I still remember how it felt to be sitting in class in high school thinking all eyes are on me. I remember jarring sudden reminders to sit up straight, suck in my stomach, fix my shirt, fix my hair, fix my face. I would take a quick glance around the room, and not a person was looking at me. Not even my teacher, who should have definitely been concerned about my shifty behavior. The bell would ring, I would leave class, and I would take to the halls, with hundreds of students and judging eyes passing me. I was viciously conscious of every hair on my head and every square inch of flesh on my body. I got older, and I learned how to move about my life more freely and with carefree confidence despite my distorted body dysmorphia. I thought I had fought past this debilitating self-destruction.
But as I am leaving quarantine after over a year, it is back and more brutal than ever.
I’m starting to make plans again. Which means I’m starting to need to wear actual outfits again. For 15 months, I’ve been switching the same scrubs and sweatpants. Appearance was not an issue when I was covered head to toe in PPE. My hair is no longer in a bonnet, my body is no longer covered in a trash bag with sleeves, and my face is no longer hidden by two masks and a face shield. I am seeing myself for the first time in a year, and it’s absolutely terrifying. I have been wearing very comfortable clothing which made me less uncomfortable in my body, but now that I have to put structured outfits on, I want to barf and cry and scream at the same time. I never had a really good mental picture of what I look like. What I thought was self-acceptance was actually blissful ignorance. I didn’t feel better about what I saw because I wasn’t seeing anything.
Not only that, I have been spending allllllllll of my free time on social media. Every fucking 19-year-old on Tik Tok has a fully realized aesthetic with color schemes and 13 years of sewing experience. I had no chance to go out in public and get a reality check, so I just lived in this limbo where everyone’s eyeliner was perfect and I was but a blobfish lucky to be in their presence. My Instagram discover page and Tik Tok FYP quickly became makeup tutorials, shopping hauls, workouts that are only effective if you have good genes, “minor” plastic surgery procedures, etc. Every ounce of input that I was getting was telling me I wasn’t good enough. Even when I saw videos of people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities posting body positivity content, I still felt like I didn’t deserve to participate.
It’s kind of like when you leave a movie in the middle of the day. Your eyes have gotten used to being in the dark, but as soon as you step outside, the sun is ravaging your retinas, and it makes you want to run back inside and never come out again. Except, in this case, the movie theater is quarantine, the sun is a mirror, and the rest is the same. I have to let my eyes readjust. I have to give myself time to readjust to seeing myself in a kind way. I have to let the rays of the public eye see me without worrying about being burned. But maybe I can learn from this lockdown experience.
Of all the personal and global adversities, not a single one of them was related to my body. Or how I looked. Or what someone thought of me. No number on any scale dictated my mood. Now, it’s important to consider that my brain was focused on more important things like survival and such. However, it is months’ worth of evidence that the world is not going to end because I didn’t have the flattest stomach or the clearest skin (I did learn that it could end for many other reasons, but that is not what I’m getting at here). My inner self-conscious teen can go dormant again with the knowledge that there are so many more thoughts that are more worthwhile than my appearance. I still have work to do, but the warmth of the sun and social events are waiting for me outside the door. I just have to walk out.