Have you ever heard one of those near-death stories where someone recounts an out-of-body experience? I just love them, especially when they include details I didn’t expect. For instance, I’ve heard several previously nearly dead women say that when they were ostensibly peering down at their bodies from a distance, those bodies looked unexpectedly pretty. The physical form they’d seen as less than lovely when it was “me” proved quite appealing when they saw it as “that lady down there on the floor.”
Why is it that most of us, like these women, obsess about our own appearance? Even my most gorgeous friends feel depressingly imperfect, while the rest of us sit around contemplating either a makeover or suicide, depending on how far we stray from our physical ideal.
These self-judgments can’t be mere aesthetics, or we’d evaluate ourselves and others on the same objective criteria. More likely, it’s a social impulse, born of every person’s longing for acceptance and fear of rejection. Something in the human psyche confuses beauty with the right to be loved. The briefest glance at human folly reveals that good looks and worthiness operate independently. Yet countless socializing forces, from Aunt Clara to the latest perfume ad, reinforce beliefs like “If I were pretty enough, I would be loved.” Or the converse: “If I feel unlovable, I must not be pretty enough.”
Such thoughts are seductive because they relieve us of the responsibility of developing self-worth (turning it over to some longed-for or long-suffering lover). Inevitably, though, that someone—parent, friend, partner—doesn’t love us enough, or we somehow fail to sense their love. We feel rejected, abandoned, alone. It’s unbearable. Realizing that we’ve surrendered our self-esteem to others and choosing to be accountable for our own self-worth would mean absorbing the terrifying fact that we’re always vulnerable to pain and loss. As long as we think the problem is our bodies’ failure to meet a certain physical standard, we have something concrete that we (or our local plastic surgeon, who does a fabulous tummy tuck) can work on.
And so we dive headfirst into the endless project of improving our physical selves. No cosmetic strategy ever fulfills our hopes, since what we hope for—the knowledge that we’re acceptable—is almost completely unrelated to physical appearance. We begin to think thoughts like If only someone loved me, I could accept myself. It’s a Catch-22: Before we can feel loved, we must feel beautiful, but before we can feel beautiful, we must feel loved. You can swim down that spiral for decades, maybe all the way to your grave (from which you can brood about your sudden realization that your looks were actually okay all along). There’s another way to go, and I suggest you use it.
You may have noticed that all the “defects” I’ve been discussing are located not in the body but in the mind. It’s the mind that mixes up beauty and acceptability, that misperceives the cause of emotional pain, and that sends us down the class IV rapids of self-loathing. Your mind creates a lot of your supposed appearance problems, and it can resolve them, almost instantaneously, if you’ll let it.
The Big “If”
Our ideas about love and attractiveness are so primal, our need for belonging so intense, that most of us are loath to abandon our favorite beliefs on these issues. If you’ve ever let yourself feel lovable and lovely, only to be deeply hurt, you may see accepting your own body as a setup for severe emotional wounding. After all, you let down your guard before and look what happened! You’ll never go there again. I understand your resistance. That’s why the first step in changing your self-evaluation is careful, logical risk assessment.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
The strategy of feeling physically unattractive actually does preclude the pain of (a) naively trusting that we’re good enough, (b) being horribly wounded, and (c) feeling alone, unacceptable, and hideous. Believing we’re ugly cuts straight to the chase, making sure we feel alone, unacceptable, and hideous right from the get-go, and without reprieve. If you don’t believe me, you have only to look back at your own history. How many times have you told yourself you’re unacceptable? How many times did this lead to happiness, freedom, and perfect relationships? All right, then.
Here’s a new hypothesis: There’s no risk-free way to love. The possibility of being devastated is always there, but the possibility of joy exists only when you put your battered heart right on the table by trusting that you’re lovable. I’m not asking you to do this all the time, or even in large doses—at first, anyway. I’d just like you to experiment with a new mind-set, a few minutes at a time.
Find a Way to Change Your Mind
Even though believing in your own adequacy is actually less risky than feeling unacceptable (haven’t we just proved this with the mighty power of logic?), this thought can still be terrifying—or, if you’re the cynical sort, impossible to get your head around, logic be damned. That’s okay. You just need to set clear, safe-feeling time boundaries within which to demo this idea. Find a place where you’ll be undisturbed for ten minutes. During this brief time, push your mind to attack its own protective strategy of self-denigration. Write down several examples of:
Occasions when someone loved or praised you, even though you didn’t look perfect.
People you’ve loved even though they didn’t look perfect.
Stunning people who act so awful they begin to appear ugly.
Famous people who are dazzling despite physical imperfections.
Artists’ work that reveals charm and grace in places many people see ugliness.
Women who are so perfectly at ease with themselves that they set a new cultural standard of goddessness.
If you’re deeply mired in self-loathing, it might take you a while to come up with examples for a given topic. Stick with it. You’re pushing yourself to make new associations, to jump the tracks of your habitual protective self-condemnation. You’re not just thinking new thoughts but actively unthinking the illogical, painful, imprisoning thoughts you’re used to. This is difficult. So what. Do it anyway—for ten lousy minutes. Tomorrow, do it again.
Experiment with Dope (As In Dopamine)
If you attack your preconceptions for just ten minutes at a time, you’ll eventually feel a subtle loosening, a little wiggle room as your mind begins relaxing its grip on the idea that you’re not so hot and not so lovable. Before moving on, it helps to add some psychoactive chemicals. Some people achieve social confidence only when they use alcohol or drugs. I can never remember to buy these things, but I always have a few mood-altering substances on hand—or rather, in my head—and so do you.
For example, dopamine increases when we face something unfamiliar and difficult: working a crossword puzzle, knitting a complicated sweater. Epinephrine is released when we sustain moderate exercise. When we take a chance (for example, by expressing an unpopular opinion or displaying something we’ve created), we produce more epinephrine. All of these hormones can increase our confidence enough to help us release our old, supposedly protective thoughts and behaviors.
So once you’re used to unthinking your physical self-image, give yourself a little chemical boost to compensate for the emotional shields you’ll be dropping. Complete a challenging task, work out until you sweat a bit, take a risk that makes your heart speed up, or all three. You’ll feel more confident for several hours. Use that time for real-world experimentation.
Test-Drive a New Self-Concept
With a head full of crumbling misperceptions and happy hormones, go out in public and pretend for, say, half an hour that you’re lovely enough to be loved. Now go to a coffee shop and have a tasty beverage. Notice how your body moves when you trust that you’re good enough. Not America’s Next Top Model good enough, just good enough. Feel the difference in your facial expression—or if you can’t get a handle on that, then try to gauge the energy you exchange with other customers or the barista. Most important, pay attention to how other people are reacting to you.
If you’ve done the homework (steps 1 through 3), you’ll find something miraculous beginning, like the first tiny green crocus shoots emerging from snowy earth: Most people will accept you. They’ll be attracted to you in a variety of ways. The more you release your defensive, self-conscious inner critic, the more you’ll get smiles, courtesy, friendliness, all kinds of positive attention—not from everyone, but from most people. From enough people.
Yet this connection between self-acceptance and attractiveness become an upward spiral, just as the conflation of rejection and ugliness has been a downward one. After some practice in coffee shops, try accepting yourself while chatting with a friend, then a colleague, then someone who intimidates you. One crucial caveat: Save your family of origin for last, possibly for never. Much protective self-criticism stems from growing up around people who wouldn’t or couldn’t love you, and it’s likely they still can’t or won’t. In general, however, the more you let go of the tedious delusion of your own unattractiveness, the easier it will be for others to connect with you, and the more accepted you’ll feel.
Understanding and dismantling defensive beliefs about your own ugliness is a process that frees you to unreservedly accept yourself, your body, and other people. The resulting open heart is the one perfect feature that really will protect you emotionally by giving you a sustained sense of belonging. While not everyone will always love you, you will see abundant, observable evidence that you’re always lovable. That means the skin you’re in has always been, and will always be, beautiful enough.