As an internationally renowned pop star from the world’s most famous entertainment family, Janet Jackson might seem like she’s had it all. But in her candid new book, “True You,” Janet reveals that she’s struggled with questions of self-image and self-esteem all her life. In sharing her truths, Jackson hopes to help others find their peace as well. Here’s an excerpt.
In 1977, at age ten, I was cast on the TV sitcom “Good Times.” My character was Penny, an abused child in desperate need of love. I really didn’t want to do the show. I didn’t want to be away from my family. And being on television only added to my negative feelings about my body.
Before production began, I was told two things: I was fat and needed to slim down, and because I was beginning to develop, I needed to bind my breasts. In both cases the message was devastating — my body was wrong. The message was also clear — to be successful, I had to change the way I looked.
I didn’t even know what it meant to “bind my breasts.” At first I was frightened. Were they talking about some kind of operation? For a girl so young, this was confusing. Naturally, I kept the confusion to myself.
“It means we need to tie down your breasts so you appear flat-chested,” the wardrobe woman explained.
So, each day of shooting, I went through the ordeal of having wide strips of gauze tied across my chest to hide the natural shape of my breasts. It was uncomfortable and humiliating.
I never discussed this with anyone. Never said a word to my parents, sisters, or brothers. I kept it all hidden inside. I didn’t know what to do with my feelings of fear and embarrassment. So I hid them. I was ashamed of them. After all, I was an actress, and my job was to please others — writers, directors, and producers — and to entertain the audience. There was no room for personal confusion.
Had there been a book that addressed issues like body image, I would have read it immediately. Had there been a book that told me I wasn’t alone — that millions of men, women, and children are confused about self-image — I would have been grateful. That kind of book could have made a difference in my life.
I want this book to make a difference.
It’s important that I present myself just as I am. So I must tell you right away that I’m no expert. I have no psychic powers and I sure don’t possess any secret wisdom. I’m just Janet. I have strengths, weaknesses, fears, happiness, sadness. I experience joy and I experience pain. I’m highly emotional. I’m very vulnerable. And, as anyone who knows me well will testify, I’m extremely sensitive. I have lifelong patterns of behavior that have caused me difficulty — patterns tough to break. Like everyone, I have talents, but with those talents have come challenges.
This book is about meeting the challenges that face all of us.
For more than three decades, I’ve struggled with yo-yo dieting. Some of my battles with weight have been very public. But most of them have been internal. Even at my thinnest, when my body was being praised, I wasn’t happy with what I saw in the mirror or how I felt about myself.
I’ve never talked about the origins of my up-and-down struggles until now, but they started at a very young age. I’ve also never discussed the crazy rumors that have swirled around me — that, for example, I’ve had ribs removed and other extreme plastic surgery. It makes me angry to read those lies, but I’ve never bothered to reply.
I’ve never gone into the hard work involved in getting myself — mind and spirit, heart and soul — into shape. I’ve waited for the right time, and have decided that that time is now.
It has taken me most of my adult life to come to terms with who I am. To do that, I had to break free of attitudes that brought me down. I had to set and meet realistic goals. I had to eat better, exercise better, look better, feel better, be better.
When self-esteem seems like nothing more than a concept you hear about on talk shows, how do you make it real? How do you start feeling good about yourself when feeling bad has been a lifelong pattern? How do you go from feeling unworthy — a condition I know as well as anyone — to feeling useful? How do you make the transition from being unrelentingly self-critical to generously self-accepting?
I want to share with you stories from my own struggles. But I also want to share stories I’ve been privileged to hear — from fans and friends who have dealt with the same issues. I believe these stories will help you.
I’m an optimist. I know we can change. Problems, even the most severe ones, can be solved. We can be happy with who we are. Whether we’re a size two or twenty, whether we’re tall, short, narrow, or wide, we can learn to love those things about ourselves that are truly beautiful — the things that come from within and matter the most.
At the deepest level, we’re all related, and we all can relate. We need to relate to survive the emotional storms that come our way. I hope this book can, in whatever small way, help you weather those storms.
I’ve been writing this book in some form for most of my adult life. The journey to arrive at a place of knowing and loving myself has been long and hard.
I’m not surprised when I’m asked, “How can you — of all people — have self-esteem issues?” But please believe me: my struggles are real.
I’m grateful for success. Success is wonderful. The truth, though, is that being in the spotlight can complicate personal problems even more. You never have a chance to deal with yourself privately and work through issues on your own. Everything is on display for the world to see. My pattern has been depressingly clear: fear and uncertainty lead to feeling bad about myself. Bad feelings lead to depression, and depression leads to overeating. Food is my escape and my comfort. It started that way at a young age and has remained a constant. When I fall into a funk, I turn to food. At some point I learned to control my eating, especially when I had something to do — for example, a record, concert, or TV appearance. I had the ability to work out, stay on a strict regimen, and make it happen. I stayed disciplined.
In 2006, when I gained weight for a film and blew up to 180 pounds, pictures of me appeared in the tabloids. Only my closest friends knew that I was still running in the sand every day from three to five miles. I was big. I was muscular. I was strong. I wasn’t eating pizza. I was exercising. I was heavier than I wanted to be, but I was not weak. Losing that additional ten or fifteen pounds, though, seemed impossible, in spite of my workouts.
So my heart goes out to people who say they work out but still can’t lose weight — or who eat very little and yet can’t slim down. I know the frustration. I know the sadness.
I also know that sexism enters into the picture: mass and muscle is considered sexy on men. But women are judged by harsher standards; they are often unrealistic and unfair.
When I was diligently trying to lose this excessive weight through exercise, few understood what was happening. Even the editor of this book was stunned to learn that during this period I was vigorously working out.
Because the production company changed the dates, my other commitments forced me to cancel the film. I was deeply disappointed. I was really ready for this role. In one scene my character had to go in the water wearing just her underwear. I was willing to do that. I wanted people to see that I put craft as an actor above glamour and image.
I spent so much time psychologically preparing for this role that when it fell through I looked up and didn’t recognize myself. I wasn’t just plump; I was fat. My stomach got in the way of tying my shoes. My feet and joints ached when I stepped out of bed in the morning. Because none of my clothes fit, I lived in sweats. I stayed in sweats because I refused to buy more clothes; this was not the size I planned on staying at.
I knew it was bad when one day I jumped up onto my kitchen counter to sit, as I would often do, and felt excruciating pain in my side. That simple, ordinary movement was beyond my ability.
I realized that this would be my greatest weight challenge. I had to drop weight, but how?
But discipline wasn’t enough. I said to myself, “You can do this. You’ve done things that are harder than this.”
I started running even more. And what normally worked for me — extreme working out and extreme dieting — just wasn’t cutting it.
That was when I decided to get help. I admitted that I couldn’t do it alone.
I eventually lost the weight. And in the process, I learned many things about myself. I learned that the weight gain and the inability to lose it didn’t involve just a role in a movie. It wasn’t just a one-time event — because honestly, I had been having this battle my entire life.
The journey to self-understanding surpassed my desire to be a certain size or a certain weight.
As I went through this tremendous weight-loss challenge, I thought to myself, Others have had this same struggle. I need to share mine. That has led me to this book.
My goal is to make it easier for anyone — girl, woman, boy, or man — dealing with the things I dealt with.
In 2008, I lost the sixty pounds but gained something far more valuable: a love and appreciation for myself that I will never lose.
My hope and prayer is that my story, and others’ as well, will help you turn your story in a positive and loving direction.
“As pretty as …”
Where do our feelings of being less-than come from?
Why does emotional insecurity seem to follow us from the very start of our lives?
If we’re going to figure that out, it might be helpful to go back to the beginning. The oldest stories are sometimes the most telling.
My earliest memories are of growing up in an enormous English Tudor home in suburban Encino, California, just outside Los Angeles. I was born in Gary, Indiana, but I have only one distinct memory from there: the marriage of my sister Rebbie. I recall much love and warmth from that day. It is after my brothers become famous and we move to California, though, that my memories really kick in.
I was a different kind of kid. The sadness of a gloomy rainy day made me happy. The sound and smell of rain relaxed me. I loved the ping-ping-ping of raindrops against my window. I’d ask Mother if she could take me in her car for a ride in the rain. Later in life, when I had my license, I’d spend hours driving through rainstorms.
I liked the mood of a gray sky. I liked leaning against the window and gazing at the wet world outside. I liked the connection to water. When it came time to choosing bedrooms, I chose the one in the north wing. It faced one of my favorite features of the house, an elaborate fountain that sat at the entrance of the long cobblestone driveway. I loved listening to the water cascading out of the fountain. Falling water eased my mind.
One day when I was six, I awoke early and saw that the rain, which had begun the night before, was still coming down. It was a gentle rain, a rare Southern California summer storm. I ran outside just to feel it on my face. I didn’t mind getting my hair wet in the rain. I liked it. As a little girl, I wore my hair in braids. I only started combing it when I began to perform. Getting my hair soaked in a downpour felt like freedom.
Back inside, I dried off and went to the family library. The books that lined the walls gave the room a stillness that I loved. I also loved the warmth of the room — the heat was turned up high. Heat keeps me calm.
At the end of the library was a huge picture window with a sill large enough to accommodate me. I could stretch out and read on my stomach, or my back, or sit up with my legs crossed. Sometimes I would fall asleep there. Other times I would just stare out at the pouring rain.
On this particular afternoon, I happened to notice a framed picture of my sister Rebbie, taken when she had graduated from high school. Without a doubt, she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. At that moment, this thought came to me: When I grow up, will I ever be as pretty as Rebbie? That’s what I was hoping for. I know that I genuinely admired my sister’s beauty, but looking back I can also see that by comparing myself to her, I felt inadequate.
It would have been wonderful to have someone say to me, “Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Comparisons are almost always harmful. Comparisons mean there’s a winner and loser — and you’re the one who winds up feeling like a loser.”
This book is about finding the true you and knowing you’re beautiful as you are. Forget the ugly messages of comparison. I remember those comparisons when I was the only black child in an all-white school. Some of the kids did things that weren’t intended to be mean, but they were funky and made me feel less-than. I remember them wanting to touch my hair because it wasn’t straight — it was different.
Just the other day, I thought about comparisons when a friend told me this story:
A mother walked into the bedroom of her five-year-old daughter. The little girl, scissors in hand, was busy snipping all the curls off her very curly hair.
“Baby!” cried the mother. “What are you doing?”
“Getting pretty,” said the little girl. “All the pretty girls in my school have straight hair.”
“You are pretty,” said the mother. “Curls are pretty.”
“But straight hair is prettier. With straight hair, I’ll be more popular and everyone will love me.”
The story broke my heart.
And yet we all have similar stories.
As a little kid, I almost immediately started judging myself against others. That convinced me that something was missing. I felt that I was the wrong size and the wrong shape.
When we are kids, so many of us feel that things are wrong — not wrong with the world, but wrong with us.
We’re not smart. We’re not valuable. We’re not worthy of being loved.
We’re also unable to stop idealizing others and minimizing ourselves.
How do we break free of that way of thinking? What do we do when those voices — powerful and persistent negative voices — have us believing in everything but ourselves?
The truth of the matter is this:
The true you is curly hair.
The true you is straight hair.
The true you is kinky hair, blond hair, black hair, and every shade in between.
Everyone is different, and beautifully unique.
If we value our uniqueness, we value everything about us. We don’t need to look for a model of perfect beauty when we realize that our own beauty can’t be duplicated.
At age six, though, I didn’t have the slightest clue about my uniqueness. All I knew was that my sister was the most beautiful woman in the world — and I’d never come close to her beauty. By age six, I was already feeling bad about myself.
From “True You: A Journey to Finding and Loving Yourself” by Janet Jackson, with David Ritz. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by Simon and Schuster.