I went to breakfast with another girl recently, it was the first time we’d met each other. We spent about two hours talking about important things — at least, things that I consider “important.” We talked about politics, academia, women in the workplace, traveling, society, and feminism. When you’ve grown up on even your most beloved portrayals of woman-on-woman friendship generally centering around the time they gather over food or alcohol of some kind to discuss men, it can be almost novelly refreshing to not even touch on the subject. You talk about conferences and things like Roominate, and everything seems possible. You almost don’t feel like women for a minute, hindered by a societal place which expects so much and so little of you, you just feel like people.
It’s a luxury we’re not always afforded, especially when it comes to our appearance. As campaigns and studies like that Dove video, none of us are exempt from the pressures and misconceptions about what our bodies and our faces are supposed to look like. Even if there is a clear, confident part of us which knows that we are not what we look like, it is fighting against a tidal wave of conflicting evidence that wants so desperately to keep us insecure, with open wounds and open wallets.
But with conversations like the one I recently had, with days that are able to see the rising and setting of a sun without so much as a thought to what you look like, let alone where it places you in society, you can begin to hope. You can feel like it is a cycle you can escape, and that you are not destined to repeat the mistakes of the women who spend their whole life looking at their waistline when they could have been looking anywhere else in the world. It’s something that we all have to work on, actively directing our worth and our centers of interest away from what we look like and what men think about us.
So when you see yourself in a bad picture, when you were caught at an unexpected angle on a bad day, it stings. There are so many layers to the frustration and disappointment, and you’re not sure which ones are even okay to feel. Sure, there is going to be an element of dislike in yourself which is based on entirely external factors, arbitrary standards of measurement that you didn’t set for yourself yet are chastised for not reaching. There are all of the things that you shouldn’t be feeling — things imposed on you by society.
Yet there are also many moments where you actually dislike the things you see. You see sallow skin, undeveloped muscles, stringy hair, and an expression that betrays a deeper sadness. You see that you’re not taking care of yourself. It’s a painful thing to accept, as we live in a time where most of our self-shot or tagged photos are carefully curated, are filtered out to find the most universally flattering. We change things with a bit of makeup, with a filter, with a certain angle. Because the pressure to present this image is so great, we have gotten used to not seeing the real version of ourself. We are an amalgam of our best selfies, of the edits, and of the tagged photos we approved. We are someone else entirely, someone more conventionally beautiful.
When you see a bad picture, what are you really seeing? Are you even able to absorb and process the tangible things about yourself that you could be doing better, the ways in which you could be treating yourself more kindly? It can be so hard to tell when you are really taking care of your body when you have such a strained, unrealistic relationship to the way it looks in the first place. So the only response seems to be to hide it away, to forget about it, to cringe every time you just happen to encounter it. It is a part of you that you don’t want to accept, because the idea of being happy in your own body and being happy about your body have been completely divorced. It’s something that has to be taken on every day, something you have to wrestle with, something you have to acknowledge and then promptly dismiss.
I want more conversations like the one I recently had. I want to go days, years, without worrying what someone else thinks of me. I want to be in touch with my own body and health because it is mine, because I care about it, not because I’m worried that a million strangers will approve of it — that I might miss out on benefits or even jobs because I wasn’t pleasing enough to someone’s eye. I don’t want the occasional bad photo to be a jolt to the system because we are forced to curate something much more palatable to a thousand strangers on the internet. I want little girls to grow up in a world where thinking about the way they look is an occasional dalliance, not a crippling facet of their existence. Because we all deserve that, and we should all realize that it’s not impossible, even if a 20-dollar beauty product we just have to buy insists that it is.