My identity is tied up with what I look like. I don’t want it to be, because basing my identity and self-worth on looks is a monumentally bad idea. If I gain weight or have a bad hair day, how can I still be happy? What if, god forbid, we have frizzy hair or big thighs or something else we believe is “ugly”? How can we ever be happy if we’re basing our moods on our looks? Tying our physical appearance to our self-esteem is not wise. And yet, I do it, and you probably do too.
I want to be able to feel worthy even when I gain five pounds and when my face breaks out because I’ve been eating too much junk food. I want to be able to look people in the eye even though I’m getting laugh lines around my mouth. It’s ridiculous that my self-confidence can seesaw based on what I see in the mirror, but it does. I don’t want to be so hyper-aware of what I look like that my self-esteem is affected by a few lines on my face.
It’s not good, or “healthy,” to notice and care so much about appearance, but it’s the way I am. I’m not going to magically stop caring about it, and I’m not going to magically develop healthier self-esteem. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal that I felt this way if it didn’t have negative consequences, but it does. It’s so distracting and preoccupying that it ruins potentially enjoyable experiences. For example, we spent this last week in Oregon driving down the coast. Believe me, hiking on Mt. Hood while worrying about whether you’re wearing the right color t-shirt to hike in is not the optimal vacation experience. I don’t want my attention on my appearance instead of on my experience. I want to live life, not think about how I should look while living it.
This problem may hit me harder than it hits other people, but I think most people have it to an extent, especially women. It’s how our culture is now—so visual, and so aware of what everyone else is up to—we’re programmed to be this way without realizing it. We’re constantly seeing pictures of how other people look and what they’re buying and doing, and we can compare ourselves to them. This is okay—more information can be useful—but the side effect is that we worry that we’re not as good if we don’t have something they have or if we don’t look the way they look.
We need a way to feel worthy even though we’re not the same as the women we see on TV or Facebook. We need to be able to be happy with our identities even though we don’t feel perfect on the outside. I need something that helps me focus my attention on the experience I am having and not on the outfit I am wearing. The answer I’ve found seems extremely simple, but like most things that seem simple, is actually rather complicated—focus on other things. If you want your attention on something besides your appearance, you’ve got to put it there. That simple technique does work, but you have to focus on it. It won’t happen automatically.
I’ve been trying to consciously turn my attention away from my body and appearance. It’s not like there’s a shortage of other stuff to think about—my emotions, my friendships, my career, my photography, writing. I’d rather be thinking about them anyway. It just takes a little effort (sometimes a lot of effort) to replace thoughts about my appearance with thoughts about something else. Fortunately those things are much more satisfying to think about so once I turn my attention to them it tends to stay there.
The little girl in the photograph is definitely enjoying playing on the beach with her dog. She isn’t thinking about how her dress has too many flowers. I remember how I used to play outside with my friends. I didn’t have any self-conscious awareness of my appearance then. I just played. That’s how I want to be now. I want to get rid of the part of me that observes my experience and comments on it while it’s happening. I want to get back to that place where I could just play on the beach.