Last week I wrote a post about publishing an old letter I wrote to myself at age 18 during my first year of university. I have spent all day fretting about whether or not this is a good idea. Whether it will leave me vulnerable to ridicule and judgement.
Reading it has however made me wonder about the role society plays in nurturing psychological disorders amongst young adults. For instance, how much does our society cultivate and even benefit from low self-esteem and does it trigger a host of serious mental health issues such as social anxiety, self-harming and eating disorders?
And how much did my own insecurities about how I looked, feed the dark demons of my depression?
As a young girl I suffered badly with insecurity, anxiety and general social awkwardness. I self-harmed as a way of coping with distressing thoughts and was plagued daily by the idea I wasn’t worth people’s time. I believed that at any moment, the few friends I did have, would see what I and everyone else saw; a nobody, at which point they too would no longer want to be around me.
I constantly felt paranoid about being ‘found out’ to be uninteresting.
I spent the first week at university hiding in my dorm crying, imprisoned by social anxiety and fear, as I watched helplessly how the confident attractive girls were being chatted up by the good-looking boys. Why couldn’t that be me? How did they know how to talk to people without going puce in the face or saying something stupid?
For most of my young life I did what many girls did and still do. I blamed my lack of being able to forge successful relationships on how I looked, because all I saw was how beautiful women both in the media and in my personal life were enjoying huge success, no matter who they were on the inside.
It is clear from this letter how much this illusion distressed me:
“Why can’t I stop crying all the time? I hate myself so much, I wish I didn’t exist. I want to disappear. I hate acting like this in front of my friends – they deserve so much better. I hate myself for not appreciating what I have because I have SO much going for me here. Why isn’t it enough? Why do I want the impossible? I’ll never be happy because I will never achieve perfection. At least my character I can change, but not my looks.
It matters to me what people think. MORE THAN ANYTHING do I seek their approval.
I am so scared that I’m driving all I’ve got away. I’m so paranoid.
I wish I looked better. I hate it that I place so much importance on looks, but to me it’s vital and the fact that I’m not the best looking girl eats me up. How crazy is that and how stupid that I could be down about something like that?
People with real problems out there are happier than I am. It’s so petty. I hate feeling like this but I can’t help it. I’m always jealous and paranoid of people and it’s ruining me. I wish I could accept me as me – with faults and all, but I can’t.
I want to be the best there is – because even though some people are less perfect than others, there are those who are close to perfection, and I want that because I see that other people have it. It is possible.
All I want is to be normal like my friends and accept that I have different qualities – better than looks – that make up for not being beautiful. I just wish I knew what they were? I am such a bad person and no looks to recommend me either. My best qualities are the friends I’ve got around me, but once they’re gone I have nothing left.
Please someone make me better, or make me disappear.”
I was 14 when I remember seeing Britney Spears in her first hit single video, Hit Me Baby One More Time, dancing around in her skimpy school uniform. She was 17. I saw how this beautiful young girl was catapulted into the lime light. To me she was perfect and she seemed to have everything because she was pretty. My friends’ dads salivated over the video of this barely legal young girl. Boys my age were no longer interested unless you wore a crop top baring your midriff. Girls everywhere emulated this global super star. Everyone either wanted her or wanted to be her and for the first time I started to look at my appearance and compare all the ways I looked different to what was deemed attractive.
I lay awake at night loathing myself, praying I could wake up and look like her. BE her.
Being bullied throughout my youth, I started to wonder if my lack of physical attractiveness (because I didn’t look like Britney or any other girls on TV) had something to do with my lack of success on a social level. Maybe I didn’t belong because I was ugly? The fact this new pop star didn’t write her own music, play an instrument or had any ‘real’ talent was of no concern to anyone because she was beautiful, so clearly that didn’t matter in terms of living a successful life.
And that was the lesson I took to heart for most of my teens and early twenties.
The irony of Britney Spears’ own battle with mental health doesn’t escape me, and more than anything I feel sorry for the money-making puppet she so obviously was. Too late were we shown that beauty, success, adoration and all the money in the world, did not automatically equal happiness. But soon there was an array of other pop, reality TV and social media stars popping up to take her place, with nothing to offer other than their often photoshopped appearances and glamorous lifestyles. With hoards of young fans trying to emulate them.
There is no shame in wanting to be attractive, nor in taking pride in your appearance. Most of us outgrow the obsessive pursuit of perfection as we get older, when we start to realise that there are much more important things in life and begin to value more stable pursuits of happiness such as family, careers, self-improvement. Maybe we just accept it as a natural progression into maturity. But is it more damaging than we want to believe?
With anorexia in girls as young as 6 years old, is there an underlying problem that we need to urgently address and take responsibly for? We say it’s ok to have a little nip/tuck here and there, to body shame celebrities who have cellulite, to have fat sucked out of one area and put into another. We allow female celebrities to objectify their bodies with no thought as to what our younger generation is learning about how women are treated or valued by our society.
Despite the continual campaigns to publicise psychological problems, the fact is that one in ten children between the ages of one and 16 suffers with a mental health disorder. And this number is constantly rising! Yet people are still unwilling to discuss openly what could be the root cause of some of these problems, particularly among young women. Because of convenience. Because we don’t want to admit that it could be our fault.
While this letter makes for difficult reading, bringing up memories I had long-buried, I hope that it can somewhat raise awareness of the potential relationship between mental illness among young girls, and low self-esteem and body image issues brought about due to the perception of beauty. I don’t want to fail to talk about something that impacts so many people purely because of embarrassment.
Do I think that this old letter proves that society cultivates mental illness?
The answer isn’t a simple one. I strongly believe we as individuals have to take responsibility for ourselves and our own lives. We cannot blame society for our shortcomings as adults. Neither is it wrong to want to look your best so long as it isn’t harming your health. But for innocent young girls and teens, who look to their community, their peers, the famous people they idolise in order to learn what is and isn’t normal or right, who throw up perfectly healthy food because their favourite reality TV star isn’t eating carbs this week, the issue isn’t so black and white and there is a huge problem with how women are objectified in the media, in more ways than one.
Today, I do not recognise the person who wrote those words I have published, and I thank God every day for giving me the strength to overcome the crippling self-doubt. Through a long and difficult journey of counselling, antidepressants and unwavering determination to expose the truth – that looking good, while fun should never surpass doing good – I became a ‘normal’ functioning member of society (at which point I realised that being ‘normal’ wasn’t all that interesting anyway!)
I relearned that a woman’s value – that my worth – lay with what was on the inside. No matter how much weight I lost or how much make-up I wore, it made no difference to how I felt about myself unless I worked on both equally. Ironically, working on one stopped me caring about the other as much, and instead I began to focus on all-round health.
Our bodies truly are remarkable for what they can do and should not be hated or punished for having a few lumps and bumps.
To anyone reading this now, to those who may be feeling like I did in that letter, you are not alone. There is a sickness in our society with which I know you do not feel aligned, and in which you do not have to participate or accept as normal. If you feel like there is something amiss, seek help, work on yourself and surround yourself with people who have the same values as you.
Learn to love yourself as you are, because you are perfect in you uniqueness, big thighs and all!
Go out and live YOUR life instead of trying to emulate someone else’s. Only then will you find out how truly amazing you are in your imperfection.
We are born to be different, not the same.
I cannot say it better than Mary Schmich, and so I impart some of her wisdom here:
- You are not as fat as you imagine.
- Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.
- Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.
- Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.
- Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.
- Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.
- Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.
- Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.
- Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.
- Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85.
Thank you for reading without judgement.