There’s a photograph in a silver frame on my desk at home: one that I took at Turner Field on June 9, the last night I spent in my 20s. I snapped the photo, intending to send it to my little brother, to show him I was wearing the awesome customized jersey he’d given me as a birthday gift. But I never sent the photo, and I never posted it on any of my social media profiles. I later stood at the photo kiosk in Target, debating whether to print it out, before deciding that I would. Then I bought a frame and debated again whether to choose this photo or another one.
When I look at the photo, I notice a few things first: my eyes have bags underneath them…all the time now. A sign that my 30th birthday was the next day? My Atlanta Braves necklace is flipped inside out. The grin on my face is wide and silly, and my expression is goofy and weird. I wonder why I can’t have a normal face.
I see the flaws first.
But then I ignore that and start to pay attention to all the reasons why I chose to frame this photo:
Everything I’m wearing: a Braves t-shirt underneath a bold, red Braves jersey. A Braves ballcap on my head. Braves necklace and earrings. When I love something, I go ALL IN. That’s one of my favorite things about myself. Despite the fact that the Braves are nearing the end of the worst season in franchise history, I’m still supremely proud that I’ve chosen to be a Braves fan.
Next, I notice my best friend, leaning over with a goofy grin on her face that is equally as silly as my own. Several rows behind us are other fans, most looking bored. My gracious, was I excited to be there that night, and I didn’t really care who knew. It was the last night in my 20s, and I was in my favorite place in the world with a few of my favorite people. And we had great seats in the second level behind home plate! It’s easy to look at the grin on my face and think how silly I look until I remember how deliriously happy I was in that moment. And then I wish that I could have that goofy grin on my face all the time.
I had a bad afternoon a few days ago. I called my mom and woke her up during her Sunday afternoon nap, and then I sobbed on the phone. I don’t know what happened that day specifically, or if it was just a culmination of days of feeling worthless and ugly. I cried about being a bridesmaid in my brother’s wedding. I cried about being 30 and single. I cried about things I’m not even sure I can put into words.
Social media makes being a female hard. It probably just makes being a person hard, but I only know what it’s like from the female perspective. Almost daily, I see ultrasound pics or engagement photos. And when I post images of baseball diamonds or references to books I’m reading or articles on the Syrian refugee crisis, I feel like just another voice lost in mass of people who are living ordinary lives with nothing to celebrate, with nothing worth saying. And even while I recognize the fallacy in that thought, I have a hard time stopping it. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are—or should be—tools to let us celebrate and rejoice alongside those people. Instead, I let social media add to the pressure of never being good enough, pretty enough, smart enough. I lie awake at night and wonder why I haven’t gotten to achieve those milestones that other people have.
I minimize the value of what I have achieved when I make these comparisons.
I’m reading a book right now called The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. I just finished a novel called Dietland, by far one of the most radical feminist texts I’ve ever read. And on my desk is Jesus Feminist, which I’m excited to read as well. And all these theories, these ideas about beauty and femininity and spirituality, are in the forefront of my mind. I think about the fact that every woman I know has been gifted with a unique beauty and style. I think about the fact that a person’s body doesn’t exist solely for the pleasure of others, and that we aren’t given the right of judging another person’s physical appearance just because we’re displeased. I think about the fact that Jesus clearly cherished and valued the women in his life, and that I’m blessed to be part of that holy tradition.
This topic of beauty keeps coming up, not just in the books I read. It comes up in really edifying conversations with my book club, a group of strong, beautiful, faithful, intelligent women who never back down from the hard issues. It comes up when I’m teaching a class on argument, and I want my students to start thinking about perception, and I encourage them to reconsider the way they look at the people around them.
And then I cry on the phone about a dress and makeup and hair and all the things that I feel like I just can’t ever freaking do RIGHT. Because, somewhere along the way, the way I’m going to LOOK on the day of the wedding became a stumbling block to being able to celebrate with my little brother, my favorite person in the world, and the wonderful woman who is going to be my sister-in-law. And because, for so long, I’ve been given subtle hints from people—from men I’ve wanted to date, from strangers in coffee shops who check out my friends and ignore me, from conversations I’ve overheard in public spaces—subtle hints that I’m too short, too fat, not pretty. I’ve been afraid to cut my hair for fear that I’ll lose the only attractive quality I have—or at least the only one people seem to compliment.
And there seems to be that unspoken connection, the connection that we can SAY isn’t true but that we somehow BELIEVE anyway: beautiful women get what they want. And the rest of us just have to put up with the leftovers.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who legitimately believed she was beautiful—or, if she does, she hasn’t gotten to that point without wrestling through all this garbage first. And that makes this pain somehow worse. I want to stop feeling this way. I want to feel valued and cherished, and I want to be able to extend that to the other women in my life. I want to be able to have conversations without feeling like I’m judged for my appearance and found sorely lacking. And I want this, too, for every other woman in my life.
Maybe it happens in baby steps? I don’t know. But I put the framed picture from June 9 in a place that I see it every day, to remind myself that finding joy is far greater than finding flaws. And even when I sit in front of that photo and sob on the phone to my mom, I’ll look to the photo to remind me that maybe true beauty is something different than anything we’ve ever really seen. I really hope that’s true.