What's your currency?

My entire life, people have told me that I'm pretty.

But like Beyoncé says, pretty hurts, and it took me a long time to realize the impact of hearing such well-intentioned, yet destructive, words. It's true -- for years, I've been told that I am cute and pretty and beautiful and lovely in terms of my physical appearance.

And for years, good looks became my thing.

The thing I could control. Being pretty meant attention. It meant feeling important and valuable. I learned rather quickly that being attractive led to more smiles, more opportunities, more positive assumptions about my intentions, more getting what I wanted. More, more, more.

I also realized this attention rooted in appearance opened space for manipulation, hollowness, and miscommunication. 

I started to notice that being beautiful often meant I could get away with behaving however I wanted, however poorly, which led to unhealthy power balances and a lack of integrity. Nobody ever thinks that the sweet, pretty girl will lie, right? I started to feel incredibly insecure, always wondering if people liked me for me. In relationships, I constantly stressed about being a "trophy" girlfriend -- but I also desperately wanted to BE that prize for someone -- which resulted in a substantial fear of commitment. I worried that I would only be loved, known or accepted . . . as long as I was deemed attractive. This concept dug its nails into my developing perfectionism, and boy, did it do a number on me.

The more compliments people paid me, the higher my self-esteem rose, and the more emphasis I put on my appearance: being thin, wearing makeup, always smiling, perfectly kept hair, great style, white teeth. The media, as it does for all women, continued to hammer these thoughts into my brain, and I listened, taking all of it to heart.

You see, when you're pretty, you don't have to be brave. You let your looks open all the doors, and you settle for a lot less than you deserve. Beauty becomes something to be traded and used and micro-managed.

In college, things started to escalate. I still got good grades, but all of a sudden, classes became more challenging. I had a few part-time jobs, but student loans started to build up, causing great stress and anxiety. I gained the freshman 15 I swore I wouldn't, which led to late night hours on the elliptical machine; because I ate so little during the day, I snuck fast food in the evenings, and even (to my great shame) forced myself to throw up a few times to destroy the evidence.

Then I graduated, moved to Chicago for a new job downtown, went through three heart-wrenching break-ups in the span of three years, and finished a full-time graduate program at a top university. I said yes, and yes, and yes, to everything, until it all came crashing down.

When I ended my engagement to my college boyfriend, I felt so alone, for the very first time, as if my security blanket had been ripped out from underneath me. I knew it was the right decision, but it didn't make it easier, and I threw myself into other relationships, work, and school.

Mostly, I kept trying to be perfect and beautiful . . . because that's what had always worked for me. 

When the next guy informed me that he "preferred girls who are almost anorexic, but not sick, just extremely skinny," I stopped eating lunch. I didn't  need it, I reasoned, and besides, I was always rushing between class and work anyway. The pounds started to slip away, and I felt light as a feather -- so light, in fact, that when the same boyfriend became controlling and obsessive about our relationship, the damage seemed miles away.

When another man whom I adored, and I thought I was dating, started secretly seeing a friend of mine, my heart filled with rage. I was prettier than her! I thought. Why would he choose her? I wondered, filling the pages of my journal with frustration.

Even now, I can remember precisely that sick one-two punch of rejection, that powerful feeling of not being good enough. 

When my grad school professor gently noted that it didn't seem like I wanted to pursue a PhD, I strode ahead with applications, desperate to prove to others that I was not only pretty, but smart as well.

That's the double-whammy, or so says our society. It's not enough to be just good-looking, you've got to be wildly intelligent, wealthy, thin, funny, successful, the whole shebang.

When my therapist asked if I ever thought about hurting myself, and I paused before answering that no, I would never -- that's when I knew something was really, really wrong.

So I cut out the toxic relationships. I stopped dating. I acknowledged that I was too thin and fairly depressed. I quit skipping meals. I let my family help me. I moved to a new city for a new job. I stopped spending an hour getting ready for work each morning. I started to think hard about my own self-worth, my priorities, my values, my dreams. I wondered how my heart and soul had drifted so far away from my body and mind.

It took three years to rid myself of the belief that being pretty mattered most. Three years of a healthy relationship (for once) and a stable environment led to new freedom to consider what actually filled me up and made me feel whole. Turns out, it wasn't being beautiful or perfect.

For the first time in my life, I began to worry less about what I looked like, and focus more on what I felt like.

Writing and yoga helped immensely over time. A stable environment and a healthy relationship also served as a salve. But it wasn't until I picked up Yes Please by Amy Poehler this year that I finally found the words to talk about this experience of obsessing over appearance.

I assumed I would like her memoir -- after all, I think Poehler is absolutely hilarious, and her comedy work continues to break down barriers for women everywhere. (Also, she and Tina Fey are just the absolute best together and I want them to host all award shows ALWAYS.)

But Yes Please resonated with me in a major way due to one quote about deciding one's currency.  Poehler talks about not feeling pretty as a young girl, and how after a certain point, she decided that being funny would be her currency. Instead of trying to get people to think she was beautiful, she only wanted them to think she was hilarious. That became her goal, her career, her core sense of identity.

I love this idea. For so many years, I truly believed that being beautiful was my only currency. It led to a lot of physical, emotional and psychological damage that took years to repair. The worst part? I still feel hesitation about sharing my experiences because I am embarrassed and ashamed. I feel like it was my fault, and it shouldn't have happened. I'm intelligent, and I've experienced no major trauma or tragedy, and I have a loving family and plenty of privilege.

In other words, I'm just like thousands of women out there who don't have a "reason" to experience disordered eating or depression, and yet, I did.

I'm thankful, because even though it was really bad, it could have been much worse. I managed to clean up my destructive eating behaviors without delving into having a more serious disorder; I felt able to change my negative mental patterns about worth over time through yoga, church and friendships. But when I heard Poehler talk about deciding one's currency, I remembered my years of struggle around external validation and appearance.

One of my strongest memories from childhood is hearing my mother say,

"Honey, you are so beautiful, but remember that beauty fades. It can always be taken away from you. You could get into an accident tomorrow or get sick and your beauty could disappear, at least in the way you know it. So make sure you stay pretty on the inside for the long run."

I didn't know I had misunderstood her. She meant that beauty is enjoyable and fun, but not the most important trait. I thought she meant I should protect my beauty at all costs, because it is THE most important thing about me. I was wrong.

I know now that beauty is a bonus. It's nice to get a compliment about your appearance. It's great and fine to want to look good, or get in shape, or lose weight, or gain muscle. It's fun to delight over a fantastic outfit and revel in a long run or hot yoga class.

However, looks are no longer my currency. It pains me to remember how much time and energy I spent, I wasted, on believing otherwise.

I'm grateful to shift to such a mindset, but others remain locked into the idea that appearance matters most. "Thinspiration" and "pro-ana [anorexia]" abounds on social media sites. 24 million people in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder, and about 85-90% of them are women. Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, and over half of teenage girls participate in unhealthy eating behaviors without ever being diagnosed. 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. 50% of people diagnosed with eating disorders experience depression to varying degrees, and 70% of antidepressant prescriptions are given to women. (Source)

This emphasis on beauty, on appearance -- it's killing us. Literally.

This is why I support movements like #AskHerMore and Lisa Bloom's work on talking to little girls about ideas rather than looks. This is why I continue to adore outspoken women in today's media landscape who are making a difference and speaking loudly when it comes to portraying real, diverse women on screens -- Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling and Shonda Rhimes and Tiny Fey and Amy Schumer -- creatives who are challenging the lie that all women need to be thin, beautiful, white, polite and perfect. This is why I appreciate the honesty of blogs like Choosing Raw and Momastery and so many more.

What makes me feel happy and sexy nowadays is no longer a flat tummy or size zero jeans or curled lashes or the adoring gaze of strangers. All of that is just temporary, anyway. Sometimes I forget that truth, but I always remember.

I feel happy when I see the smiles on my parents' faces, when I hug my sisters, when I take my dog on a walk, when I write these blog posts and write anything at all, when I walk into the yoga studio, when I feel fed and rested and not too busy. I feel sexy when I'm jotting down essay ideas, when I try something new, when I go outside of my comfort zone, when I tell the truth about what I want and need from someone, when I invite connection, growth and intimacy into my life.

And even on the days when I feel happy and sexy, I still have moments of feeling sad, or confused, or angry, or jealous, or anxious, or scared.

I just don't turn to my appearance and try to "fix" myself as a distraction from feeling my full range of emotions as a human being.

I strive to be smart, or kind, or generous, or thoughtful, or creative, or reliable, or honest, or funny like Poehler. And if someone tells me I am beautiful, I say "Thank you," and carry on being my best, brightest self. 

What "Good" Skin Really Means

For most women, there's usually one main aspect of their physical appearance that is prioritized above the rest, and it differs from woman to woman.* Maybe it's your hair--keeping it glossy and straight, bouncy and curly. Maybe it's your weight--staying toned and fit, losing those last couple pounds. Maybe it's your clothing--always being put together in the latest fashion. Maybe it's your teeth--making sure they are white as can be. Maybe it's your nails--colored and buffered at all times. Maybe it's your height--wishing you were shorter or taller. And so on. It could be anything, no matter how realistic. Whatever the case, it's the part of you, appearance-wise, that when kept a certain way, makes you feel happy and gorgeous and in control even if everything else is falling apart.

And when it isn't kept up, when your hair is a messy ball of frizz, when you can see those nightly desserts showing up on your hips, when you wear the same outfit for the millionth time, when your tooth gets a chip or a stain, when your nails are plain, when you can't do a damn thing about whatever it is that you think should be a certain way . . . I'm guessing you feel bad. Less than. Imperfect. Small. Out of control. Not good enough.

For me, that "thing" is a clear complexion.

good skin

Good skin is the epitome of beauty to me; it equals effortless beauty and shining health and perfection. I maintain a powerful envy for women who never wear a stitch of makeup and look great, and I continually strive to be that way too. It doesn't help that the Internet (1.6 million hits on Google) and magazines constantly tote tricks of having "good" skin, nor the fact that in today's Instagrammed world, there's always a filter making everyone look their best.

I've been lucky enough to have pretty good skin over the years, minus a bout of acne throughout high school and into college. (Truth be told, I'm sure the latter was a direct result of too much pizza and beer in the dorms.) I experienced a long stretch of time where I didn't really worry about my skin. I wore makeup to cover up old acne scars or flares of pimples, and because makeup is fun and makes me feel confident, but I didn't really need a whole lot of it.

Until I moved to Des Moines, where I've encountered more and more problems with my skin. My job is much more stressful than any job I've had in the past, and so perhaps that has been part of it over the past year or so. It's a vicious cycle -- when I feel like my skin is "bad," I get stressed out, which leads to more breaking out, more makeup to try to cover it up, etc. Having a "bad" skin day is like having a "fat" day for me (a lot of women will get what I mean); it's when I don't want to leave the house, see or talk to anybody until it passes and I feel (and look) better. This pattern has resulted in about a year of constantly worrying about my skin, if it looks "good" or "bad" and what I can do to keep it on the "good" side as much as possible. Overall, if my skin was clear, I felt good about myself. But if it wasn't, sometimes my entire day was ruined as I raced to cover up or hurry away the feared breakout.

Recently, I tried a bit of Retin-A at my best friend's house. She has beautiful, clear skin, and I wanted to be right there with her. The first few times, I had no problems. My skin looked a little clearer and smoother the next day. Then I made a big mistake. You see, the key rules of Retin-A are: after you wash your face at night, wait 20-30 minutes before applying, and only use a pea-sized amount. I forgot to do both these things; I put on about a dime size amount right after washing my face before bed, and ended up with patchy, extremely dry skin that led to a few raw areas on my face. Moisturizer only helped a little, and makeup made it look worse. Overall, not attractive, and even a little painful.

I immediately felt anxiety and stress appear. I wanted to wear a paper bag to work, and hide from my loved ones. I felt distracted, constantly thinking about how terrible I looked and if everyone was thinking about it. At one point, I even wondered if the barista at Starbucks would look at me and think, "Oh my god, she looks ugly." I worried that my boyfriend would love me a little less. And I wanted to throw up a disclaimer to everyone I saw: "I had a reaction to some new face stuff! It wasn't my fault!"**

I felt ashamed by my "bad" skin. I felt like bad skin = bad me. The thoughts came fast and loud: You suck. You failed. You're supposed to look perfect, don't you know? You're not pretty if you don't have good skin. You're supposed to be in control; it's your fault that your face now has some flaws. You're not--wait for it--worthy. Of anything. Of anyone. Of even enjoying this day.

WHOA. What a jerk, right?

It made me want to cry. Lately, I've felt a lot of peace and self-acceptance in terms of my body and appearance, but I realized how quickly I could still associate my self-worth with the way that I looked. I couldn't believe that a breakout had led to such negative thoughts and such a powerful sense of shame.  I thought about how I would treat a friend who thought she/he had "bad" skin. First of all, I probably wouldn't notice and dissect their appearance in the first place. Most of things we critique about ourselves aren't really that obvious or horrible to anyone around us; it's usually in our head. Second, I would never, ever, ever talk to him/her the way I would talk to myself. I would try to be loving and encouraging and supportive. I would remind him/her that real life doesn't have pretty filters, and that's okay, even awesome. I'd say, "Hey, you don't have to be perfect. It's just a bad skin/hair/outfit day. Try to let it go. You're still loved. You're still you." 

I mean, of all the things in the world to spend my mental energy on, was I really going to devote it to a few days of spots on my face?

No way.

let it go

So I worked hard to let it go. No matter what the media says, "good" skin does not make me or anyone else a "good," beautiful person. It doesn't make me perfect, and I don't need to be "perfect" in the first place. It doesn't affect my worthiness as an individual nor does it change who I am. I reminded myself that this was just a temporary flare-up, and soon my skin will go back to normal (and remembered how lucky I am to not have recurring complexion issues nor any sort of skin disease). I decided to cool it on any new face treatments for now, no matter how trendy, and made an appointment with a dermatologist to make sure I'm not dealing with an infection or major irritation.

And then I said to myself, "Hey, you don't have to be perfect. It's just a bad skin day. Try to let it go. You're still loved. You're still you." 

*(Disclaimer: this post is likely relevant for some men, too, but I've experienced more discussion with women about similar issues, so that's the place I'll speak from. Second disclaimer: this is obviously a first-world, middle-class sort of problem. Not speaking of behalf of all women by any means.)

**Was I being a ridiculous drama queen or what?