I’ve always been smart, and I’ve always known it. But as a young girl, I was never considered pretty, or cool, or attractive. And I knew that, too. I envied my peers; Envied their trendy clothes and sleek hair, envied their confidence and style, envied their seemingly effortless beauty. But I had no idea what to do with my own body, my own style, and was so mystified by my physical self that I often wished I could just be a brain in a jar: Undeniably smart, able to enjoy my intellectual prowess unencumbered by the irritating physical world. I was comfortable and confident in myself as a thinker, but timid and awkward as a do-er.
I eventually came to hate my body. A lot. Once puberty set in and boys became of interest, my body was no longer ignorable. Because with courtship came scrutiny and comparison, and the realization that my body was imperfect, awkward, big, wrong, unwieldy, and undesirable. My exterior disappointed me in ways that my interior never had. So from an early age and well through college, I gravitated toward formless clothing that hid everything about my body. I wanted to divert attention from my exterior and force people to focus on my interior. And I figured hiding my body was the best way to do that.
Because, after all, I was never going to be beautiful. The only kind of beautiful I’d ever seen acknowledged and revered was the kind that Hollywood and TV, magazines and advertisements fed me: Tall and thin with no hips, lush breasts, and sinewy arms, no body hair, a flawless tan, and nary a wrinkle, blemish, or unsightly patch of cellulite.
At a certain point, the pressure to conform to that single proffered standard of beauty began to build. And although I continued to dress my exterior in figure-masking clothes, I began trying to diet my way into Jen Aniston’s body. I’d never be tall and only surgery would make my breasts anything approaching “lush” … but at least I could be thinner. And thin seemed important. There followed many years of riding the aptly-named Diet Rollercoaster, as I attempted to force my body into a shape it did not want to take. I’d drop fifteen pounds after months of depriving myself, only to gain it back once I couldn’t handle the unnatural food restrictions any more. Then I’d begin the cycle all over again, hating my stubborn, un-lovely body all the while.
When I moved to Minnesota in the year 2000, I’d been dieting on and off for years without changing anything else about my behavior. And since I was ready to acknowledge that it wasn’t making me thinner – much less healthier – I finally joined a gym. And as I discovered my own physical strength, my body-hatred began to soften. It actually felt good to put my brain-holder to work. And simultaneously, I began to take an interest in clothes. I mean, I’d always LIKED clothes, but I’d never thought about their potential as tools for figure flattery. A friend mentioned in passing that she wore long skirts to downplay her hips and a lightbulb went off: If I changed how I dressed, I could change how I presented my body to the observing world.
And although I stuck with the exercise – rather grudgingly at first – it was the explorations of style that sparked my passion and creativity. I began looking for clothing that worked with my body just as it was: V-necks to soften my square chin, full skirts to float over my hips, belts to accentuate my waist, platforms to give me that longed-for height. And, amazingly, my confidence began to build. Finding clothes that worked with my natural assets and highlighted what I loved about my body taught me that I didn’t HAVE to change myself to feel beautiful, strong, comfortable, and happy in my physical form. I didn’t have to look like a model to feel like a woman. And that realization was so freeing.
Although I’d love to say that I stopped hating my body altogether, that is still a daily struggle. Women are constantly told that they should be thinner, younger, prettier, sexier, and dozens of other beauty-related mandates that make us feel wretched about ourselves and convince us to shell out for mascara, diet pills, Botox, and push-up bras. But I stopped dieting. And I stopped constantly, exhaustively hating myself. And I realized that my brain-in-a-jar fantasy would’ve led to a hollow life because my body is strong and capable and as much a part of my unique identity as my intellect. To shun the physical in favor of the intellectual would create the same imbalance as focusing all my energy on my body and none on my mind.
Women are taught that their value is contingent upon their beauty, and that the definition of beauty is narrow and doesn’t include them. And so they become trapped into believing that they are fundamentally flawed, inferior, and unworthy because they fail to conform to a nearly-impossible norm. They hate their bodies, and they don’t know how to stop hating their bodies. And while it could be argued that teaching women to dress to their figures instead of fighting their figures – teaching women to utilize clothing to express their creativity and embrace their natural, god-given loveliness – merely feeds that cycle, I believe that learning to value your exterior can improve your relationship with your interior. That there IS a connection between looking good and feeling good.
Because we are not merely one or the other. We are not brains in jars, and we are not zombified bodies. We are thinking beings with corporeal forms, and if we are to love ourselves holistically and truly, we must learn to value and cherish the physical alongside the intellectual. We must explode the definition of beauty, and include ourselves in it. Beauty is not a waist-to-hip ratio, or an age bracket, or a cup size. Beauty is not a skin color or hair type or height range. And beauty is not the exclusive currency of the patriarchy, the exclusive domain of the heterosexual, or the exclusive territory of the wealthy and powerful. There is no right or wrong way to be beautiful. We are told that beauty is specific, but beauty is diverse. We are told beauty is exclusive, but beauty is inclusive. We are told that in order to be beautiful we must fit certain specifications. But if we can find ways to make ourselves FEEL beautiful, then the rules about LOOKING beautiful become immediately moot.
And since changing our bodies to fit arbitrary standards can be frustrating, harmful, and counterproductive, I suggest changing how we present our bodies instead. Dressing can be a mindless chore, or it can be a daily celebration of all that is wondrous and worthy about our physical forms. Dressing can connect our interior selves to our exterior selves.
I learned to love my body by learning to dress it well, and I encourage all women who struggle with body image to explore style as an alternative to diets and tummy tucks. I’m still smart.
But now I know that I’m pretty, too. In fact, it turns out I was pretty all along.
*This is a portion of a presentation I give on the intersection of style and body image. You can hear me giving it here.