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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Comparisons

“How do you adult so much better than I do?” a friend asked me recently.

For a few minutes, I couldn’t answer, certain she’d meant to ask someone else. Someone besides me. In that space of waiting, I ran up the tally in my mind—all the reasons she was most definitely a better adult than I:

  • She’s married, so she has the relationship thing figured out—I’m single.
  • She did all her own wedding decorations, so she’s not only crafty but able to complete projects—I’ve been knitting the same jumper for the past two years.
  • She has an apartment—I live with my parents at the moment.
  • She has a car—I’ve been letting my brothers chauffeur me around town.
  • She has a job—well, so do I, technically, but her job seems better.
  • She ……

And so on. At about that point, I was ready to give up, burn the unfinished to-do list I’ve been hiding from for a month, curl up on the sofa forever, and declare myself incompetent as an adult.

“You don’t have to run. You can walk,” my mother tells me. “Something is better than nothing.”

That’s her philosophy when it comes to almost everything, and as I begin to let go of my terrifying perfectionism, I see that she’s right. I’ve heard it most of my life, and you probably have too: “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” The subtle implication can be disastrous though: “If you don’t feel competent to complete this perfectly, don’t even bother starting.”

This poisonous perfectionism, has resulted in a lot of not bothering starting for me.

I didn’t have time for a whole workout, so I didn’t move at all.

I couldn’t make it on time, so I skipped class entirely.

I couldn’t commit to a deep friendship, so I skipped out on the rewarding acquaintanceship.

I’m sure you can relate, because the more I see of people, the more I realise that this “don’t do it if you can’t do it perfectly” mentality affects a huge number of us. What’s worse, though, is that many of us turn the maxim into something even more warped: “If you can’t do it as well as the person next to you, don’t do it at all.”

Suddenly, our focus isn’t on excellence at all—it’s on competition.

So this week, I’m letting go of competition. I’m letting go of perfectionism, of the lie that I can’t be successful if I can’t outdo someone else, of the need to do everything or nothing, with no healthy in-between.

This week, I’m recognising that though devastation lurks in the comparisons, beauty lives in the contrasts. Beauty lives the knowledge of how far I’ve come and the challenge of how far I have yet to go. It’s in the way our strengths and weaknesses make us need each other, in the way today’s struggles teach us to value tomorrow’s respite. It’s in getting up and doing something, even if it’s not the best something, even if it’s a small something.

Beauty is in every step I think I can’t take, every movement beyond the status quo, every something that goes beyond nothing.