The old adage says that we’re our own worst critics. Sometimes, though, and often without realizing it, the way we critique ourselves is by pointing out flaws in others. The things we don’t like about ourselves become the things we zero in on in everyone else.
I was eight when I went on my first diet and spent the better part of the next twelve years thinking that everything would be better in my life if I were skinnier. Looking back at photos of myself at my thinnest, I longed to fit into the sizes I wore then, during the days when my parents briefly stopped scrutinizing everything they saw me put into my mouth. Although I told myself that their concern was well-placed and I probably should lose some weight, my relationship with food would likely be much better today had so much attention not been put on it during my “formative years”. Concerns about my appearance dominated my life during a time when I should have been finding my passions and spending time with my friends.
It wasn’t until the later years of college when I finally began to realize that I was never going to return to the body of the slender fourteen year old fresh off of a track season that I once was. Even at my heaviest, I was never exactly unhealthy — low to average blood pressure, rarely sick, never once straying into the zone of plus sizes. My body had changed; I had boobs and hips and a newly acquired taste for alcohol, none of which could be formatted into an equation that subtracted me into the size I thought I could one day squeeze into again. The parental critiques haven’t stopped; if anything, they’ve only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, but they don’t affect me in the way they used to.
At eight, twelve, fifteen, even eighteen, I looked at myself through my parents’ critical eyes and saw all the “improvements” that needed to be made to achieve the optimal result. But at twenty-two, I look through their eyes and see the mirrors reflecting back all the complaints they have about themselves. Perhaps I was deaf to their own self-critcism back then, but now as I listen to them go on about sizes and calories and “those last seven pounds”, I realize more and more that it’s not about me.
We look at other people and we see them through a lens whose perception is dictated by factors like our upbringing, our social status, the stereotypes that have been etched into our brains by our parents and the media over the course of our lives. But sometimes that perception is solely dictated by something as simple and malleable as your mood. You know those days when you’re just feeling really down on yourself and you meet someone new and you find yourself picking apart their outfit or the way they wear their hair or the way they speak with a weird inflection on the end of their sentences and you can’t help but to tear them down in your mind until they’re only a jumble of flaws and insults and problems?
We all have those days. But in the back of your mind, you know it’s not really about this person and their frizzy hair and the way their shoes and their belt are completely different colors. It’s about you and the fact that you’re having a bad day and you needed something, anything to make yourself feel adequate again, so this unsuspecting person became the shaky pedestal upon which you perch yourself for reassurance that “at least I’m better than them”.
Now turn that situation on its head, and think about that girl who was a bitch to you for no apparent reason or that guy who looked right through you as if you weren’t even there. You don’t know what kind of day they were having, if their favorite jeans ripped this morning or they woke up late and didn’t have time to shower or their parents gave them disapproving looks and long-suffering sights over their choice of breakfast. It’s not about you. It was never about you.
Understanding that it’s not about you certainly doesn’t mean we have license to do and say whatever we please with the excuse that “if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.” Quite the contrary — it’s a tool you can use to become a better citizen of the world- more compassionate, more understanding, more tolerant. We shouldn’t set out to be intentionally antagonistic; rather, we should work on becoming comfortable in our own skin while remaining conscious that we don’t know the battles others are fighting within theirs.
There may not be a lightning strike, lightbulb moment that makes you realize it’s not about you; it’s the gradual acceptance of who you are and who you’re becoming that puts it all into perspective. Though I know I may never quite understand why achieving the optimal physical result was so important to them, there are two irrevocable details that will stand true in spite of the realization that it’s not entirely about me: my parents love me, and I am happy to be the person I am, flaws and all. Perhaps once you realize it’s not about you, you free yourself to not only learn to love the person you’ve become, but to help those around you learn to love themselves as well.