by June Jeong, opinions editor

When I noticed that a friend of mine never ate lunch, I asked her about it. After a long conversation, I found out that she was trying to lose weight because she felt deeply dissatisfied with her body and her state of physical appearance. I can relate; as a child, I associated beauty with exceptionalism, asking my mother to curl my hair or pin it up for every picture day in elementary school, and begging to try on makeup for the first time in 7th grade. And like many girls, my relationship with my physical appearance became rocky throughout adolescence. On days when I had acne, my hair was frizzy, or I had tired bags around my eyes, I felt self-disgust. Because if I wasn’t looking my best, how could I truly put my best self forward? Or maybe more so, how could I deem myself worthy of people’s time and attention?

So when this friend of mine shared these feelings with me, I responded with something stupid and standard, along the lines of “That’s not true, you’re so pretty!” But afterwards, I felt weirdly disappointed with how I chose to respond in that situation. See the fact is, it’s much easier to say, “Nah, you’re pretty,” to someone we care about who is feeling insecure about their physical appearance, rather than “You deserve to find worth in more meaningful parts of your identity,” because it’s simple for people to grasp. It’s a lot easier to just swallow this kind of momentary reassurance rather than to learn how to transcend the idea that being attractive is some kind of accomplishment. And when we see people struggling with insecurity, our automatic response is “No, but you’re fine as you are!” It’s interesting, because it’s a positive thing to tell someone that you think they look good. But the message that one delivers when he/she makes these kinds of responses if it’s in reaction to insecurity, is that there isn’t a problem to begin with, so feelings of insecurity aren’t really justified. So even though said friend may feel reassured and validated in the moment, they’re just going to keep feeling insecure about it again and again, because they’re finding worth almost solely in their appearance. It’s a way of saying “Uh….I’m uncomfortable by your discomfort….here’s a solution to it so please stop feeling uncomfortable.” But most of the time, when a friend comes to you and is willing to open up to you about something like this, their doubts and insecurities and fears, they don’t necessarily want a solution. They just want to be heard and acknowledged. Someone saying, “I see you, and I understand. You don’t have to be ashamed for being uncertain about this. You can get through these feelings.”  

In the past few years, somewhat fortunately, the intensity of the unrealistic expectations placed on girls has received increasing amounts of scrutiny and backlash. Numerous groups have endeavored to spread positivity about physical appearance and expose the extent of the media’s distortion of women. The Dove ‘Real Beauty Campaign,’ for example, attempts to show that women can be beautiful across a variety of sizes and ethnicities. The intentions behind these campaigns are generally good, yet there is a familiar feeling of anxiety that runs throughout all of these companies’ movements– the idea that all women should and must feel beautiful. It’s this concept that if you don’t find yourself attractive, you’ll be devoid of self-esteem. In that sense, not feeling attractive becomes almost threatening.

The message behind these campaigns is that women should love their physical appearance in order to find self-esteem and worth. But that is so far from the truth: you don’t have to feel or be attractive to love yourself or have a fulfilling life. The reality is that if you’re generally considered physically attractive, you undeniably have certain advantages in life. People are more likely to trust you and be kind to you, and your chances of getting a job interview or a raise increase pretty significantly (congrats). But if you aren’t, that doesn’t make you any less capable or exempt from getting to experience life. Being conventionally beautiful isn’t an accomplishment, and being unattractive doesn’t have to stop you from making accomplishments. You can be fat, skinny, ugly, pretty, short, tall, whatever it is that you are, and you can find happiness, fall in love, love your job, and do what you want.

This all sounds dramatic but I don’t think we get to hear this message enough, the message that your physical appearance is such a small part of your identity and that you don’t have to feel beautiful to feel worthy. My intention isn’t to shame people for having insecurities, for putting extra effort into their appearance, or for loving their unconventional/conventional features. For the record, I’m all for people finding empowerment in many different ways, and one of these ways is by trying to look good for yourself. What the issue is, however, is when we revere or berate others for their appearances, or become so consumed with our own appearances that it becomes a block which prevents us or discourages us from experiencing life wholeheartedly. 

Because it’s okay to not feel okay about yourself all the time, and this goes with all aspects of your identity, because that’s just part of the human experience. And you can be just okay. On days I wake up feeling (and looking) like a toe, I remind myself that my negative feelings towards myself are passing, and whether I feel good about myself or not, I can enjoy life…because there is beauty inherent in just being a living human. We’re active creatures, which means that we’re not just alive, but we’re also constantly doing things. When I’m writing, playing piano, walking my dog, or hanging with friends, and when I’m engaged in and excited about life, the last thing I care about is how I look or seem to other people. I never want to get in a place where I feel like what I look like is more important than what I’m doing. What I’m saying is that you don’t have to believe you look good to feel alright about yourself. And you don’t have to be okay with how you are all the time, but you can still find some kind of love reserved just for yourself.