It seems like one Harvard professor or another in exceedingly blue, alarmingly stiff jeans is always coming out with a pop psych book about happiness and how misunderstood it is.
Apparently, people make a lot of the same mistakes about happiness over and over. We keep thinking that we have to work really hard to get to it, and do certain tricky things to capture it, sort of like that scene in Avatar, where they have to bond with the giant flying dinosaur things, and they’re just as likely to get killed, because you have to really earn that bond—not just any Na’vi can fly! But man, when you stick your hair tentacle into your bird dinosaur’s tendril thing and make that platonic, yet soulmate-y connection—there is NOTHING else like that shit. So worth it.
My point is, we expect happiness to be hard. But (apparently) it isn’t really. And instead of fighting and waiting for it, we should probably just work on recognizing where it’s already sneaking around in the shadows of our current lives, like a little smiley cat burglar.
I think it’s like that with beauty and self-acceptance, too.
Lady mags are always telling us what easy steps we can take to get our bodies beach-ready by the summer, and fitness program ads shout encouraging things about reaching your goals and hauling your fat ass up that mountain of old habits and deliciously high carb food to the other side, where a smirking, hotter you is waiting, sipping a wheatgrass infused carrot protein drink. If we work harder at pilates, if we buy more age-defying makeup with science-y looking commercials that show cells bouncing around being healthier and shinier, if we finally manage to calculate that precise mathematical formula of facial shape + length of neck + relation of space between the eyes to width of chin to dimension of nostrils that will result in us at long last establishing what exactly the right haircut is, THEN, and only then, will we look great. And we will feel great, too, because we look great. And who doesn’t feel better when they look better?
During some magical, thrilling time in the future, every one of us has the potential to feel truly good about ourselves, because we will be a lot sexier than we are right now.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much we’re taught to think about our potential future sexy selves. Pregnancy is really a wild transformation, like one of those nature videos with the leaves going through their life stages on fast forward, so you can see them bud and grow and green and brown to death and drop off all in the span of like a minute. I feel like I am one of those sped-up sequences, with my body changing practically every day. And as this is happening, I keep reading stuff geared at pregnant women that urges us to think about our post-birth bodies already. To make sure we’re setting ourselves up to bounce right back and reclaim our tight, lithe, pre-mom selves. And honestly, I’m kind of offended. I’m like, give me a friggin’ second to just be huge and pregnant over here! I get all defensive: “Maybe I like my enormous belly, OKAY? Is it going to be alright with everyone if I think it’s pretty cool that there is an entire HUMAN BEING in my abdomen right now?”
And then I think that maybe we should get indignant about this stuff even when we’re not carting around entire tiny humans in our bellies. Because maybe we look really good already, but we’re just so used to expecting to find something wrong with our hair that we don’t even notice.
It is entirely possible, I think, that we have learned so thoroughly that true beauty is something just outside of our grasp and self-acceptance is waiting alongside true beauty that we are missing out on how cool we are right now.
And even if we don’t happen to look gloriously lovely but are just failing to pick up on it, it seems a little ridiculous to spend so much energy working to get more gloriously lovely all the time while neglecting to work on feeling better about how we already are.
Because, really, there is no magical moment when you find the fantastically science-y concealer that perfectly balances the complicated pH of your mysterious skin and then you look and feel obviously better forever. Because even when people do get a fabulous haircut, they find themselves nitpicking and criticizing soon thereafter.
We have learned too well to keep searching and waiting and hoping. Appreciating your appearance isn’t a frivolous or impossible fantasy—it should be a basic exercise in emotional well-being. If we care enough to keep buying crazy cosmetics and feeling guilty over eating dessert and stressing out over that startlingly unforgiving three-sided reflection in the department store fitting room, then this stuff matters. It affects our quality of life. It affects our happiness.
It’s time to stop waiting to change and improve and get sexy and get your beach bod. It’s time to stop expecting a long, cold fight. It doesn’t have to be that hard. Instead, look in the mirror and think about what you really like about what you see. Because this is you, right now, with the only body you can have in this moment.
After I have my baby, I don’t intend to try frantically to rush back to my slimmer, tighter body. Instead, I want to appreciate the fact that my body just did some seriously impressive stuff. Having a baby is a big deal. But just having a functioning body is a big deal, too, when you think about it. Being appreciative of it shouldn’t be a ridiculous, improbable undertaking—it just makes good, solid sense.
So please, please, when you catch yourself thinking about the things you need to improve about the way you look and how long it might be before you can chip away at the block of your not-sexy-enoughness until something better is finally revealed—stop yourself. Think of those very earnest Harvard professors in their very blue jeans. They are wearing those jeans for you, because they’ve spent so much time researching the way you think that they didn’t notice the fashions gradually changing, over the years. It’s honorable, really. It’s self-sacrificing.
We have learned that beauty is about pursuit and inadequacy. We have learned that we can’t have it yet, or maybe ever, but we’re supposed to keep trying anyway. Let’s get smart and look at the data and look at ourselves in a way that makes us happy.
You might be surprised by what is already there. You might be surprised by how much you like yourself, right now. Maybe, secretly, defiantly, you even like some of the things that you’re not supposed to. I have always loved my squishy thighs, for example, it just took me a while to admit it.
But why not love the way we are, as much as we possibly can? Really, it seems lame not to. If your non-sexual soulmate winged dinosaur was already here, just placidly waiting for you to jump on and fly, would you say no? Well, you shouldn’t! And maybe it already is. So get on that rainbow-colored reptilian joy machine and don’t look back!
You know what I’m saying.
A version of this piece appeared originally in my Mirror Mirror column
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What do you like about yourself that you didn’t expect to?
Unroast: Today I love the graceful way I sometimes imagine I am moving, as I walk.