Friday, June 6, 2014

What If I Were Beautiful

I turned 35 this year. It’s both a totally unremarkable yet weirdly significant age to me. Everyone talks about 40 and I’m sure I’ll care about it when I get there, but for whatever reason 35 feels more weighty right now.

There’s this habit I have of ignoring the positive in favor of finding any and all ways to think negatively about myself. My therapist called them NAT’s or Negative Automatic Thoughts. Anyone who has been in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is probably familiar with the term and the worksheets that go with it when you start working on unwinding that particular mental ball of suck. It’s not a fun process but it is important and in the 4 years since I stopped therapy I’ve continued to apply what I learned about the ruts of my thinking every day.

Still, I fall back on certain old reliable NAT’s, the twin Brain Goblins (also developed in therapy: anthropomorphizing my issues into actual “things”. I decided on Brain Goblins.) of Not Enough and But You’re Still Fat and Ugly! whenever I’m stressed, tired, and/or working really hard on something important to me. Any time I accomplish anything significant, those two little mind parasites hop on up and start nattering in my ear.

Of course, Ed (Eating Disorder) is always around, desperately trying to get my attention and convince me that THIS time not eating will DEFINITELY solve all my problems. Those other times it made me sick and tired and unproductive were just because I wasn’t strong enough. This time, if I starve and get thin, everything will be just fine.

Basically Ed is the poisonous, kind of suicidal, part of my depression and anxiety that likes to sound friendly and cheerful, while he’s actually just eating away at my sense of self. He’s a real little shit and lies constantly. I don’t like him, he never brings me anything but false promises and grief.  However, mental illnesses like eating disorders are an ongoing process and you don’t really “cure” it so much as learn how to manage it. At least in my experience.

Lately, Ed’s been really enjoying this whole “getting older” thing and having a right fun time telling me that I “used” to be thin and pretty, but now I’m old and fat and gross. Nothing I’ve accomplished professionally or creatively means squat because I’m not a big gaping hole of hunger all the time and I wear an average dress size.

This is a bit of a switch from my younger days when Ed jused to tell me I was gross, full stop, no qualifiers. Nowadays, with hindsight and the discovery of photos from my 20’s and teens…it’s a little harder for him to convince me I was always hideous.

The thing is, that’s not really very comforting. I had absolutely no idea what I really looked like then, which makes it a pretty safe bet I don’t know now, either. And it means I’ve spent 22 years of my life or so absolutely convinced I’m ugly and not worthwhile because of it.

I feel guilty for caring about this because, on the one hand, it’s superficial and vain. Intellectually I’m well aware that my worth is not based on how I look and my life would have whatever meaning I give it regardless. But that’s the thing. If I can’t even say that I was pretty, that I might still be, and that my weight has nothing to do with it…I don’t think I’m really valuing myself fully. I don’t think I’m allowing myself to actually be…myself.

It’s difficult not to say that I’ve wasted literally two decades believing awful things about myself. “Wasted” is a strong word, implying I’ve done nothing and amounted to nothing and been essentially a lump on the face of the earth. I don’t think that’s true, at least on my good days. But there’s a wide gulf of difference between what I think and what I feel. And, when you’re something of an intellectual the way I am, it’s easy to pretend you can “think” your way out of emotional sinkholes. You actually can’t.

Whenever I talk about this people I know immediately reassure me that I have done things, that they wish they’d done what I have, and from their perspective my life and accomplishments look pretty okay. I never really know how to respond because if I deny it I’m being an ungrateful jerk, if I accept them, I tend to think that makes me an egotistical ass. The truth is probably more in the middle, which is not an area of thinking I’m particularly good at.

In therapy we called it “All or Nothing Thinking”. It’s probably my most consistent NAT and the one I strongly suspect I’ll be struggling with until I get old enough to stop caring or die. A little defeatist and a lot morbid but realistic.

I used to wonder why my thinking about certain things is so extreme, but after a lot of time to consider it, it’s pretty simple: I’m female, I grew up female in Western culture, that culture has influenced me, and in that culture women can’t really win when it comes to beauty. Or anything.

For instance, if you don’t care about how you look and just do whatever, the downside is that people will criticize you for being a lazy slob who doesn’t present themselves well, and if you’re not conventionally attractive, ugly and therefore worthless. The upside? You’re more like a “dude”, laid back and not all vain, like “other” girls, and people may take you more seriously depending on circumstances.

If you do care about how you look and work on it, the downside is that people think you’re superficial, vain, vapid, and high maintenance. You will also likely get a lot more unwanted attention. The upside? People are nicer to pretty, grown up, and especially if you’re conventionally attractive, women. You will have “worth” but only as long as you maintain your looks, and that kind of “worth” has a pretty limited shelf life. And it has nothing to do with you as a person.

There’s really no middle ground. It’s like that for a lot things that pertain to women, this lack of an inbetween, human place, where we’re individuals with complicated inner lives.

And even though I’ve been talking about beauty I’ve been avoiding addressing the actual title of this post because it terrifies to ask the question: what if I were beautiful? What if I was, all those years I thought I was some hulking she-beast, actually beautiful?

Would knowing that have changed anything? Would I have been a different person? Done different things? I have no idea. I only know that I avoided a lot of living due to how I felt about how I looked, like getting a passport until I was in my 30’s and had no choice. Because even though I desperately wanted to travel I was more paralyzed by my fear of taking a bad photo than of not seeing the world. Newsflash: my passport photo is terrible and now I live in Europe. Nothing collapsed, the world stayed in rotation, my friends still like me.

So now I’m 35 and I’ve managed to get to a somewhat neutral place about how I look sometimes. If I’m honest, I still think rather badly about myself in this area and it’s frustrating and discouraging. And it’s not about looking for compliments because, frankly, that makes it worse. I don’t believe people when they say I’m cute or pretty. I can’t. It’s like something would break and never get fixed if I allowed myself to entertain that was true for even a second.

I envy people who don’t care about this kind of thing, I really do. But I also know that feeling guilty for my culture having an impact on me isn’t really productive. And it’s true of everyone, just to different degrees and result.

So…what if I were beautiful? What  if I AM beautiful? What if who I am, inside and outside, is pretty and lovely and infinitely worthwhile? Am I going to discover that when I’m old and no longer able to deny the truth? Or can I somehow learn to accept it now, to embrace it, enjoy it a little, but not make it worth more than it is?

The answer is: I have no fucking idea.  I wish I did.


Me at roughly 20 or so.
Me, age 35.

Regardless, if I don’t stop poisoning myself with self-hate, it won’t mater if I ever know it. Because it will be too late.

2 comments:

  1. Life would be easier if we could see ourselves as others see us. I'm 48 and I have felt the way you describe for decades. To me, you are a beautiful and amazingly accomplished person. You've achieved "career success." You create cool things, from ideas that spring from *your* mind. You have a voice and you use it to say important, meaningful things. You are brave. Unafraid to "dare greatly" and be vulnerable, as Brene Brown says. If you haven't already read "Radical Acceptance," I recommend it. We all suffer, but so much of our suffering comes from our own inability to see all that's good in us. This is a great post. I'm going to forward it to my skinny, beautiful, healthy, happily married friend so she can read it whenever she falls into the "fat, ugly, stupid" pit.

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  2. I wish I could say it gets better but honestly, that can be a real load of crap and I hate when people say it to me. I'm over 40 and look back at what I hated in my body wishing I could be that now because it's worse. Maybe mentally healthy people don't have this particular problem.

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