some topics come up more than others, in my blog and in my brain. i revisit this one regularly, because the desire to be beautiful takes up huge parts of my psyche and it’s killing me. analyzing my history and thought processes, unpacking what i think “beautiful” means and why i can’t be okay if i can’t meet the arbitrary and ever-changing definitions i impose are important things to understand. perhaps my continuing exploration of the issue will ultimately be helpful to more than just myself. i’ve learned from sharing that if it’s an issue i have, it’s an issue other people have. i’m not as special a snowflake as i imagined, which is both humbling and gratifying.
as i’ve said, my deep-seated need to be beautiful has been a driving force my whole life. it underpins my eating disorder. being beautiful was the only thing i cared about for far too long. i didn’t care about being smart; i didn’t care about being kind. i didn’t care about other people very much at all beyond superficially; that’s common to those of us with eating disorders; it’s a very self-centred condition. when you have an eating disorder, ultimately, you and it always come first. i rejected that contention when i first heard it but once the knee-jerk anger passed, i admitted it was unfortunately accurate.
the need to be beautiful has lived in me forever, as has its companion, the belief that i need to be perfect if i want to be seen as even acceptable. “perfect” is limited to my appearance; my eating disorder is not concerned with mental or emotional development. countless hours have been spent in pursuit of physical perfection, but very little time was spent on self-development in more important areas. being beautiful was the only thing i wanted.
i didn’t have a solid idea of what beautiful would look like, but i knew it when i saw it and i knew it wasn’t me. i knew i wasn’t beautiful because if i was, i’d feel better and i felt awful most of the time. i looked at the images of cover girls and models and actresses and counted the many ways in which my appearance fell short. i didn’t have long legs or thin thighs. i didn’t have a ski jump nose. i didn’t have long and luxurious hair. i was not fashionably made up and stylishly attired. all those things would be corrected once i was beautiful. i would be better inside too. i looked at the women i admired because of the way they looked and knew that not only were they gorgeous, but that their lives were fantastic too. i just knew they felt “right” on the inside. they were obviously doing life better than me because, beautiful. i wanted to feel okay too, to feel like i belonged, to feel like i was sufficient; being not beautiful meant none of that could happen. not being beautiful mean i would never be enough.
along the way, my definition of “beautiful” became more concrete. it still didn’t include hair colour or eye colour, although i was aware that mine were wrong. it got very specific, however, regarding shape and size. beauty was bones. to be beautiful, i would have to get thinner.
i look back at pictures from my childhood years and although not shockingly beautiful, i was pretty enough. i just didn’t feel it. i didn’t feel normal or even adequate. i felt wrong, and fat, and ugly, and unacceptable. almost everything i’ve done to myself since was an effort to change the way i looked so i could change the way i felt. i would be beautiful and feel everything i assumed went along with beautiful. ironically, the path i chose damaged whatever looks i started with, in difficult to correct ways.
i bought my first diet book the year i turned eleven. that was the year my eating disorder erupted, though the seeds had been planted earlier. that was the beginning of almost four decades of restricting, bingeing, and purging. that was the year i realized that the reason i felt sad, and lonely, and agitated was because i was wrong, meaning not beautiful. if i wanted to feel right, i’d need to make myself look better. i’d need to get perfect. i’d need to get thin.
i wonder what my life would’ve looked like if i’d concluded that i felt sad because of the circumstances i faced. i was often bullied and singled out and picked on. i was lonely; i didn’t share my thoughts or feelings, and i felt like the odd one out in my family. i was shy and needy around others, but, because i suffer from anxiety, agitated and desiring of distance as well. i was abused. i wonder what it would’ve been like to live a life in which i dealt with those things. i wonder what it would’ve been like to live a life that didn’t revolve around food and my body. i would be in a very different place, i suppose.
the diet involved counting calories, measuring out portions, and weighing yourself every day. it was, horrifically, designed for young teenagers, part of a popular fiction line aimed at teenage girls – all love and gossip and angst. nowadays, tween books from this genre are all about positive thoughts and loving yourself in their approach. this is an improvement from having it be all about tape measures. i measured and weighed and recorded and monitored but despite dropping weight, i still wasn’t fixed. i still didn’t feel right. i still wasn’t beautiful.
i wanted magic. i wanted to wake up one morning and be fixed. i wanted to wake up one morning and feel okay, not wake up and hate my legs for being the same as they were the day before. i wanted to fit in, to be one of the “normal” people, to be accepted. i always felt slightly out of sync. no matter what i did, i always seemed to get it a little bit wrong. the clothes weren’t quite right. the make-up wasn’t quite en pointe. the face wasn’t model material. the words i spoke were wrong. i hated my life. i hated every second i was trapped in myself. i knew i needed to look like not-me to feel right inside but i couldn’t seem to get there.
i spent all my spare money and then some on books and magazines that promised to fix me. i bought make-up that was supposed to help. i followed advice on how to shadow and highlight to minimize the nose and reshape the face. i learned how to do a smoky eye. none of it changed me. i still saw an ugly and unacceptable girl when i looked in the mirror. i still do, as it happens, and struggle to move past it and see myself with better eyes.
i still, more than anything else, want to be beautiful. i still have a voice in my head telling me that if i was beautiful, things would be okay. life would be okay. i wouldn’t struggle with mental health issues, or work issues, or friends and family, or anything else. everything would fall into place because when you’re beautiful, that’s how it works.
i understand in the rational part of my brain that the problem is not how i look. the problem is feeling-based and self-acceptance based; it’s those areas i need to work on. the answers are not going to be found on the stair master. it’s hard to change, though. i have a great deal of time invested in my eating disorder and my brain really doesn’t want to give that up. it reminds me of my physical failings every time i glance into a mirror, or get dressed, or shower, or go shopping. it reminds me that i’m fat and ugly and i’d better fix that or i’ll never be okay.
i tell the voice to go to hell, and sometimes it does, but it always comes back. i debate with it and ignore it but it still sits there waiting. i suspect that’s because i haven’t come up with a good one to replace it and nature hates a vacuum. affirmations would be a good place to start but i struggle with those. i have difficulty coming up with positive things to say. i think perhaps i’ll try a daily affirmation app. it’s a better solution than giving up; i’ve done that and it’s true, it gets you exactly nowhere.
my struggle is exacerbated by a couple of other problems. the need to be perfect and beautiful and look “just so” drives me, but my depression makes it hard sometimes to make even a minimal effort. add to the apathy my underlying belief that i don’t deserve to treat myself well, and my appearance suffers. i don’t have a great deal of pride in myself. when i falter in the “taking care of myself” arena, the voice says horrible things. it tells me i’m a mess, which reminds me that i’m supposed to be beautiful, which makes me want to restrict and make myself physically perfect, which in my eating disorder brain translates to a need to be extremely emaciated.
i also struggle because of my scars. they are not beautiful. ten years into my eating disorder, and shortly after the bulimic behaviour emerged, i started cutting. the two behaviours often go together, an unholy marriage. cutting the body is bad enough, but my need for perfection caused me to overanalyze my face and, in my efforts to correct what i saw as massive imperfections, i started cutting that too. i have scars of varying severity from my cheekbones to my chin, and down to my neck. my forehead mostly escaped my ire. i have larger scars on top of the original scars, from surgeries i needed to correct the damage the cutting had caused, like infections and cysts and cellulitis. i have dead spots and a lopsided mouth, courtesy of the nerve damage i inflicted. in my pursuit of beauty, i created a face that is anything but. ironic.
the scars add an extra challenge when it comes to loving myself. i try to look on them as badges of honour. i try to understand that they mean i survived, that i did what i needed to do to stay alive, to cope, no matter how damaged and dysfunctional the behaviour appeared. like my efforts to convince myself that i have value beyond my appearance, sometimes i’m even successful.