They make you believe
Beauty's from within
Don't know why
'Cause it's just not true..."
I used to feel so much pressure to be handsome.
I have struggled with my image for as long as I can recall. My first memory of feeling bad about myself occurred during the first week of third or fourth grade. A boy in my class came up to me and said, “You got fat over the summer.” Ah, don’t you just love children and their unabashed (and mostly unnecessary) honesty?
Although that was many years ago and my memory is overall rubbish, I can recall that moment like it was ten minutes ago. I remember being outside in the halls between classrooms. I remember the day was bright and sunny and I remember the boy coming right up to me and not even saying hello before calling me fat. I remember the surprise in his brown eyes as he scanned me up and down, almost as if I had turned into a different person in those few months since he last saw me. That is when I first became aware of my body.
I suppose I had gotten pudgy, as I did nothing that summer but eat and watch television. That particular time was when my definition of fun shifted from outdoor play to indoor laziness. Yet, I wasn’t aware of what my time on the couch had done to my once slender frame. At least, not until my corpulence was called out by that boy. His comment created the concrete that would eventually lead me down a path of inadequacy and depression. From those first few words on, things got worse.
Puberty sucked. Well, we all say that but my body really took a beating during my maturation phase. It seems like something went wrong with me both physically and emotionally from the point the boy called me fat to the point of puberty. Instead of not caring what that boy said, I took it to heart. And instead of doing something about it, like cutting back on sweets and exercising, I was sad and found comfort in food and wallowed in my laziness. I realize now that I wasn’t truly fat but I did have a bit of a belly. I remember telling myself that I was capable of losing the weight. I didn’t even have that much to lose. A little more physical activity, a little less candy, and I’d be fine. But, I only kept eating more and played less and instead of taking care of the problem at the onset, I only made it worse.
I remember shopping for jeans before every new school year and my mother going straight to the husky sizes. I hate that word. Husky. It was embarrassing having to wear a fat label on my fat butt all year round. And every year I had to go up one more pant size. It’s not that I didn’t diet. I did. And exercised. I just never stuck with anything. As soon as I’d lose ten pounds or so, I’d stop, gain the weight back plus five or ten more pounds. Although I never beat the bloat, I did start to become preoccupied with food, exercise and my weight.
This was around the time when all the kids in my class started getting braces. This made me aware of how bad my teeth were, something I had never thought much about before. Even though I didn’t get braces, I became obsessed with whitening my teeth. If I couldn't straighten them, I thought I'd try to at least make them presentable in some way.
And not to be outdone, my skin decided to turn against me as well and broke out something terrible. This wasn’t just a case of regular teenage breakouts. This was serious crater creating acne. While the other kids got over their acne after a while, if some of them even broke out at all, mine only got worse. I was made painfully aware of this one day when I was joking around with a girl in my class. We were playfully poking each other when she gently bumped my forehead with her palm. She pulled her hand back with a look of minor disgust on her face.
“Your face is so greasy,” she said as she wiped her palm on her jeans. The joking was over at that point. I felt my face get hot and I’m sure it would have reddened if the acne hadn’t already done a good job of that. That’s when I became aware of how bad my skin was and from then on, I became obsessed with keeping my face clean and oil-free.
More examples of my flaws being called out includes me minding my own business in my computer applications class, typing away and working on building my very first website when a girl to my left said to a girl to my right, "Look at Brannon's arms." The girl to my right looked over and said, "Mm hm, they're hairy." I never thought much of it until they spoke up and pointed out yet something else wrong with me. Ever since then, I've been dragging a trimmer over them to keep the hairiness at a minimum.
And while at lunch one day, I was telling a story to a group of people. A good friend at the time turned to me and said loudly, "Ugh, here's some gum. You're breath is kicking like Jackie Chan!" I accepted the gum, embarrassed. I didn't speak for the rest of lunch. Now, I always carry gum or mints with me because I don't want to have to experience that kind of shame again. Sure, it could have just been a one time deal, especially considering I had just ate because we were at lunch, after all. Of course my breath wasn't going to be minty fresh by then but she planted a bad breath complex in my head and now I believe I have habitual halitosis.
Everything came together during those years of physical transition. Not only was I becoming more aware of myself, thanks to the unintentionally hurtful remarks of others, but I was also becoming aware of the other guys and girls surrounding me. Girls became more than platonic playmates. I was noticing these girls turning into women. I was developing interests. And I noticed the guys developing into men and I became jealous of their short-lived awkward phases. For everyone else, they came into their own. Braces came off, boobs and Adam’s apples popped out, skin cleared up, muscles and curves were shaped as well as a sense of independence and confidence. Style. Maturity. Progression. And I felt like I was falling faster and faster behind everyone.
For me, everything was getting worse. My skin, my hair, my ever expanding waistline all took turns tearing away at the confidence that should have been building within me, the confidence that everyone else was experiencing. I saw how everyone else was becoming beautiful and I was deteriorating. The destruction of my self-esteem led the way for inadequacy and jealousy. Why couldn’t I be thin like him? Why couldn’t I have good hair like that guy? Sure, that chap is chubby but at least he has a good personality. And even that was lacking for me. I was fat on the outside and on the inside, so many things were going on. I think the typical teenage hormone surge took a toll on my mental health, coupled with my declining self-esteem.
And I hate to say this because I think a lot of people say this but I think I might have been depressed as well. Obviously, we all go through a storm of emotions during puberty as everything is changing and I think some sort of mild depression comes with that. So, maybe it was just being a teenager or maybe I honestly had a real form of depression but whatever the case was, it added to my awkwardness and silence in social situations.
I think my early years were devastating in ways I’m only starting to comprehend. And just as I’ve always said, nothing traumatic ever happened to me. It was mostly an internal conflict that only escalated over time, that depression/typical teenage-itis that gnawed away at every part of me mentally, emotionally and as a response to the swirling hurt inside, physically as well. It was a snowball effect. As things became worse physically for me, getting fatter and breaking out more and more, I withdrew from people and became more introverted. That isolation caused me to form bad habits like seeking comfort in food instead of friends. I just felt like friends wouldn’t understand. They were either ending their ugly duckling stage or were long past it.
My descent into a sickening pool of negativity didn’t help matters. It wasn’t until years later when I realized that I turned every conversation I ever had with anyone into a giant pity party for myself. I see now how off putting that was but at the time I guess I was just drowning in something dark and epic and I was crying out for help. Not only did I withdraw from society but unintentionally managed to push people away with my destructive attitude. I missed out on something vital, something necessary. I missed out on those years when young people communicate in more adult ways, with flirting and seriousness. People were coming together and starting to spread themselves into previously unknown territory. Romantic relationships. Deep friendships. All the while, I pulled myself inward. And I ate.
My physical appearance crippled me. I allowed society’s idea of physical beauty cripple me. And because I was weak, I allowed my own mind to cripple me.
It’s funny how none of my flaws really bothered me until someone else pointed them out. The skin, the teeth, the hair, the body. None of these were any thing I gave much thought to until someone told me these qualities were bad or ugly. That is what caused me to become so insecure and preoccupied with what was wrong with me. I suppose I felt I had to beat people to the punch, to point out my flaws before anyone else could. And a part of that process was trying to correct my flaws before anyone noticed them.
I became incredibly self-conscious about every little thing. When I was younger, I never gave much thought to my appearance and all of these years later, I was making up for that lack of acknowledgment to my looks with an unhealthy obsession with my image. And it’s sad how I couldn’t just be okay with myself, despite those people who pointed out all the things wrong with me. There are times when I think it couldn’t have been helped. I was too young, too impressionable to shrug off such criticisms. And then there are times when I beat myself up because I think I shouldn’t have cared what other people thought. If I could have went through life okay with how I looked, things would have been so much easier for me.
And now my definition of physical beauty is skewed because I’ve allowed other people’s opinions to be drilled so far into my head that I cannot form my own. For example, I say that I want to be thin for myself, not for anyone else. I am the one who doesn’t like being fat. Yet, if I delve deeper into that thought, I wonder why I don’t like being fat, why I personally find it to be unattractive. Is it truly a matter of personal taste or is it because other people impressed upon me their own standards of beauty?
Despite my decline in appearance and lack of social skills, I managed to pull together enough willpower to try to make a change. The most perplexing part of my personality is the gamut in which it operates. There are days when I feel I'm an irrevocable mess and other times I believe I have the capacity to take over the world. And the most frustrating part is that I can't control it. Something inside my head clicks on and off and I am a slave to the resulting mood shifts and changes in perspective. And one day, like a baseball bat to the brain, my whole perspective on everything shifted.
I was determined to lose weight and get myself together. And that's what I did. I started taking a prescription for my face and started dieting and exercising for my body. It was hard. I was hungry and tired. It was mentally exhausting resisting those urges to eat poorly. It was mentally exhausting forcing myself to exercise. And at times, I decided it wasn’t worth it and I’d just stay fat forever. Yet, I kept going. That on switch in my head pushed me to continue. And I started seeing progress. My face began to clear up after a frustrating few months with no results. Same with my body. And I started dressing better. And I let my hair grow out. And things were changing. And people were noticing. And I started to feel good and the positive attention felt good. It was motivating. And I think that’s what pushed me to go as far as I did. When it got tough, I just remembered how good it felt to be thinner, how nice it was when people would compliment me. Things were looking up.
For a while.
As that mechanism inside my head tends to do, something clicked off and all the willpower and positive energy I was feeling slowly depleted. Eventually, I was taken off the medication and my face worsened again. I was at my thinnest when I went to college and the stress of leaving friends and family behind, along with having a roommate from hell caused me to gain a lot of weight. Then my hair started falling out. I also suffered a severe culture shock. Dealing with people outside of my hillbilly bubble opened my eyes, battered my brain and hollowed out this old heart of mine.
I also had to come to terms with my limited talents. Being surrounded by such creative minds only highlighted my shortcomings. I went from being the most artistic in my high school to being the embarrassingly bad kid in my college classes. You know how no matter how badly you do on a test or book report or oral presentation, there's always that one kid who you know will do worse than you and so it makes you feel better? Well, I was that kid.
The lack of confidence in my looks, social skills and talent caused me to withdraw just like I did when I was younger. It was sad because I felt like college was my opportunity to start fresh, to experience everything again for the first time through a new body and mind. I was ready to bloom. Yet, everything fell apart faster than I could salvage and I wilted instead. It was like I was reverting back to that middle school outcast, fat and shiny and shunned. It didn’t help matters that I believed college to be my salvation. I don't think people understand the high hopes I had for that place. It wasn't just my education I was excited about. It wasn't just the people, the place. It was the experience. It was the whole package, a total renewal of myself. Instead, it was more like my undoing.
The fact that everything went so wrong so fast coupled with the unfathomable disappointment spiraled me into a depression that I hadn’t felt since I was that pubescent and pockmarked kid. Oh, how the hope for happiness was so within my grasp, only to be pulled away at the last possible moment. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I developed that throat lump around this time. The little bit of confidence I had worked so hard on building up over the years had fallen fast.
I went into college a relatively attractive young man, full of hope for a better life for myself. I left overweight and sullen. It’s funny because I was bigger than I had been in years yet I was empty at the same time. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to recover. I still can’t get my weight under control and the lump is there and I feel ugly. I feel alone. I feel defeated by my own mind and body. It’s not easy to walk around feeling like you’ve betrayed yourself. The weird part is those moments of complete low, the times when I feel I’m at my worst, often make way for short-lived periods of indifference, even fragments of acceptance.
I just think to myself that I’ve worked so hard all of my life and the results have never been more than average at best. I put a lot of time, money and effort into my appearance but you can’t tell it. And that realization makes me want to give up, to embrace who I am and what I look like. It’s obvious to me that no matter what I do, no matter what pill I take or lotion I use, I’ll never be good-looking, at least not in my eyes, at least not the way I feel good-looking people should look. So, why try anymore?
I often think I should just make peace with my face, my body and my mind because it most likely won’t change any time soon, if it changes at all. And look what happens when things do change! The changes don’t last because I am not strong enough to maintain the upkeep. I’m too tempted by indulgences and I’m too weak to resist bad habits and negative thoughts. And the weakness and the negativity is insurmountable. I have days when I look in the mirror and realize that this is all I have, all I’ve been given and I’d better make the best of it. I walk out of the door knowing I’m clean and clothed and isn’t that all that should be expected of me? I can’t control the way I look physically but I can at least take care of what I've been given.
There are certain parts about myself that can be fixed. I can get braces. I can get a nose job. I can get a hair transplant. But these corrections are extreme in nature and unlikely to happen. There are certain parts about myself that I can temporarily correct. As long as I keep using these products, I can keep the acne at bay. As long as I diet and exercise, I can maintain a decent weight. And then there are parts of myself that will never change. I’ll always have these stretch marks. I’ll never have a strong jaw line. My eyes will always be uneven. And I suppose it’s all about fixing what I can and accepting what I cannot. Naturally, that is easier said than done because what I want to see will never happen, what I’ve pictured as the physical standard of attractiveness for myself will never be achieved and it’s difficult to discard a long-held desire so quickly. Sometimes, I think I come close. Yet, that negativity and that weakness, those insurmountable demons, always find a way to infiltrate that flicker of peace and manage to put it out pronto.
This all came about with an epiphany I had while I was still in college. I was at the mall and this gorgeous girl walked past me. The old me would have stumbled. My face would have gone scarlet and the wicked thoughts would rush into my head like a blast of cold air to the brain: she’d never be with me, she’s way too good for me, she didn’t even give me a second glance, I’ll never be good enough for someone like her, she probably thought I was fat and disgusting. But this time around, I didn’t think those things. I took her for what she was, which was a pretty girl. Nothing more. Nothing less. I didn’t wonder if I was handsome enough for her or if she thought about me the way I thought about her. I simply carried on.
It felt good. It felt good to realize that no, she probably didn’t find me attractive but I didn’t beat myself up over it because in that moment, I knew exactly who I was and what I was. In that moment, I accepted that I simply wasn’t good-looking, at least not by her high standards, assuming I knew what her high standards were. I felt ugly. But instead of feeling bound by such a thought, it was actually quite liberating. It was nice to realize I didn’t have to put up a pretense. I felt like I had let go of all that pressure, all those struggles to cover up a pimple or whiten my crooked teeth. I was there and I was me, fat, pale and balding and I was fine with that.
For a while.
While I left the mall confident in my new found awareness, it didn’t take long for that euphoric feeling to fade into a mild depression once again. I think maybe I’d be okay if I didn’t have to be surrounded by these image of better looking people. It only serves as a reminder of what I am not, what I realized I would never be able to achieve despite the creams and clothes. I suspect I will always struggle with this for the rest of my days, just like I will with my weight. It’s no giant leap to say that my weight and self-image are closely tied. Perhaps one day will come when that mall walking epiphany hits me again and will possibly stick but I doubt it. It's just like the clicking inside my head. Sometimes positivity penetrates and other times I'm destroyed by depression and at this moment, I have no way to control it. And it’s sad to know that I will struggle over something that I don’t have much control over. Physical fixes are hard enough but the emotional and mental defects are the hardest of all to heal. And what started out as a mission to fix the flaws that other people had proposed has turned into a journey of self-loathing.
Just like how I struggle with people's negative opinions of my appearance, I also struggle with compliments. As few and far between as they are, they do make me feel good. Mostly. Depending on the person, a compliment can make my day or not affect me at all. It's as if compliments are like the marshmallow fluff of statements to a terribly insecure person. It's sugary and sweet and it tastes good for a while but at the end of the day, I'm still pretty empty. It's crazy because as much as I feel people's opinions still matter to me, they almost don't at the same time. As much as I want to hear the words, I can't help but not believe them. And I want more than anything to believe them.
I don't really know where to go from here. I believe I have somewhat identified my problems yet I don't know how to go about fixing them. How can I undo approximately fifteen years of insecurity? How can I overcome my own skewed perceptions of what is acceptable and attractive? They say everything takes time. And maybe it's not so much time, but what time provides.
Time gives way to exposure, to discovering different perspectives. I didn't turn into a troll simply from the passage of those fifteen years. It was the things I saw and downfalls I went through that accumulated over that period of time and caused me to end up this way. Time is nothing more than a vehicle for change. Time provides the opportunity for growth, stagnancy or regression. And I've walked a tightrope between stagnancy and regression for far too long.
I think the first step in reaching growth is the decision to want to be happy with who I am. For so long, I never gave my own happiness consideration. I thought happiness came from the opinions of others. Now, I see that was wrong. I want to be at peace with my face and my body and I not be as restricted by other people's standards. Now, it's just overcoming those standards that have been so heavily embedded into my brain. Perhaps time will provide the ability to mature and find priority in things that matter more than my looks. I already feel like I've made some progress. I know now that I am not conventionally handsome and I never will be. That doesn't mean that I'm hideous. It just means I am who I am and I'm going to have to accept that because this face is going to stick with me for a long time. Perhaps my insecurities will fade when I fully realize what I am and just embrace the flawed face and bloated body. Then, maybe change will follow. And maybe, just maybe, that liberation will last.