A pre-pubescent girl, in the sunlight of her bathroom window, places strips of scotch tape along her shins, rows of adhesive and cellophane covering her legs. She presses down firmly along the entire length and width of her tape-covered skin, then pulls the whole thing off in one swift, almost violent, movement. She examines the tape closely, finding intermittent patches of baby-fine hair no longer than the length of a child’s nail bed. It’s no professional wax job, but she’s satisfied enough. She repeats the process until she’s more than satisfied enough, or until the tape’s run out.
Who is this girl, and how did she learn to spend precious weekend hours obsessing over nearly imperceptible leg hair, pausing her obsession only to dream of the day she’d get to wear makeup, to somehow artfully transform the soft edges of her eyes and her cheeks into more angular and unnatural features?
She was I, circa 1996.
She was also a mere trifle of a precursor to the roughly 64,000 teens who get plastic surgery each year. (Come again?! Yes, you read that correctly.)
The methods of bodily alteration have woefully and drastically morphed from my relatively mild experience, but the internal self-directed message remains the same:
Look different. Be someone, anyone, other than yourself.
Of course, this isn’t the only message out there. And the exact meaning of this message varies for everybody. But I’d argue that it’s probably the most pervasive. Thanks in part to the teen magazines I read, the shows I watched on TV, surely countless other factors beyond my comprehension, I couldn’t wait to dip my entire face in makeup or to shave my legs. But I wasn’t allowed. So much so that I resorted to possibly the most ersatz (and not particularly effective) forms of cosmetic application and hair removal I could manage (white-out for clumpy French manicures were quite popular in grade school). I didn’t actually shave my legs though. At least there was that.
I was obedient to Mom, and I was also obedient to the social and cultural conditioning that stipulates that one must want what one does not have. That one must dislike what one does have. Because if complete acceptance of one’s appearance equals a complete absence of the need to consume whatever agents of change will effect 'acceptance', well, where’s the economic benefit in everyone needing and wanting nothing more than what they already have?
I understand the idea of doing what makes us feel better about ourselves. A swath of under-eye concealer will make us “feel” more alive. A trip to the tropics will make us “feel” more relaxed. A windfall of cash will make us “feel” more secure. Altering a less-than-ideal body part that has gotten us nothing but cruel taunts from others will give us confidence and surety. I also understand society’s general predisposition towards maintaining youth because of how aging can make me feel. Fear of aging is a big hint.
Aside from the truth that these things do not make up who we really are, that it’s all just maya, illusion, attachment to some version of form, that who we are is the formless beyond the form, is making these changes really essential?
If we acquiesce to the “emotional benefit” of an otherwise temporary fix, we don’t, then, reap the benefit of learning to accept what is. And that’s a whole other benefit on a whole other level.
But the point isn’t to do or not to do, really. Stepping away from the spiritual benefits of being able to accept ev.ery.thing, a concept I’m only able to fully experience intermittently, if even then, the ultimate question is:
What’s my intention?
I liken gauging intention to the first step in making the most spiritually and emotionally informed decision possible. Have I exhausted all other options of inner exploration before resorting to fix or change? What would happen if I left imperfection alone? What would happen if I imagined what it feels like to leave it alone? What happens if I sit with that feeling, just me and that feeling in a room alone, staring each other down?
I mean, what if it’s all a test? A self-love quiz handed to use by the Universe?
Question 1: How much can you love yourself?
Question 2: How lovingly can you hold all the different parts of yourself?
There’s no fail or pass, either, just one of those tests after which the teacher says, “I’m not counting the score, just gauging your understanding and execution of the concept.”
Look, I’ve had a few instances where I agonized over whether I should burn or freeze fat off of my body, though going vegan has minimized my body image issues by roughly 99.9%. And I still wear makeup, though a month in India consciously and mindfully going without it definitely shifted my intention and awareness of it when I do. So, I don’t have it all figured out. I don’t have anything figured out. Who does? One part of me can sometimes feel, “Power to you for doing what you want!” Another part is… the entire rest of this post.
I do know that in lieu of sitting with discomfort for extended periods of time, or even at all, we tend to place band-aids over wounds that turn out to not have been wounds in the first place. And I think—no, I know—that right along with all the self-hate/dislike that so convincingly seems to be in there, there’s just as much self love, if not infinitely more, waiting to be unearthed, recognized, embraced, and shared. It’s what we’re made of.