Notes on Appearance

When I first started getting acne as a preteen, my step-dad’s cousin was visiting and she said something to him in Spanish, which he then translated: “She’s pretty, but she has that acne.”

When I was in high school, a boy in my class said I was awfully young to have worry wrinkles in between my eyebrows.

This past October at a wedding, an extended family member said that I actually wasn’t that thin, just tall. 

*  *  *

I remember each one of these moments in my life with absolute clarity. Some of these events happened over 15 years ago, yet they remain fresh and untouched by time, unlike many other moments throughout my life which have faded into the oblivion that is my brain. When I close my eyes and think of them, I’m right back in that classroom or feeling my face flush with heat when those harmless Spanish words turned out to be not so harmless.

Maybe people think it’s okay to make comments about the way women/femme-presenting people look, because they assume their words will eventually be forgotten. Instead, these thoughtless quips have the potential to change the way we feel about ourselves for years to come. 

It was because of comments like these that led to me becoming obsessed with my appearance for a long time. I checked myself in the mirror every chance I could, sometimes going out of my way to make sure I hadn’t become shiny or frizzy or zitty in the past five minutes since I checked. I would spend hours – and I mean hours – getting ready for a mere 30 minute trip in public. I can’t even begin to calculate how much money I have spent on makeup, beauty treatments, and other services of the like, including but not limited to Botox and Fillers in between my eyebrows, lash lifts, teeth whitening, etc etc.

Now, this obsession didn’t just activate one day like the flip of a switch, rather it was like the little plastic mouse in the game of mousetrap: caught as a result of events which started way before the cage descended upon it.

Throughout my whole life, my board was set with all the elements necessary for a full-blown obsession to take place… all it needed was that marble to set everything into motion. For me, that marble started rolling right after college.

I graduated college at 20 years old after three years of accelerated study. During that time I put on a solid 15-20 pounds of depression weight. Though I always had an athletic body, erring on the thinner side through my tweens and teens, I didn’t perceive this new weight gain on myself. I think because it was so gradual over the course of three years that I didn’t notice the subtle changes, or maybe because I wasn’t used to being hyper-aware of my weight, having grown up with thin privilege my whole life. As far as I was concerned I still looked fine.

Post graduation I moved back in with my parents in Los Angeles to save money as opposed to going broke by remaining in San Francisco. However, the transition back home proved harder than expected, made more so by the fact that all of my friends were either still in SF or in school elsewhere. I was lonely and bored (a dangerous combination) so I sought out something that I had flirted with in my last year of college, but hadn’t taken the time to really get to know: cocaine. 

Within a span of a couple of weeks of railing lines every day, I lost that ‘freshmen 15’ plus an additional 5 to 10 pounds.

Just like my brain had a tough time perceiving the gradual weight gain, my brain also had a tough time perceiving my weight loss because it dropped so precipitously so fast. The grams of cocaine coursing through my bloodstream didn’t exactly help with my self-perception or cognitive functioning either, so it wasn’t until my 21st birthday in Vegas, a month or two after the weight plummet, that I realized just how different I looked to other people. 

“Hot.” Unhealthy.

“Smokin’ bod.” Emaciated.

“Goals.” Unwell.

“Sexy.” Sickly. 

Despite the multitude of negative adjectives used to describe how I looked, all I heard were the ones about my attractiveness. I hadn’t seen the distraught look plastered on my mom’s face every time she looked at me during that period of my life. What I did see were the looks of desire on every man’s face as I walked down Las Vegas Bluebeard. As someone who had been awkwardly ‘cute’ her whole life, the attention I got for being ‘hot’ was even more seductive and addictive than the cocaine.

Chasing the dragon with regard to appearance might not be as chemically toxic as chasing the dragon with regard to drugs, but it sure is emotionally, mentally, and financially toxic. Because yes, from that point on I was ‘hot,’ but it was never enough – I was never enough.

Each time I snuffed out one imperfection, there would be another one glaring back at me. The vast majority of comments made about my appearance during that time were not made from other people, but from me. All those comments became my own internal thoughts.  But I knew – I knew that if I could just manage to fix all those imperfections I would be…

……? What? I would be what? Happy? The object of everyone’s desires? Secure in myself? Confident? Successful?

If I had asked myself those questions back then, I wouldn’t have been able to give a clear answer. Because I didn’t have one. The advertisements and commercials and marketing campaigns for the endless amount of beauty treatments and services certainly seem to know the answer though. Buff away all those imperfections, and your life could be perfect too. Buff away all the aspects of yourself that show you’re an actual human being and maybe you’ll forget you ever were one. Is that not why women’s looks are prioritized over everything else from the moment we are born, because we are only meant to look pretty? To exist to please others? To be a companion as opposed to being our own person? To have an appearance, but nothing underneath?

I looked up the word ‘appearance’ when I wrote this, and I was not disappointed by its accuracy or relevance. Appearance: external show; outward aspect. Adjectives which convey otherness, separateness, lacking in completeness, lacking in genuineness. Appearance aims to create an illusion, not depict the truth. As women, we are expected and pushed to create illusions of ourselves from the moment we are born. Create the illusion that this is what you actually look like. Create the illusion that you are just fine. Create the illusion that you are happy. Create the illusion that this is what you care about. Create the illusion of yourself into what we want you to be.

I think that’s why I became obsessed with my appearance. I was collapsing in on myself emotionally, physically, and psychologically, but I wasn’t able – or willing – to see it. I could see my reflection though. I could see my reflection and better yet, I could perfect it. I could sweep all my inner trauma under the metaphorical rug of looking hot. And why would anyone care, myself included, if I had a size zero waste and long eyelashes. I was doing exactly what I had been trained to do my whole life: be attractive. I became nothing more than my appearance. I nearly killed myself trying to create the illusion that I was okay. 

I’m 26 years-old now and though I can’t say my appearance doesn’t matter to me, I can safely say that I am no longer obsessed with it. I am no longer plagued by the need to perfect my appearance.

It took me healing my inside before I realized that I didn’t need to create any illusions on my outside. Certainly not illusions that prescribe to fatphobic, white-washed, Eurocentric standards of beauty. That is an illusion that I never want to cater to again. I don’t want to cater to any illusions that womxn are expected to create ever again. But I’m not quite there yet, like I said my appearance still matters to me and probably will for awhile because unlearning shit that has been programmed into you since birth takes time. 

But I can say this: from here on out my appearance will be mine and I will own every part of it. Any illusions I might try to create with beauty treatments or botox or lash lifts will be revealed. Maybe I can’t stop creating illusions just yet, but I can make sure that every person knows it is just an illusion. My appearance will be an outward aspect with a caption, an external show with subtitles.

For now, I hope that’s enough.

 

Photo by Gabriela Velasco