By Alexandria Roswick
Since middle school, I’ve struggled with my self-image to a debilitating degree. That was when I remember noticing that school felt less like education and more like a cut-throat beauty pageant — the aspired prize being a slinky, doped-up teenage boy. Once I started comparing myself to other women, it felt impossible to stop.
It probably began with something as trivial as the time that one busty girl in science class flirted with my crush and I’d felt a twinge of jealousy. Then, eavesdropping in the hallway, I’d often hear the cutest boys in school openly objectify the health teacher. That similarly bothered me.
When my idiot guy friends would show me their favorite pornography as we waited in the lunch line, it irritated me — and not for the reasons any normal person would be irritated. Not because I knew (or cared) that I didn’t consent to view spontaneous nudity before I’d taken a bite of my chicken patty.
It was because I began to realize that I wanted to be desired in the way that this beautiful porn star was. I wanted the male attention to be on me, not her.
This was during a tumultuously toxic technological era when tabloids mocked the appearances of celebrity women and advertisers bombarded our computers with photoshopped images of sexualized female bodies daily. The misogynistic and degrading opinions of men were furiously loud and completely unavoidable as my brain was developing.
At some point, instead of mindlessly enjoying my favorite television shows and movies, I began to focus on how much I wished I could look more like all the pretty actresses that were decorated for male viewing pleasure. I was told and shown over and over again that boys are visual creatures and in 7th grade, I wanted a man. What was a girl to do but prioritize her appearance? It’s simple math.
When you are a woman who lives in a culture that idolizes the glamourous and gorgeous, you grow up in a mind field of insecurities, no matter what you look like. While I do believe in pretty privilege to some degree, as someone who has known hundreds of stunning movie-star-esque women, they are not exempt from self-esteem issues.
Every single woman I’ve ever known has wanted to change something about themselves — from their hips and thighs to their noses, cheekbones, and freckles, to eyebrows and eyelashes, to armpits and even arm hair…. even the color of their skin.
I used to resent those hot girls for not being grateful for their natural beauty. As someone who grew up with a strong polish nose, acne from head to toe, zero curves in sight, and frizzy hair, it was irritating to hear their complaints when I would have traded everything I had just to look like any of them.
As a teenager, I wanted nothing more than to be perceived as attractive to men. That was my only aspiration. It was what all the girls around me were valued for, and I wanted in. This ever-evolving standard I was desperate to reach was unreachable, but I wasn’t in on that secret yet. So, it turned me into my harshest critic. Little did I know that I had developed body dysmorphia from the media and male-gaze overwhelm.
I became obsessed with trying to correct all of my external flaws before going to school each morning. I remember my mother having to pull me away from the mirror to get me out to the bus stop on time. But I wasn’t finished! I wasn’t perfect yet. To be pulled away before I was satisfied with my image felt completely agonizing.
I was embarrassed by my hideousness. I wanted to hide from my peers. I cried whenever I caught a glimpse of my reflection or a photograph taken of me, yet I was strangely addicted to looking at myself. I would skip class and spend hours in the bathroom at school mentally berating every little detail that I thought made me unattractive.
I eventually developed an eating disorder, anxiety, and depression. Since I didn’t have a fraction of the mental health awareness I do today, the coping mechanisms I clung to were extremely unhealthy.
I was operating at a level of insecurity that instilled a superiority complex — paired with loads of internalized misogyny — within me. I felt so hopeless, I thought I had to knock other people down to elevate myself.
I’d make rude and sexist comments about the most beautiful girls in school. I called them slutty, especially if they posted pretty pictures on the internet. And god forbid they dared to wear cute clothes that I envied. I labeled them superficial and annoying. I was so not-like-the-other-girls!
Because I didn’t want to be isolated in my hurt, I inflicted it on others. This act never actually made me feel better, though. It didn’t make me prettier nor did it make the other girls less desirable. It only made me feel more isolated and full of resentment.
Since I didn’t deal with these insecurities, they festered for years, only reinforcing the message that my appearance was tied to my worth. A few years ago, I decided to acknowledge and explore these wounds so that I can begin the healing process and get rid of toxicity once and for all.
I know now that it’s common for pre-teens to be self-conscious and act out in similar ways. However, I’ve found that many people remain in this insecure mentality which has led to a culture of hypocrisy and shame.
Fast forward to 2022. I’m 27. I know I’m hot. It’s not as if I underwent any significant makeover since middle school. I’m still waiting for my boobs. I guess I grew into my nose, but it’s still strong and Polish. Since, I’ve learned how to apply makeup correctly and I’ve stopped using box dye.
It’s not my appearance that changed drastically, it’s my self-esteem. And when I’m feeling myself, I’m anything but shy about it. Because for so much of my life, I never felt pretty enough.
So yes, I take selfies. A lot of them.
But don’t be fooled! I’m still not completely “fixed.” God, no! Most of the time, I genuinely believe I am hot, but there's a lot of external validation tied into this belief. It’s important to point out that knowing I am hot is not the same thing as believing that I am.
Like most women, since I grew out of my awkward phase, I’ve received thousands of surface-level compliments from men in my lifetime. After a while, they become completely meaningless. Ironic, huh? The grass is always greener on the other side.
So, I know that people find me attractive. But do I find myself attractive? The answer isn’t simple. Sometimes, yes. Other times — HELL no! I’ve found that I am still frequently haunted by the critical eyes of my past self. Progress is not linear.
This is why, when I do believe in my hotness, I celebrate it! I try to make the most of these moments, and I don’t let anyone’s judgment rain on my parade. My inner monologue transforms into that of the haughtiest cheerleader I always wanted to be. I’m walking on air! I tell myself that everybody notices me when I enter a room and I’m making all of their knees weak. Why wouldn’t I want to capture a snapshot of such a blissful feeling, especially since it sometimes takes a few hours of effort to perfect my aesthetic? Maybe you think I’m what’s wrong with the world. Maybe you think I’m superficial and attention-seeking because I frequently take selfies. Or wear makeup. Or walk around in heels. Because I appear untouchable and confident.
Perhaps, as I used to, you think that selfies and cosmetics and accessories are only important to vain women.
These assumptions about women have been very present in the new millennium, but have skyrocketed in popularity since the launch of Instagram in 2010. Heck, I knew exactly how to weaponize them when I was a teen bully.
Perhaps you think that I’m being anti-feminist or a horrible role model because beauty should be internal and I’m sending the wrong message.
It’s complicated. I recognize my skinny white cis privilege and I’m doing my best not to come across as a promoter of the tone-deaf brand of toxic body positivity that came from the derailing of a well-intentioned movement.
I don’t disagree about the importance of inner beauty and I also fully support the developing body neutrality movement. I’d love to feel completely neutral about my body. That sounds heavenly!
Obviously, we shouldn’t care about our appearances so much. I secretly hate the fact that I do. But at this point, how can I not? I’m just trying to be realistic about my personal journey. I was stuck in this obsessive-compulsive cycle of self-loathing day after month after year for almost fifteen years of my life. It was my normal.
The reality is that the patriarchal society we live in has socialized us all to place feminine beauty on a golden pedestal forcing women to view other women as competitors. I didn’t create that, I’m just surviving in it.
I’m healing from the trauma of perpetual self-image issues created by that pedestal. That’s not an overnight fix. It may take me decades to rework the societal conditioning in my psyche.
For now, taking a selfie and posting it online is a form of self-validation. Maybe that doesn’t sound like the healthiest solution to you, but it’s been working for me! You don’t have to like my way. You don’t have to read any further. And you definitely don’t have to look at my selfies.
The coolest thing about being an adult is that you stop caring about what other people think — for the most part. (Comment away — I dare you!) But, as I know all too well, most young girls aren’t at this level of security. I used to be completely consumed by the opinions of others, and the effects were crippling.
Remember, the insecurity born from this turned me into a despicable bully. And as I mentioned before, I had easy access to a plethora of cheap misogynistic insults because of the many cultural ideas we have about young hot women who happen to know they’re hot.
The popular blonde girl in films of the 90s and early 2000s brushed her hair at her locker and was almost always characterized as mean and vapid. Whereas the shy brunette girl never looked in the mirror and didn’t even own a comb (even though the actress was perfectly coiffed by professional makeup artists and hairstylists). She wore sneakers instead of short skirts!
Blah, blah, blah… brunette girl is different. She’s more desirable. Why? All because she’s “humble.” She just doesn’t know how (insert ideal characteristic) she is. How incredibly endearing!
I’m so over that you-don’t-know-you’re-beautiful-that’s-what-makes-you-beautiful trope. Although I loved that catchy One Direction tune, the lyrics are quite irritating. Why are we more attractive to men when we aren’t aware of what we look like? That’s messed up!
While it’s true that humility is expected from women, it doesn’t stop at them. We pigeonhole men too. You may be familiar with the muscular gym-bro archetype. Apparently, the act of building one's muscles is enough to make one self-centered. I’ve known several women who judge men (and women) for taking gym selfies. I’m sure I’ve done it before too.
Come on, now! That stuff takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and self-discipline! They’re not all kissing their biceps like in the cartoons. And even if they do love their muscles and want to show off their gains on Instagram, what in the world is wrong with that? Let them love themselves!
Why is humility so virtuous?
We need to stop believing that humility is the most righteous quality you can find in a human being. Not only when it comes to appearance, but with everything else too. Humble- Adj. Having or showing a modest or low estimate of one’s own importance. V. To lower someone in dignity or importance.
“Low estimate,” “to lower,” ….so, it’s virtuous to downplay our strengths and attributes? Sounds like a huge scam to me. It’s a way for people to make other people feel guilty for liking something about themselves.
I see this everywhere, any time someone makes any unnecessary disparaging comment about a person who is contently living their lives and not hurting anyone — much like I used to when someone’s beauty reminded me of my lack thereof. Our culture is steeped in the same toxic coping mechanisms that middle schoolers adapt.
I have absolutely nothing against humble people, it’s just that a lot of the ones I know underestimate how valuable they are, and it pains me to observe! It reminds me of how my severe lack of self-belief held me back when I was younger.
People who undervalue themselves tend to miss out on many opportunities in life. They might not believe that they can demand to be paid fairly at their jobs. Many of them settle for inadequate partners because they don’t think they could find — or deserve — better treatment.
They often say things like “I could never wear that, ” “I could never do that” or, “ I’ll never achieve that.” Our culture encourages and even romanticizes the utterance of such phrases.
I’ve even met women who are aware that they are hot stuff — but they feel like they have to act like they aren’t. That’s an absolute travesty! Why should they be expected to shrink for the smaller people? Why should any of us shrink??
There’s nothing I hate more than seeing the effects of a culture that shames confidence.
Humility is a characteristic that some men find attractive in a woman for various reasons that may or may not be rooted in misogyny but is definitely rooted in society’s fear of people who know their worth.
That's fine for them, I guess. People have the right to like who they like. But the definition of “attractive” is not “ whatever is pleasing to men.” If you’re hot, you’re hot, period. Whether there is a man or anyone else around to acknowledge it or not. As simple as that sounds, forcing myself to believe this is what helped me to start becoming more comfortable in my skin.
I only wish I’d had an ounce of this moxie back in the day.
My relationship with my body has undergone countless shifts — from “male-gaze-y” to my own gaze and everything in between — so who’s to say it can’t shift to a more neutral gaze? I’d love to reject these patriarchal ideas about beauty and its value. But that’s going to take time.
And my journey has nothing to do with anybody else. Mirrors and cameras used to horrify me. Now that I’m comfortable around them, I see it as a huge step forward. When it comes to our body image, we all have some insecurities to deal with, and we must deal with them in ways that make sense to us. We may have different ways of coping, but most of us are in the same boat. That’s why I find it disturbingly cruel to criticize someone who feels good about themselves. Healthy body positivity should be encouraged.
Most women I know have a similar traumatic backstory concerning patriarchal beauty standards. Still, it’s important to recognize that nobody needs a harrowing experience and a two-thousand-word explanation to justify their high self-esteem. Many people don’t have trauma tied to self-image, and it should be totally cool when they post selfies too!
Why not celebrate or admire that quality in someone instead of talking smack about them?
Sexy, confident people are not the villains in your story. If you feel threatened by someone’s selfie, maybe you don’t know you’re beautiful — or capable, or talented, or worthy of love. But you are, even though it’s going to take time for you to believe it. Once you do, I will always support your right to declare it to the world!