Self-love and other mysteries

There once was a girl who wanted to be seen. She wanted, like so many of us do, to feel special. She did not know the depth of the light she had to offer, and so she resolved to be the best in the identities she had carved for herself: student, daughter, woman. 

It just so happened that she loved learning, and being a good student—and later employee (though that's more complicated)—came pretty naturally to her. Her grade school and high school years were a running list of accomplishments, all won through deep curiosity and her love of school and books.

Being a daughter was harder. Her mother, the most precious person in her world, became ill when she was just discovering her own personhood. And so in the middle of college, she had to grow into someone who could care for another, who could put herself in the shoes of someone she loved with unfailing resilience, even in the face of great pain and overwhelm and uncertainty about their shared future as mother, daughter, as family of two. She stumbled, but she grew.

But the third task was the hardest of all. Being a woman in a world of men was a mystery to her, and she started with many mistakes. First, she was afraid. She had learned at an early age how violent and how strong men could be compared to women. She thought avoidance was surely the safest strategy.

Yet slowly but surely, she was drawn. She learned how wanted (if not always loved) boys could make her feel. How validated and seen. She rediscovered the craving for closeness she carried all along as a child, but this time she wanted not the attention of her grandmother, her family, or her teachers, but the attention of boys and of men. Their want seemed to signal something important: it seemed to signal their approval, and their approval was proof that she was worthy. She was special.

This feeling of connection seemed to quench an ever-present thirst she didn't even know she had. In the process, she also learned something else: that how she looked was a vital part of earning this connection. To be seen and wanted and—eventually, hopefully—held close and loved deeply seemed to all begin with how she looked.

This made her afraid. She had been told she was a pretty girl growing up, but she didn't think she was that pretty. The prettiest girls at school looked nothing like her. They were fair and blonde and freckled, seemingly aglow without a care in the world. They carried themselves effortlessly and spoke out confidently. This was amazing to her: she had only ever repressed her own voice, made herself smaller, moved quietly through the world so as not to disturb or offend anyone. This was how she had learned to get by.

But now it seemed that all the love and acceptance she craved was on the other side of being pretty, confident, outspoken. She tried on these personalities like cloaks, big and unwieldy on the smallness of the space she'd occupied for so long. They felt foreign and thrilling and awkward. She grew into them slowly. 

She learned to shed her fear, find her voice, and to walk with a more assured gait. She learned the power of her body and what it could feel and do. She discovered love and the unique ecstasy and sorrow of heartbreak. The lessons—many, hard-earned—were checks off her list of womanhood. They were currency, they were armor.

But as close as she got to the ideals of female beauty that so possessed society, she never felt like she was quite close enough. And yet this was what society told her she had to be if she wanted the kind of love and specialness that mattered. Compliments from people who found her beautiful bounced off of her like pellets hitting steel, unable to penetrate the wall of her own self-doubt that only ever told her: "Not enough." 

Society also had a toolkit for these situations. This toolkit was made up of painful, transfiguring magic: eyeliner that she had to learn to use on her "Not quite Asian eyes," hair straighteners that burnt her fingers while taming her coarse waves, diets that left her reeling in obsessive habits and guilt. Nothing she ever did quite felt like it helped her become Enough. The hunger to be seen was always there. Some days she convinced herself that if she only had more discipline, only ate a little less, only used a little more mascara, that she would arrive. She would be Enough, and she could finally pause and enjoy her life.

More often than not, this thinking was a cruel joke. It led her down a spiral of trying harder only to arrive at herself again, staring back at her in the mirror looking unchanged but simply more exhausted.

One day, after weeks of trying to eat as little as she could while keeping up her energy and her vibrancy, she fell, exhausted, to the floor. Her fatigue was not physical; it was her mind, her heart, her entire being that ached from the futility of her pursuit. She was spent, and even she could no longer deny that the problem would not simply be solved if she "just weighed a little bit less." That a flat stomach would not give her the carefree joy and the acceptance she craved, and that the poison was not in the healthy curves of her body but in the broken record of her mind.

This thought, far from giving her relief, made her terrified. All her life, she had longed to be loved and held so closely that she felt like there was nothing wrong with her. That she could finally stop trying to fix herself. That the only mold she needed to fit in was exactly the shape of her own self, and no one else's. And miraculously, she had found the person that saw her and only saw beauty, love, and perfect imperfection.

She had found the love of her life.

This gave her joy, but it also scared her senseless. What if, after all this, I lose him? What if I am not good enough to hold onto a love like this? What if the beauty of who I am gets tired and boring, and all that's left is how I look—and that fades, too? 

This immeasurable gift of the love given her by the man she had dreamed of was now a terrifying prospect to lose. One day, tearfully, on the dock of the sea by a big ferris wheel, she told him this. She confessed to him her fear, her sadness, her longing and the Not Enough-ness that she felt her whole life.

She told this story in pieces, over many weeks and heart-baring difficult conversations, until she felt he had understood. In his eyes she could see that he would do anything to help her free herself from this feeling of Not Enough-ness, and in so many ways he already had. In his heartfelt words she heard how badly he wanted her to see that she was not only enough, but far beyond it.

Her whole life, it seemed, had been spent trying to prove her worthiness to everyone around her. First to her family. Then, her peers. Now, the one who loved her beyond all imagining. But the look in her love's eyes broke a spell. They seemed to reach into her mind, the part with the broken record player, and to finally, gently interrupt its painful refrain. The look in his eyes confirmed beyond all doubt: You are enough. You do not need to change. You will be loved no matter what.

She was skeptical at first. She'd held this story of her Not Enough-ness as truth for so long. Could she bear to risk not trying to fix herself anymore? Could she stop using her vanity and her looks as the shield that made her a distant object of desire instead of a human, up close and personal? Could she allow herself to be, simply, exposed and true?

For the longest time, she'd feared the answer was no. But now for the first time, she learned that with the ones who count, whose hearts know truly how to love, the answer was yes. She could be herself. She could relax and simply be, and she would still be loved and lovable. That a flatter stomach or thinner thighs were not the solution, but instead the lures of an addictive cycle of pride and of sadness.

Her one precious life was here before her very eyes, full of love and overflowing with pockets of hidden joy, and she was letting it slip by, caught in the throes of calorie-counting. She realized, as if waking from a dream, that she already had in abundance the love and connection she'd chased for so long and all that was left to do was to trust. That it was time to stop armoring herself against rejection, because she was only rejecting herself in the process. It was time to stop trying and to simply be. 

It was time to love herself.