There’s a scene in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Clementine divulges the following to Joel as his memory of her is being erased:
Clementine: “Joely? Am I ugly? When I was a kid I thought I was. I can’t believe I’m crying already. Sometimes I think people don’t understand how lonely it is to be a kid. Like, you don’t matter. So I’m eight, and I have these toys, these dolls. My favorite is this ugly, girl doll, who I call Clementine. And I keep yelling at her, ‘You can’t be ugly! Be pretty!’ It’s weird. Like if I can transform her I would magically change too.”
This movie is a beautiful piece of cinema, and you should definitely check it out if you haven’t done so.
All that aside, this scene in the movie has always struck a chord in me. In particular, I think it resonates with me now more so than ever.
An ex-boyfriend of mine introduced me to this film way back when it came out in 2004. I vividly remember us watching it together and him telling me I reminded him of Clementine. I took some grandiose offense to this, and it probably turned into a dramatic fight, which ironically proved his point. In the little over ten years since that movie has come out, I’ve simply embraced just how Clementine-esque I’ve become.
Lately I’ve been borderline obsessive over my appearance. Not necessarily obsessive in a Narcissus-complex way, but rather in a “You-can’t-be-ugly-BE-PRETTY” way that Clementine outlines in her above monologue.
Those of you who know me, know that this post is not intended as an act to retain sympathy. No, I’m too self-aware to try to illicit meaningless sympathy via the internet. I’m simply being introspective about the roots of my somewhat newfound obsession with trying to attain perfection.
Unlike Clementine, I never felt ugly as a kid. Sure, I knew I wasn’t “pretty” in the simplest form of the word. I can vividly recall being in my fourth grade class and having a moment of recognition for whom the pretty girls were. There were two of them; they were best friends. For all intensive purposes, we shall call them Mary-Kate and Ashley.
Mary-Kate and Ashley were what you might call “traditionally pretty.” They had all the physical characteristics of “cute” kids. Not to mention their parents dressed them to display all the staples of a well-fed, well-bred, American child.
Both girls were as sweet as pie, almost to a fault. Teachers loved them, boys (ever so unaware of their sexual beings) chased after them on the playground, and parents of other children could only hope that their kids struck up a friendship with these girls.
I, on the other hand, was a chubby, coke-bottle-glasses-wearing, stringy-haired, weird kid, adorned in my brother’s hand-me-downs (which I LOVED by the way). I displayed the annoying characteristic of always having my hand up to answer questions in class, wanting to be the Hermione Granger type character of being an “insufferable know-it-all.” At daycamp, I would laugh inside at the girls who would rather paint their nails on a park bench, than go out in the woods and expand their limited consciousness of what this great big world had to offer.
My mother never held being “pretty” as any standard on how I should live. She always stressed the importance of being myself, and not caring what other people thought of me.
But I always cared. I still do care.
One of the things I most admired about my mother was her endless ability to not give a fuck about what anyone thought of her. Sometimes when we were out in public I would be so embarrassed by things she would say or do, that I would literally run away from her in the grocery store and wait outside by the car in the parking lot, so I didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of my mother. Now, looking back, I wish that I had observed her quirkiness more closely, immersed myself in her strangeness.
I never had body image issues growing up. I always felt like caring about your body was such a trivial matter. (Body image, as not to be confused with personal health. I always got plenty of exercise.) I just simply did not have the time to worry about counting calories, or worrying about how thin my waist was (or was not), or if I had a thigh gap (that really wasn’t even a “thing” yet in my day). I had a friend in middle school who started counting calories before she even started menstruating.
In high school, I dressed for comfort. I wore jeans, hoodies, minimal (if any) makeup. I was there to learn. Plus, I had somehow scored dating one of the hottest seniors when I was a sophomore, so it’s not like I was trying desperately to find a boyfriend. I dressed up for special occasions, but mostly I didn’t care. I had a boyfriend who loved who I was on the inside and out, and I figured everyone else who spent time with me, also felt the same.
My body image issues seemed to have started sometime after my mother’s death. So some time between 2011 and present day, I have developed a pretty severe case of what some doctors call body dysmorphia. Essentially, body dysmorphia is a condition by which the beholder sees something drastically different in the mirror than how others see them. Obviously, the issue is more complex, but that’s the gist of it.
Lately, I’ve become so overtly obsessed with what I look like that I will make self-deprecating jokes to my friends, as a way to justify my self-hatred.
“My thighs are 24 inches in diameter! Some people have 24-inch waists! I’m essentially walking around with two models in my lower half.”
The day I displayed this zinger of a joke upon myself, was greeted with raucous laughter. In that moment where I allowed myself to vocalize my hatred of my thighs, I in some way felt better about them. See thighs! I’m in control of you! I can make jokes about how big you are despite my rigorous exercising and carb-limiting diet!
But then, later, at home in my apartment, I can stand in front of my mirror for 30 minutes at a time, just picking and pinching thighs, biceps, the sides of my waist, examining pores, pulling at my ears (like that will all the sudden make them symmetrical), or trying desperately to make both corners of my mouth raise the same distance so I no longer have a lopsided smile.
I wonder how I got down this rabbit hole. When did I care so much about the light wrinkles in my forehead? When did I care so much about my thighs (which are genetically larger than life) that I actually went an googled “liposuction thighs before and after?” When did I care so much about my weight that instead of simply eating right and exercising, I’ve started measuring myself weekly, getting a rush of adrenaline every time I lose .25 inches off my waist?
Where did that little girl with glasses, who loved to play in the dirt in her brother’s hand-me-down shorts go? Why have I become so concerned with getting random “likes” on selfies where I’m decked out in my best makeup look, in perfect lighting, my face in the exact right angle so I look my skinniest?
I work in an industry where everyone is constantly telling me, (whether implying or explicitly) “Be skinny! Have skinny legs! Be tall! Have a symmetrical face! Erase every line, blemish, and crinkle in your skin to look like a human robot! Be sexy! Have bigger boobs! Where’s your thigh gap!?”
“You can’t be ugly! Be pretty!”
I legitimately had a wardrobe person for a TV show where I was working background tell me after huffing and puffing that nothing would fit right on me,“Oh, you have really big hips and a small waist. It’s going to be tough to fit you.”
So I said back to her, “You know WHAT motherfucker? Yes, I have big hips! Yes, I have a waist that is a lot smaller! You don’t think it’s been difficult dressing myself with these fucking measurements for 27 motherfucking years!? PLEASE tell me how much you hate my body type and would rather be fitting the first-teamer who is probably a size 0 and has the body type of a teenage boy where literally EVERYTHING looks good on them!!!”
No actually, I didn’t say that. I just nodded, smiled, and continued to take a verbal beating by this woman who clearly hated my body.
Then I went home and cried.
I wish that were a joke, but it was not.
And you know what, I drank the Kool-Aid. I got into the work-out-until-you-virtually-kill-yourself workouts, the starvation-tactic diets, the heavily contoured face that it seems women have to wear not only for special occasions, but ALL THE TIME.
Don’t get me wrong. I love making myself look pretty. I love makeup. I love my rock and roll hair. I love clothing, shoes, and bags!
I don’t however, like my unhealthy and constant obsession with how I look. It’s a never-ending cycle of self-hatred.
I will continue to work out. I will continue to eat “clean.” I will continue to wear makeup.
I’m going to try, however, not to pick myself apart limb from limb.
I cannot hate myself anymore.
It’s too exhausting to hate the way I look. I can’t change it. I don’t have a magic wand that will get rid of my big legs, or make my shoulders less broad, or my face more symmetrical, or biceps slimmer. (Or the money it would entail to make that medically possible.)
I cannot shout at my “ugly doll” and ask her to be pretty. “Like if I can transform her I would magically change too.”
I know my issues will not go away overnight. I know that becoming that girl who used to play in the mud and throw her scraggly hair into a ponytail will be difficult to find underneath all this body image bullshit.
But I hope to get there.