Through the Looking Glass
People that know me have all heard me say, as a gentle reminder to myself and others, “everybody is beautiful.” To be clear, my story is not one of perfection. I find myself ugly and beautiful to different degrees on different days but the thing that stayed the same even as I became more “attractive” by conventional standards was that how I saw myself was always on someone else’s terms. If the truth is that we are all beautiful, then to find oneself both ugly and beautiful, both valuable and worthless, is an oxymoron. As my perception of myself devolved into a function of changing responses to how I presented, self-acceptance and self-appreciation became something I had to work toward, rather than the norm.
In 5th grade a boy in my class said something about my slightly crooked nose–that it looked like I had broken it and it had never recovered–and suddenly I was never able to look at my face the same way. Sometimes, I strained my neck trying to get a glimpse of my side profile whenever a mirror was in front of me. Other times, I tilted my head and smiled to see how my flaws would appear in pictures. As I entered my teens, the list of comments about my body appearance I had to worry about grew. My hair wasn’t smooth enough, my teeth were crooked, my thighs didn’t have a gap between them–and I quickly forgot how to look at myself through my own eyes. Instead, I began using the mirror to see the version of myself that others saw, or what imperfections they might catch, to determine whether I was “normal.”
At some point in my life, I thought I was the only person who felt that not only was I ugly, I was abnormal. I was under the impression that no one else looks around a room and notices what everyone else has that they don’t, like a pauper surrounded by gentry. Her eyebrows are so symmetrical. His teeth are perfect and white. No one looks in the mirror and sees what I see.
But through forming close relationships with women who had similar conversations in their head, I learned that this was both normal and abnormal. Normal, because it happens to all women in some way. Abnormal because it is not natural for someone to be so alienated from herself to the point that she has to convince herself that she is worth accepting. This is such a common experience for women, yet it is an alienating one that results from years of mental conditioning. Because we are fed so many messages about what beautiful women should look like, we focus on all the ways we could be perceived by others as ugly and we eventually forget how to see ourselves with our own eyes.
That day in 5th grade, I was already so deep into this project of self-hate and insecurity breeded by unrealistic beauty standards and their influence over young girls’ minds, telling us to believe what others say about us, I didn’t even have the option to forget what someone said about my body. If I wanted to undo what a small, arguably mid-tier insult did to me, I had to deconstruct the line of thinking that told me I was only as valuable as others could perceive. The only way to move on was to teach myself, beginning at at age 11 no less, that I was beautiful, important and strong. I, along with many women I know, had to teach myself to think of myself the way a person should already think of themselves.
Now, I’m often asked why I care so little about what other people, especially men, think of me. To be truthful, it was either continuing to see myself as an object for others to view and compare and criticize as they please (with myself and the mirror as the agent of this) or being self-assured enough to exist in the body I was given. It took me years to realize the latter was even in my power, but if I am to believe everyone is beautiful, I ought to see my beauty with my own eyes.