It was around 7 a.m. on a warm morning in Berlin. My boyfriend and I were sitting in a cafe wearing the T-shirts we’d just woken up in, sleepily sipping our last Americanos before boarding a plane back to New York, our jobs, our plain filtered coffees. He pulled out his phone to take a photo. Maybe he wanted to capture the moment: the wildflowers careening out of a bright orange vase that were slightly obstructing my face, the charming patio lights strung along the art-covered wall behind me, my tired but happy expression as we reflected on our trip that was drawing to a close.
“Oh god,” I said, when I noticed the camera. “My hair is a mess.” I fussed with my bangs.
“Who told you that you always have to look good?”
I paused, staring at him.
“Anyway, you look great, but you don’t owe that to anyone.” He set his phone down on the table.
“You’re right,” I said, taken aback. He immediately started to backtrack, apologizing for not knowing how it feels to be a woman, to face all the pressures — but I stopped him short. The question had been a good one. Why was my first reaction to belittle myself? Would he have done the same thing?
Hours later, as I stared out the plane window, I considered his words. It was an old instinct of mine, to apologize or acknowledge when I felt unattractive, and as I flipped through my mental Rolodex of times I’d done it, I recalled times I’d seen others do it, too: girls apologizing at the beginning of YouTube makeup tutorials for their makeup-less faces, friends admitting “they looked like shit” the moment they sat down to greet me, women announcing they hadn’t washed their hair in days before anyone had so much as noticed.
I pulled out my phone and wrote a note to myself: You don’t have to look good.
Female self-deprecation isn’t a novel topic. The stereotype that we over-apologize and are terrible at accepting compliments has been explored a lot: casually, academically, and most memorably in the Inside Amy Schumer skit that went viral in 2013, where women deflected compliments from each other until their heads blew off. The instinct is often chalked up to insecurity, or a need to constantly humble ourselves in a culture that venerates female modesty. Sometimes, it’s forgiven as a means to connect: whereas deflecting might continue a conversation, a curt “thank you” could stilt it.
But disagreeing when someone calls you attractive and apologizing for looking unattractive, unprompted, are not one and the same. To me, the latter paints a grimmer picture about the way women like me view our worth.
When I insulted my appearance in the cafe that morning, I made a handful of assumptions: that how attractive I Iooked was his impetus for pulling out his camera, that he was mistaken if he thought I looked cute, and perhaps most importantly, that how conventionally “good” I looked was intrinsic to my value as a creature worth capturing.
But what if I was worth remembering for different reasons? What if an honest depiction of the moment — my gross hair included — was actually more valuable and special than the tidier one I manufactured post-fussing? I honestly hadn’t considered it. And the more I turned over the tiny, seemingly innocuous moment in my mind, the more it seemed to reveal about my self-conception.
Through this lens, all the times I’d stressed about what to wear, avoided run-ins with people I knew, or let my low self-esteem sit on my feet like bricks took on a more ominous tone than simple insecurity might necessitate. They were founded on the idea that how I presented myself was an important component of how worthy I was of anyone’s time, admiration or attention. Somewhere along the line, I hitched my value to a wagon called “how good I look right now.” But who was it for, really?
If I felt sheepish upon recognizing my vanity in Berlin, I shouldn’t have. The pursuit of beauty or attractiveness today has been so commodified that it’s often heralded as an intrinsic — and fun! — part of the female experience. Implied in that messaging is that any other relationship with self-grooming is the woman’s fault — she’s just taken it too far. She’s forgotten that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. She thinks she’s only worth remembering for her bangs.
This is something Amanda Hess explored in her review of the film I Feel Pretty for The New York Times: “The movie suggests that the only thing holding back regular-looking women is their belief that looking regular holds them back at all. That attitude puts the onus on individual women to improve their self-esteem instead of criticizing societal beauty standards writ large. The reality is that expectations for female appearances have never been higher. It’s just become taboo to admit that.”
But even if we can concede that modern grooming — at least to the extent many of us are doing it today — might have nefarious implications, and that it’s not our fault for caring so much, it’s hard to criticize it when so many women genuinely enjoy it. “[P]art of the conditioning of the ‘patriarchal ideal’ is to make women feel empowered by it on their ‘own terms,’” says Hess. “That way, every time you critique an unspoken requirement of women, you’re also forced to frown upon something women have chosen for themselves. And who wants to criticize a woman’s choice?”
That’s exactly why, when I place attractiveness so high on my priority list and then inevitably chastise myself for doing so, I’m simply trading in devaluing myself for gaslighting myself. It’s no wonder I often feel both attached to and trapped by shaping my physical appearance. It’s hard to escape the feedback loop. But in the weeks since that day in Berlin, I’ve tried to inject a new, more forgiving idea into my inner monologue: You don’t have to look good.
Not: You are beautiful and don’t know it. Not: Fuck the beauty standards. Not: You shouldn’t care how you look. Just: You don’t have to look good. You do not owe anyone your most “attractive” self if you’d rather just exist. You and your life are worth capturing, remembering and admiring regardless of how beautiful some standard you did or didn’t agree to might deem them. It’s not your fault for losing sight of that sometimes, but when you do, it bears repeating: You don’t have to look good. No one does.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.