I was the slowest runner in my elementary school gym class for as far back as I can remember. Nevertheless, my classmates all treated me nicely. People slowed their pace during the mile runs to help push me along. Classmates would offer words of encouragement as they lapped me. Everyone cheered me on from the bleachers, having all finished long before I was even close to the end. I would cross the finish line and people would celebrate me as though I had finished a marathon. They were nothing but ecstatic for my success. Secretly, I hated it. I didn’t want to be the star of some underdog, coming-of-age narrative about perseverance; I certainly didn’t want to be perceived as different. Their unwavering and over-the-top support was likely well-intentioned (for the most part), but it was a constant reminder that I was different and that they saw me as such. I was pitiful. I was fat.

Once I hit puberty, my insecurities were magnified tenfold. Body image was no longer about being picked last for the kickball team; rather, my physical appearance influenced my social status and romantic ventures. After years of being different, I desperately longed to be exactly like everyone else. I made many attempts to transform my appearance and achieve the look I had always desired. Occasionally, in the dead of night, once my entire family had gone to sleep, I would attempt to exercise in my pitch-black bedroom because I was so ashamed of working out in front of them and in public for fear of judgement. To my dismay, I never noticed a significant physical change. Self-hatred was not effective motivation for me; my shame was too overpowering to keep up a consistent routine. I would often lie down on my bedroom floor, covered in sweat, staring at the pitch black walls, too defeated to continue. To hide my body, I started wearing jeans and layering my clothes per the advice of men’s style videos. The constant sweating beneath my jacket in the tropical 90 degrees Fahrenheit heat was balanced out by generous compliments regarding my sense of fashion. However, the external validation never eased my fear of looking at my isolated reflection in the mirror once I was alone. It seemed no matter what I did to try to conform to society’s ideal, I instead felt shame and discomfort.

I felt hopeless. Nothing I was doing produced the results I desired. Was I doomed to a life of eternal discomfort in my own body? In desperation, I would drag myself over to the bathroom mirror in search of any redeeming quality my appearance presented. I stood paralyzed, staring into the mirror. I started to zone out, allowing my eyes to wander until they eventually fell out of focus altogether. The reflection in front of me turned into an assortment of shapes and colors, rather than the image of a real person. 

I was never delusional about my image; I knew exactly what I looked like in my mind, and I didn’t need to be reminded. My discomfort around mirrors turned into legitimate terror. I knew what I would see in the mirror, yet I was never prepared to confront it. At the mere sight of my own image, I would instinctively flinch and look away. I would mentally prepare every time I got ready for school in the morning to be able to brush my teeth without needing to turn away. I was terrified of seeing my own reflection, and I avoided mirrors at all costs. 

Beauty is a competition and everyone aims to win. We’re expected to push ourselves to perfectly conform to some arbitrary standard set in place by society. Ultimately, when we are all trained to judge ourselves in relation to one another, some will win the game of beauty, and some will lose. But do I truly believe that some people could never be beautiful? No, I could never and will never believe that some people are doomed to be ugly. Maybe if I had exercised more or kept to a strict diet, I could’ve advanced in this giant fight for arbitrary aesthetic superiority. Instead, I chose to quit. I accepted that I was ugly in society’s eyes, and that would likely never change. Ironically, the helplessness of my situation was incredibly empowering. Once I had dropped out of society’s beauty contest, I realized that I no longer had to play by its rules. I didn’t have to be a winner or a loser. I was free to define beauty on my own terms.

Slowly, I built up the courage to face myself again. I stared into the mirror, only this time I was reconstructing my blurred reflection. From the formless blob of colors in front of me, I sculpted my image for what it truly was. The magenta stretch marks that clawed their way up my stomach and arms came into focus first. My eyes traced up my body, to the layer of fat underneath my neck, then to my puffy cheeks, until finally I met my gaze in the mirror. I could plainly see every detail of myself. The body that my consciousness occupied stood before me, remade in my exact image. It was no longer ugly, no longer anything really, but an amalgamation of body parts, with no labels of any kind attached. It was up to my own thoughts to assign value to this vessel that I inhabited. So, I decided that I was beautiful, even if this perspective was mine alone.

 

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