Two years ago, when my fiancée and I were new to each other, she flatly told me that I was beautiful and I knew it. And I did. I don’t remember why she did that, but I can guess: I felt repulsive and I said so. At length. Probably for the fifth time that evening. My fractured mental state at the time allowed my precarious self image lean even more destructively than usual, but I knew I was beautiful. Knowing isn’t enough.
We can cognitively understand things we can’t emotionally enact, my mum said to me one day in some past I don’t remember. The words stuck, even if the rest of the scene didn’t. What we know is not what we feel. What we believe is not what is, and we believe it even when we know we’re wrong.
I repulse myself. My body too huge: broad shoulders, too tall. My tits are too small. My smile squints my eyes shut; my teeth aren’t big enough to show so I end up in a sort of squinty toothless gurn. I look at myself and know I’m utterly disgusting.
I’m beautiful. My eyes are deep, my brows classically shaped. The squint is kinda cute when I smile and I have the cheeks to pull it off. My height lends itself to my column form; I pull off the most amazing clothes. My lips are well shaped; my jaw proportionate. I look at myself and know I’m unconventionally stunning.
"BUILD UP AND TEAR DOWN — WHICH HAPPENS FIRST? IS THERE AN ORDER?"
The thoughts spin through my head every time I pass a mirror. All of them. I am beautiful and repulsive. I see my horrible squinty smile and the cute glow all at once. Build up and tear down — which happens first? Is there an order? One thing I do know, sometimes one set of feelings wins out. A good and a bad day is sometimes the difference between a glow or a gurn prevailing in an identical expression.
I understand that the looks, expressions and postures I’m evaluating are identical. I know the moments I take to evaluate myself are judged positively and negatively in the same breath. I don’t know what makes me lean one way or the other from moment to moment. I can’t stop myself from feeling repulsed, even though I know I’m wrong.
Externally, it’s easy to see how we might be told to tear ourselves down. All people, women in particular, are instructed to improve themselves constantly. Better looks, better job, better home — we’re shown how ‘the other half’ lives and then told how this product, that TV show or the other treatment will change us for the better. There is no victory in egging people on; getting people to engage in a fruitless competition they can’t win is too easy.
Cooperative improvement is more effective at actually improving us, but harder to inspire in others. Or rather, it’s easier to manipulate someone than it is to inspire them. Then again, the idea of what’s acceptable, beautiful, repulsive or unsightly is constructed; their definitions circular. I find myself beautiful and repulsive for the same qualities simultaneously.
It becomes a chicken or egg scenario: our internal bias is directed by the social constructions of beauty, but driven by our own personal preferences. Or is it the other way around? Each feeds into the other. We know that many attitudes are learned, but it’s hard to know how much learning we need before it becomes this split perspective.
"I KNOW I’M BEAUTIFUL. I KNOW MY SELF REVULSION IS WRONG. BUT I CAN’T STOP BELIEVING THAT I’M REPULSIVE"
I would very much like to rid myself of this revulsion I continually have to battle. I wish I knew what dance I could do to make my brain override my gut; to allow what I know to quell what I believe. Really, to let the healthy belief be there without challenge. I know I’m beautiful. I know my self revulsion is wrong. But I can’t stop believing that I’m repulsive.
Internally I haven’t found many answers but I do find affirmation in compliments. They don’t have to be big; just little comments go a long way to silencing the nasty side of my mind. Perhaps that’s the way forward. Those memes we constantly see about building each other up do make me want to tear my eyes out but there is truth to it. Compliments inspire where competition manipulates, and it’s clear I can’t outcompete the revulsion with reason or feelings.
Compliments have the added advantage of directing our future attentions. The other day, a friend was complimenting me on my velvet trousers (purple) and noted my glitter coated boots. She described the look as opulent. I like that. In the future, I’m going to look for more colour, texture and pattern qualities that look opulent. It’s not an adjective I considered and had the compliment not brought it to me, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I am inspired.
Inspiration sparks selfless creativity. When inspired, we express ourselves for ourselves; we seek qualities that we resonate with honesty. Thinking back, the impulse to come out of my shell was to do with a basic need: I wanted to be treated in a way that didn’t cause me pain. What was unexpected was the drive that followed: I could be different. I was different before, but I could express that difference. I could enhance that difference. Not only did I have the ability, but I was worth the effort! Competition didn’t do that. You can’t manipulate someone into believing they’re worthwhile. I was inspired.
I suppose that’s the trick, for now. I can’t stop myself believing I’m horrid, but I can find the inspiration to make that belief unimportant. I am beautiful and I know it. I believe it. I also believe I am repulsive, but the more inspired I am to express myself, the less that matters. And if all it takes are the kind words of others to get me started, then I’m off to a good start.