The Christmas I was in kindergarten, my aunts gifted me a really cute denim jacket – the kind I would be stoked to wear today. I remember looking at my five-year-old self in the mirror as I tried it on, and feeling, for the first time, deeply ashamed of my body. I looked … big, which in my mind, already equated to bad. This was the first time I decided I was ugly. (It wasn’t the jacket’s fault.)
Despite the concept of time being, well, mostly made up, beginning a new year always excites me. There’s the anticipation leading up to New Year's Eve, the glitter and hullabaloo of that night, and then, like clockwork, the barrage of social media resolutions once morning rolls around.
I get it. Every year, I make my own list of intentions for this next trip around the sun, and every year, I feel a renewed sense of hope, regardless of the previous year’s success rate. There’s something really lovely about that sort of optimism.
I'm all for self-improvement, but I take issue with how we tend to focus our resolutions on improving our physical selves first and foremost. Sure, career and relationship goals get pencilled in, but none so aggressively as these classic hits: “lose 15 pounds by spring;” “use the damn vitamix you bought three years ago;” or that time-honoured favourite, “do cardio at least three times a week."
As a society, it seems we hold the deep-seated belief that a better self depends on a more conventionally attractive self. It makes sense, given that, from the time we begin to consume it, the media bombards us with images of “the perfect woman” and “the perfect man” (with zero regard, of course, for those who fall elsewhere on the gender spectrum).
This message – transmitted through TV, magazines, the internet – infiltrates our beliefs and desires so deeply, it begins to feel natural. As a young person, internalizing this message can become a form of self-preservation.
We adapt to our environment in order to survive and (ideally) thrive. We see the benefits of meeting beauty standards: an increased sense of belonging in society, increased admiration from others, increased romantic prospects, even increased job offers! Of course we might strive to conform.
Sometimes, we are willing to hurt ourselves in order to achieve this arbitrary notion of success. Those of us who obsess over changing our bodies do so for reasons far more complex than simply wanting to be “attractive.” Maybe we have a mental illness that causes these symptoms, maybe we crave control in this area of our lives because we can’t get it in another, maybe we’ve learned these behaviours from family or friends we look up to.
Despite the deeper issues at play, our efforts are often dismissed as superficial. We are scoffed at for wanting to be what society has told us is the best version of ourselves. Is that fair? The need to alter (read: “improve”) our physical selves is so much more than skin-deep. It’s time we get to the root of the problem.
How do we unlearn a lifetime of self-loathing? How do we disengage from this vicious game? How do we create a kinder climate for young people to meet themselves in?
For my part, I plan to start with a message to my kindergarten self, one that perhaps we could all stand to hear: there is nothing wrong with you. You do not need to change yourself in order to be worthy of love. The presence of another’s beauty is not the absence of your own. And for god’s sake, eat the fucking cookie.
Elsa Taylor is a queer, feminist 24-year-old who loves cats and poetry. Find her mixing cocktails at her bar, The Roost on Corydon, or on Instagram: @elsaclare.
Published in Volume 73, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 24, 2019)