Saturday, December 28, 2013

Red hair, moon face and crinkle cut eyes: on not loving the bodily self

So I got my hair coloured yesterday. Instead of my usual blonde-ish highlights on my natural mid-brown hair, I opted to try something different, and got an all-over dark red colour. It's not too flamboyant, but it's certainly a change for me, and although I like it., I'm not quite used to it yet. (Neither is my family - my 8 year old, after a huge doubletake, ordered me to go back to the hairdresser and get them to put back my "normal" hair :-)

While tweeting the mandatory new hair selfie, and changing my Twitter profile picture accordingly, I found myself doing a thing I do a lot, which is this: I deprecated my appearance.

Oh, I did it rationally - I have such a round, fat face! (I do); I have so many eye wrinkles! (I do) - but the fact remains that I did it, when I didn't need to. The pic was designed to show (and show off, because I like it) the colorant in my hair, nothing else. Why did I feel the need to even say anything further about the picture or the face captured in it?

I started thinking today, while at the cricket with my big girls (and such fun it was ... but that's a story for another day) about the problematic relationship I have with myself as a physical, embodied person. I have adverted to this before, but I am unpicking more and more what it means to have a concept of myself that is almost entirely rooted in my mental capacity and psyche; a concept that actually pushes away any notion of me as a physical person in an actual body that is seen and known and understood by others to be part of the totality of me.

This is the bedrock of one of the chief riddles (according to some of my friends) of me: that I rate my own appearance very, very low, while still possessing quite healthy self-esteem and reasonably solid estimation of my intelligence (both logical and emotional) and personality. I think I'm an OK person most of the time, and someone you'd want on your team if you were doing something tricky or challenging. I don't - mostly - dislike myself. And yet my self perception of what I look like, and how this is perceived by others, is that I'm one of nature's warthogs. Moonface, I say. Middle-aged hausfrau, I frequently joke. Big nosed. Squirrel cheeked. Fat, but that goes without saying, and is less clearly pejorative (as applied by me) than the others.

It interests me, this separation that I seem to have between my self and my body. I would say from my observations of others that for many people, perhaps especially many women, low self perception of appearance is often married to low self esteem generally. Certainly, women who believe themselves to be ugly are rarely unaffected by this in the way they live their lives - yet, for the most part, I am. I don't often even think about my appearance, except for certain peripheral quirks that I notice and attend to (eg. I have a must-have-beautiful-fingernails thing going on, but nevermind). When I do think about it, I assume that everyone else sees me the way I see myself, and this doesn't really bother me. I am much, much more concerned with how I am perceived as a personality / intellect than I am with how my appearance is judged - at least in part because I assume I know what that judgement is.

Of course, I am in a position in my life where being of unprepossessing appearance need not impact me if I don't choose to permit it to. I do a job in which my appearance is irrelevant and treated as such by all my colleagues. I'm in a long term stable relationship, so I am not in that miserable crapshoot of having to take my face to town, so to speak, to fulfill pair-bonding imperatives of various kinds. And my appearance is not unusual enough to create an impediment to slipping invisibly through the world, wearing my magic cloak of middle class straight white privilege. Indeed, you could argue
(I frequently have) that being a warthog makes blending into one's environment that much easier; beauty draws the eye, in nature, man, woman and child, and creates a spotlight whether you want one or not.

Still, and this must be said, I do wonder sometimes if my conviction of the low value of body-me has grown from some unchancy and dysfunctional roots. I grew up in a household where many things were wonderful and many things, such as brains, were celebrated; but bodies, and it must be said especially female bodies, were not among them. I grew up in a school where, as a round-faced, round-eyed, pale grub of a child among primarily beautiful children with darker skin, my unexciting appearance was frequently, constantly, a source of derision. (These days we'd say it was bullying, but after a few incidents in my early years, the persecution was rarely physical, so back then, it was seen as the normal rough and tumble of childhood). I had some unhealthy things happen in early adulthood which, among other things, cemented in my self-perception as, to paraphrase an old song, so damn unpretty.

I'm not sure, at my age and stage of life, if there is any point even trying to address this, or whether it really doesn't matter anyway. You understand, I'm not seeking to flip a switch and perceive myself as beautiful all of a sudden - that would be pointless and hilariously inaccurate. I just wonder, with wistfulness, sometimes, if it would be possible for me to learn to see my physical self with more kindness and nuance than I do now, the way I suspect others - particularly those who love me - do. I don't know how that would happen, or if it can. It's something I do think on, though, especially when something happens that brings an aspect of my appearance into focus ... like changing the colour of my hair.

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