So this is a post that has been requested many, many times from all of you. More, since I started ask.fm over a year ago. Variations on the question: How do you find it in yourself to be confident and love yourself? The unspoken tail end of the sentence – given how you look?
I left all those questions unanswered in my inbox after the first few, mainly because I didn’t know what to say. It struck me recently how impressionable some of my younger readers are, given the questions and responses I’ve gotten from them over the past year, and I didn’t want to say the wrong or unconsciously damaging thing. Yet, as the number of questions in my inbox increased, it started weighing on my mind more and more, which is how I ended up where I am again, here, in front of a computer in a quiet place, tapping thoughts out freely and hoping for the best.
A while ago, Grand Hyatt Singapore invited me down to stay in one of their rooms. Catch a break from writing my thesis, take a dip in luxury, und so weiter. I’ve worked with them before, and I only have fond memories of the Hyatt – I used to carol in their lobby, I stayed there on my prom night, and now I’m friends with the Hyatt girls. So yes – Martin and I took the opportunity to orchestrate a fun, pastel themed shoot. Before we went down, he sent me mood boards of pastel coloured skirts, candy, lipsticks. I did my hair and he went to Fairprice. We checked in and scattered candy everywhere. We took photos. We cleaned up after ourselves.
When shooting these photos, a fleeting thought crossed my mind: what are people going to say when they see me holding a bowl of candy? This is no frivolous concern. I have a lot of kids following me on instagram, and I have a lot of vocal followers. I get a lot of intrusive questions. And I thought to myself: I’m just inviting criticism – people are going to say that I’m advocating an unhealthy lifestyle again. Hey, it’s happened before. People actually find it okay to come up to me online and comment on my cafe pictures to tell me I shouldn’t be eating my eggs ben. Do you know how many calories there are in that thing?
And then I thought – this is a chance to talk about something I’ve been wanting to talk about for awhile now. Fine. I’ll talk about it.
Like I mentioned at the start of this post, the most frequently recurring question I get online is how are you so confident? I don’t believe that any of these questions asked are borne from malice – fine, maybe one or two are, coming from the odd troll – but most of the time these questions reek with sincerity. They really want to know how it is possible to love or at least be comfortable with oneself if said person deviates from the cookie cutter mould. And that’s painful, because it shows one thing: that most of these girls (or boys, lots of the askers are anonymous so I don’t know) genuinely feel like it’s impossible to maintain a base level of confidence unless you look a certain way.
This is, of course, a lie – it’s difficult, nearly impossible, to maintain a base level of confidence no matter how you look. It is a problem, a uniquely first world problem, where in absence of proper, real crisis, we pick ourselves apart and project societal expectations onto our own bodies. Part of it is the media, telling us how we should look. Part of it is society. We generally don’t feel up to standard. But if you take a look at successful actresses and models, people who make a living based primarily on the currency of physical beauty, a lot of them talk freely about their insecurities. It is confusing: how can someone so obviously beautiful feel insecure? But they do, and their feelings are as valid as anyone else’s. People are entitled to feel however they want to feel about their bodies.
This may not do much for you, but it does prove one thing – you can be insecure no matter how beautiful you are. Ergo, it is not about you, in the physical sense of the word. People know this, but they don’t understand it. Why?
Let me first be clear: I am fully aware of my privilege. I have been teased but never outrightly bullied in school. I know that for someone working in the media, I am unusually celebrated or accepted for who I am. I very frequently get girls coming up to me telling me how (their perceived levels of) my confidence inspires them. I don’t get as many haters as I honestly expected to when I entered the industry two, three years ago. People as a whole seem happy that there is some form of diversity being represented in the scene, and they do their best to inform me of their feelings. They tell me that I should never ever lose weight because that’s what makes me special. (Someone told me this to my face in a very well meaning and nice way.) You go, girl. Keep doing what you’re doing. How are you doing it again?
At the same time, although I don’t get as many trolls as I expected to, they’re still there. They pop up once in awhile, and find it completely acceptable behaviour to leave comments or send me anonymous emails asking me You really think you beautiful ah? Do you honestly think you’re pretty? Go lose some weight first lah. The assumption being, of course, that being confident or at least, being comfortable with posting pictures of yourself online, means that you believe you’re physically attractive. Sometimes people leave really jarring comments about me on my videos – most of the time the Clicknetwork team curates and deletes it before I see it, but sometimes I do. It is invariably about my physical appearance. Once, just once, I’d like to see someone comment and tell me I’m incredibly incoherent, or really dumb. I wouldn’t believe them, but at least it’d be a change and a good laugh for once.
And then there are the people who look at me and get offended – not at me, but at the viewers or readers or followers, for claiming that I’m some sort of plus sized inspiration. After I did the Plus Sized Budget Shopping episode with Qiu, I got a lot of these comments. But she’s not even a real plus sized girl! Okay guys, sorry I’m not … big enough?
I don’t know why people think it’s okay to say something incredibly negative about another person to him or her. Maybe it makes them feel better. Maybe it’s because they don’t think I’m a real person to them in the way someone you read about in books or see on the net doesn’t seem real to you. I don’t know. And I don’t care. Their mental well being is not my concern. My concern is the rationale behind these statements.
People seem to think that because I am not a slim, doe-eyed, symmetrical-faced girl, I’m some sort of automatic advocate for the new age tagline: Everybody is beautiful. This, I assume, is what offends some people – but she isn’t beautiful! – and what inspires some people – it is totally possible to be unconventionally attractive even if you are not traditionally pretty! Both camps are entitled to their opinion. But I side with neither.
It has become uncomfortably trendy to repeat these well-meaning yet completely ineffective statements at one another: You are beautiful. You are special. Everybody is beautiful.
Again, another lie. Not everybody is beautiful. Some people look weird. Some people are plain. Some people have a unibrow they refuse to thread. You know it, and I know it, but we feel okay parading this statement to every single person. I am speaking about beauty in it’s most widely accepted definition: physical beauty. I get that beauty is subjective, but level with me guys: there’s a certain level of physical attractiveness we all concur is beautiful. Inner beauty or beauty of character – ok, that’s a different topic. It’s not what you guys have been asking me about. We’re not going there today.
I take issue with the phrase Everybody is beautiful! because 1. it’s a lie and 2. it’s problematic. We say Everybody is beautiful and expect people to translate this to Love Yourself! But doesn’t that tie loving yourself to the very idea that you have to find yourself some form of beautiful to do so?
Let me phrase it simply: We are not stepping out of the box. Our discussion regarding self esteem and confidence is still circling around the brackets of physical attraction and beauty. Why?
When we say You should love yourself because all bodies are beautiful, tall or short, thin or fat, curvy or flat, you are still centering your discussion around physical attributes. We are still placing the need to feel beautiful at the centre of our universe. Now, I am not saying that physical attributes aren’t important. I recognise that we are all drawn to beauty. I myself often daydream about swopping bodies with Emma Watson. We all find physical beauty important. I am just saying that it should not be the most important thing in our damn lives.
Every single photo in this post is un-retouched. What does this mean? Martin photographed me, and we sat down at night to go through the pictures. We edited the pictures for lighting and color – that’s basic post processing. And sure – I’m wearing make up. I buy and use a lot of beauty products on a regular basis. Skincare, conditioner, moisturiser, eyeliner, you name it! But right here, right now: not a single one of these pictures are edited to remove any blemishes or lines, to make myself look skinnier, sharper, better.
Why? So that you can understand what I mean when I say what I’m going to say next..
Do I find myself beautiful? No – not because I find myself ugly, but because it is not something I think about too much. It’s probably a matter of upbringing. My parents never taught me to think of people as beautiful, not beautiful, thin, fat, porcelain skin, acne. I don’t remember them ever commenting that another person was beautiful or pretty in my presence as a child – but I did hear them talk about how kind someone was, or how talented, or how nice. Ergo, I grew up being unable to tell if a friend had an outbreak of pimples overnight or if he/she had put on some weight over the June holidays. It simply didn’t register in me. People just looked like people. It wasn’t very hard.
As I grew older, I started becoming more and more aware of how people looked specifically. I had a very Mean Girls moment in Secondary School, when I heard a classmate complaining about how low her nose bridge was. You know that scene where Cady’s in Regina’s home and she sees the Plastics bashing themselves up in the mirror and she thinks: I used to think there was just fat and skinny. But apparently there’s lots of things that can be wrong with your body? Yup.
Today, if you ask me, I’d tell you that there are a lot of things I’m dissatisfied with about my body that I would not have even registered back when I was a kid. My eyes are not symmetrical – one is bigger than the other, and I have one double eyelid and one single eyelid. Same goes for my eyebrows; one is higher than the other, and it was pretty obvious till I recently had them properly embroidered at Erabelle. My mouth is too big for my face. I’ve had this weird rash on my arm since I was a kid that doesn’t itch or hurt, but that just won’t go away. And don’t get me started on my chin! My jawline is ridiculous. That’s why I always wear my hair down – my face is just too round for buns or ponytails. And I never, never take straight on, non angled, face first shots without my face being completely framed by hair flowing about to give me some sort of shape. Even when I go for photoshoots, the photographer / make up artist is always pushing hair around on my face, trying to hide bits of my face, make it look smaller, more angular, whatever. I don’t blame them. It’s their job to make me look good.
Today, when I post a picture, I edit it on the computer for lighting and color, then on my phone I tweak it with my million little photo apps so it gets rid of the shine on my nose, it sharpens my jaw, it smoothens my skin. Nowadays photo applications are insane – I can even add on eyeliner or blusher if I want to. The point is, before I post up a photo, I want to fix myself. Not because I hate myself. Just because I can. But not in this series of photos. Why?
Martin convinced me, but it’s my first time taking a face on picture with my hair up like this:
Do I feel insecure about having this photo up? Yes. Am I completely happy with how I look in the photo, or in the mirror, for that matter? No. My jaw has no definition! My nose bridge looks non-existent! You can see the sun-spots I have from irresponsible beachside frolicking without SPF50! I fought the urge to retouch my face every inch of the way. If only I could just remove that spot on my face..
Does this mean I hate myself? No.
We are back to the perennial question, the one that sparked this whole post. How? How do you not hate yourself if you look like .. this? How do you find it in you to be confident?
Everyone knows that beauty is cultural. Have you walked into an art museum? Greek goddesses are often depicted as round-bellied, pasty, and kinda lumpy at places. I mean, Venus had back fat, you know? Maybe stick-thin people living in that era felt like shit. I don’t know. But what I do know is this – if you base your entire value system and self worth in a culturally cultivated structure that shifts and changes with the years, will you ever really be happy?
Let me quote the two queens of comedy.
In Tina Fey’s Bossypants, she says:
Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyoncé and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have:
Caucasian blue eyes
full Spanish lips
a classic button nose
hairless Asian skin with a California tan a Jamaican dance hall ass
long Swedish legs
small Japanese feet
the abs of a lesbian gym owner
the hips of a nine-year-old boy
the arms of Michelle Obama
and doll tits
The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes. Everyone else is struggling.
Amy Poehler’s Yes Please puts it a lot more simply:
Decide what your currency is early. Let go of what you will never have. People who do this are happier and sexier. I decided early on it was not going to be my looks.
Hopefully as you get older, you start to learn how to live with your demon. It’s hard at first. Maybe a day even comes when you are getting dressed for a fancy event and it whispers, “You aren’t pretty,” and you go, “I know, I know, now let me find my earrings.”
Did you get that? Let me say it again. You will never look exactly like how you think society wants you to look. (Unless you are Kim Kardashian, in which case, hi Kim K!!!! Welcome to my blog lololol.) It is difficult to be able to look at yourself and openly qualify yourself as 100% beautiful, given the expectations society and the media place on us. And it doesn’t matter. Decide what your currency is. Fight for it. People who do this are happier, and sexier.
Do what makes you happy. If you want to wear make up, by all means! If you want to get something surgically done on parts of your face or body, it’s your choice. If you want to go to the gym and work out everyday until you look like Keira Knightly, make your own call. I myself wear a shit-ton of make up and spend a lot of time grooming myself to be presentable on the streets and on the screen. My made up face still doesn’t match up to your standards? That’s okay. I will do what I want – and you do what you want – but the key is to know why you are doing it. Because it makes you happy? Sure. Because you’re vain? No shame in your game, girl. Because you feel like you cannot love yourself if you don’t look a certain way? Maybe you need to think more seriously about what you tie your love and value system to, and reevaluate it.
Found what makes you happy? Great. Now, don’t impose your standards on others. What makes one person happy can be radically different from what makes another happy. Be happy on your own terms, and remember that that’s exactly what it is: your own terms. Not your mother’s. Not your best friend’s. Not that random acquaintance you have that you feel would be much better off living on your terms. If you feel empowered and confident upon realising that natural beauty is the best, good for you – but nobody else really wants to hear it, especially not the girl who loves her daily eyeliner fix. Don’t be hating on the guy who goes to the gym everyday and drinks protein shakes if it makes him happy. Leave the classmate you know who got her nose did alone. It is important to find what makes you happy and valuable on your own terms, but it is equally important not to oppress others with your newfound standards of value and happiness.
One last note on Beauty and Value. There is no shame in wanting to look better in the same way that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be smarter, more well read, or more charismatic. But too often we fuel this desire to get better with the most convenient fodder around – insecurity and self-hate. No. You don’t have to and you shouldn’t beat your current self up to get better. You can be satisfied with who you are and still work to improve. This is the philosophy I have tried to live by and I would say I am about 1/10th successful. But I am trying. And so should you.
Go forth. Learn. Learn to love yourself. And do it for you.