Thursday, 21 July 2016

Cultural differences, differences in perception and learning to like how you look

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't quite gotten total acceptance of how I look down yet but I'm a hell of a lot better than I used to be.

I can almost pinpoint exactly when I first became self-conscious about how I look or when I first even really considered it. As I've always had strong opinions on clothes but nearly always place importance on comfort over aesthetic, I spent most of my childhood wearing things that made climbing and running around easier. And, as I spent most of my childhood climbing and running around, I was nearly permanently dishevelled to some degree. But I was cute and naturally very slender, in the way that vaguely wild children are, and never had much pause to worry about how I looked. Of course, I did always want hair longer than the bob my mother imposed on me for ease and I did want it to be blonde, the way my favourite princesses were and most beautiful celebrities of the nineties seemed to be. Other than that, however, I didn't think about how I looked all that often.

As I grew older, the cute phased into the awkward in-between stage of the preteens. Still, I wasn't too worried. I was happy to remain a child for as long as possible but it seemed no one else felt the same way and, suddenly, no one wanted to play the games I invented at lunch and people began to have "boyfriends" and "girlfriends". This was when I realised that I wasn't one of the pretty girls and that such a category really existed or mattered.

I have a rather distinct memory of what shattered my innocent illusions and made me pine for a place in said category. It was break and the latest issue of Spiderman had just come out, I was sitting with some guy friends discussing it when one of the prettiest girls in class walked past. All of the guys turned away from our conversation to watch her and I was completely ignored. I felt completely invisible and realised how powerful being beautiful could be. Of course, I didn't know how much more complicated life was than that but, in that moment, it seemed simple: being pretty meant being noticed and privileged in lots of ways. That same summer, I started to notice my "stomach". Skinny as I was, my stomach was rounded the way a healthy child's is but I began to resent it.

Curves hit me hard and fast in the next few months, leading to extremities that felt foreign and unwanted and were temporarily covered in very visible stretch marks from the sudden growth spurt. I went from skinny to awkwardly busty so quickly that I didn't really have time to adjust. My teens were an awkward time, to say the least. Clothes were my saving grace and I hid my baby fat as best I could with flamboyant punk armour but I had no clue what to do with hair or makeup. During a brief stint of beginning to play with makeup at fourteen, my best friend at the time asked me why I was bothering as I was simply plain anyway, in front of our entire class. Needless to say, I stopped "bothering" thereafter.

Throughout secondary school I had my friends and was very happy but my relationship with the boys in school wasn't particularly good. I was either the target of unwanted attention and torment for being outspoken, unapologetically myself and smart or utterly ignored. Younger boys I didn't know shouted things like "dog" at me from time to time and I was consistently told I was "frigid". Such things don't exactly boost one's confidence.

Somehow, I came out the other side and, in college, began to cultivate my personal style. A couple of years ago I began taking care of my skin properly and went from knowing nothing about makeup to blogging about it and attending press events. Since I've started to work, I've had the economic luxury to regularly pay for hair appointments and personal grooming. I can safely say that, today, I look a lot less awkward than my teenaged self.

And, over the years, I've gained perspective on my appearance. A part of me will probably always crave hearing things like "pretty" being said about me but I am no longer the teenager that so desperately wants someone to think that that it almost hurts. I'm largely at peace with how I look and this is down to maturity, time and an increasing awareness of cultural differences, personal preferences and different perceptions.

In fact, my interest in other cultures and my attempts to listen to the opinions of others more has been intrinsic to my journey to liking how I look more. For example, my eyes are a feature I've always liked. They were my selling point as a child as they were impossibly large and made everyone bend to my will. When I grew into them as an adult, they became my favourite feature but one throw-away comment from my sister made me self-conscious of them for a long time. She casually tossed the comment that they were "froggy" across the dinner table one day and I began to obsess over how they protruded slightly from being so big. The fleshiness beneath them became something that I saw as detracting from the one thing I had been utterly confident in. When I became interested in Korean makeup and beauty, however, I learned that they called this the "aegyo sal" and it was considered a feature that made people look cuter and younger. In fact, some people even undergo surgery to exaggerate or create this effect. Seeing people want something I was born with made me look at it in a different light.

Standards of beauty, outside symmetry and health, are almost all subjective and change over time and across cultures and the thing that you might not like about yourself may well be considered ideal elsewhere, in the past or future. If you try to maintain your health and confidence and step back from the ideals shoved in your face by the here and now, if you try to keep a sense of perspective and if you try to look at yourself with kinder eyes, you'll find more that you like in the mirror.

Throw-away comments can have a positive effect too, which is why we should always be mindful of our words as they can create or salve complexes. Negative comments about a person's appearance can be unbelievably damaging and should be avoided but saying that nice thing you think - even if it seems odd - can make a person's day or change the way they look at themselves. I used to hate the sprinkling of freckles that appears across my nose and cheeks in the summer with the slightest amount of sun and no matter how much I protect my skin. One day, my boyfriend of the time said they were cute utterly unprompted and, though I don't think you should utterly validate yourself because of another's opinion, it made me look at myself more kindly. For a moment, I saw myself through his eyes instead, and the flaws I normally found weren't so glaring after all.

Of course, at the end of the day, beauty is only skin deep and we'll all end up rotting in the ground anyway...cheery, I know. But, on a serious note, there is much more to a person than how they look and learning to love and accept yourself inside and out is an important part of growing up. I also do realise that it can be easier said than done but just remember this sage advice from Laverne Cox when she appeared on the Mindy Project: "Now, if the person in the mirror was your best friend, would be as mean to her as you [are] being to yourself?"

Exactly. Wouldn't we all be a little happier if we gushed about ourselves even a fraction as much as we talked adoringly about our BFFs?

(L-R) Teenage me, college me and me today.


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