A week or so ago, my sister sends me this text message: “I wanted to tell you that you looked so beautiful in those group pictures!” The group pictures she’s referring to are the ones taken during the night of my organization’s gala, which is a fancy schmancy fundraiser that also serves as a great excuse to get all dolled up. I admit I did feel very beautiful that night, but seeing my sister’s compliment made something in me recoil rather than flutter.
I realized I felt angry. Why? Because my sister chose to call me beautiful when I was her kind of beautiful–wearing a sexy dress and covered in shit tons of makeup. I guess I never really forgave her for having such a huge (detrimental) impact on my (lack of) self-esteem. I was a very anxious, self-conscious kid growing up. Getting acne when I was in high school made things worse. I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror for many years. I carried myself like an apology to people for having to look at my face. I tried so many different things (Proactive definitely did not work for me), with little to no results. No one ever said a mean thing to me about my acne, though. No one except my family, but a lot of it came directly from my sister’s mouth. Not that the comments in and of themselves were strictly mean, but she did a lot of policing of my face that created the same feelings of shame. Every time she saw me, she would recommend a new cleanser, tell me to stop touching my face, and tell me I should stop stressing out. She started saying stupid things, like how I wouldn’t have broken out so much if I had gone to the same middle school as she had. My younger sibling told me later that she once said the reason I had never had a boyfriend was because of my acne.
The worst part, though? The worst part was just her looking at me, scrutinizing me, her gaze letting me know how ugly and therefore worthless I was in her eyes. It was humiliating to be evaluated in that way, and it was dehumanizing to know how I was valued by her. To her, I was just a walking pimple she wanted to pop. It seemed she couldn’t really see me past my acne. It got to the point where I wanted to avoid seeing my family altogether, and dreaded visits with them.
Going to college away from my toxic family and my shithole of a hometown gave me an opportunity to be a part of an unconditionally loving community. I got to know people who saw me for who I was, who liked me for me, who didn’t object to my face and didn’t see acne as my defining feature. It amazed me at first–why were these people so kind? Why would they compliment me? Did they even mean it? I began to realize that much of the shame I had been feeling was a projection of self-loathing I had internalized from my sister.
I started my self-love project my sophomore year of college, but it was a false start–more to do with the completion of a creative writing assignment than the willingness to look at myself and feel differently. But as time passed, I stopped caring as much about what my sister thought and started embracing myself for who I was, flaws and all. The vow I ostensibly made to love myself when I was 19 became a genuine promise. The acne stayed, off and on, but what had changed was me. I was tired of holding myself like an apology. I was so much more than the imperfections on my face. I was a writer. A feminist. A Harry Potter fanatic. A first generation college student. An ardent karaoke singer. A lover of dark chocolate and rom coms and kitschy art and boba. An adequately functioning human being. I started wearing this self-love on my sleeve, and it felt wonderful.
That’s not to say I don’t have my off days. I can feel bad about myself as much as the average young woman constantly bombarded with the message that my primary value is my appearance. But I feel a lot better now than I did five years ago. That’s progress to me. Lately, it’s my sister who has been feeling insecure about herself. She’s constantly looking to others, including me, for reassurance. I’m tempted to tell her something petty and spiteful out of revenge for how awful she was to me when I was the one feeling low about myself, but I know that in the long term, it won’t help me or make me feel better. I know I need to be the better person, or there won’t have been any lesson learned at all. Because putting down other people is just an easier way of hating yourself, and I don’t want to be a part of that vicious cycle if I can help it. My sister is shallow and mean-spirited, and I feel bad that her mind hasn’t opened up new pathways of acceptance, belonging, and self-worth. I sincerely hope that someday she’ll be able to come to terms with what true beauty means, but her issues aren’t mine to work out.
I’ve started wearing makeup recently. Partly because I’m tired of buying makeup for one special occasion and letting it all go to waste, partly because I want to look older, and partly because yes, I want to cover up my acne which seems like it will never really go away. One of the reasons I’ve put off the whole makeup thing for so long (I think most girls start wearing it in middle school, maybe even younger these days) was because I saw makeup as a way of hiding my face, instead of enhancing it. I figured having a naturally ugly face would be better than having an artificially beautiful one. I still sort of have a second-wave view of makeup, but have grudgingly accepted that it can indeed be transformative and expressive and empowering. Makeup is a tricky art, and I’m still trying to get the hang of it, but I feel comfortable with experimenting with it now because I’ve been able to come to terms with my appearance without using makeup as a security blanket–which is critically important to me.
As for my sister’s text message–I ended up not responding. I didn’t want to say thank you, because that would mean her opinion of my appearance meant something to me, which I now know it does not. It’s hard to go back down when I’ve been fortunate enough to surround myself with people who believe I’m beautiful no matter the circumstance, who can make me feel good about myself without there being a catch.
I will say that I was a bit hesitant to write this post because some people view me as this strong feminist chick who doesn’t give a fuck about what other people think, and talking about this issue may undermine that (although maybe like three people will read this post, so whatever). But just because I’m a feminist who wants to smash the patriarchy doesn’t mean I’m immune to the patriarchy. We are all enmeshed in various systems of oppression in different ways, and we all have different methods of navigating through this tangled web in search of truth and liberation.
In the past, I always bowed to my family’s opinions, because I trusted them to see the truth. Now I realize, they can sometimes have a version of the truth that is as ugly and distorted as the way my sister likes to see my face. Yes, I have acne. Her truth is that this is what defined me. My truth is that I am beautiful and flawed, just like everyone else. When people compliment me now, I smile and say thank you without a second thought.