One of my all-time favourite films is The Truth About Cats and Dogs, a charming rom-com made way back in 1996. In a nutshell, it’s about a radio vet called Abby (Janeane Garofalo), who ‘meets’ photographer Brian (Ben Chaplin) when he calls the show for help with calming Hank the dog. As a thank you Brian asks her on a date, but she thinks he won’t be attracted to her because she isn’t ‘beautiful’, so instead her model and actress friend Noelle (Uma Thurman), who happens to be tall, willowy and blond pretends to be her… confusion ensues, Brian falls in love with Abby… but does he love her for her looks or her mind? It was on telly last night and it got me to thinking; in this age of social media, selfies, the body positivity movement, sisterhood and feminism, where do those of us with low self-esteem fit in and how do we shush that negative voice when it whispers mean-nothings?
When I started high school I got teased for having a round face, by the biggest bully in the school. She used to follow me around, lamenting to anyone who would listen that I looked like a hamster and urging people not to like me. Perhaps she thought chubby-cheek-itis was contagious? I also got teased for being painfully shy. So, my teenage years were a blur of beating myself up about how ‘ugly’ I was, how offensively round my face was, therefore avoiding looking at anyone and feeling sick with nerves about going to school. That was like 100 years ago now but, despite the many lovely things people have said about me since, those cruel remarks have an irritating habit of hanging around and biting me on the bottom, causing some serious confidence collywobbles.
It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started to feel okay about what I looked like. These days I see my Moomin cheeks as a blessing rather than something to be ashamed about. When I began blogging I discovered a whole new world of beautiful women of all shapes, sizes, colours and ages embracing the body positivity movement and being un-apologetically themselves. Lena Dunham, little firecracker that she is, is my sass and self-confidence heroine. She’s so comfortable in her own skin, she’s mesmerising. But are self-acceptance and self-esteem the same thing? I accept myself as I am; from my big cheeks and crinkly teeth to the way I like to dress and present myself and most importantly, my character and personality. That’s who I am and I am okay with it. But, would I go on Tinder or put myself in a situation where I was going to be judged on my appearance? Not likely… and whenever I’ve had to, there are some serious eek and aarrgghh moments beforehand. Why the stress and drama? Because deep down inside, I still feel like that ‘ugly’ girl, who isn’t the ‘right’ kind of beautiful and the very real fear of rejection is all consuming.
I totally empathise with the character of Abby in the film. Some parts made me wince with understanding. Especially the bits where she stays home with her cat, in her stripy nightshirt, where she’s safe and loved unconditionally… yep, that’s me guys, striped shirt and two cats! I have a deep, dark fear of rejection and being invisible because someone louder and more confident is in the same room. I am painfully gauche. There’s bound to be someone with thinner legs and a better job, or straighter teeth, or more intelligent conversation in the room right? I mean, I just can’t compete with that! So, I’m a work in progress, I’ll admit it, but there are ways of showing a negative self-image who’s boss. Here’s what I do:
I put on a pretty dress, I twirl up my hair in some sort of makeshift vintage style, I make an extra special effort with my makeup and eyeliner, I read a book, to you know, improve my mind (or escape… books are great for travelling far away from oneself). I drink lots of water to freshen my skin. I make crafty things. I read to my nephew, who loves the cadence of my voice when I become Fantastic Mr Fox, The Gruffalo, or Gobolino the Witches Cat. I’m a super talented Auntie… in his eyes. I speak to my loved ones, those special peeps who know and love me exactly as I am. Here’s a great trick… I turn the tables on myself! Here’s how it works; think about the people you love. Do you notice the things that they see as ‘flaws’ in themselves? No, because when you love someone, none of that matters. Have you ever loved someone who became less attractive the longer you knew them, because they simply weren’t very nice? It works the other way around too; when you love someone, you just want to be around them, wherever they are, whatever they look like, all the time. They become beautiful because of who they are, not what they look like. I haven’t quite got the hang of affirmations yet, but that’s another thing I’m trying. Apparently it works wonders once you get it…
The journey to epic self-esteem is a long one, so my strategy and advice is to take one day at a time. Take baby steps. It’s not easy to shut down that negative voice inside, or erase unpleasant memories… but one thing I do know is that all experiences, good and bad, make us stronger. Be brave. You’ve got this.