I have a stupid problem: I hate my face. It looks like dough with too much double chin, no matter how many make-up tutorials I make myself watch and learn. I know worrying about looks is trivial, but I wish it didn’t take me days to recover when I see a picture of myself taken by my mom, a friend, a relative etc. I take one look at the photo and delete it straight away, then pretend it doesn’t exist (which doesn’t work and I feel gross).
Also, this ties itself to inner homophobia in ways that makes me uncomfortable. In my darkest moments I believe my genes made me gay because of a face like this that any man would find appalling (I heard there’s an algorithm that can tell anyone who’s a lesbian bc they have a wide face — like me!) All of that is obviously not true, all the other queer women are gorgeous.
I’m okay with my body most of the time and feel pretty secure in my gender. I just worry I’ll never be able to be loved, if I feel this disgusting — and that other people like me only because they’re nice people.
So, do I just chant to myself in front of a mirror “I’m pretty” until I brainwash myself? Hope I win a lottery and get plastic surgery? Or should I just pull myself together and start concentrating on things that actually matter and wear a face mask forever?
Oh, friend. I’ve been sitting with your question for a while because I really want to acknowledge the pain you’re feeling, even as I try to help you out of some of it. Your question isn’t “stupid,” and it isn’t trivial. Beauty standards may be arbitrary, but your distress is real. Let’s start here: you are not disgusting. Other people like you because you are likable! No one is doing you a favor. You’re lovely.
Human faces, when you really look at them, are a wildly varied collection of features and colors and shapes. And as much as the idea amuses me, having spent time in some fairly diverse queer spaces, I am going to go ahead and say definitively that there is no such thing as an algorithmic “lesbian face.” It sounds to me like your internalized homophobia is teaming up with some dysmorphia to send you some really toxic intrusive thoughts about the way you look. You do not need to change your face. But I do think you can start to change your thoughts.
I absolutely identify with where you’re coming from. There have been times in my life when I’ve seen photos other people took of me and thought terrible things, things I would never, ever think about a friend or loved one. Brains can be our cruelest bullies! That is very real. But we are not our thoughts. Our meanest thoughts don’t have to define us. And over time, armed with the resources you need to do so, I think you can start to fight back against the bullies, and flip the script.
Our thoughts tend to follow well-tread, familiar pathways in our mind — and your thoughts have followed this particular pathway for far too long. Breaking the pattern is totally possible, but it won’t happen overnight.
One thing I’d like to suggest is that for awhile, you carefully limit the images of yourself that you end up seeing. This might mean that you look away if you’re walking towards the mirror in a department store or a reflective storefront window. If you’re video chatting in an app where you can’t hide your face, layer your windows or put a post-it on the screen so you’re not staring at it the whole time. You’ll definitely want to avoid looking at any photos other people take of you. If you have mirrors in your house that serve no important purpose, it’s time to put them in storage or in a place where you can control when you use them — for instance, a full-length mirror might go on the inside of a closet door that you can open when you need it. This all may sound a bit extreme, but by avoiding images that trigger a particular train of thought, you’ll create some space to breathe, to inhabit your body, to think less about what other people might see when they look at you.
During this time, I want you to focus on images of yourself that you can control. I’ve always been a big fan of selfies, where I’m in control of the angle and the lighting. I can play with my expressions, I can try doing something funny with my hair or makeup, and most importantly, I can delete every single photo I don’t like. At uncertain times in my life, playing with selfies has helped me match my own conception to my face more closely to my sense of self — it’s helped me see someone I recognized on screen.
I also want you to spend a lot of time not thinking about your face at all. Find things to do that will distract your brain completely, things that you really enjoy, things that make you feel like you. Read novels! Join a DND campaign! Camp out under the stars! Lean to bake sourdough! Whatever it is that makes you feel whole and happy, competent or thrilled, nourished or challenged: find those things, and do them, both alone and with your friends and family.
Speaking of friends and family: You mention the fear that you’ll never be loved, and I do realize you mean romantic love, but also, you’re loved right now. The people who love you don’t see the face you described in your letter. They don’t see a chin that isn’t as it should be, or a face that’s too wide. They see their dear friend, or their partner, or their adult child. They see the sum of you — all of the unique and amazing things that drew them to you in the first place. They know the color of your eyes, and they’re fond of how they crinkle when you laugh. They have their own favorite things about you, ones I can’t even guess. They cherish your face because they cherish you. That’s all beauty really is, when you get down to it. It’s not any of the commercial crap that has been packaged and sold to us to make us insecure. It’s being cared for, and caring for others. It’s love.
I know being told all of this doesn’t magically change things. When you do see your face in the mirror or in a picture, negative thoughts will continue to pop up like oily little factoids in a Pop-Up Video. But once that thought has popped up, tell it just how wrong it is. Imagine what you’d say to a loved one who was feeling low self-esteem. Imagine how you’d comfort them. Then say that to yourself. You deserve the same love and care that you’d give any dear friend. Sometimes we have to stick up to the bullies, even when the bullies are living in our own brains. If you do that, over time, the ways that you correct and interrupt and yell over those toxic thoughts will become just as familiar as the bad thoughts are right now, and just as automatic. Over time, those healthier thought patterns will start to win.
Right now I’m remembering the first time that I was ever in a place just filled to the brim with happy queer people. The feeling was pure magic. I wanted to bottle it up and share it. I’d spent so many years being told what I was supposed to look like. First, what a fuckable, heterosexual woman was supposed to look like, and then, what an acceptable kind of lesbian was supposed to look like. But then I was in this actual queer-normative space, and here were all of these people, with all these different faces and bodies and haircuts and genders and clothes and ways they were expressing themselves, people who were in various stages of letting go of what they were supposed to look like, what they were supposed to be. It was the most glorious thing I’d ever seen. Queer people, as you say, are gorgeous.
You’re a queer person. You are gorgeous. And you can do this. I know you can. 💙
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.