I never feel more foolish than when a glance in the mirror drains all the positive energy from my body like it’s dirty dishwater. I feel emotionally bruised and also stupid when I wear my self-consciousness like an anchor around my neck that draws me under my comforter to escape the gaze of my peers as if it were poisonous. I tell myself it’s just skin. It’s just a body. It’s just surface. It’s nothing.
But of course it feels like everything.
They say it’s a sign of intelligence to hold two opposing ideas in your head at once, but when those thoughts are that I both want to look perfect and reject the notion of perfection I don’t feel very smart at all. Actually, I feel like I want to rip my hair out. I don’t believe beauty defines me and yet my volatile mood tells a different story. This internal contradiction of values is the perfect primer for a thick layer of shame.
It’s a special kind of meta-masochism, isn’t it, to loathe ourselves for loathing ourselves? And yet, these two things always seem to happen in nightmarish tandem. We agree that we’re not our beauty but rather we’re our intellect, our kindness, our strength — and that’s beautiful. Then we go home and berate ourselves for not looking our best, not trying hard enough to look our best or, worse, not looking like someone we aren’t. As if beauty and our pursuit of it makes us who we are. We’re sisters in our intellect and our empathy and our cognitive dissonance.
Lately, this swirly pool of love and contradiction has been stewing in my mind more regularly. Because the stress I introduced into my life by way of several parallel leaps — moving across the country, leaving friends and familiarity, changing careers, searching for a home — took a toll on my body.
My face looked permanently bloated, rounded where I was used to curves and dips. Acne spread across my chin like a rash. Five extra pounds settled onto my bones and inexplicably felt like 20. My hair and skin grew pallid like I was trapped in a hangover I didn’t deserve. I skipped two periods and my hormones were all over the place. My energy and mood and self-discipline were playing a game of hide-and-go-fuck-yourself. At moments I didn’t recognize myself.
I felt betrayed and disoriented both by my body and the emotion it solicited in me. On the one hand, I wanted to fix it. Fast. You know: Cut the sodium! Change my skin regimen! Walk more! Get a tan! Eat some kale! But on the other hand I knew that to tackle the physical self-care piece of the puzzle was just that: a piece.
I could do those things (and I did, at least kind of) and feel better (which I do, mostly) but what about the far more pressing issue (can I call it systemic?), which was that I was internalizing the idea that I was somehow lesser because of these changes?
How can I know that approving of my own reflection is a horrible foundation upon which to build my self-worth and then still do it? I will age. My body will go. I don’t want to be in a fight with the inevitable for the rest of my life. Can I live this knowledge instead of just intellectualize it?
It’s a question so many of us are attempting to answer and I’ve been asking myself a lot. So I’ve developed mental exercises that have turned into a daily practice. A sort of self-esteem meditation. Sometimes it feels like exhaling and other times it feel like jumping through hoops but ultimately it grounds me. It looks like this:
Look at a childhood photo of yourself: Imagine teaching that kid about the concept of self-loathing. It will inspire tender self-compassion.
Think of who you love and why you love them: The answer will have nothing to do with how well they present themselves and everything to do with how they make you feel.
Imagine how you want to make people feel: Do you want to inspire envy or make others feel worthy and at peace with themselves? Who are the people who do the second one for you? What are they like?
Turn over the benefits of looking your best: Physical self-care is important insofar that it’s an extension of self-love, but when it comes to petty critiques, task yourself with honestly examining why you think they matter.
Think of who you admire and why you admire them: Is it because of how they look or because they are some combination of smart and thoughtful and brave and funny and talented? Which parts of yourself do you want to cultivate? What example do you want to set?
Imagine the world you want to live in: If it’s one where women are not plagued by their appearance then ask yourself which role you’d rather play: a beacon of rebellion or conformity?