94: Picture This

94: Picture This

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

Picture This

Beauty is how you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical.

~Sophia Loren

My seventh grade yearbook picture boasts a handwritten caption: “Always remember, this picture isn’t nearly as nice as the person.” Somewhere out in the world, another yearbook from 1975 bears the same caption — under the photo of my friend, Trudy. We both endured the humiliation of having a bad picture that year, and we each wrote the phrase under the other’s photo.

The year of the bad yearbook picture marked a sea change in the way I thought about myself. Before age twelve, I was self-confident, with high self-esteem, a flair for the dramatic, and an interest in many and varied subjects. I dreamed of being a writer, and had already submitted a manuscript to a publisher.

I knew I had the right to be in the world. I belonged. And it had nothing to do with how I looked.

But at age twelve, I started to care more about my appearance than my intelligence, my hobbies, my sense of humor, or my kind disposition. With that decision came the doubts. My stomach wasn’t as flat as my friend Laura’s. My smile was crooked. My hair was blah. Maybe I wasn’t as wonderful as I’d believed myself to be. Maybe I didn’t have the right to be walking around, looking the way I did.

As I moved on to eighth grade and then on to high school and college, the doubts only multiplied. The pretty girls got everything — the boys, the attention, the school glory. They dressed up in lovely gowns to go to the junior prom and the senior ball while I stayed home. They were the cheerleaders and popular girls, the ones everyone else looked up to. They were the desired. What was I? Yes, I got good grades, and yes, everyone said I was “nice.” But the rewards for those things weren’t as obvious as what the pretty girls received, and thus didn’t seem as worthy. If the rewards weren’t as worthy, didn’t that mean I wasn’t as worthy?

At one level, I knew appearance shouldn’t be so important, and I didn’t try all that hard to improve mine. But the pressure and desire were there. Every time I saw a picture of myself, I felt the same way I had in seventh grade — -disgusted, ashamed, mad at myself. Why wasn’t I prettier? Why was I a failure at looking attractive? If a picture is worth a thousand words, each photo of myself was an essay about how worthless I was.

Almost every experience I had was colored by my perception of how I looked. I couldn’t look at a single picture I was in without berating myself. I envied my friends who were prettier, with better figures, who were wonderfully photogenic. Sometimes I was downright jealous. They seemed to have no trouble attracting attention while I struggled to be noticed. One friend said to me, “I know I’m pretty.” This wasn’t braggadocio; she was simply stating a fact. All my attractive friends seemed to take it for granted that their appearance wasn’t something they had to worry about. They constantly received positive reinforcement. I longed for the compliments they so readily received. I yearned for the adoration and admiration.

At the same time, I knew I was being ridiculous. Why did I care so much? By adulthood, I’d accepted any number of things about myself. I would never swim in the Olympics. I would never pitch in the major leagues. So why couldn’t I accept I would never be beautiful?

Besides, I didn’t particularly value beauty in others. Sure, I admired my pretty friends and envied them, but what I liked most about them wasn’t their pleasing appearances. I loved Danielle’s sense of humor, Jackie’s expert cooking, and Hannah’s enthusiasm for life. And in everyone else? What sent shivers down my spine was kindness to others. News stories depicting strangers helping each other in need always brought tears to my eyes.

But I couldn’t seem to apply the same standards to myself. If pictures were taken of an event I attended, what became most important was how I looked. How washed out and plump I was at my brother’s wedding. My hair was a mess at the county fair. I never could truly enjoy an experience that involved picture taking because I worried ahead of time that I would later have confirmation that I’d looked unattractive.

I often felt ashamed for feeling the way I did. I was perfectly healthy, with no disfigurements. I might not attract positive attention, but I didn’t attract negative attention, either. In every other way, my life was extremely pleasant. Why did I care so much about such a superficial aspect of my life?

The low point came when I refused to watch the DVD of my stepfather’s memorial service. Not because I would be sad — though that was part of it — but because I didn’t want to see how I looked, especially when I took to the podium to talk about Dan and ended up in tears. My face would surely have scrunched up unattractively. This was a man I had loved and looked up to for thirty-five years. Was I really taking away from his memorial service solely the fact that I might not have looked my best? Especially at the moment when I was being my most authentic self, when I was showing my true emotions?

That low point became the turning point. I had lived for almost fifty years and had spent most of them worrying about my appearance. I vowed from then on to live my life without caring so much about how I looked. I would enjoy experiences rather than analyze how I looked doing them, and channel my energy into more valuable pursuits — whether for my career or my relationships. Sure, I would attempt to look my best. But that would be a far cry from what I’d been doing — hoping to look like someone other than myself, and caring about that above all else.

These days, I admit I have setbacks. I can’t seem to completely turn off my displeasure when I see a picture of myself with more than one chin. I still think I look heavy in almost every photo. I search for, and find, gray hairs and wrinkles. But it is better. I am learning to value who I am on the inside. I started thinking of it this way — at my own memorial service, what do I want people to say about me? That I was beautiful? What an empty and lonely sentiment. No. I want to be known as a kind person, most of all. Generous, wise, creative, and intelligent, too. When I think about it, appearance doesn’t even make the list. So why worry about it when I’m alive?

I believe that life really is different for attractive people — maybe easier; perhaps, in certain circumstances, better. But in the end, does it really matter? I don’t think so. Maybe Trudy and I were on to something when we said the picture wasn’t nearly as nice as the person. Maybe we suspected being nice was better.

And now I am convinced it is.

~Carol Ayer

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