If I had to pick a eureka moment in my life, it would be the moment that I knew I was beautiful. Not just thought I looked good in that top. Not just cute with that lip colour. Definitely not just thinking I could make myself beautiful. I mean the moment that I just knew that beautiful is what I was, and the effort in putting myself together was a stylistic slant on my existing beauty. Once I believed that, my skin was much more comfortable.
Beauty is this thing we’re told about all of our lives. It’s commodified: we are given products to make us beautiful. Women probably feel this most acutely but men spend a lot of time being told to enhance themselves in the same way. Feeling inadequate? There’s an app for that. A cream, a shower gel. Whatever. It’ll fix us. Buy it. It will show everyone.
But really, who are we showing? What are we really trying to prove, and to whom? If this is about our feelings, how can an external force make us believe it?
Validation is important. Self perception is evil and we need strong messages from the outside world that we are what we try to be. It’s crucial but it only goes so far. We need to internalise that validation. We need to hear it, believe it, and let it become part of us. In a perfect world, validation is a tool we ultimately discard: eventually, we prove it to ourselves.
I am aware some people never get there. Sat here looking at myself, I don’t see myself shaking certain things that drive me to seek validation. That I shook off the need for others to validate my looks is a pretty amazing thing; a gift I am lucky to have. It gives me hope that I can continue internalising good things.
"THE OTHER THING ABOUT INTERNALISING SOMETHING NEW IS THE NEED FOR CONSISTENCY: MIXED MESSAGES STOP THE VALIDATING EXPERIENCES FROM TAKING HOLD"
The other thing about internalising something new is the need for consistency: mixed messages stop the validating experiences from taking hold. Internalising a new narrative is the result of consistent, regular experience. I spent a long time learning I was ugly. It took years of mistreatment, deliberate or otherwise, to solidify that into a part of myself. It was reinforced by decades of consistent treatment that was perceived as affirming my ugliness.
Self perception might be pierced by consistent experience, but those experiences need to contradict the established narrative to effect an internal shift. In my case, I never thought I would be good looking. Consistent contradiction helped, but being treated like a beautiful person sealed the deal.
This is all very odd; it doesn’t seem to work out. If believing one's own identity is a function of outward treatment, then I should be spending all of my time showcasing myself until I don’t. And I didn’t. If this is really about how everyone around is is, then we shouldn’t have to care about what we believe of ourselves. But we do.
We need to be open to the possibility that we are that beautiful, we are that smart, we are that feminine. We need to allow for the chance that the people validating us are telling the truth. In effect, believing you can be beautiful is part of the process of believing that you are beautiful.
That makes each step as momentous a breakthrough as the next. Going from nothing to something is, in its way, the bigger step than internalising something fully and going from something to everything. But we like capstones; completion is satisfying and rare.
When I first got away and started to take control of what I was, I took what bits I could. In a way, knowing I couldn’t be beautiful was liberating because where I had nothing, I couldn’t make it worse. If I can’t make it worse, I may as well go for it and have some of the comfort that came with it. The process was internal. Validation wasn’t a thing I allowed for. That came later.
"INTERNALISING THAT WE HAVE NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE AND, THEREFORE, MAY AS WELL GRAB AT WHAT WE WANT IS PERHAPS THE FIRST STEP."
Internalising that we have nothing left to lose and, therefore, may as well grab at what we want is perhaps the first step. I’m loathe to say we all need to hit rock bottom to change, but the narratives of change I hear on a regular basis involve that. It’s much more common when the changes involve things we can’t help but show the world. Changing one’s gender expression poses a greater threat than embracing a sexuality simply for the fact that gender expression is visible to everyone, all the time. It’s impossible to dull the statement you’re making to the world.
All visibility has risks. Visibility demands a response. People who witness visible change are automatically confronted, and people confronted with things always respond. For good or ill, everyone has something to say about it.
So when we change, are we trying to prove we can? One lady at a local support group mentioned to me that she had to try transitioning because she needed to prove to herself that she was what she felt she was. That transitioning was an achievement in its own right and the validation of being successful — whatever that meant to her — was enough to keep her going with it. She stressed an internal process: proving herself to herself.
What I find remarkable is how the external validation process continually feeds back into an internal redefining of the self. In my own life, I went from worrying whether people would see me for something other than what I saw myself to that being so alien that I don’t consider it a possibility. I’m just this colourful, theatrically minded more-goth-than-punk chick. If someone gets funny with me in the street, I just assume that’s what they’re responding to. But I remember when I would worry about what people saw.
Breaking out of that freed me to express myself with my clothes, hair and makeup. Once I traded the question for the statement, I was able to present myself in a way that dared them to see anything else. In a way, that behaviour of daring passers by to challenge me never went away. It’s just now, my challenge is issued from a place of power: I have nothing to prove. I have proven myself to myself.