When you are pulling on your skin, as though you could somehow make it change shape enough to look like it belonged to someone else, you wonder if there is something wrong with you. Sure, everyone gets a little self-conscious from time to time, but it’s hard not to wonder if you are special in your particular disappointment in your physical appearance. It’s the kind of thing that comes in waves, that strikes you all at once when you are hit with a certain light or caught in a photo at an angle you usually avoid confronting in your day-to-day life. Suddenly, you see a person you don’t want to recognize. It’s like hearing your own voice on a recording and not wanting to admit that’s what you actually sound like — only with your whole body.
I once got onto an elevator whose lighting was something like a morgue, only with a slightly more pronounced greenish tinge. It was like a morgue at the bottom of a swamp. And the entire back wall of said elevator was comprised of a mirror, perfectly cleaned and spotless so you could analyze yourself in as much horrifying detail as your heart desired. No one should look at themselves in such criminally unflattering light, and yet it’s much akin to looking away from a car wreck. It’s enchanting, and gives you such visceral ammunition for your very human tendency to find flaws in your own body. I must have spent a full five floors analyzing every pore on my face with the disgusted fascination of a preteen getting to dissect a frog in science class.
Ugliness is an almost liberating thing, in certain capacities. We are often caught up in the un-winnable race of trying to look our best, and trying to radiate the kind of personal image that we feel other people are going to gravitate toward. We know that looks aren’t important, but we still dress a certain way for a job interview or a date. It isn’t important, but it is. So when you are overcome with a feeling of such deep ugliness, or confronted with another person who is so unquestionably beautiful as to make you feel retroactively embarrassed for all the times you even considered yourself okay looking, it can come as a relief. You are ugly, and that is that. There’s no point trying to look better, you won’t win.
I have been told that thinking too much about my appearance or putting too much energy into it is vain, and that’s probably true. I most often try to focus on other, more easily modified aspects of my person and remind myself that, even if I were stunning, that wouldn’t be a “forever” kind of thing. But even in its vanity, falling into a moment of questioning how desirable or appealing you are is a perfectly human thing. I find that it is most effective to allow that wave of self-criticism to take you with it, to ride it out for a few minutes and feel the full force of ugliness. I try to ask myself what about myself I am not liking in the mirror, and if it is even something I could change. (More importantly, is it something that expresses an inner distress, like fatigue or poor diet or too much drinking?) It carries you, but it can carry you into a realm of productive reflection.
When I am feeling ugly, I sometimes tell myself out loud, “Maybe you are ugly. But you are a good listener. You help your friends move when you can. You are paying off your debts. You make good food that people like to eat.” I accept that dirty wave which wants to catch me up in its insecurity, I acknowledge that it may have some grounding in reality, and I remind it that there is so much more about me to be proud of. Because one day, I will be inarguably ugly. (At least, by the cheap, magazine-cover standards that we usually are judging ourselves by in these instances.) I will be wrinkled and sagging and doughy and past the point that most people would ever want to think of me in a physical, sexual capacity. If I am lucky, I will still be very much alive and a whole person at that point. And when the vain moments of “Am I really ugly?” become a question that can no longer even really be asked, I’ll still have to look in mirrors from time to time. And I want to work on seeing the person who will always remain looking back at me, even after my skin has all headed south.