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.

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Defining Ourselves

“We live in a culture where we define ourselves by our weaknesses.”

My mother said it in passing recently, and for a moment I couldn’t breathe because it struck me so hard and true. We define ourselves by our weaknesses—by the things we haven’t accomplished or the lifestyle we don’t have, by our disorders or our deficiencies.

I see it in myself. I see it everywhere, in fact, once I begin to look for it.

I define myself by my social anxiety and lack of financial security. Even when I acknowledge my strengths, I find a way to turn them into weaknesses: I am a mediocre musician and an aspiring novelist.

You probably do it too—undermine yourself, maybe out of a sense of false modesty, or maybe out of fear. You’re successful, but…

But what?

It’s smart in some ways, finding our weak points, learning to compensate for our deficiencies, protecting our vulnerabilities. But in a world full of impossible standards, where failure is magnified and our best is never quite good enough, we have enough negative voices cutting us down; we don’t need to make ourselves feel worse.

So why do we do it? Maybe it’s self-preservation. We’re terrified of being insignificant and insufficient, so we cut ourselves down before someone else can do it for us. Being told we’re worthless hurts less if we’ve already told it to ourselves. When someone says, “You’re not good enough,” we can respond with, “I never said I was.”

edmundburke

We try to protect ourselves by reducing our value to the lowest common denominator. We’re afraid to be knocked down if we stand too tall. Weaknesses are impervious to attack, invulnerable to comparison. In a competitive culture, someone else’s strengths always feel like a threat to mine, but someone else’s weaknesses feel like companionship.

But what if we defined ourselves by our strengths? What if we turned the model on its head and saw every drawback as a gift? What if I stopped saying, “I am anxious” and began saying, “I am brave enough to function despite my anxiety”?

Suddenly we’re not petrified by fear, not shackled by the limitations we’ve set. We’re free to try, fail, and try again. We’re free to take ownership of our wins as well as our losses. We’re strong enough to stand for ourselves, to acknowledge ourselves as being more than the sum of our shortcomings.

We are not defined in terms of other people. I don’t have to see myself in competition. I can own my abilities no matter where they fall in relation to you. We don’t have to be strong versus stronger—we can all be strong. We don’t have to be successful versus more successful—we can all be successful.

We are all good enough, if we’ll only stop looking for reasons not to be.

Dear Third Culture Kid

This week, being finals week, my internal clock is off, and I missed Tuesday. Deepest apologies. As everything else is a little different this week, my blog post is a bit outside my norm. A meeting this week brought me face to face with a fear that I hadn’t even realised I had. This letter is my response.

Dear Third Culture Kid,

I know how you feel—like a pair of old jeans, stretched and pulled, going in and out of style over and over again, distinctive in a subtle way that makes you look like every other pair of jeans and like none of them at the same time, a size that fits some people decently and others not at all but that fits nobody perfectly. I know you feel like you’ve seen every rack in the store. You’ve hung with other jeans, you’ve been tossed onto a stack of shirts, you’ve fallen under the shoe rack; there was that time the sales girl put you back in storage and the time they displayed you on a mannequin. You’ve been in the sales window and on the clearance rack; you’ve been tried on and taken off, selected and rejected, admired and ridiculed, purchased and then returned. I know your price tag has changed a hundred times with the fashions and the economy.

My dear Third Culture Kid, you are not a commodity.

There is a difference—a subtle but a vast and vital difference—between price and value. Value is what you’re worth; price changes with the season. Your value is intrinsic and stable, no matter how the people around you try to write your label.

I know that you’ve been told over and over about how valuable your experiences are, how grateful you should be for the life you’ve lived, how much you have to contribute. I know you’ve been set on a pedestal in your passport country and asked to share the deepest parts of you with strangers; they’ve told you it’s your responsibility to share your most vulnerable feelings with those who will never understand. I know you’ve gotten scholarships for being you and then been asked to justify the money by putting your life on display. I know the guilt of wanting to keep your secrets, the frustration of being misunderstood—again—asked stupid questions—again—and stereotyped—again. You would give anything to understand that slippery word, “home,” and you would sell your soul to never again answer the barbed questions, “Where are you from?” and, “Do you miss it?”

My dear Third Culture Kid, I feel your worn-out, aching longings and the guilt that surfaces when they tell you that you should be grateful instead of anguished.

But you are not a commodity.

In a way, they’re right—your experiences are valuable. Your perspective is unique. The things you have seen, done, and lived give you maturity and ideas that other people cannot imagine. But those experiences are not a commodity. Your perspective cannot be labelled, and your life does not wear a price tag.

You are no more or less valuable than that girl on your wing who’s never left the state, whose whole life is measured in pencilled height marks on the kitchen doorframe—no more or less valuable than the elderly lady who bagged your groceries at the same store she shopped at with her children twenty years ago—no more or less valuable than your international friends whose passports match their language and who you’ve secretly envied your whole life.

Life is valuable. Experience is valuable. Perspective and understanding and secrets and feelings—these are all valuable, whether they span entire continents or a few city blocks. They are valuable beyond the limits of price.

Your perspective—the perspective they hang a price tag from and set in the display window—your perspective is a shadow they can never own, a tiny, precious glimpse into a life they cannot have, because they have different lives, different experiences. Experiences, perspectives—they cannot be collected, purchased and displayed at home in a case; they can only be lived. Everyone thinks someone else’s experience is more exciting, more meaningful, more valuable. It is not.

Yours is not.

You are valuable because you are you. Not because you can teach your roommate a few words in a language that’s foreign to her and home to you. Not because you’ve seen the inside of a national monument that your extended family has to look up in the encyclopaedia. Not because you can make ethnic food or share an unusual opinion on other countries’ foreign policies.

If you never tell your story, you are valuable.

If you never share your homesick longings and your cultural curiosities, you are valuable.

If your perspective stays hidden and your multicultural heart learns to assimilate, you are valuable.

That glass box they put you in, that means nothing. That display window you live in, that is their mistake, not your prison. The pedestals, the sales racks, the stages, the hot seats—they do not bind you and they cannot contain you.

They cannot buy you. They cannot sell you.

You are not a commodity.

My dear Third Culture Kid, if you see a price tag on your life, be sure that you don’t put it there yourself.

I know how you feel—like a pair of old jeans, tried and rejected, stretched and discarded. I know because I, too, have hung in the display window, languished in the storeroom, and lain time and time again on the returns table. Our cuts are different, but our labels are the same.

And just like you, I am not a commodity.

Sincerely,

A Fellow TCK

Labels and Life

“Crazy how labels make us feel the need to live up to them, huh?”

I wrote this in response to a comment on my last blog post. As I wrote it, I thought, There’s probably some deep life lesson in that.

Labels are funny things, actually. I went Black Friday shopping, so I recently looked at a lot of labels. Also products, but lots of labels. Funny how a higher price tag or prettier brand label makes a product look better.

I bought boots. I tried them on, inspected the seams and soles, tested the zippers… but the “originally $99” label convinced me of their quality more than my own assessment. Like stores don’t sell cheap stuff for outrageous prices or something.

labels
None of the labels I saw were this pretty. The 21st century needs to step it up.

Back to the original comment: I think, There’s probably some deep life lesson in that fairly often. And then I try hard to ignore it. Because as soon as you figure out what that lesson is, you feel compelled to apply it. And applying deep life lessons is invariably uncomfortable and exhausting.

It’s also scary, though, because as soon as I decide to ignore a lesson, I remember that the people I like most are the ones who go through uncomfortable and exhausting and manage to put all those deep life lessons to work.

And I’m a people pleaser. Punishment? Straight-up cruelty? Dish it out. Disappointment? Disapproval? You might as well bury me alive; it kills me. So when I notice all the pleasing people apply those life lessons, the little people pleaser monster in me goes into a fevered mania.

We should apply life lessons? Great. Let’s apply them.

Let’s apply all of them.

Right now.

don'tjuststandthere
Some good advice that I manage not to follow almost always.

But once we’ve made a list of all the things we should say and do and be in order to please people, that list is overwhelming. And hard. And scary. And you have to do all of them, because once you’ve compiled a list, everything on it looks vital. You can’t say Value everyone is more or less important than Forgive people, or that Exercise comes before or after Eat healthy food.

We’re bad at one at a time, the people pleaser monster and I.

Never mind. Psh. Who needs life lessons?

So we don’t change.

But, y’know, one at a time can be good. And I can do one change. Not to please people or calm the monster down, but because…labels are powerful. They don’t just affect what we buy in stores. They affect the way we treat people. See, we like to slap labels onto ourselves and each other, and then, like me and my on-sale boots, we expect each other to live up to the price tags.

So today, it’s time to take the labels off. Time to stop seeing labels and start seeing people. Because price tags are simple: a number, a value, bam. Done. People? People are complex. People are messy and emotional and conflicted and diverse. People are beautiful. And you can’t label beautiful.

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