When I was 17,
I put a LOT of time and effort into how I looked.
I spent a long time doing my makeup every day, I was constantly trying to get my curls to behave, and I dressed in a way that I felt both “highlighted my assets” and “downplayed my flaws.”
Basically, I did everything I was supposed to do.
At this point in my life, I still liked myself. (It wasn’t until later, after allowing myself to get drawn into an emotionally abusive relationship, that the self-loathing started.)
At 17, I thought I was pretty great. I mean, sure, I had my normal teenager insecurities. But overall I knew I was smart, funny, talented, and “going places.”
And yet, I spent hours every day thinking about how I looked.
I had been practicing putting on makeup perfectly since waaay before my mom let me leave the house with it on my face. I had mastered all the printed makeup tutorials I could find in the makeup aisle at Walmart. (This was way before youtube; I can’t even fathom how much time I would have spent watching the dazzling makeup tutorial videos that exist nowadays.)
I had a huge collection of super cheap makeup and super cheap clothes. I enjoyed putting together “looks.”
I never felt like I had to do this, and contrary to what a lot of body-positive people say, it did NOT make me feel miserable. I really liked it actually: being alone in my room, trying on different looks, cutting up my clothes, learning makeup techniques, and deciding if I could pull off unique styles I saw in magazines.
I liked messing with how I looked. But the thing is,
“how I looked” was my only real hobby.
When I look back on that now, I think… whoa.
I wasn’t trying to “fit in,” mind you. My friends thought I looked crazy half the time. One of my favorite outfits was a pair of fake suede super-flared skintight tan pants with a long beaded belt tied around the waist. I would wear these with a teeny tiny thong peeking out of the top, along with one of those crunches up peasant tops and a ton of eyeliner.
I loved that outfit.
I felt like it made me look like a total free spirit: part hippie and part sexual goddess.
Now here’s the thing. I was neither a hippie, nor a sexual goddess. At that point I wasn’t even, in many ways, a free spirit.
I aspired to these things, sure.
But instead of spending my time exploring what it would feel like to live life as a free spirit, I spent my time crafting “looks” that make it seem like I was a free spirit.
I did this with everything, in fact. When I wanted to be taken seriously, I dressed in a way that made me look part creative free-thinker, part urban professional. I put far more effort into figuring out what a creative free-thinker looked like than I did figuring out what a creative free-thinker might do.
In short, I had drank the coolaid.
I believed, without even being conscious of this belief, that it was more important to look a certain way than it was to actually be that way. I understood that my appearance determined how I would be treated, and I controlled how I appeared as a way of controlling how the world treated me.
This method of getting the world to treat me how I wanted to be treated was pretty easy and effective actually, a privilege I enjoyed because I am a white cis-gender female with a straight sized hourglass body and symmetrical face.
I projected what I wanted the world to think of me into my appearance every day: sexy, but not slutty. Pretty, but also smart and interesting. A free spirit, but still a good kid you can trust. Like someone you want to be really nice to; like someone you wouldn’t want to hurt.
Yes. My desire to control my appearance was, in many ways, a defense mechanism against a deep and powerful belief I had that I am the kind of person people want to hurt.
Due to various childhood wounds, I felt like something about me made people want to hurt me. I also felt pretty powerless. So I poured my effort into what I felt I could control: how people saw me.
When I look back on this habit, I feel both proud of my resourcefulness, and deeply sad that I had to be so resourceful.
If I hadn’t felt so responsible for how people received me, I could have spent my teenage years gathering tools, having experiences, and exploring the world. Instead, I spent my time looking like I was gathering tools, looking like I was having experiences, and looking like I was exploring the world.
The worst part is that my situation is so common.
Many girls and women, like I did, grow up believing that it’s their responsibility to control how the world receives us and treats us. Which makes sense, given the misogynistic, victim-blaming culture we live in. Think: “It’s not his fault for assaulting you, it’s yours for giving off the wrong message.”
Is it any wonder we become obsessed with how we look? If a woman’s outfit or body can be considered “asking for it” then you better believe every outfit, and every body part– exposed or otherwise– suddenly takes on massive significance.
I’m sharing this story because I think it’s important to recognize that sometimes negative body image, internalized misogyny, and body shame don’t look like obvious problems.
I was fine. I was even mostly happy. But I missed out on so much, because my only hobby, for the better part of a decade, was to control how I looked.
If any of this resonates with you, I highly encourage you to consider joining me at one of my How to Love Your Body workshops. There is so much to unpack, learn, and heal when it comes to body image.