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What Shirley Tells Me

Understanding the harmful and the happiest parts of my life:

There is always meaning behind the work that I create. There are times in which I’m not immediately aware of the meaning behind the images, forms and styles that I’m employing. It’s there though. It’s working away quietly behind the scenes. It’s through the discovery of the meaning behind the work that I’m able to learn more about who I am and why I think and feel the ways that I do. It allows me not to lurch from ‘knee-jerk reaction’ to ‘knee-jerk reaction’ through life. I need to know why I am the way I am. It’s the only way I can see to find a way in the world.

There are things that I have learned about myself through the creation of Shirley that shines a light on some of the more unfortunate bits of my past. The maladjusted portions of my child and young adulthood that have gotten wedged inside of my mind. Those bits that won’t budge. In this piece, Shirley, I find myself questioning the incongruity of  how the best and most precious parts of my childhood can be so inexplicably entangled within some of the earliest, most damaging emotionally warping experiences of my life. Each of these things have shaped me as a person. How can these things be both shitty and happy at the same time?

The five words become five phrases:

From a very early age, I can remember feeling like I wasn’t what I was expected to be. The older I became, the more I heard the same five words used to describe me: loud, obnoxious, selfish, fat and ugly. I can hear people say, “But come on! Kids can be mean. You got bullied, BIG DEAL! Get over it! Everybody gets bullied for something when they’re a kid!

Okay. I’ll address that. The first three (loud, obnoxious, selfish) were said to me by my mother. Repeatedly. The fourth was addressed by my mother via the never-ending series of diets I was placed on as a child and teenager. The fifth was used as “You’d be so pretty if you lost weight.” and “You have such a pretty face!” I inferred that I would not be ugly if I was not fat. If I stayed fat, then I was, by default, ugly.

Believe me, middle and high school boys let me know what a fat, ugly, dog I was. And yes. That still stings like all holy hell, even today. Because my mother had let me know what parts of me she personally found so wrong, so lacking, that somehow, the negative reaction of the boys I had crushes on in school were somehow justified. They were just seeing what my own mother saw in me, mentally and physically.

Because of this, these five phases took root within my psyche:

I am loud.

I am obnoxious.

I am selfish.

I am fat.

I am ugly.

How they affect my existence:

These five phrases are deeply fixed within my identity. The roots are have wrapped themselves in, around and through every single, solitary experience of my entire life. I am never, ever without them at the forefront of my thoughts. I cringe inwardly when asked to introduce myself, or tell someone a bit about myself. The five phrases flash across my brain. I have to consciously tell myself not to say them out loud to people. Often, I fall short of describing myself in anything that could be remotely construed as positive terms. More often than not, I blurt out something self deprecating and incredibly off-putting. Part of me feels like not saying the five phrases out loud is a victory.

I was taught from an extremely early age, that what people think of me is incredibly important. The five phrases, while they were my truth, needed to be disguised, or somehow made more palatable.  A semblance of normality needed to be presented to those around me. This was done in the hopes that: 1.)  people would take pity ugly, fat girl, and let me be their friend and 2.)  to make myself an indispensable workhorse type of person that made my presence less disgusting because I could do x, y, or z well. It didn’t matter what I felt inside. It didn’t matter how my negative self-image damaged me internally. As long as I could fake-it until I made it, all was good.

Then I met, fell in love with and married a man who loves completely unconditionally for who and what I am. This was and is to a great extent, still extremely weird to me. My husband understands me. Well, as much as any one person can understand another. His presence coupled with time and distance from the people and conditions that formed the five phrases within me, has been beneficial to my mental health. This started the inevitable destruction of my extensive mental work-arounds and fronts. It’s only natural that the artwork that I create began reflecting these changes.

Finland Changed Many Things:

With Shirley, I decided to bring the phrases out into the light and place them right along side some of those happy memories of childhood. The five phases were turned into questions. A choice was made to ask them in Finnish. Why? Because living in Finland has changed me. It has changed my artwork. It has fundamentally changed my point of view on many things.

Viisi Lauseita:

Oletko äänekäs? (Am I loud?)

Olenko vastenmielinen? (Am I obnoxious?)

Olenko itsekäs? (Am I selfish?)

Olenko lihava? (Am I fat?)

Olenko minä ruma? (Am I ugly?)

To be totally honest, I’m not sure how to answer these questions. It is interesting to filter these thoughts through a different language and a culture that is at times similar to, yet very different from my own though. The sting is removed from the words. The words become easily teased apart into free-floating letters. When I picture the time in which the five phrases were planted within me, they are not with these words or pronunciations. I can more easily dissect these words. There is an emotional distance that isn’t provided in my mother tongue.

Yeah. I know. The English words of the five phrases are big and in yellow. The Finnish is smaller, in blue and is kind of just floating around the bigger words. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And over forty years of internalized pain are not extinguished with the completion of one piece of artwork. The completion of Shirley is the first volley of fire in a long battle.

Reactions to Shirley so far:

It’s interesting that there have been almost no comments made regarding the five words or phrases. In fact, there has been exactly one. A friend expressed said that she had similar types of thoughts running through her head. She said that she doesn’t see me that way. This made me wonder if I’ve made people uncomfortable with these five phrases. My admissions to dark, depressing and malformed ways of thinking about myself. Perhaps they think I think that way about them? No. I reserve all my poison for myself.

Is it that people don’t know how to respond to them? Should they agree with me? Would that be insulting to me? Are they put-off by the way in which I think about myself?  Does that mean there are people out there that don’t think of themselves in the most negative terms?! How is that even possible?! Do they think it’s some kind of trap? Like, I’m luring them out so that they will admit they think this way about me? Or maybe they just think one or two of these things about me?

Yeah. I’ll own-up to fat.

Are people embarrassed that they maaaaybe think these things about me?

There’s a quote by Regina Brett, that has been expanded upon by RuPaul CharlesWhat other people think of me is not my business. What I do is what I do. How people see me doesn’t change what I decide to do.”

I don’t think I’m anywhere near living up to that quote. Someday, I might get there. Anything’s possible.

Thank you for reading, and I will see you again soon,

1 thought on “What Shirley Tells Me

  1. You are perfectly Katie sized and perfectly Katie shaped and if you were any different you wouldn’t be you. And I abso-frigging-lutely ADORE you.

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