Self-Love Takes Work: On Not Loving Myself
Editor’s Note: How often do you find yourself looking at your reflection in the mirror and feeling, ‘this is me in my own skin; this is my body and this is who I am’? One of Homegrown’s dream projects was developed when we decided to speak to women about their relationship with their bodies. The idea behind the film was not to tell you that you are beautiful in your own way, whatever that way might be – instead, it was to remind you that you are beautiful simply by virtue of being in your own skin and that all it takes is a moment of courage to realise that we are all navigating our relationship with our bodies through similar versions of the aforementioned fictions.
One of the featured women, Gouri Bhuyan, talked about how she struggled to think of herself as ‘beautiful’ despite knowing it all. This thought intrigued us. In a world that keeps preaching on and on about self-love, Gouri revealed an entirely different kind of story and reminded us that self-love is never easy and instead, self-love, much like other forms of love, takes work, time and patience.
Keeping with this thought, we invited Gouri to tell us her story in her own words.
Reason is not automatic. And much like reason, neither is love. Those who deny it can never be conquered by it. Sounds almost macabre when worded like that, does it not? Yet, there are so many of us who have made it a habit, almost a routine; conditioned ourselves like Pavlov’s ever-so-hungry dog to let the alarm bells of insecurity warn us of impending love. I think this would be a great time to mention that I’m not a majoritarian by profession or obsession. Therefore, I shall recalibrate and speak solely for myself.
A valid question. The answer to which, much like the number zero, exists in cycles of varying degrees, and much like everything divided by the number zero, is not defined. Or maybe my brain has blurred the contours separating reality from fantasy because the desire for the fantasy to become real was so terribly overpowering.
What I do remember, however, is being 13 when I first looked into the mirror and didn’t recognise the figure staring back at me. The figure was ugly. So, there was no way in hell that that was me because I was to grow up and be pretty. I had to be pretty. Because everyone liked pretty people. Pretty people liked pretty people. Ugly people liked pretty people. There were definitely no in-betweens. Although there was the curious case of me finding beautiful, some people that others found ugly. But then again, ‘beautiful’ is not the same as ‘pretty’, and ‘sexy’ was a different ball game altogether. So, yeah, that girl – the one with the awkward face, samosa nose, unibrow, thin lips, big cheeks, and even bigger eyes - could not be me. Period. Period? Yes, period. That’s what festered this ugly impostor in the first place. Almost like a disease I had no control over.
A decade and many-a-boy later (yes, the kiss-and-touch-consensually kind), I am proud to say, I have thoroughly cringed while writing this confession to myself. It got me thinking about how self-criticism, especially in young girls, is so insidiously casual and commonplace. And, so much of it can be traced back to how narratives of beauty and the evolution of it has, for centuries, been defined by male narratives. If young pre-pubescent girls were told what to expect, not just physically, but also emotionally and psychologically, the changes that puberty would bring about, how vastly different it could be for each of them, and how different did not mean less beautiful, our girls would not have to rely on inadequate baselines for comparison. If young pre-pubescent boys were told what to expect, not just physically, but also emotionally and psychologically, the changes that puberty would bring about, how vastly different it could be for each of them, and how different did not mean less beautiful, our boys also would not have to rely on inadequate baselines for comparison.
Young girls would not have to be constantly worried about whether their breasts were too small or too big, whether they should wax or shave, whether their pimples would leave permanent marks on their face or not, whether or not the awkward indentation of their waist was normal, or even what to do with the abundance of moustache and sideburns that they would willingly donate to boys in dire need of them. Especially, those boys who commented about how hairy my best friend’s legs were.
Those words I used earlier, so nonchalantly that it almost exacerbated the vitriol – “ugly” and “pretty”- would I use them to describe someone I loved? No. Never. But I used them to describe myself. So, the equation and solution were both pretty simple- I had to learn to love myself. Alas, that would be a much-awaited happily ever after.
I got diagnosed with a visual disability when I was 11. I just remember crying when we found out, solely because I saw Ma crying and took that as my cue for disaster. I did not understand the implications of it. They say acquired disabilities (those acquired over the lifetime), are often harder to grapple with. I had suddenly lost 66% of my central vision in both eyes, which affected my reading and distance vision. This implied 3 primary things at the time – I could not become a doctor (or a pilot, since I come from a family full of stratosphere enthusiasts); I could not drive (so, I would not have to grow up and be Ma’s chauffeur like Didi was); and, I couldn’t recognise faces from a distance (so, cute-boy-radar had gone dead). Before you wonder, yes, 11-year-old me had a very active crush life. The long-term implications that I arrived upon much later included – difficulty cutting my toenails, difficulty applying nail polish, inadvertently leaving a patch of hair unscathed while shaving my legs (I feel and shave), calling myself a make-up minimalist (I didn’t want to admit I struggled with it), taking much longer to read books (which led to an accrual of crime novels), and, of course, an inability to see what my vagina looked like (just, basic life skills). Now, you might argue that I must’ve known what my vagina looked like prior to my disability. But I was all of 10 years old then, and un/fortunately very oblivious to the eminence and wonders of the female Bermuda triangle. I could’ve tried and looked at it using a mirror, maybe, like many other women do? But, distance vision beyond a metre was impaired, so I couldn’t see the reflection. So, naturally, I turned to pubescent beauty icons –- porn stars. Actors? Artists? Well, to each their own. And even from whatever I understood with the help of touch, I knew that their vaginas just looked different. So, my natural deduction was that what I have is not normal, therefore undesirable, therefore ugly. Yes, that notorious word again.
So, that’s how the saga began. Even able people around me refused to talk about sexuality and beauty; having an individual with a disability do so would have been nothing short of a miracle. The law of Conservation of Insecurities states that insecurities are often created, and can be destroyed, but we often let them transform from one form to another.
10 years and a postgraduate degree (in psychology, nonetheless) later, I still don’t think I’m beautiful. I still actively find flaws in the way I look, sometimes, even in the person I am. I was borderline under-wight at one point (because of starving myself), and I still looked at myself and thought I was fat. And the automatic association with fat was ugly. Would I say these horrid, unkind things to someone I love? No. Never. Yet, I actively chose to do this to myself until it became a habit. Old habits die hard. But, at least they die.
I realised, much later than I should have, that there is no knight-in-shining-armour that could save me from self-destruction. No Petrarchan sonnet would glorify the toxic relationship I had with myself. Self-love, much like other forms of love, takes work, time and patience. And, I have come to realise that this is a trade-off worth making.
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