I Feel Good

Meza neza.

I feel good.

Yesterday I looked down at my feet and realised that my toenail polish had completely flaked off.

I have not reapplied it.

For the first time in what may be a decade or more, my toenails have been bare for longer than the time it takes to reapply paint.

I’ve never blogged much about appearance, body image, etc., in part because I think so many other people are doing so well at it and in part because I’ve never felt like I had much of a story to tell. If I had tried, I’m pretty sure it would’ve gone something like this:

Body image is important. It’s important to be comfortable in your own skin. That’s why I try to wear clothes that look nice but feel like pyjamas as much as possible. That’s also why I work out, because even though I drew the winning number on body type and metabolism by Western beauty standards, I don’t feel comfortable in my skin if I’m not sort of in shape. Also there are things about my body that I don’t like! Even people who look like they have it together have problems and insecurities!

It reads kind of smug and unnecessary.

But, looking down at my bare toenails, I suddenly realised that here in Rwanda, for the first time in years, I do not perpetually have some facet of my appearance about which I’m uncomfortable.

I looked down at my feet and realised I wasn’t self-conscious about my toes.

I realised that I’ve been going to work for six months now without makeup and not feeling like my face has no definition.

I don’t remember the last time I washed my hair, but I don’t feel like I should hide it.

Sometimes I go to school after lunch with my meal clearly visible in the way my stomach presses against my shirt, and I don’t fight to suck it in.

I haven’t shaved in months, and I feel no concern about my calves or armpits being seen.

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(note that I’m completely unembarrassed to share this particularly unflattering photo)

It may sound silly (or maybe you’re like me and it sounds extremely relatable)—but these are all things that I’ve been to some degree embarrassed about for years. Why am I suddenly okay with things that I’ve always been uncomfortable with?

Here’s the only answer I’ve come up with: I have no way to compare myself anymore.

In the States, I was surrounded by people who shared my same basic features, and I subjected myself to endless comparisons. It’s not like I ever sat down and said, “I’m not good enough because x-feature on me isn’t as nice as so-and-so’s,” but somewhere in my mind I kept this little running tally of all the ways other people were beautiful. Then when I looked at myself, I had this overall feeling of being not quite good enough.

But here, I can’t do that.

It’s not that I don’t keep some kind of running total of how everyone around me is beautiful; I can tell you without even thinking about it that one of my coworkers has flawless fashion sense, another has a beautiful facial structure, yet another always has well-styled hair. But I can’t compare myself to them. We’re physically so different that there’s almost no common ground to compare.

I can’t compare my skin to theirs because it’s fundamentally different colours. I can’t compare my hair to theirs because mine is straight and theirs is kinky. I can’t compare my wardrobe to theirs, because they wear Rwandan styles and I wear Western styles. I can’t even compare my muscle tone to theirs, because we keep most of our bodies covered.

In addition, there are almost no mirrors in my life. I have a small mirror, maybe four inches in diameter, on my wall in my bedroom. If I want to see whether my outfit matches, I have to go outside and stand in my compound and catch my reflection in my windows—always warped by the bars and the different panes at slightly different angles.

As a result, I no longer think much about my appearance.

I judge my style by whether it feels comfortable, smells clean, and is appropriate for the context I expect to be in. I judge my body by whether I feel healthy. I no longer notice my shape much, but instead I notice whether I can carry my full water filter, make my morning workout more difficult, or speed-walk up the hill to school without pain in my thighs and lungs (I’m always speed-walking, because while being on time is a skill I have honed, leaving on time is a skill I may never attain).

And the end result is that I feel good.

I feel good about being seen. I feel good about my body. I feel good about myself.

It’s easy to say “don’t compare yourself,” but it’s almost impossible to stop until you have no choice.

I don’t know what will happen when I stop being surrounded by people superficially unlike myself, but here’s what I hope: I hope that I will maintain this idea that really nobody is just like me, and that really, we’re all too different to draw useful comparisons.

I hope that I’ll become so comfortable in my own skin that I’ll stop judging other people’s.

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Beautiful

It’s been a long time since I felt beautiful.

My hair is at an awkward growing-out stage ever since that shaving-my-head episode. I’ve worn the same shorts for days. There’s a stubborn pimple on my chin, and I can’t remember the last time I put on make-up or earrings.

Since I’ve been working from home and leaving the house only to pet my dog and learn karate—where, honestly, I’m going to be a sweaty mess anyway, so why try—this doesn’t bother me much until it’s time for a photo. I never notice how often photos happen until I actively dislike the way I look in them; then suddenly Snapchat is a hazard and those passport photos feel more threatening than usual.

Last night I hid in my room and spent probably ten or fifteen minutes working to get this selfie, because I thought the message was worth putting out there, but I couldn’t figure out how to get my face in the frame and still ever leave my room again.

 

I’m not particularly in love with my appearance at the best of times, but I’m not used to feeling unbeautiful. So last night, after the selfie thing (and after a shower, because I’m not kidding about sweaty), I stood in front of a mirror and gave myself a good hard look.

I did not suddenly realise that I’m gorgeous, but I did suddenly realise that I was looking for all the wrong things.

So I don’t feel beautiful. So what? Here’s what I do feel:

I feel strong. This summer has pushed me in ways I never expected. I’ve held a full split until I thought my legs would break, done jump squats until I couldn’t breathe, run until the world narrowed to the pain in my body and the desperation in my lungs and the zigzag cracks in the pavement. I’ve walked down a mountain and carried my sleeping niece and coaxed impossibly tight compression stockings onto my granny’s feet.

I feel healthy. Despite my natural bent toward a happy couch potato lifestyle, I’ve spent the summer taking care of myself, body and mind and soul. I’ve eaten fresh vegetables from the garden, gone on long walks at sunset, and paid uncharacteristically close attention to hydration. I’ve faced anxiety and given myself room to breathe, reminded myself to sleep and rewarded myself with hours upon delightful hours of binge-reading.

I feel brave. We all live with fear, but this summer I’ve decided to live past that fear. I’ve stood my ground in difficult conversations, applied for new jobs, and stayed with strangers. I’ve made scary phone calls and I’ve asked scary questions. I’ve faced the reality of my next two years and made preparations instead of hiding. I’ve begun learning the kind of thing you’re supposed to start as a child and, despite my fear, I’ve shown up to every lesson and learned to laugh when the five-year-olds succeed and I fail.

And after staring into that mirror and thinking about these things, I realised that it doesn’t matter if I feel beautiful, because beautiful was never the standard to begin with. Beautiful can be achieved any day with some cosmetic products and some time on my hands; Youtube has proven that.

Who I am is more fundamental than my skin tone or my hairstyle.

It’s in the way I hold myself when things don’t go my way. It’s in what I do when I’d rather do nothing. It’s in how I get back on my feet after a tumble.

Maybe you’re feeling beautiful today, and if you are, I’m genuinely thrilled for you, because there’s a confidence in that feeling. But if you’re like me, if you can’t remember the last time you felt gorgeous, take a closer look at yourself and decide what’s fundamental about you—what can’t be created with good contouring or a new outfit, and what can’t be taken away by a bad hairstyle or a few down days.

Because you are beautiful—but you are so much more than that.

Love is Blindness (or is it?)

I didn’t come to New York City expecting to fall in love. I’m a country girl through and through; I like dirt roads under my bare feet and brilliant stars above mountain ranges’ evening silhouettes. But as I near the end, I realise I’ve come to love the endless kaleidoscope, the constant change and yet sameness of the people on the streets, the subways running like (broken) clockwork, the engines and sirens sweeping the streets day and night.

NYC rooftops

I binge-watched Daredevil this weekend, and out of the muddled hours of flashing guns, impressive ninja moves, and dramatically-whispered conversations, one line stuck in my mind:

Growing to love something is simply forgetting, slowly, what you dislike about it.

Wow. What a hit-and-miss theory of love. If you happen to stop noticing the bad things, that’s love, and if you happen to keep noticing them—sorry, not for you. It sounds pretty, but this version of love removes all intentionality and turns love into partial blindness. I would argue that love is a choice, not to forget what you dislike, but to emphasise what you like—to acknowledge the imperfections but focus on the perfections.

Loving a city is a little like loving a person. You begin as strangers, every corner and angle a surprise, and you slowly explore, growing more and more familiar until you don’t have to ask directions or read signs. You know what you can say and do and when you should go home and close the door. And as your acquaintance continues, you have the choice: will you focus on that bag of rotting rubbish on the corner, or will you look past it and see the windows glistening like jewels in the sun? It isn’t a matter of chance—it’s not sitting around hoping you’ll notice something positive before you see the negative—it’s a matter of choice, of looking for the positive and keeping your eyes on the good when the bad crowds in.

I’ve come to love New York, not because I’ve stopped noticing the dirty streets and jam-packed subways, but because in the midst of those I notice rooftops gleaming under the setting sun and ancient elms rustling in hot afternoon breezes.

You can’t love on condition; “I’ll love you when your faults stop bothering me” is not love. You have to love unconditionally, the dirty with the clean, the broken parts with the whole. You don’t love someone by not seeing what’s ugly; you love by choosing to look past to what’s beautiful.

Three Weeks of Crowds (and also rain)

Three weeks: the point at which any adventure begins to crumble.NYC

At three weeks in New York City, I’m exhausted. The thrill of the adventure has given way to the repetition of the mundane.

Every morning I spend nearly an hour jostled by a shifting mass of shoes and bags and shoulders. Every evening I do the same. Every lunch break I brave the row of knees and takeout bags settled on park benches; strangers terrify me, but the office is cold, and I need that hour of sunshine.

Walking around town isn’t so bad. I have a destination. I don’t have to brave any one person’s presence for longer than the time it takes me to notice and then pass them on the sidewalk. But trains, coffee shops, parks… I have no escape. Nowhere to go, no excuse for where I look. Just me, motionless, and the crowd.

The fact that most of these strangers probably don’t notice me makes no difference. I know they’re worried about their own issues, not wondering about mine. They’re too concerned with whether or not they can find a seat to notice that I’m two inches too close or that I forgot to grab my rings this morning. But I notice. I feel their eyes on me, wish I could make some kind of public apology for taking up space on the train, for sitting on this bench, for eating my lunch in this place, for needing a second to zip my purse before grabbing my coffee and running out the door.Subway

I have no buffer. I’m alone in the city. Just me and my book on the train. Me and my tupperware at lunch. Nobody to distract or protect me or say no, it’s fine, you’re not staring at anyone, don’t worry.

Anxiety is like a spiderweb you didn’t see, and then you feel the sticky strands across your face, and you panic. And you can tell yourself it was just a web, but you’re still convinced at the slightest prickle that some hideous, venomous spider is hiding somewhere on your body, waiting to sink its fangs into you. And even though nothing bad ever happens, that spider rides on your shoulder until all you can feel is its weight.

The crowds are like filaments of spiderweb, each so light I barely notice, wrapping tighter and tighter, and somewhere in the tangle, I know there’s a spider biding its time.

And then this afternoon, something happened. It rained.

I walked out of the office building into a downpour. My umbrella did nothing to shield me from fat, warm drops, and rain ran into my shoes and soaked my feet, and the trees in the park dripped a wet syncopation, and the streets became rivers, buoying up taxis and busses. Umbrellas bobbed along above splashing heels, and as everyone else clutched their coats tighter and hurried from sheltered place to sheltered place, I found myself laughing in delight. Sopping wet and no way to prevent it, I couldn’t find it in me to pout about the rain when it turned the whole city into such a fascinating chaos of wet reflections and refracted lights.

Rain

And yes, I walked through that sodden park and got on a packed train and braved a hundred faces before I reached my flat. But I also remembered that there’s always something beautiful if I look for it. And sometimes, something beautiful is enough to distract me from the spider, just for a moment.