My Facebook obsession is well established. I have hundreds of photos on there, many of which are tagged with my name. And yet, only a handful of them are actually pictures of me. The few that are have been very carefully curated because I have never been able to look at a photo of myself without finding all the physical flaws that seem to be highlighted by the lens. Over the last almost-year, I have lost somewhere around 40 lbs, dropped three dress sizes, and I’m still going. Even with an “improved” physique, I remain critical.
My amazing friends have told me that I look better than I have in years. Recently, people (some of them complete strangers) have made it a point to tell me that my eyes, my skin, my hair, my legs, and yes “other” parts, are beautiful. FB friends have convinced me to post a few shots that show off my weight loss and have commented in spades about the strides I’ve made. My loving husband continues to make me feel like I’m his dream girl, although he’s done that at every size I’ve ever been in the almost-10 years we’ve been together. I have graciously thanked all of the lovely people in my life who have continued to encourage me.
But here’s the thing…
I don’t actually believe a single word they’re saying. It’s not that I think they’re lying. It’s just that I think they’re wrong.
I was raised in a household where there was only one definition of beauty: being thin. When I reached tweenagehood and started to gain weight, every morsel of food that touched my lips during a family meal was openly scrutinized. When I vocalized my typical pre-pubescent frustrations about popularity and boys, I was reminded that my situation might improve if I could just be a little “prettier.” School was no safe haven from comments about my body, either. Even an ounce of extra poundage made someone a target in the top-rated public school system where I did K-12. I literally could not go through a single day without hearing multiple people give me their unsolicited opinions on my shape. I’m telling this part of the story as a way of explaining how that outside commentary ended up becoming one that was also internal. As others had their say, I started to as well. And of course, it was just as negative.
The first day that I can remember truly feeling confident and beautiful was only five years ago. It was my wedding day. I was 30 years old. Let me make that small mental leap for you – I never felt beautiful a day in my life until I was a 30 year old woman. Is that crazy? Hell yes it is. And what did it take for me to feel conventionally beautiful on that special day? Overtraining with a boot camp instructor five days a week for the last three months before my wedding, one hell of a Spanx underneath my wedding dress, a morning of professional hair styling and make-up, and a photographer that I knew could use Photoshop if she had to. Still, I was so afraid to look at those photos that I let the CDs sit on our dining room table for a good week or so after we got them.
After Charlie was born and my hormones raged as the PCOS condition that I’ve had for years got even worse, my weight ballooned to the highest it has ever been. It was hard just to go out in public let alone see a photo of myself at that size. But in the end, it was a photo that made me decide to take charge of my health and make some major lifestyle changes. My uncle sent the snapshot to me after a family party. Charlie, who was about 1 at the time, was toddling across a lawn and I was following behind him, in a dress that was ill-fitting and quite frankly, not very “me.” It was one of the few things I had left that fit, so I wore it a lot in those days. But what struck me most wasn’t my shape – it was the look on my face. I was miserable. And I realized that it was probably one of the first pictures of me with my son in months. I should have been smiling, playing, enjoying my life with my family. But I wasn’t. I knew it was time, not only to fix my health and my weight, but to fix how I see my own beauty.
As I said earlier, I still don’t always believe people when they tell me I’m pretty. I have a hard time seeing myself as beautiful and I’ve actually laughed out loud at people who have dared to use the words “hot” or “sexy” when referring to me. But this is a process and those who are closest to me probably don’t even know how much of a help they have been. I’m not fishing for compliments when I post a progress picture on FB, but every time someone says something nice, I believe it a bit more.
I’m sure there are people out there who will read this and think that I’m basing too much of my self-confidence on my physical attributes, but that’s not true. I am incredibly confident in my intelligence, personality, and all the other important things that make a person who they are. This is just one piece of one person that continues to need a little work. If you are reading this and identify with what I’m saying, keep working to love yourself. If you are a friend of someone who is struggling with their own self-confidence, don’t stop encouraging. You are helping, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
And if you see a cycle like this starting with a child you know, do whatever you can to break it. This past weekend, I sat at yet another family party and watched as my 7 year old cousin approached a table where my grandmother was sitting and grabbed what I knew to be her first cracker of the day. Grandma looked at her and said, “If you eat any more of those, you’re going to get fat!” I saw my little cousin’s cheeks get red as she looked down at the ground and muttered “No I won’t,” before walking away. I made my disapproval known with a stern stare at the old lady before I quietly followed my cousin into the house. I sat her down and told her she was beautiful, that she should remember that always, and that she didn’t need to worry about how many crackers she ate at a family party. She nodded and told me she understood, but I could see that shadow of doubt starting to form, and I so desperately wanted to yank it away before it got a chance to grow. I didn’t have anyone at that age to tell me I was beautiful just the way I was. She’s lucky to have her mom, and now also me, to make sure that what happened to us as kids doesn’t happen to her. But it shouldn’t be about luck. Every kid should know they are beautiful just the way they are.
While I think this does affect girls more disproportionately than boys, I still plan on constantly letting Charlie know that he is loved, and smart, and handsome, and funny, and great. That he can always be doing better, but that he’s also amazing today. Right now. I’m looking forward to the day when I can look in the mirror and truthfully say the same thing to myself. That day is definitely near.