What If Impossible Physical Standards of Beauty Aren’t The Only Problem?

“There is nothing more rare, nor more beautiful, than a woman being unapologetically herself; comfortable in her perfect imperfection. To me, that is the true essence of beauty.” Steve Maraboli

I stumble across this quote on the internet pretty frequently. It’s impossible not to be taken with this definition of beautiful. While it sounds so empowering, I think it is an unhealthy standard to strive for.

Yesterday, I read the post “Are you beautiful? I asked 100 men what ‘physical beauty’ is and the results shocked me” on Rozanne Leigh’s blog Life is Rozie. What she discovered through her conversations and surveys is that women are far more critical of our physical appearance than men are. My favorite quote was, “Most [men] could hardly tell the difference between girls who were a size 10 and a size 4 – except to say whether they looked healthy or not.” That same statement cannot be made of most women. I can’t say that I was as surprised by her results as she was. I’ve noticed this in my conversations with the men in my life. It is easy for me to look around and see men who are deeply in love with women who don’t fit into our culture’s narrow definition of beauty. While I enjoyed her post, I was unsatisfied by her conclusion that what makes us beautiful is our confidence in our own unique desirability. And especially her conviction that we can love ourselves without the validation of others. As nice as it all sounds, it is still an idealistic notion of beauty.

Objectively speaking, I believe I am beautiful. Even while my confidence in myself in other areas has wavered, I’ve grown rather sure that I am desirability. But does that mean I feel beautiful every day? Of course not. No one does. There are days when I feel unstoppably seductive and there are days when I feel like I need a serious makeover to be even slightly presentable. Though I’ve grown to see the beauty in my body at many sizes, I would be lying if I said that I don’t still regret that I can’t offer a lover a more perfect body without the war wounds from my battle with obesity.

Ugly days (okay, sometimes even ugly seasons) are a part of life. We all have to learn to love our bodies through sweat and tears (quite literally in many cases). This is a process that can take a life time. Do you know what is incredible? People love us anyway. They desire us even when we can’t possibly see any reason why they would. And on our ugly days, their kind words are what can help us get out of our heads and see ourselves more clearly and kindly.

The biggest lie we believe in our culture is not that we have to meet impossible physical standards of beauty to be lovable; it is that we have to achieve any standard of perfection at all to be loved. Even “perfect imperfection.” Just as men fall in love with women of all shapes and sizes, men fall in love with women who are deeply insecure as frequently as they fall in love with women who project perfect confidence. Men fall in love with women who don’t have their lives even close to “together” just as they fall in love with women at the height of their success. While confidence and health are undeniably sexy, there is also something attractive about the need to see ourselves graciously reflected in the eyes of others. It is this very need that drives us toward each other.

No matter how unpopular it is to say, we need the honest feedback of others to gain confidence in our attractiveness. Of course, feel free to ignore the haters but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everyone else. Even Leigh’s blog post illustrates that we can all benefit from viewing ourselves through the eyes of men who are looking for connection and love not perfection. Letting ourselves believe the compliments that we are given and trusting in the evidence that we are desirable is the surest way to gain greater confidence in our own unique beauty. We have to realize that even then it will never be an unfailing confidence and that’s okay.

A couple of years ago I shared a quote from Emanuel Ungaro, “I like women who are not sure of themselves. I like the moment when a woman thinks she is not good enough, pretty enough. It’s wonderful. It’s like I’ve scratched the surface and discovered something…” I wish we could see the beauty in our own moments of self-doubt and, instead of turning against ourselves, unashamedly let it drive us to reach out for the comfort of those who see our beauty when we can’t.


Feature image from Flaunter.com.

What’s Wrong with Being a Little Unsure of Yourself?

A while back, when I was wandering through Garance’s archives looking for some inspiration, I found this quote from Emanuel Ungaro that she quoted from a 1973 issue of Vogue:

“I like women who are not sure of themselves. I like the moment when a woman thinks she is not good enough, pretty enough. It’s wonderful. It’s like I’ve scratched the surface and discovered something…”

I felt immediately that I needed to write on this for you. But I couldn’t articulate then why. I couldn’t even put words to why I like it so much.

Scribbling in my journal last night, I became very aware of how much pressure I’ve put on myself, unconsciously, to always be sure of myself. To always think I’m good enough. Pretty enough. Smart enough. Capable enough. Desirable enough. Likeable enough. To have the unwavering, unbreakable confidence and self-assurance of Dagny Taggart.

Not that I want to have too high an estimate of myself. My aim is simply to have a crystal clear image of myself–flaws and faults included–that is perfectly, and as entirely as possible, accurate. That allows me complete self-assurance. The type of self-image that frees you from the need for any validation or the risk of being brought down by someone else’s disregard. (We’ve covered that I was a philosophy major right? So I think in terms of ideals).

In short, I’d like to be impervious with no potential for any scratches or breaks in my surface.

The last few years have really shattered my belief that I could ever be so perfectly cold and unmovable. Still, I find myself judging myself by this standard. I feel like there is something wrong with me when I’m hurt after someone has been hurtful. Like I’m weak if I admit that I have limits to what I can carry, put up with and excuse. Like I’m terribly insecure if I admit that my confidence is not complete.

What my friends have taught me throughout these years is that these aren’t flaws. I get hurt because I’m human. In fact, if I respond to it appropriately, that pain can help me prevent further harm. I have limits because there are things that I, in fact, shouldn’t carry, put up with or excuse. My confidence is not complete because I was made to be completed in community. My desire for appropriate validation, my need to see myself accurately reflected back in the eyes of my friends, is what helps to draw me into relationships. Just like everyone else.

I think this moment, when a woman is unsure of herself, is so beautiful to Ungaro because it is so true. It’s the moment when his Muse’s humanity, with all of its inherit vulnerability, becomes apparent. It is the moment when she can’t be reduced to an object or an ideal, when he becomes aware that she’s a person with all of the complicated depths that entails.

So Much More Than a Physical Transformation

I must confess that I feel a little guilty about all that I’ve kept from you this summer. Though I definitely think some of my titles (“If You Don’t Want to Be My Boyfriend Maybe You Shouldn’t Act Like You Are”…”Taking Applications for a Male Sidekick”) sort of screamed ‘I’m a little bitter and let down,’ I hated not being able to bring you into what was going on behind them. The timing wasn’t right though. Both because I hadn’t had that final conversation with my friend and because I’ve needed to catch up with how my life is changing.

Yesterday my mom got after me for stating that I’ve transitioned from the “heavy girl I was to the beautiful woman I have become.” She was offended by the implication that I was not beautiful 85 pounds ago. I respect her opinion, but that isn’t what I was implying. What my statement reflects is not simply how losing weight has changed me physically, but how my definition of myself has changed.

85 pounds ago, I firmly believed that I was pretty and absolutely believed that I was desirable but I didn’t think of myself in terms of beauty. Losing weight alone didn’t change that.

Two years ago, when I was basically the same size I am now (minus 5 pounds or so), I felt less attractive and less desirable than I ever did at 240lbs/260lbs. Even though strangers were hitting on me and asking for my number frequently, there were days when I didn’t want to change out of yoga pants and my sweatshirt or leave my apartment because I felt utterly unattractive. For the first time in my life, I was pretty convinced that I was ugly.

There were a lot of contributing factors to this crisis. Overall, it happened because for years my identity had been wrapped up in being heavy. And all of the great things that it implies, like that I stake more value in who I am than in what I look like. Like that I have a big presence and an insatiable love of life. For about a decade, that term meant more to me than being beautiful. I didn’t know who I was or how to love myself without that qualifier.

In the process of rebuilding both my confidence and sense of self, I discovered that I’d never believed I was entirely beautiful. I thought I had beautiful legs and hair and eyes but I didn’t think the whole package of me was beautiful. I thought that aspects of my personality are lovable but not all of me was. I accepted partial attraction because I only believed I was partially attractive. This has changed.

As I’ve come of age over the last two years, I’ve come to believe that I’m entirely beautiful and entirely lovable. When I say this I don’t mean to imply that I’m perfectly beautiful and perfectly lovabe. Let me tell you, my body is still not flawless. It is not “bikini ready.” My face is not completely clear of acne. I still think too much. I’m still too loud. I can still be petty and tempestuous and impossible. I can still be completely awkward and totally graceless. But we all have flaws and faults. As a whole, I think I’m lovable and beautiful. That I am well worthy of being wanted and desired in my entirety.

The fact that my desire for my friend died the moment I found out that, like all the leading men of my past, he just wanted part of me and not all of me reflected this change. Even so, it’s been hard not to believe that all men who seem interested in me will just follow in these footsteps. As my dad has said, there is a rule of three. Once you’ve had three similar experiences, they set your expectations.

Though, over the last two months, I’d noticed different men’s interest, I internally doubted my instincts. Men have always seemed attracted to me. And all that attraction has ever boiled down to is an insane amount of admiration or respect or whatever. While I’ve never let this stop me from humoring hope (how boring life would be without some petty crushes), I wasn’t going to believe it until I knew the actual nature of their interest.

I think it was that need to know which prompted me to bring up the topic with two of my coworkers this weekend. When one of them asked me to name off the guys I thought liked me, ‘cause he could tell me if I was right or not, part of me expected that he’d disillusion me. Instead, I was dead-on.

It’s surprising to me how much I’ve changed through these years and how much my life has changed as a result. When I said that I’ve gone from being a heavy girl to a beautiful woman, I am referring to a transformation that has been so much more than physical (technically, my BMI isn’t even “normal” yet-though it’s very close). What it reflects is how I have redefined myself, as well as how others now define me. It’s important to remember that beauty is not merely a physical attribute. When I use that word, I mean it in that much broader sense.

I am much more beautiful now than I was two years ago. Not because I weigh less (which I hardly do). But because I know myself and love myself better. That has happened because I’ve fought to find the beauty in every bit of me. Despite flaws and imperfections. It’s happened because I know that I’m desirable to God, no matter what, and that means I must be deeply and essential beautiful. I think that the men in my life are responding to this as much as they are to my physical transformation.

A Song For You

In a nostalgic mood, I wasted a whole evening browsing through old facebook photos. The majority of which took place when I weighed between 240 and 260. Back when I imagined that weighing in the 180s, as I do now, would be skinny for me. Back when I preached big as beautiful. I hardly recognize that me. I’ve spent days trying to capture my emotions. Trying to explain why I’ve plateaued here, still 30 or so pounds from healthy.

Tonight, in my favorite master’s class, I was reminded that sometimes we have to stop thinking and start singing to find the truth. The greatest part of ourselves is not our ego, but that self which is always changing and allusive whom we can meet best in art.

Since this is my art, I’m going to sing for you.

* * *

There is a moment in the film “Frida” when she asks her father to remind her what she wanted then. Who she was then. “Then” when she was young. Before the accident that shattered her body and left her permanently aching. Before the marriage to Diego Rivera whose constant infidelity pained her as much. The scene quickly transitions but for me the movie paused at that point.

That question is where I’ve been dwelling: Who was I before this?

Who was I in those pictures I don’t see myself in anymore? Wasn’t I more confident then? Didn’t I have more faith that a man could love me then? Wasn’t I less self-conscious then?

But those questions generate different questions: Should I have stayed twice the size my body is meant to be? Should I have gone all my life without hitting puberty? Wasn’t that self-assurance just my conscious naiveté?

Being heavy was like living in Neverland. In it I escaped growing up. Now that I’m playing Wendy I’ve faced a mirror for the first time with the nagging question of every pubescent girl: Am I pretty? This time I have not meant “Am I lovable?” But “Am I beautiful?” “Am I desirable?”

While my body has transformed, I’ve discovered both my beauty and my scars. The thick stretch marks on my shoulders, that women have mistaken for scratches for years, I’ve found running down my sides. The lighter marks that lace my upper arms, I’ve discovered across my abdomen.

Facing them I’ve felt like Anne Dillard at the beginning of Pilgrim At Tinker Creek pondering the significance of the bloody paw prints on her body. Are they emblems of my purity or the signs of self-abuse? Some days I don’t know if I’m saving myself or ruining myself but, unlike Dillard, I cannot wash off these stains. They linger.

These stagnant months I’ve been stuck in that other me’s gaze. Afraid to lose weight to discover that I’m not attractive and afraid to lose weight to discover that I am. Mostly, afraid to lose me. Who is this woman staring back at me? She isn’t the girl I was.

Frida never reclaimed the old her but by the next scene it didn’t matter. She was always Frida. The woman she became was the woman she was always becoming.  The peace and love for myself I’m searching for in tears is that, like her, who I am becoming is me.