Skin Deep

Appearances can be misleading—and learning more about them can help us think more intelligently and act more kindly.

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You're Not Ugly, and Neither Was I

We're only limited by the stories we tell ourselves about our bodies

Awhile back, I was looking through some old photo albums of my mom's. There were the requisite pictures from family vacations by Lake Tahoe, picnics, barbeques, and holiday gatherings. Sometimes, I had a hard time telling the difference between myself and my sister, though at the time I couldn't imagine that we were anything alike.

For my whole life, I've struggled with the idea that I'm ugly. As a child I had a huge overbite and had to wear one of those nylon headpieces to keep my retainer in. At ten, I developed acne that has never really gone away over 30 years later, and added to this, I was painfully shy and could barely bring myself to speak to my teachers at school, much less answer the phone at our house. If someone I didn't know so much as looked in my general direction, I'd freeze up like a rabbit being cornered by a dog.

Unlike many women, I never had an issue with my weight; my body image issues had to do with the acne and the rabbit-teeth, the long nose, the lanky hair, and what to my mind was my tall, lanky, big-boned build that made me feel like a monster when I stood next to pretty, feminine, fashionable women. Walking through childhood ashamed of my appearance and horribly shy, I perfected the art of not taking up any space. I was the girl nobody noticed, and part of me liked it that way. But the part that wanted to be adored noticed when people didn't notice me, and chalked it up to my appearance.

As I was looking through my mom's photo albums, though, I noticed something: the girl in the photos? She wasn't ugly.  She smiled and wore sometimes-goofy clothes from the era and made funny faces into the camera. She cavorted and grinned. She had golden hair, and crooked teeth with a gap in them here and there. But none of those things made her ugly. They made her cute. Even the retainer headpiece, though clunky, was adorable in a funny kind of way. I looked like any little girl would. Cute in an awkward way, fun-loving, full of life.

And I had always thought of her as ugly.

The revelation was actually a little bit of a stunner. You mean for the last 30 years, I'd been accusing that little girl of being ugly?? Shame on me! I had created a whole story about myself - a story that I've only managed to move away from over the last five years, and still return to sometimes when things seem dark - about how I've never been as pretty as the other women, how I was never going to have a romantic partner because men only wanted "those" women, the cute, sexy, flirty ones. How I was just a victim of genes and bad luck and would never be among the beautiful.

I have some friends who are larger women, who seem to use their weight as an excuse as to why they don't go out and get the things they want out of life. One friend in particular often points out my skinniness as a reason why my life is great. Though she's right that my life is pretty nice, and that women with my body type are generally seen by this culture as "having it all", I still bridle a bit at the idea that, because my genes expressed in an average body type, that that's why I have the life I do. I also know women who are large - larger than my friends - who have happy marriages, kids, or creative, vibrant life paths - more so than I do, it my mind -  and who see themselves (at least who seem to see themselves) as sexy and sassy and dare anyone to think differently.

In all of our cases, we're only limited by the stories we tell ourselves about our bodies. For thirty years, I, a blonde woman with what this culture deems as a near-perfect body type for women, have seen myself as ugly. Just as for decades my friends have seen themselves as flawed because they have larger bodies. And other larger women I know have created lives of creativity and passion, while I, a so-called "skinny blonde" have struggled with feelings of low self-esteem. The difference? What we tell ourselves about ourselves.

For the last five years or so I've been working on telling myself a different story about my appearance. I've worked on the way I carry myself physically, and even how I dress and present myself. Now, when I look in the mirror, I usually like what I see. But it was a long road to here and I still feel like a big, clumsy girl (and yes, I do mean girl) sometimes, when I'm around women I see as beautiful and put-together. Those tapes about my being ugly still run sometimes, and I have to shut them down.

How do we create different stories about ourselves? One way I've found is to look at the positive feedback we get and make an effort to take that in, rather than focusing on all the ways we (or others or society) tell us that we're not okay. I've worked on taking in compliments without immediately adding "But...." after them. In fact, I made a button that says "I Accept All Compliments."

Another way was to look at photos of myself  as a child and to see that little girl as a human being, not as a collection of body parts that may or may not conform to some beauty ideal. She had emotions and thoughts and was creative and vibrant. She had - still has -  a rich internal life and a wonderful imagination. She loves nature and is fascinated by simple things like the play of light on a leaf. She was always more than her acne or her overbite or her knobby knees.

Yet another way has been to look at the people around me and to see them as whole humans, feeling joy and pain, struggling with their own stuff, doing the best they can, whatever their appearance or body type. I realize that the people I find attractive almost never fit some exacting physical ideal. What I find attractive about them is the energy that comes from them. The most beautiful person in the world is not beautiful if their energy is negative, hateful, closed-minded, or dull. And a person who doesn't necessarily fit our societal image of beauty is beautiful if their energy is positive, vibrant, or open-hearted.

If you struggle with telling yourself a story that you're ugly, consider changing that story. It's painful in the extreme to think that we're too ugly to live our best lives, yet so many of us feel this way. But that's a prison we create with our minds. With some compassionate attention and a shift in viewpoint, we can unlock that prison forever.

Check out my new blog: http://www.joyattheheart.com. I'm looking for people who want to write for it and otherwise contribute to the community!

Skin Deep