The month before I started my senior fall in college, I took my first step towards rejecting ‘beauty.’ I stopped counting calories after two years of constant obsession, hoping to make a difference in my self esteem. Instead, I made a bet with myself. If I did not count a crumb of food that entered my mouth for the entire month of August, I would buy myself the Steve Madden heels I’d been eyeing all summer.
On August 1, I ate my first meal in two and a half years without breaking down its contents. I just ate. It was a freeing experience, which I kept immensely private. While counting calories and macros had been an open secret with friends and family, my recovery became hush-hush. I talked about it with no one and explained the journey to no one. This was in large part because I did not have the words or understanding to voice my daily lessons. People never asked about it either. They just accepted I was now eating meals without rushing to grab my phone to jot down notes.
Food was clearly a problem for me, and I had to face it head on. I couldn’t stop eating, and I couldn’t work around it. I had to deal with it, every day, three times a day (sometimes more). But my disordered patterns had helped create other harmful ideas that I had kept tucked neatly between tear stained diary pages. After the serotonin boost I experienced from eating freely, I fell back down to deal with body dysmorphia and beauty expectations.
Body Dysmorphia: In general, it means that when you look in a mirror, you see yourself in a skewed, negative light, focusing on perceived flaws. In practice, this meant that every mirror was my enemy, and I never felt connected to the idea of beauty. There was not one curve, bump, or freckle on my body that I would not find fault in.
Beauty Expectations: In college, people, especially boys (who had always managed to skirt me in high school), started calling me pretty – and meaning it. They seemed to like me even more when I was freshly shaved, with just enough makeup on my face to distract from imperfections. As an athlete, I didn’t always don makeup or shave, but when I did, I was always hoping to catch ‘that’ boy’s eye.
Changing for the healthier
When I started having to face the above issues, I made some drastic changes. No more makeup, shaving only when I absolutely had to, and absolutely no nail polish. I didn’t leave fashion behind, for I love it too much. Rather, I cut everything outside of clothes and hygiene out. I didn’t want to invest any more time in what I termed the beauty economy. I forced myself to stand in front of my mirror in my birthday suit, finding things I loved. In fact, I went so far as to (out loud) recite, “You’re beautiful. You’re worthy,” several times a day, while staring into my own eyes. And it was hard – not to mention awkward. But I kept doing it. Throughout it, I kept avoiding the economy of beauty and opting for the au natural look.
At some point, mid New York covid quarantine, with a record number of weeks unshaved, I took a breath again. I sat, looked in the mirror, and loved what I saw staring back at me. It wasn’t a one off – it became a routine. I looked in the mirror and yes, saw pimple scars and ingrown hairs, but I also saw my bright blue eyes and how they lit up upon recognition.
Suddenly, I saw my happy smile, right below my nose that I could not, for the life of me, understand how I could’ve ever wanted to change. I took days off of running, months even, and felt my body changing, but love filled me up. Finally feeling back home in my own skin was something I could have never felt better about. I thought I had arrived – the au natural way of life had brought me back, and it would stay forever.
But. There was still something missing.
A small, but impossible to ignore, part of me missed getting my nails done at the salon, or on my bed while streaming Netflix. I missed waxing regularly and telling my sister to “feel my legs!” I even missed the blue mascara I used to tote around, though admittedly, I do not know if a tube of that color will return in my possession soon. So began a new struggle – would I be a strong empowered woman who shunned physical changes to my body (except tattoos and piercings – somehow those have always been great), or would I fall back to calorie counting and hatred?
Again, I made a decision between the private pages of my diary – I would shave, after 4 months of not touching my legs, and see how I felt. I hopped in the shower, and spent an atrociously long amount of time ridding my legs of hair. I got out and dried my legs, and immediately, I felt brand new. Who was this new me, without hair? Why was I loving it? Did that mean I was no longer a feminist? Did that mean I had betrayed all the work I had done?
Thankfully, I found that no, I had not suddenly dropped out of the feminist club. I had not betrayed all my work. In fact, I was continuing it. I wasn’t shaving for a random ‘him’ anymore – I was shaving for my own damn self. Yes, shaving is pushed on women when puberty hits to make them ‘feminine’ (and in some cases, as with pubic shaving, to help make them look like puberty never actually happened). But I was making my own destiny – I was shaving on my own time, for my eyes. I would not be showing my legs off to anyone, especially with the snow/pandemic double whammy, and no one even knew it was happening. It became another step in my self love, and one I have finally upgraded to waxes – an art that I had once wasted for silly flings that never ended well.
Reinvesting in beauty, on my terms
As I continue to venture in this area of physical tweaks, like nail polish and makeup, I am taking small, tentative steps. I feel like a kid wearing my mom’s heels in front of her big mirror. It’s a little like growing up again, but this time, without the pressure of doing it perfectly. I’m excited to experience these things I used to obsessively plan once again – soon I’ll be in a nail salon, and maybe, I’ll stop and pick up some mascara on the way home. It’s not going back to a place I know – it’s finding a similar place that’s foreign and being excited to explore.
I gave myself permission to step away, and it took years to reap the full benefits. Perhaps, the process of finding my footing among this familiar, foreign terrain will be the very same. But it is not regression – it is a new type of growth.