I used to think I was pretty.
What I mean to say specifically is, I used to like my face. I used to like looking at myself, and looking at pictures of myself. It wasn’t because I fit any kind of conventional standard of prettiness though, it was more that I liked how I looked because I liked the experience of being myself.
Basically, when I felt good about myself and inside myself, my brain would run the picture of myself through a sort of beautifying filter. Why? Because that’s just something our brains do!
Did you know people consistently rate themselves as more attractive right after a workout? This isn’t because we actually look any better post workout. It’s because between the exercise endorphins, and being proud of ourselves for having worked hard, we feel good. And when we feel good (both in general and toward ourselves), our brain’s little “beautifying filter” is more likely to show up.
Of course, there’s a flip side to this pretty-filter too. Feeling shitty about ourselves (and inside ourselves) can make us see ourselves as less attractive.
I don’t know about you, but in my world — between a global pandemic and clinical depression — feeling shitty has pretty much become the new normal lately. As a result, my face has looked completely different to me over the last year: puffy, wrinkly, and totally out of proportion. Unattractive.
Basically, my brain has been running my image through an ugly-filter.
Whomp whomp. I don’t particularly like this fact, but it also doesn’t really bother me. After all, the ugly-filter is the result of depression, shame and anxiety, mean voices in my mind, isolation, and the deep dark abyss. It’s about how far away I’ve been from my own joy and light; how far away from myself I’ve been.
So yeah, this sucks for a lot of reasons. But not feeling pretty is hardly one.
The truth is that none of us ever really know what we look like, objectively. Our brains are constantly running little filters over what we see, for better or for worse — both on ourselves and on other people!
Think about your ex, who seemed so beautiful to you when you were falling in love, but now strikes you as ugly or disgusting. Did their face change that dramatically? No. But your feelings about them sure did, and that changes the filter.
When we feel a lot of joy, pleasure, and emotional safety with someone — when we think of them as morally great, and feel like our connection is mutual and secure — our brain makes them look more attractive. It makes their face appear more symmetrical, and changes the proportions of their features to be more pleasing.
I notice this all the time. When I feel closest to my partner (like after a really connective talk or amazing sex) I swear his face appears to me like a sexy cartoon character. His eyes look unbelievably big and bright, his mouth so wide and appealing, and his skin seems to almost be giving off light. The proportions of his face literally shift around in my brain because I’m feeling so into and close to him.
Likewise, when we don’t like someone (or they make us feel insecure or judged) our brains subtly shift their proportions around to make them less attractive. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to judge the appearance of someone who rubs you the wrong way, who threatens you, or who makes you feel rebuffed or rejected? It’s what’s going on every time a woman finds out her partner is attracted to someone, and huffs to a friend that “she’s not even that pretty!”
It’s important to understand these little brain filters to fully understand body neutrality.
When everything hurts, it’s very difficult to see the package that pain comes in as beautiful. When everything feels wonderful, it’s very difficult to see the package that pleasure comes in as ugly.
Seeing ourselves as unattractive isn’t always a pathology, or even a problem. Sometimes it’s just that being ourselves feels shitty, and painful, and unsafe.
A few days ago, as I was scrolling through my photos in search of something interesting to write about, I noticed that I was responding positively to all the pictures of me again. I kept seeing my face and feeling joy — something that hasn’t happened in a while. I found myself lingering longer on those photos, enjoying looking at myself.
This has nothing to do with how I look, just as it didn’t before when I saw something less appealing. It just means my meds are working, my mental health is improving, and I’m feeling better. (Thank goodness.)
I like how I look again, because I like how it feels to be me again.
Curious to hear your thoughts on this one. Have you ever noticed this? How does this show up for you in terms of body image?
Sending you strength if you’ve been struggling with mental health lately too.
May we all seek and find the support we need to feel like ourselves during an incredibly difficult time.