Lost and Found
Words have the power to take hold of our identities.
When I was a child, my parents seemed like oil and water. At the time, their disagreements were too complex for me to understand at such a young age. The place I call home was a house my parents built together in south Jersey—a middle-class, two-story colonial in a conservative neighborhood. It looked like the American dream. Now, many years later, as an adult—married with a child, carrying a mortgage and a myriad of other responsibilities—I can understand the stress that may have caused their relationship to deteriorate. Ours was a systematic cycle of abuse; my parents were at each other constantly and my brothers and I followed suit. I was the youngest of three, the only girl. I would often wake up late at night to the sound of my parents feuding. My brothers and I would mimic their behavior and go at each other regularly too. I often feel that I got the short end of the stick, being a girl and being the youngest. But the truth is our family dynamic wasn’t easy for any of us. Much later, I learned that both of my parents had come from difficult upbringings; they too experienced physical and emotional abuse at young ages.
My brothers nicknamed me Fat Mama. They even made up a song; fat mama walking down the street, fat mama, looking for something to eat. In a neighborhood that was comprised of mostly boys, there were few options for playmates. I would often ask to join the game of Wiffle ball or volunteer to play tackle football. But because my brothers would rather die before letting me play, they turned against me and got the rest of the boys in on it too. Eventually they would all chant the song at me. I was left feeling rejected and alone.
These negative labels were hard to erase. After a while I started to buy into the notion that something might be wrong with me. Could it be true, am I really this repulsive? I've lived with these insecurities all my life. I've always felt that my body was enormous and that I was unattractive. I had internalized others’ words and had a skewed vision of reality. When I was 10 or so, I remember begging my mother to buy me Jordache Jeans, but because I was “too big” and they “didn’t have my size,” we couldn’t get them. I now realize that my body was probably quite normal for my age, but the memory of going shopping for clothes still haunts me. To this day, I still clip the tags out of my pants and shirts for fear of being judged for my size.
I couldn’t rationalize how people who were supposed to love each other hurt each other so deeply. Because of all this abuse, I grew up angry, ashamed, and insecure. I felt lost, never developing a strong sense of self. Throughout my life, I've tried to reinvent myself, over, and over again—I tried to wish these feelings away, bury them deep. I had a hard time relating to men. I was desperate for affection and would often mistake sex for love, falling into patterns of relationships that lacked any real emotion.
As I got older, particularly once I met my husband—someone who absolutely accepts me for who I am and sees the strength and beauty in me that I struggled to see in myself—I started to realize that other people’s words should not define me. When I became a mother, I realized that I had to put the past in the past so that I didn’t repeat the patterns that had characterized my childhood. I spent 43 years captive to words that were branded on me during those tender years; I allowed these words to define who I believed I was. I needed to teach myself a language of self-love, to build a new vocabulary for myself. The Growing Up Girl project has helped me to do just that. I’m working to create new words that reflect how I view myself today. Words like smart, resourceful, creative, caring, beautiful, strong, resilient, courageous, responsible, and powerful.
While collaborating with and photographing other women, I started to think more about my own body. Where I had once seen my body as disgusting, I learned to see beauty on a deeper level. The support I had around me gave me the courage to step in front of the camera, sans-clothes. I set up my computer so that I could shoot tethered and see the images as they popped up on my screen. As I stood there, by myself, in my studio, something changed. Initially, I was shocked and mortified. But then, I started to think like an artist, to see like an artist. I got lost in my own curves, enchanted by my own flesh. I started to love the weight of my body. I embraced the way my breasts gently droop, accepting the way my belly hangs, remembering how it had once stretched to carry my son. I saw a belly that’s full and round, a belly that just barely hides the scar from my cesarean delivery. It was a powerful experience. I thought, this is my body, there is no other in the world just like it. It was a celebration of self-love, and it was long overdue.
— Lori Pedrick