I think I am able to recognize my better qualities. If someone were to ask, I think I could make a small checklist of the things I do well, perhaps even better than the majority of people around me. I don’t think that I am a worthless person, or a bad person, and I can step back from myself enough to say that there are good qualities there.
I think I’m pretty aware of my looks, of where I would fall on that infamous 10-point scale. I am certainly more palatable when dolled up and under flattering lighting, but I don’t think I’m a bridge troll first thing in the morning. Like most people, I would say I fall somewhere on the “average” side of things, and that suits me just fine.
I believe in my capacity to love and care for others; I know that I have friends and family and even lovers whom I treat well and show affection for. I think that, in my presence, they know that someone is there for them and wants to hear what they have to say. When I listen, I try to really understand and take everything in — I know how much a good listener can make someone feel immediately better.
And yet, in spite of all of these things (things which appeal to the more rational side of my brain, as they can often be, in some ways, objectively quantified and reinforced by others), I sometimes wonder deeply how anyone could love me. I accept familial and platonic love more easily — as many of us do — because it seems a less threatening, more implied love. Friends you can make when you’re just a child, and there are many sides of you that a friend will never see. And family is tied to you by blood, they know you intimately in a way that you often never have to explain. There is a connection there that is forged at birth and has an entire lifetime to flower naturally. There seems less pressure involved.
But romantic love is fraught with such pressure. You (in most cases) meet as adults, and are charged with the task of presenting yourselves to one another with an increasing degree of frankness. You may not tell all of your dirtiest secrets and show the most unflattering side of your face on a first date, but if the two of you stay together long enough, these things will eventually rise to the surface. You have all of the emotional connection of any relationship — the honesty, the trust, the communication — with an added dimension of physical closeness. This is a person with whom you are expected to be naked in every way, from whom you are supposed to elicit love, and interest, and arousal. At every level of possible connection, you are entwined, you are finding new ways to touch one another.
I don’t think I’m alone in my genuine confusion with my lovability. I know that it is a problem many people — particularly women — struggle with, and why wouldn’t we? Sure, most of us have at least a decent grasp on our good and bad qualities and what we bring to the table, and we know where we stack up in the world. We can identify things about ourselves that would be enjoyable, likable, desirable — but love seems its own separate category. And to be loved in so many different ways (the emotional, the intellectual, the sexual) seems an expectation few can realistically hold.
Society is filled with images of the perfect man, the perfect woman. We are taught what to look like, what to dress like, what conversation is appropriate and what other people want to hear. We are constantly presented with photoshopped images of the relationships we should be aspiring to, and what makes someone lovable. A lovable woman is what, exactly? According to media, she is almost certainly a young, slender, conventionally beautiful white woman who is interesting and quirky but never too much so, and always retains a sense of demure reserve around a man. She might be “crazy,” but only “charming crazy,” never “dealing with a serious emotional problem crazy.” And a perfect man? He is a tall, lean, lightly-muscled, very handsome white man who is emotionally distant enough to pique someone’s interest, but affectionate enough to keep such interest when it comes time to reel in the relationship. He has things in control, he is stoic and unmoved by daily gossip and tedium, and you’ll never see him cry. He is “strong.”
How many of us are these things? And if we are them, how many of us are them all the time? The answer is likely zero. We are all enormously complex creatures who cry and scream and make weird body noises and look ugly sometimes and gain and lose weight and go through moments of emotional difficulty. This is normal, of course — but in front of our significant others, we want to hide it. We, often without realizing it, temper and adjust ourselves to be more palatable, more agreeable, more bland. We hide the things that, despite being profoundly interesting and special, would make us seem strange. There is a part of us that feels unlovable because there are so many things we aren’t and never will be, and often our partner feels the exact same way.
I have asked my boyfriend why he loves me, and he has asked me the same. And the question rarely feels like a desperate scratching at a hidden truth, more a moment of genuine curiosity that might finally be answered. Of course, there can never be a fully satisfactory answer because, though we can run off a checklist of things we adore in the other person, our love for them is often a blurry combination of all the things we can and cannot articulate. The way someone looks at you from across the pillow in the morning may warm your heart just as much as the way they dance around the kitchen when they are making food — but it is not either of these things individually, it is a painting that they create when combined: “I love you because you are exactly who you are, and no one else.”
Believing that you are worthy and deserving of love, or that the act itself is even possible, is certainly something that we come to terms with slowly over a lifetime. We start and stop many times with different people, people who both affirm and erode our confidence in ourselves. But perhaps the most profound way to understand how you could be loved is to love another unconditionally, to love them for both the conventionally attractive and the typically unappealing qualities they possess. You love them for their charming sense of humor, but you also love them for their habit of eating naked on the couch. You love them both in equal measure because, without either, they wouldn’t be precisely who they are and you wouldn’t have them so entirely. Because at the end of the day, that is who we love: it is not some airbrushed image of a prince on a white horse, it is the prince long after he rides off into the sunset and shows you that he, too, is only human.