me. He reached out and grabbed her elbow as she passed him, whispering flirtatiously, “Please help her find something suitable for a musical gala,” careful to mention his position as conductor.

As the attendant zipped me into the first dress he had chosen for me, a black sheath with a high neck and fitted sleeves, a tear slid down my cheek. “Is it uncomfortable?” she asked. I nodded my head but, nonetheless, walked out to where my man sat glued to his phone. He glanced up and remarked offhandedly, “It doesn’t do anything good for your waistline.” The next dress he deemed “too low-cut for your weight” and, the next, “not particularly flattering” for my (then size 8) bum.

After my fifth walk down the runway to hell, The Conductor selected a basic black dress with a $350 price tag and told me he would bring the car around while I paid for it. I returned to the dressing room and collapsed in a pool of tears. The kind saleswoman plopped down beside me and lifted my chin with a gentle hand. She looked into my eyes and said, “You’re far too good for him, you know. What are you doing here?”

That should’ve been the end of it right then and there, but it was another six months before I was able to scoop up enough of what remained of my self-esteem to walk away from him and his incessant emotional abuse.

In the six years since then, I packed on 50 pounds of extra protection to make sure I would never attract another narcissist like him. Unfortunately, the weight gain also brought me face to face with something even more dangerous: the full force of a culture that holds its women to impossible standards of beauty that leave us feeling chronically insufficient.

My experience of becoming thin to please a partner — looking at myself in that dressing room mirror at Nordstrom, inconsolable, critical of the healthy body that had birthed a baby and run 10 k races and carried me through endless loss and grief — is not mine alone. I was having a universal experience of feminine trauma, at the hands of a man who couldn’t handle the strength of my spirit and therefore set about the work of breaking me down. At the hands of a whole culture devoted to tearing us down and then selling us potions and pills and gadgets to build us back up.

In our culture, women volunteer to have their bodies sliced up in order to meet some fictitious image of beauty. We surgically redesign our breasts, reshape our noses, chins, and thighs—to meet a set of aesthetic criteria developed by media companies run by men. Criteria that have nothing to do with real beauty, and everything to do with keeping us down. Making us small. Minimizing who we are. Robbing us of our power.

For so many women, the pressure persists to lose the rounded belly, to shrink the thighs, to smooth the wrinkles and the double chin and minimize the evidence of a body that has done good work, birthing work, strength work, carrying the emotional weight of a misguided humanity work.

If we are lucky enough to awaken to ourselves even if just for a moment, in a dressing room or any room, the media continues to remind us about all the ways we are imperfect. So, it’s easy to buy into this or that fad diet or new age affirmational bullshittery. Sometimes women laugh together about all the crazy things we’ve done to alter our sacred selves, to fit in better, to belong. Sometimes we even try the latest get-thin-quick scheme, because we don’t understand how this abandonment will inevitably harm us, how our spirits will sink under the weight of it, how we will eventually come to mourn the bodies we had once scorned.

Thankfully, my experience became a catalyst for my healing, a process that I suspect will continue for the rest of my life. It’s not easy to dismantle the patriarchal systems designed to keep women in our place.

This year, at age 58, after decades of dieting and therapy and agonizing moments with myself in the mirror, I accepted an invitation to participate in the 50 over 50 photo project. I rescheduled the first appointment because I couldn’t bear the agony of putting my body in front of a camera, but something profound happened when I finally made it to the studio. The photographer, Rachel, who reminded me a bit of that sweet Nordstrom’s dressing room attendant, gently convinced me that my curvy body would look stunning wrapped in chiffon. So I allowed her to take the photograph that proved it was true.

Delila Olsson, smiling with shawl