I’ve been self-conscious my whole life. I don’t think that’s particularly unusual; our culture trains women to view themselves as objects to be seen. Beauty is, after all, the only power granted to women without question, the only power we can claim more easily than men can. For me, it means I rarely look in a mirror and feel like I’m looking with my own eyes; I’m always considering how I’ll look to someone else.
“Does this outfit make me look like I’m trying too hard?”
or, “Is my hair veering into ‘middle-aged mom’ territory too aggressively (never mind I am, in fact, a middle-aged mom)?”
or, “Does my makeup disguise my flaws without looking like I’m trying to be pretty?”
I don’t know when it began exactly. My mom was never confident of her appearance (despite, to my eyes, being lovely above all others) and so raising two girls had to be fraught with challenges. A feminist at heart, she didn’t emphasize appearances and treated us like kids, not like little princesses, but I don’t ever remember not being aware that my mother didn’t see herself as beautiful. And so I came to believe that beauty was this thing that some women were born with and some weren’t, like blond hair or long legs. You just had it or you didn’t.
There were other things, of course: the grandmother who referred to my sister as “the pretty one” and me as “the smart one,” which my child-logic deduced to mean my sister was dumb and I was ugly. There were the glasses in 3rd grade. The chubbiness. The unfashionable clothes (see: chubbiness). The acne (dear heavens, the acne). The unfortunate and matronly hairstyles. By the time I was in high school, I was certain of three things: I was smart, I wasn’t pretty, and being pretty was better than being smart.
As an adult, most of my efforts have been directed not at making myself more beautiful, but at making myself less objectionable. I dieted through my twenties because if I couldn’t be pretty, I could at least be thinner. Being good at dieting, which I was, garners you a lot of seemingly-positive attention. I say “seemingly,” because it’s exciting until you realize it confirms that you were, as you suspected, unacceptable before. My diet almost destroyed me and I’ve recovered from it, but the motivations that inspired it linger in different ways.
After all, here I am, 37 years old and weary of seeing myself through others’ eyes. I’m tired of spending precious minutes putting on makeup just to cover “flaws” so the world thinks I’m at least trying not to be gross. It’s annoying beauty-work that men don’t have to do and no one should begin her day by angrily applying eye liner and muttering about patriarchy. I wear my hair short, which might make me look all “short hair don’t care!” but I sometimes wonder if I keep going back to it because the first time I cut it off at 17, a boy who had otherwise never really talked to me told me I looked better with short hair (Ah, “better”, that most non-complimentary of non-compliments). I spend too much money on clothes, trying to feel good about how I am perceived in the world. It’s all external, all the time; yet none of it relieves the self-consciousness, the fear, the shame.
It has to start inside. I mean, there has to be a way to live free of the judgment of self and others. I know it’s possible because I see women who do it, who are somehow comfortable in their skin. And I can only imagine how that must radiate outward. If you are at home in yourself, you’re not competing. If you’re not competing, you’re not judging. If you’re not judging, well….there must be such peace.
I’m not sure how to begin this shift for myself. But I’m hoping that by writing this, by offering this request to a great and generous universe, my eyes will recognize the next step when I see it.