I’ve never done this before, but today I have a guest post, a beautiful essay written by a wonderful human and client Courtney Paré.
Like many women I know, Courtney has been on a journey of self-acceptance around her body and appearance for a long time, and she brings extraordinary levels of introspection, courage, humor, and authenticity to the process. As such, I once asked her what she thought she might need in order to feel more confident and she responded “I’d need to know I was the most beautiful girl in the world.” We laughed together at the simultaneous absurdity and truth-telling power of this statement.
This is what we as women are taught we need to be, in order to be confident.
At my request, Courtney has graciously written about her experience, and I’m excited to share it with you today. Maybe you’ve been there and you’ll relate. Maybe not. If you dig her style, you can find her on instagram @dr_courtney_pare or her website here.
Either way feel free to hit reply and let me know how this lands with you.
“Do you think I’m the most beautiful girl in the world?”
It was 15 years ago now, but I remember it like it just happened. Me gazing up at him, batting my eyes with a smile, about to lean in for a kiss as I anticipated some sort of affirming, romantic response.
For the record, I am a thin, white, able-bodied, conventionally attractive woman. But I didn’t feel beautiful, and truthfully, I didn’t simply want to be beautiful. I wanted confirmation that I was the MOST beautiful person he’d ever seen. I wholeheartedly believed the key to feeling “good enough” was at the other end of that elusive title, and yearned for him to validate my claim to it.
Instead, it went like this: “I mean, I think you’re pretty, but if we put you in a line up with a bunch of supermodels or something, obviously you wouldn’t be the most attractive.”
His response was definitely affirming; I wasn’t good enough. And, until I reached supermodel status I was at risk of being abandoned and replaced at any moment.
I had never liked my body. But, if I had to pinpoint a time where I started to DESPISE it, that was it.
I was devastated, and looked toward family and friends for comfort. What I remember hearing were things like “he’s just a jerk – you could get any guy you want”, or, “stop it – people would kill to look the way you do.” The most painful was the dismissive and sarcastic “you poooor thing, yes, life must be miserable being as beautiful as you are.”
In that moment I entered into what would become my reality for so long.
I was too pretty to be ugly and too ugly to be pretty. Stuck in this in-between space, feeling like I didn’t have the right to complain about my body, yet feeling disgusting and unlovable living in it.
What was most upsetting wasn’t so much that I didn’t feel pretty or ugly, but more that it felt like confirmation I didn’t belong anywhere. While I felt I could really relate to people on both ends of the spectrum, since I couldn’t fully embody either, I felt like an imposter shunned from both. Unable to speak freely to, or as, a person in either category, without coming across offensive or egocentric. This in-between space felt like a void; an attention void. A space where “average” people go to be silent and unnoticed. A place where people have just enough privilege that they dare not complain, while simultaneously having just enough pain and self-hatred to keep them body obsessed, lonely and depressed.
Needless to say, it’s tough not feeling thin enough, pretty enough, and good enough. It’s even tougher harboring an incredible amount of shame and isolation for feeling not thin enough, pretty enough and good enough.
For a long time, if I felt like I was the prettiest or thinnest one in a room, I couldn’t help but feel this sense of accomplishment. As if I achieved something amazing, literally by doing nothing other than showing up with a body. I had this false sense of security that even if I had nothing else to offer, if I looked good, people would HAVE to like me. No one could possibly love someone more than me if they were less attractive; I could breathe. (But also, not really, because I had to keep my stomach sucked in at all times.)
The older I got, the more this desire to be perfect fundamentally interfered with my beliefs. I fully believe someone being thinner, more beautiful or less “flawed” doesn’t make them any more worthy of respect and admiration or more deserving of love and connection. And yet, when it came to me, it’s like there was a different set of rules. That in order for me to be worthy, I had to be perfect.
One day I was at an event with a woman who, despite being rather unremarkable in appearance, had people flocking to her. Chatting and laughing with her, like they were having a great time. Then, a male friend of mine said, “she’s amazing! I just love when she’s at these events.”
Um, what!? This didn’t compute. She was a bit overweight by conventional standards, dressed in a skirt that didn’t come close to covering up the few dimples on her outer thigh, and it didn’t look like she was even attempting to hold her stomach in while she snacked on the appetizers. HOW WAS THIS POSSIBLE!?
Immediately feeling threatened, angry, and like I wanted to get out of there and cry, I tried to play if off with an agreeable, “I know…she’s so great!” But I don’t think those words mumbled through clenched teeth and a death stare convinced anybody.
Right then I realized that I thought I wanted to be pretty. What I really wanted was to be loved. To be accepted. To connect deeply with others. Yet somewhere, I learned that the way to achieve all those things was through being the most conventionally attractive. In that moment, my thinking was challenged.
A combined 15 years of healing work and a lot more eye-opening situations like the one above, I realized that the problem wasn’t that I didn’t feel beautiful enough. The bigger problem was that I believed that being better than everyone else – whether prettier, thinner, smarter, kinder, was the ONLY way to achieve love and connection.
The more I started to witness unconventionally attractive or outwardly “flawed” women living the type of life I wanted, the more I questioned this dedication to physical perfection. These people seemed happy. They would laugh. They were confident. They would eat. They had friends. Their partners loved them. They were living a life I so deeply wanted, and doing so with body flaws I cried and obsessed over my entire life.
While I’d be lying if I said I don’t compare myself to anyone anymore, what I notice about others has significantly changed. Rather than comparing whose legs are smoother, buns are tighter and face more youthful…I now find myself looking for who is laughing? Who is vulnerable? Who is courageous? Who is living their unapologetically authentic life? Who bares their soul rather than hiding it behind their body? Because I want to be like, and around, THEM.
I am not perfect. And even though much of the time I still want to be, what I realize now is that what I want even more than to have a beautiful body is to have beautiful relationships. To connect with people not because of how I look, but because of who I AM.
As I started making small victories over this lifetime of hatred toward my body, a part of me was ready to shout in excitement from the rooftops. How brave and victorious I felt showing up to the gym in a sports bra for the first time or actually eating a meal while wearing a tight dress. However, at this same time I also started learning a lot more about body privilege and the body positivity movement. I’ll be honest, as a conventionally attractive woman with a privileged body I am still not exactly sure where my hatred and grief around my body belongs. Where opening up about it is acceptable and welcomed and not oppressive to others
All I know is that the pain has been real for ME. It amazes me how much emotional pain the simple organization of some skin, bone, fat and muscle has brought me, but I am slowly learning to honor that pain rather than hate myself more deeply for it. Recognizing that I had to first give that hurt permission to be there before I could ask it what it needs to heal was hugely important. Working with my amazing coach, Jessi Kneeland, has helped tremendously with this. I have never felt more heard and less judged sharing secrets from the depths of my body shaming soul than while working with her. I’ve witnessed first hand that secretes are toxic and shame is destructive. Being gentle with myself has allowed me to feel more compassionate and less judgmental toward others. It has allowed me to see life as more than a competition of bodies, and helped me feel less hypocritical as I support others on their own self-acceptance journeys.
Body acceptance is hard. And, I’m still not there. Body love is even harder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be there. But what I DO know, is I used to HATE my body. And today, I hate it a little less, so I think that’s a win.
Interestingly, that doesn’t mean I like it any more. Instead, this gradual lessening of hatred is from shifting my internal and external focus away from the body all-together. To focus on qualities in others and myself I love and desire outside of physical appearance. To have goals and dreams that are completely unrelated to the way I look. To start asking myself, do I even like THEM, rather than constantly being desperate to make them like me. As it turns out, the more I choose to spend my time on things that excite me outside of having the perfect body, the less time and energy I have to obsess about hating it!
I don’t believe I came into this world thinking, “I need to be the most physically attractive, people-pleasing human to ever live”, yet that certainly became my mission. I learned to take that on somewhere. And, I’m guessing you did, too. If you’ve read this far, I’m confident you’re on the journey to questioning that old programming and stepping into your true life’s mission, and you’re doing an amazing job. Keep going, the world is waiting for YOU, not just your body, to show.