Recently one night I was being a potato person–wrapped up in blankets and sprawled out on the recliner, some trash reality show on the tv. I was in a daze… mindlessly dicking around on my phone. At some point I found myself in my photo gallery. On a whim I went to my albums, and on a whim opened my old selfie album. And still in a daze, I started scrolling through the pictures.
Back in the day before everything went to complete shit, I was toying with the idea of modeling. While scrolling through my albums I stumbled upon set after set of photos of myself that had been taken back when I was actually serious about it. All these old selfies from the old photoshoots that I had designed myself. Strikingly high quality photos from the two professional shoots ones I had done. Playful, sexy group shots with my friends taken before we headed out for a night on the town. Series after series of experimental black and white mood shots that I had done on my own. I was gobsmacked–all the ECT I’ve undergone had basically wiped all of this out from my memory. It truly was like I was seeing all these pictures for the first time.
And to say that the difference between those photos and the girl blobbing out on the recliner was like night and day is a vast, hilarious understatement. At first I just blinked uncomprehendingly and was honest to God like, “Who the fuck is that?”. I had fallen so far down and let myself go so hard that it really did feel like me and the girl in those photos were two totally different people.
After a rough anxiety day I was dragged to a family dinner at Olive Garden and y’all — your girl did not hold back. Breadsticks. Salad. Friend mozzarella. Fried calamari. Spaghetti. Eggplant parmesan. Creamy mushroom ravioli. Enough of those mint chocolate bar things to stuff a landfill.
I felt pretty gross the next day.
I felt bloated and sluggish and my love handles felt particularly mushy and my gut and my thighs particularly round and my face particularly puffy. The deep shadows under my eyes, the flat, stringiness of my hair, the patchiness of my skin, spotted with zits, bumps, and redness— “Shit.” I thought to myself after being suddenly confronted with my reflection in the bathroom mirror, “I fucking look like the girl who tried to kill herself.”
It’s been an effort and a half to get myself back into a morning routine — and it’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done to get back into a fitness routine. I’m still working on it. I’m still fucking up all the time. Some TMI real talk right here… I’m still having a lot of days where I can’t muster the energy to wash my face or brush my teeth. But I’ve got 3 or 4 or maybe 5 days a week where I can, and that’s an improvement from none.
And with working out— this has been the longest stretch of time where I’ve completely fallen off the wagon.. almost a year where I haven’t done anything. And I’ve lost all my gains. It sucks balls. My squat form used to be on point and there was once a time when I could deadlift my whole bodyweight. Now I can barely lift the damn bar and I’m so inflexible I can hardly do more than a half-squat.
My little brother and I have been making a point to try and get to the gym together on a regular basis — he and I are in a very similar boat, my little brother has also been struck down by panic disorder and it completely derailed his life. He used to be full bro who would work out everyday for three hours and play basketball and goof off in the quad with his goof friends — but when panic disorder showed up, any effort of his that accelerated his heart rate, even just a little bit, sent his entire body into complete and total panic. As a result he spent nearly a full year just laying around in bed playing World of Warcraft and drinking himself into total oblivion to subdue the constant pain.
I’m so happy watching him push himself to get better, and he’s been so encouraging to me to dip more than my toe into the water with my exercises. He’s patiently been re-introducing me to machines I’ve forgotten how to do right and correcting my postures when we strength train so I don’t like, you know, break my back. And I’ve been encouraging him to try again some of the exercises he had been avoiding for so long because they had become immediate one-way tickets to Anxiety Town.
He likes to roast himself a lot about all this. I do too. But still. I tell him how much he’s killing it when he benches 2 reps of what was once half his top weight— because he is killing it. 2 is an incredible step up from none. It is a triumph to relish and puff up your chest for.
After feeling so nasty and discouraged after my Olive Garden pig out— I knew that doing just 30 minutes on the bike and a few lower back and ab sets the next night wasn’t enough to have a noticeable effect on my body. But that isn’t the point. The point is afterward, I didn’t grimace when I looked at myself in the mirror. I felt a little more confident. I saw someone who was committed to the climb and to her recovery. And I saw the honor of that commitment. And that honor gave me the ability to appreciate the journey, and where I was within it.
It’s about giving yourself something visual that you can look at and feel just a little bit of pride about. I always used to believe that recovery was an ‘inside-to-outside’ process. Which is to say that I was convinced for the longest time that all my efforts had to be focused exclusively on ‘fixing’ my dysfunctional mental and emotional state if I ever hoped to get better. And that if I finally ‘fixed’ everything going haywire inside my mind, that all the other physical stuff would come together as a natural consequence of that.
I’ve come to realize that this is not necessarily true. As imperative as it is to root out all our cognitive dissonances and heal our emotional traumas and come to terms with ourselves– we benefit as well from treating ourselves as though we are someone who is worth being physically cared for. Mentally and emotionally–we respond to visual cues and external stimuli. Putting some degree of effort into our appearance and presentation is by no means a cure all–but it can certainly make one feel a little less shitty. It does make a considerable difference for me–when I invest just a little bit of time and effort into not looking like a tragic headcase, I find it just a little bit easier to stand upright, shoulders back, and entertain the notion that I might be more than the tragic headcase I so often condemn myself to be.
You don’t have to beat your face. But maybe put on some lipstick or a little mascara. Spray some product in your hair or gel it up again in the way that used to make all the girls and/or guys go wild for you back in the day. Put on that push-up bra and pull your shoulders back to make the girls glow glorious and proud. If you can afford it, buy yourself a new pair of pants or the slickest, most banging pair of shoes that’s going to make everybody drool. I keep referring to the effect these small measures might have on other people — but we know it isn’t about them, and we don’t need them to just feel that small, satisfying pleasure when we treat ourselves like we’re a work of art.
I have an artistic temperament so I believe this to be key. When I look at myself from the stance of an artist—I find that I am more prone to taking care of myself more seriously. When I approach my body, my presentation, and my life, by extension, as a living work of art, I often become inclined and motivated. This specific mindset may not be what does it for you. Still, putting even just a touch of effort into your appearance communicates to you that you are worth something. And in order to be fully committed to your recovery following a failed suicide attempt—you have to make yourself feel that you are worth something.
Our culture has developed a curious conflict with the ideal of beauty–mostly as a result of, from what I can tell, aggressive marketing and ad campaigning to feed and then profit off of men and women’s insecurities surrounding their appearances from being constantly bombarded with curated imagery celebrating a very particular, narrow standard of ‘beauty’. Additionally, many feminist thinkers have asserted that ‘standards’ or ‘ideals’ of beauty are nothing more than sexist, patriarchal institutional weapons intended to straightjacket women and make them feel less than.
I have many thoughts about this issue, and the reality of the pain that this causes for many people–but I am going to attempt to stay on topic here. I had a very liberating revelation a short while back, when it comes to how I personally relate to the standards and hierarchies of our upheld cultural virtues.
I am not, and will never be, as intelligent as Stephen Hawking, Einstein, Nietzshe, Simone de Beauvoir–these thinkers represent an impossible ideal for me of astronomical proportions. Should I therefore be ashamed of the ‘sub-standard’ level of intelligence I do have? Should I be discouraged from reading, researching, exploring concepts and ideas from my many varied interests and attempt to broaden my horizons as much as I can?
When we gawk at the seemingly super-human spectacles of athletic displays at the Olympics, or in our favorite sports–we love to marvel over the athletes physical prowess, discipline, even grace while watching them in action. They amaze us, and they can inspire us. I will never be in the same solar system of athletic competence as Simone Biles, Serena Williams, Michael Phelps — but do I feel ashamed and inferior to even look at them? Do I feel hopeless and discouraged in the face of the precedence that they set for athletic achievement? Does it make me feel like I shouldn’t even bother to push myself physically because I will never be at that level?
I will never paint to the stunning standards of Van Gogh, Klimpt, or Degas — and I feel honored to bask in the glowing beauty of their artwork. It doesn’t make me feel worse about my own, it continually inspires me push beyond my perceived limits.
I am not as beautiful as Bella Hadid, or Beyonce, or Rhianna–but does that mean that if I revel in their beauty that I am communicating resentful dissatisfaction with myself? I love beauty, I believe the ability to bask in something (or someone) beautiful to be one of life’s inherent gifts. I love the beauty in nature, I love beauty in architecture, in literature, in fashion, in cinema. I love looking at beautiful rivers, beautiful holiday decorations, and beautiful people. And though some may argue that virtues like intelligence, creativity, and athleticism are virtues that are within our power to develop and expand–we either ‘fit’ into the box of accepted beauty standards or we don’t. And, furthermore–that to women at least, her being considered beautiful or not determines much of her value in society–and it is in this way that beauty standards are weaponized by the patriarchy as tools of oppression. This then implies that if a woman pours extensive time and money into trying to become beautiful in the eyes of these unrealistic expectations, then she is a brainwashed slave to said patriarchy.
Okay. First of all–I understand where this argument is coming from, and I see how it is true to the experience of many women. However, my lived experience has shown me that this ‘standard’ of beauty presented to us in advertisements and fashion shows are not universally upheld without question across the board. The standard of what a beautiful person is supposed to look like–as presented by Vogue–isn’t the same in many black communities, queer communities, counterculture communities, ect. The parameters of what constitutes ‘beauty’ these days is not being exclusively defined by domineering white men, as more and more cultures and identities are stepping into their own power and figuring out what that means for themselves. And this to me implies that–sure, yes, there will always be among us individuals who are so stupidly beautiful we all collectively gasp to behold them–but that our virtue of beauty, in it’s many emerging and blossoming expressions, is increasingly becoming more and more inclusive and diverse. The ability to embody beauty and feel beautiful is within reach for people of all ethnic backgrounds, body types, age groups, and more–if only we be bold enough to reach for it.
The point that I’m trying to get at here–there is nothing wrong with you if you appreciate beauty in all its many forms, and there is nothing wrong with you if you desire to feel and look beautiful yourself. Where this desire becomes toxic and destructive, is when one falls into the spiraling obsession of believing that she will be an acceptable human being only once she is perceived as beautiful by a specific class of people. Many misunderstand beauty by over-simplifying it solely as an instrument of seduction. Many men simply can not comprehend for the absolute life of them that a woman might step outside, all done up and wearing beautiful clothes because she feels like it and she loves to look nice–and not for his specific attention. It literally, I think, sets some of their brains on fire.
Anyway, it is natural to want to be seen as desirable by the person (or people) you desire. Let’s just get that out of the way. However, there is no way you can guarantee a set response from people based on your looks. The consuming desire to be seen as beautiful through the eyes of as many people as possible is fed by a deep insecurity. We must accept, if we are going to pursue beauty by our own standards, for our own sake, and by what we personally find attractive and awesome looking–that not everyone is going to be into it. And that is totally fine.
In times of deep emotional duress, it can be life and self-affirming as fuck to not just take care of yourself, but to actively explore and play around with different looks and styles that excite you. Follow that excitement–you may find yourself surprised and amused by what you are drawn to, when left to your own devices. Modify and experiment with your look, be frivolous and open, accept and embrace wherever that may lead to, and don’t be overly concerned with the reactions of others except in only the most practical of scenarios (if you work in an office job, for instance, you may have to think carefully before covering your face in tattoos).
Don’t judge yourself if you find you are ore drawn to ‘mainstream’ expressions, don’t flush with embarrassment if you find yourself zooming in the opposite direction. Just. Do you. Embody all that makes you feel beautiful. This increases our confidence and the way we carry ourselves both alone and around others–and many will see the glow of a persons confidence. When I see a person who has gone out of their way to put love, devotion, and creativity into their appearance I am always awed by them (even when, from a sexual perspective, that person isn’t my ‘type’).
I tend to harp about this a lot. But I truly believe it, that treating ourselves like art and caring for our appearance is a worthwhile factor in healing our damaged, or non-existent self-images. We all carry with us certain myths and assumptions surrounding our self-worth and our value in society–usually outrageously negative ones. Through changing our relationships to our appearances we challenge those myths and self-defeating narratives. Sometimes profoundly.