I’ve been simmering on two subjects for the last three weeks. The first subject is reflections; the second involves the curious realization I came to recently, which is that I’m in a constant state of being “on the lookout.” I thought that I’d need to write about these subjects separately and that I’d have to decide which one I wanted to hone in on first, but it occurred to me, about twenty four seconds ago, that they’re easily – and clearly – related topics. So here we go.
I’m going to kick this off with a poll, and then I’m going to tell a story.
Two weeks ago, Charlie and I drove to Birmingham Southern College for no purpose other than to visit their famous EcoScope. We climbed out of his car and then entered the whimsical-looking garden area. “Just pick whichever direction you want to go in,” he offered kindly. I chose left.
We followed the trail and enjoyed looking at all of the greenery, the many plants, the interesting metal sculptures, and two very delightful wild bunny rabbits. Along the way, we also stumbled upon a tree house that had three flights of stairs connected to it. We climbed all three flights to reach the top, and then we stopped to take pictures.
We returned home a few hours later and I began preparing supper in the kitchen (it was probably something along the lines of a tossed salad and tomato bisque soup, because that is literally what we eat 99.9% of the time). In-between cutting vegetables and monitoring the pot of red, bubbling soup, I’d check in with Charlie to see how his Instagram editing process was going. He was toying with a picture he’d taken of me earlier in the afternoon.
Finally, he finished tweaking it. He announced that he was done and rotated the phone so that I could see it. As I looked down at the picture, I could feel him watching me, waiting for my verdict.
“I’m so sorry, Charlie,” I frowned a little, sighing. “I just hate it.”
“Why?” He asked blankly.
“It’s not you! It has nothing to do with the way you edited this picture. It’s the picture itself. I hate it because I look awful.”
“Awful?” He repeated. I removed my eyes from the picture and turned to gaze in his direction. When I did, by the look on his face, I could tell that he was not amused.
“Okay.. fine,” he said. He bent his body slightly, set his elbows down onto the counter, and then turned the phone back around so that he could peer at the image himself. “Let’s do this: YOU take another look at this picture, and then I want you to name EVERY SINGLE THING you hate about it. No reserves. Go.”
I laughed a little uncomfortably. “Ohhhhhhkay..”
First, here’s the picture:
And here’s the list of grievances that I named off to Charlie:
- My nose is huge. It isn’t proportional to the size of my face. It looks like a pug’s nose. A pug is a breed of dog, by the way.
- My right eye (right in the picture) looks weird.
- My smile looks fake. Because it is. Because I had to contort my face into a causeless smile, look into a vapid, robot lens, and then anxiously guess at how dumb I was going to look in frozen-form after the shutter sounded.
- My face looks fat. My legs look pudgy.
- My head is either too big or too small in comparison with the rest of my body. I haven’t decided which, but it definitely doesn’t correspond well.
- I look stupid (in general).
- I look sickly. Gaunt.
- I look boring.. uninteresting.
- I look distinctly, infuriatingly feminine, despite all of my strategic, concerted efforts to eradicate every trace of femininity from my external self.
Once I grew sick of gazing deeper into the image, I looked back over at Charlie. I was surprised to see tears welling up in his eyes. He almost looked.. angry.
“How dare you say those things?” He shook his head at me.
After miserably deliberating over the image for another ten minutes, I decided to upload the picture. [I honestly thought that me making myself upload a picture of myself that I hated would help.. fix my perspective on the matter. I’m sorry to report that it didn’t.]
“I’ll just put it on Instagram,” I resolved. “That way, fewer people will see it.” But then I thought of my mother and my grandmother who are NOT currently on Instagram and who I do not currently have time to teach Instagram TO and who are really the ONLY people in my life that are interested in seeing picture updates of me.
“Ughhhh.. Jeeeeeeezuhhhsssss,” I sighed, exasperated. I was too tired to give such a trivial matter any more thought, so I defeatedly checked the “Facebook” icon, giving Instagram permission to publicize the photo in friends’ news feeds and to showcase it on my wall. I felt like vomiting. I wish I was kidding.
Wanna know what’s really hilarious, and what – simultaneously – caused me to realize that I needed to talk more about this?
A close friend messaged me on Facebook the evening following my picture crisis.
“I’m soooooo proud of you for posting a pic where you are looking AT the camera!” Her message began. “Wanna know why? I think it shows strong self esteem and indicates that you are facing life head on! #PROUD.”
If only you knew how much of a struggle uploading that picture was and how much I still hate it, I thought quietly.
I’ve always had an interesting relationship with my body and physical appearance. We’ve already talked about my on again, off again relationship with food, so let’s not reinvent the wheel there, but there are other things I’d like to mention.
My mom brought a two-piece swimsuit home from Dollar General once. I was 11. When she reached into the white, plastic bag and laid the scanty garments out on the kitchen counter, I was so appalled that I didn’t even try to conceal my disdain.
“There’s no way ON EARTH I’m wearing that stupid thing,” I grumbled audibly and then stalked off to my bedroom. I already knew, intuitively, that my body didn’t look right to me — that I shouldn’t have the parts that I did, or that some unknown something, internal or external, was missing — and the mere idea of exposing my physical self to the world and letting them witness my freak-show of a body felt nothing short of humiliating.
We’d do our clothes shopping at the thrift store, Ross, or Walmart (because there were no Targets in town), and I’d always meander off into the boys’ section, explaining to my mother that I liked how the boys’ shorts fell down to my knees, rather than ending abruptly at my thighs. She agreed to purchase them. “But these are only for skateboarding and other physical activities.. otherwise, you know you need to wear a long skirt or a dress.” Kill me.
I was goofing off in the bathroom one afternoon (age 13) when I discovered that, if I bent down, let my head and hair dangle towards the floor, and put my hair up in a bun or ponytail that way, that it pulled the sides of my face up a little and made me look.. better. Prettier? No, not prettier, because I wasn’t pretty to begin with; just better.
“But that’s dishonest,” I whispered to myself in the mirror, admiring the way the bun rested softly on top of my head. “You aren’t actually this good-looking.” So I took my hair down and then put it into a regular, unflattering, low-hanging ponytail. And that’s how I wore it for years. Until I chopped it all off two years ago.
I noticed, in middle school, that school friends and church friends alike religiously carved out time in their daily schedules to apply make-up and style their hair. I wanted to ignore my face and forget about my hair, so I did nothing with either, other than washing my boring long locks every other day and popping pimples on my chin, cheeks and forehead (and consequently hating myself for creating terrible, bloody scabs in places where everyone could see them).
I was homeschooled in the 9th grade, and as a part of my freshman year curriculum, I was to write a research paper on any topic of my choosing. I chose eating disorders; big surprise. As I researched anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating online and at the local library, I accidentally ran across a phrase that absolutely fascinated me: body dysmorphic disorder. And I really don’t think I realized, at that time, just how close to home the disorder was. Now, I can see it clearly; sitting beside me, walking behind me, stepping around and, sometimes, through me.. demanding my attention as it catches my eye and casts its shadows.
I’m doing a good bit better with how I view myself. I’ve lost a lot of weight, and a lot of that weight dropped out of “famously feminine” areas (which I greatly appreciate). I got off of birth control two years ago (never taking that shit agaaaaaaain #praisehands #wonthedoit) and my acne’s actually improved since. I’ve extracted every skirt, dress, and lacy, frilly thing from my closet, because when I came out, I pulled it all out with me. Panties? Why on earth would I willingly CHOOSE to wear panties when boxers exist and they make so much more sense? PANTIES? I hate the way they look, they way they feel.. I even hate the word. Gross.
It’s been a slow process, but now that I’m at an acceptable weight and wearing either gender-neutral or masculine clothing at work and at home, I feel comfortable, and that is SUCH a feat. Now, I can actually look back at old pictures of myself – as an awkward and clueless pretending woman – and see something that almost, sort of resembles “cute.”
But it (this “cute-like” thing) sure as hell doesn’t look like me, and I don’t identify with that person at all. Not even in retrospect. It’s bizarre, and it’s strange to say, but she’s entirely foreign to me.
I’m working on developing a greater appreciation for my organic body by debunking stupid myths (one of them being that my nose is too large; I am positively able to smell Chipotle burritos from a reasonable distance, freshly brewed coffee within a thirty-foot radius, and my German Shepherd’s adorable little princess foot at will, so it’s actually a perfectly normal and functional nose) and being gentle with myself. I don’t tolerate people bullying other people, and I would NEVER bully somebody else, so why the heck would I go out of my way to intentionally bully myself? So instead of buying into fallacious myths, bullying myself or fixating on unpleasant things that I truly can’t (reasonably) change, I try to point out positive traits, and I also try to focus on the features that I like.
As a positive exercise in establishing a healthy self-image: Here are two pictures of myself that I approve of, and I can tell you exactly why.
#1: The Magician
A. I look like a boy. Totally. Ask anyone if the human pictured is a boy or a girl and I BET they’ll say boy. I love it. I want to dress up like Harry Potter every single day so that I can always look like a boy.
B. Due to the weighted average of two factors combined (1. the largeness of the shirt I’m wearing and 2. my recent weight loss), I look super flat-chested in this picture, and that is awesome.
C. My hair looks pretty cool.
D. Speaking of cool, my stance is what I would refer to as a “cool guy stance.”
E. I’m wearing Vans.
F. I’m masquerading as a magician, and while it’s a very misleading portrayal, it’s still really cool.
Charlie took this picture of me when we were at the beach last week. I don’t love it, but I am okay with it for these reasons:
- I’m not looking into the camera, and I’m also not wearing a fake smile. I’m in the middle of talking and I’m laughing about something; it’s candid.
- I don’t look fat. (..checks again.) No. I don’t.
- My piercings and part of a tattoo are visible in this shot. I like that. Getting the piercings was an incredibly terrifying undertaking (as I’d never subjected myself to a needle barreling itself through my earlobe before), so I’m understandably proud of them.
- My hair is short.
- Looking at my face and posture, I seem happy and somewhat confident. That’s nice to see.
I’m not a selfie fiend — not even in the slightest, but like the rest of the world, I try to get candid, real-looking shots of myself and, when I do, I play around with different filters and effects until my blemishes are masked. I add enough shadows to make certain body parts look thinner, and I up or down contrast levels to make the scene seem artsier than it really is. Cause you know.. the driver’s seat of your car and the “lobby” area of your bathroom aren’t, on their own, intriguing or cool. At all.
Now.. how does this fucked-up, self-image “reflections” thing have anything to do with me being in a “constant state of searching”? Of always being “on the lookout”? Let me explain.
I do it at the coffee shop. Every — single — week. I walk inside, order my mocha, and then I settle down onto the couch and – without even thinking about it – perform a quick scan of the joint. Are they here today?
I do it at the grocery store.. especially at Whole Foods or any type of health food store, because that’s clearly where “my type” would be, shopping or working.
I do it at the park while I’m wearing shades and skating around. If they’re here, that means that THEY like being outdoors, and I LOVE being outdoors, so clearly, we’d be super compatible. Come find me!
I do it in traffic, thinking: Oh my god. What if my soulmate is in THAT CAR, RIGHT THERE? [Insert panic and absolutely insane thoughts: How will I ever know? What is sign language for “Meet me at the Kangaroo Express off of this exit so that we can have a normal conversation and see if you’re the girl of my dreams and I’m the girl/boy human being of yours?”]
I even do it in my dreams. You know how it goes; I’m casually going about living life and then suddenly, there she is. I’m writing on my laptop, pause to look up, and she’s just standing there. Or maybe she comes running down the road, trailing after me as I’m exiting the coffee shop, and she stops once she reaches me at my car, trying to catch her breath, shaking her head, laughing adorably and apologizing. “Look,” she begins, raising her eyebrows, “I know this is really weird, but I just felt like I needed to introduce myself.”
And then – amazed and floored – I respond: “Where have you been all of my life? Do you want an outdoor wedding? I can go get fitted for a tuxedo today..”
I’m always, it seems, looking for my soulmate.
And when a friend shared THIS on Facebook the other day, it made me laugh, AND it made me think.
Why am I always looking? Do I really crave companionship that badly? Sure I do. I’ve spent my whole life with a companion.. my whole life. Ages 0-10, it was Bobby, my brother. Then Melissa came strolling along and my whole family drifted into the background of my mind as she became the center of my world. That was 10-18. When 18 rolled around, I married Chris, and from 18-23, he was my constant companion. We split in November and I immediately jumped into ANOTHER committed relationship (which lasted from age 24 until a couple of weeks ago). So here I am.. finally single like I claimed I wanted and needed to be.. and yet I’m, apparently, looking to jump into yet ANOTHER RELATIONSHIP? Why the fucking fuck would I do that?
“You keep saying you want to be single, but you’re constantly preoccupied with looking for her; that simple-looking, brown-eyed brunette with a gentle demeanor and an easygoing confidence.. the girl who suddenly makes eye contact with you from across the room and, when she does, you feel magic.”
“…yes. Exactly. All of that.”
“?!!! WHICH IS IT, JACE? Do you really want to be single right now or do you want a distraction? Are you equating finding a person with finding purpose? Are you so lacking in passion and personal pursuits that life is uninteresting without having an admirer, or having someone to admire?”
“I think that, in a society that normalizes pairing off and looks weirdly away from lonely, overlooked singles, I’m afraid to be alone, and I think that I value and appreciate myself too little to be content with being alone.” That’s the honest truth. These are some pretty recent and not-fully-developed self-revelations, but I’ll try to spell them out for you as clearly as possible.
It’s like this:
I think that I feel somewhat worthless. Wrong body, wrong voice; strange-looking, of average intelligence, and governed by strange, OCD habits; surprisingly childish, too aged, emotionally scarred and fucked; untrusting, subsequently noncommittal, and completely unremarkable.
So – to make up for everything I’m missing – I want to find some beautiful, smart, talented, and interesting soul to adore.. to take care of and support and associate myself with. Being with them will make me happier; I’m certain of it. Pairing off with them, and affixing myself to them, will give my life greater meaning. They will inspire and challenge me to be and do better. I need a reason to exist. I need someone to invest in; someone to promote and invest in. I’m not exceptional. I’m simple; like a dingy, off-white paint sample; a paper cup in a cabinet full of fine china; or the cheaper, generic store brand version of tomato soup. I just want to be the quiet, loving, and supportive launching pad – the independent but not emotionally distant, unassuming, and adoring shadow person – for someone exceptional.
Can you see how flawed that entire thought process is? Deriving your own personal value through your involvement in the life of another human being?
Basically, boil it all down to basic components and raw truths and I’m just not enough. That’s what I keep showing and telling myself, anyways. In a world of pairs, I’m the short end of the stick; in mathematical language, I’m a listless, dangling 30% that’s waiting for their lively, adventuring 70% counterpart to come find them.
How sad. How very, very sad. Why do I paint this picture that portrays me as being so pathetic, co-dependent, and unlovable? Am I really those things? I don’t think so. And aren’t I on my OWN adventure? Don’t I possess a drive and motivation that isn’t dependent on anything or anyone? Don’t I believe that I have intrinsic value? And don’t I love being independent — being able to walk, skate, or trip and fumble up and down my own self-directed, self-guided path? Who or what keeps telling me that I’m probably not enough, and that being single proves that I’m not enough?
I have a friend who’s like this. When he isn’t in a relationship with someone, he let’s himself go to shit. I’ve seen it happen. He drinks, smokes, stops eating.. passes out at bars, arrives to work late, and stops caring about all of his interests, hobbies, and passions. When it’s just him alone in this world, everything loses its meaning. Everything is utterly pointless.
“But that’s so fucking stupid,” I’ve told him. “SO many people have LEGITIMATE reasons to feel depressed. Like — they’re ugly, or stupid, or talentless.. or at least they think they are.. but you’re so incredibly talented, brilliant, and gorgeous.” But nothing I say matters to him; it doesn’t improve how he perceives himself, and it doesn’t change how he values himself. And it’s the same for me, really.. to a certain extent. Someone could tell me all day long that I’m a worthwhile human being, but I’ll still go home that night feeling inconsequential and totally discardable. On my worst days, I reason with myself like this: “Really, if I were to kill myself, it would benefit the world in so many different ways; people wouldn’t admit it, but it would. A position at work would open up for someone else, I wouldn’t be using up so much of the earth’s resources (food, clothing, this home), and I wouldn’t have to worry about hurting or upsetting or disappointing anyone. Removing myself from everything and everyone, while jarring at first, would be such a peaceful and kind gesture.. it would drop everything down, I believe, into neutral.”
The “death option” can seem appealing, and the internal conversations are pretty convincing sometimes, but then I remind myself that I’m in a dark spell – a bad place – and that I’ll bounce out of it soon. “Just stay here a little longer,” I whisper out loud. “You aren’t supposed to dip out yet.”
How to end this nicely?
I am coaching myself to try to like myself. On the outside and the inside. And if, in the process of self-discovering, I come across something about myself that is weak, unkind, or unhealthy, I’m sure as hell going to do something to correct it. If it’s within my power to change for the better, it’s going to happen, because I’m actively going to commit to making it happen.
I am also trying to recondition or reprogram the way I think and act on conscious and subconscious levels so that I’m not looking for someone else to give my life meaning or to validate my “self worth.”
I’m worth getting up and getting dressed in the morning.
Cooking a healthy meal for just myself is worth the time, the effort, and the stupidly over-priced organic ingredients.
And I don’t need to have someone holding my hand in order for me to enjoy a blindingly beautiful sunset, an energizing walk through the park, a well-written book, or a really good sci-fi show. It’s certainly nice to share these things with someone, but in the absence of that someone, they’re perfectly enjoyable on their own.
“Please,” my close friend implored me months ago, “take some time to get to know and love yourself. Take yourself out on dates, Jace. Go to restaurants and movies, parks and coffee shops.. whatever you want. As you get to know yourself, you’ll notice things you love about yourself, and you’ll also discover things you don’t love. It’ll be an interesting process — you’ll grow stronger because of it and it will really help you heal — but it will also require a lot your time and all of your honesty.”
So — taking her advice — here I am, dating myself at Saturn. I bought myself a pricey mocha a little bit ago and I’ve offered to cook myself burritos for dinner. Things are getting seriousssssss.
Still looking — who just walked in? Ehhh, that was a dude.