I wrote my first post about confidence about a year ago.
In it I introduced a couple of thoughts that I’ve been wanting to explore further ever since. Like the fact that there are some areas of my life where my confidence level is much lower than the work-related example I used in that original post.
“Lower than” being a very precise descriptor here.
My work-related confidence is pretty high.
So, while my level of confidence in some other aspects of the unique body-mind-heart-spirit combination that is “me” may not be quite as high, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s low. Just maybe more so . . . well . . . medium.
One of the areas in which I’ve averaged out at around a medium level confidence over the years is my appearance. Or, more specifically: my body image.
As an unconventionally attractive woman*, the external validation that I wrote about as so important in my original post about confidence has not always been incredibly forthcoming for me in this area.
I am mixed-race woman of colour. Rather than speak about my heritage in quarters and halves, lately I’ve preferred the discourse of layers. Latina, White, Ecuadorian, African, Spanish, Indigenous, Black, Irish, English . . . my layers are complex. Lived and read in many different ways depending on the circumstances.
I developed a booty and some impossible to miss boobs by about the age of ten. Despite my current very average height of 5’6″, I was several inches taller than pretty much everyone else in my class until around the age of 12. When I hit my teenage years and stopped growing up (finally giving my peers a chance to surpass me in height), my booty and boobs and pretty much everything else on me just kept on growing out. Which means that I’ve been “curvy” / “chubby” / “voluptuous” or whatever other adjective I’ve chosen over the years to describe my “not skinny” body for my entire adult life.
I was, and am, “Brown, Curvy and Nerdy” — a brand I proudly gave myself a couple of years ago on a trip to NYC with my Mom when I spotted my M&M twin and insisted on a photo shoot.
While 35-year-old me is pretty happy to be in a place where I can say that I engage deeply in the practice of loving each and every inch of my “Brown, Curvy and Nerdy” self on a daily basis, 15-year old me, or even 25-year old me, well, she wasn’t always as good at loving and accepting the body that this brand came with.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I took serious note of the fact that I rarely saw anyone who looked remotely like me featured on the magazine covers or in the movies, music videos or TV shows that corporate media uses to dictate beauty standards in our culture.
I took what I could get.
Janet Jackson, both in the 80s as a pop star, and then in the 90s as a trimmed down all-of-a-sudden sex symbol, was a pop culture beauty standard to which I could somewhat relate. If only in a grasping — I’ll never look as good as her! — kind of a way.
Friends telling me I was lucky to be mixed because it made me “exotic” rendered me mildly proud of my difference, if somewhat confused as to whether this was, indeed, a compliment.
Much like once being told by a drunk friend-of-a-friend at a party in university that he’d always wanted to f*#k a black or brown woman — me sitting there in silence wondering if he honestly thought he was flattering me by saying so?
So, yeah. I didn’t always get the solid kind of external validation around my appearance that most of us need so much of to reach a place where we start to believe in our beauty.
Or do we?
In my previous post on confidence I talked about validation being a two-way street. Sure, we need some of it. However, we also need to know what to do with it when it comes our way. How to start to believe it. Until we reach a place where we don’t need so much of it anymore, because we have developed our own self-affirming narrative around our adequacy.
Applied to body image, to me what that means is that there is no doubt that child and teenage me could have used a few more signals from the world that I was pretty. However, I also needed to be ready hear the validation that did come my way in order to start to build a strong, positive internal self-image to counter the negative one that corporate media — omnipresent in all of our lives — was so insidiously helping me to build during those vulnerable years.
In other words, I needed to be able to hear my champions — the real ones: not the jack ass at that party, or the media images that let me know that brown was okay as long as it was light-skinned enough, toned enough, and decorated enough to be nudged into the slowly broadening circle of “beautiful” — as easily as I did my critics.
But how do we learn to do this? How do we reach a place where we start letting the positive feedback matter more than the negative? A place where we begin to care less about how others read us, and more about what it feels like to occupy the world from a place of self-love?
The year was 1996. I was 16 years old. I had decided to spend the summer working on the kitchen staff at the summer camp I’d attended as a camper the previous nine years.
Her name was Alison. Or maybe Sarah. Honestly, if you told me it was Christine I wouldn’t argue with you. My memory of such details is fuzzy some 19 years later.
I was the “cabin mascot” — a role given to me as a staff person who wasn’t a counsellor but who still wanted a chance to work with the campers while up north for the summer.
She was one of around 10 girls I was having a blast getting to hang out with during the hours I wasn’t working in the kitchen.
I think she was around 9-years-old, but again, memory fails.
We were heading toward evening camp fire, chatting as a group about the highs and lows of our days and which songs we were most excited to sing that night.
Out of nowhere, as we trampled our way down cabin row, she looked up at me with her big blue eyes. Her brown face a mix of layers, the details of which I never found out. A big smile lighting up her young face.
“You’re so pretty,” she said.
And I believed her.
I’m not saying that the journey to loving my body and embracing my unconventional beauty has been easy since then. Really, I’m not. Nor did I fully recognize in that moment just how critical that exchange would be to my battle for body confidence in the years that followed.
What I do know is this.
In the year’s since that moment, during those dark times so many of us experience when we start to compare ourselves to the narrow norms that society tries to convince us are the only version of beauty that matter . . . or during those moments when I’ve thrown on a tank top to head out for a run, paused to look in the mirror, and began to wonder if it hugged the curves of my belly too tightly, or drew too much attention to my chubby arms . . . I’ve thought of that little girl.
My friend SB likes to say that the universe speaks to us in whispers and screams. Looking back, that little girl was a scream. Grabbing me. Shaking me. Yelling at me to start learning how to let the positive in.
In fact, I can’t help but think that moment might have been when I started to learn how to take compliments in general, not just when I began to be able to hear positive feedback about my appearance.
I can’t recall exactly what I said in response, but I believe it was something along the lines of: “What makes you say that?”
“Because it’s true,” she answered.
How grateful am I that I didn’t try to disagree with her? That I simply accepted the gift she had offered me with an unspoken “thank you.”
I still have moments when I find myself daydreaming about what I would look like if my love of things starting with the letter “F” was better balanced between “fitness” and “food.” I sometimes get stuck thinking about all the ways my life would be easier if I had a little less booty and boobs (the addition of button up shirts to my wardrobe would be just the start of it, I’m sure!)
But then I catch myself.
And I refuse.
I refuse for the sake of that blue-eyed, mixed-race camper, who saw herself in me, and tried to find a way to tell me how great that felt, when the world otherwise had given her so few adult role models with whom she could connect in that way.
I refuse for the sake of all of those boys and girls, and men and women, out there who don’t conform to beauty standards, and who are desperately looking for someone, anyone, who looks like them, and who they think is attractive, to whom they can relate.
I refuse for the little girl I once was, who slept with hair elastics wrapped tightly all the way down my ponytail, and brushed, and brushed and brushed my hair in the hopes that one day it would turn straight and pretty like the hair of my mostly white friends at the time . . .
For all of them, in those moments, I pause.
And I refuse to think that I am anything but beautiful.
(*For those of you who will kindly, and quickly, jump to disagree with this self-description, please note that I didn’t say I wasn’t beautiful; just not conventionally so . . . and given my general #effyourbeautstandards attitude towards the narrowness of traditional / mainstream definitions of beauty, I hope you know I don’t position this as a bad thing. Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes!)