I don’t think any of us is a stranger to low self-esteem. Whether it’s an occasional twinge of insecurity or chronic self-doubt and self-criticism, we’ve all experienced it, and we could all stand to reflect upon and improve our own.
The beauty industry is notorious for creating and exploiting insecurities in its consumers. As someone who’s written about beauty products and offered beauty advice professionally for years, I’m aware of my role in that and of the potential effects beauty content can have on our readers’ self-esteem. When we praise a cream for its firming effects on skin, readers often hear the message that sagging skin is undesirable. When we applaud a serum for clearing up a breakout, readers often hear the message that breakouts are ugly, something to be erased. In our pursuit of certain beauty goals and our efforts to alter features with lotions and creams and toners and treatments, we are making statements about what we consider beautiful and what we don’t.
In our pursuit of certain beauty goals with lotions and creams and toners, we are making statements about what we consider beautiful and what we don’t.
Beauty standards exist, sometimes shaped by culture, sometimes shaped by biology. As a beauty writer, I find myself walking a fine line. On one hand, I do acknowledge the existence of beauty standards and look for ways to help readers fit into them when readers want to. On the other hand, I don’t ever want to push an unattainable ideal that exists only to damage consumers’ self-esteem. I believe it’s possible to enjoy beauty products healthily and responsibly. It just takes some reflection.
Where Do Your Insecurities Come From?
Self-image is notoriously inaccurate. We’ve all known someone who considered themselves terribly unattractive, when in reality we saw them as amazingly beautiful; we’ve all known someone who thought of themselves as overweight while being unmistakably slim and fit.
Our personal insecurities are no different. What we see when we look in the mirror or at photos of ourselves is distorted by our own self-perception. It can be helpful, therefore, to reflect on where our insecurities come from. Who told us that this particular feature on our face or that particular part of our body isn’t good enough?
As the only Asian kid in my elementary school for a few years, I got teased regularly for my appearance, particularly my eye shape. I don’t think I need to spell out the exact mocking gesture I saw directed at me on the playground. Even after I grew up and came to embrace my (presumed) eye shape, I labored under the delusion that I have unusually small eyes. It took me until I was about 37 and mentioned them to a friend, who looked at me like I’d grown a second head and said “no you don’t,” before I understood that I had been wrong about my own face this entire time. Just because of some pretty mild childhood teasing.
Too often, another person’s thoughtless remarks can shape how we see ourselves for years to come, no matter how little truth there is to what they said.
Why do you dislike some parts of yourself? Who taught you to see those parts as lesser, or to see yourself as less worthy because of those parts? Too often, another person’s thoughtless remarks can shape how we see ourselves for years to come, no matter how little truth there is to what they said. Unpacking the basis for our insecurities can take us a long way towards healing.
Look at Online Imagery With a Critical Eye
Sometimes our insecurities don’t spring from anyone in our pasts or daily lives. Sometimes they’re planted by the culture we live in, the images that surround us: expertly edited, carefully curated images.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again: Those images on social media? The ones that make you feel inferior? Those images are mostly likely about as real as a CGI explosion in a spy movie, and oftentimes, recognizing their unreality is key to taking away their power over you.
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Airbrushed photos used to be the exclusive domain of advertising and professional photography, but regular people now have access to some incredibly sophisticated photo editing tools as well as a huge selection of Photoshop tutorials online. Just about anyone with a smartphone and a little commitment can figure out how to smooth away every bump and blemish, reshape a nose or jaw, tighten up a waistline, lift and fill out a booty, and even add some extra makeup to a selfie. In some circles, heavy photo editing isn’t just normalized but expected.
I follow a Chinese street fashion blogger whose Instagram Reels had my head spinning for the first week or so after I started watching them. I haven’t been back to China since I was a kid, but I’m pretty sure the entire urban population of Beijing hasn’t been replaced by sylphlike six-foot-tall fashion models since I last visited. And yet that’s the impression her highly viewed videos give. Then I stumbled across someone else’s video explaining how people achieve the legs-for-days effect in the videos. It’s a relatively simple matter of angling the video differently along the vertical axis. Add a subtle skin-whitening, eye-enlarging filter on top, and voilà! A city full of human gazelles. My friends and I were howling when we figured out the trick.
Those images on social media? The ones that make you feel inferior? Oftentimes, recognizing their unreality is key to taking away their power over you.
Online imagery is far more often fake than real. Don’t compare yourself to it. None of us can win that game.
In Fact, Stop Comparing
There are few sayings more true than the one that goes “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
We all know it, intellectually. The grass is greener than on the other side, that friend whose thick curly hair we admire would much rather have our pin-straight locks, and people with very slim figures often wish for the more voluptuous proportions that others are dieting and exercising to reduce. Unfortunately, it takes more than intellectual understanding to truly break free of the comparison game.
One way we can reduce our tendency to compare is to really reflect on the people in our lives, the people we know. There’s often an unspoken subtext to our desire to live up to an external standard of perfection—the subtext being that if we don’t, then we won’t be able to find happiness. Won’t be able to find love, won’t be able to achieve success, won’t be able to build the life that we want.
Looking around at other people, people we encounter in real life and not merely through the lens of social media, easily disproves those beliefs. People of all shapes and sizes are loved, successful, and fulfilled. Love and success and happiness aren’t reserved for the physically flawless—just go to any busy area (socially distancing, of course) and really observe who you see. And consider the people you love. Do you only love people who fit a physical ideal? That’s unlikely. It’s far more likely that the people you love are beautiful to you regardless of any objective “imperfections,” and also likely that because you love them, you see even those “imperfections” as beautiful.
So what makes you think they don’t feel the same about you?
Often the unspoken subtext to our desire to live up to an external standard of perfection is that if we don’t, we won’t be able to find happiness or love or success.
Don’t compare yourself to anyone but yourself. Don’t compete with anyone but yourself. We’re here, on a beauty site, because we do enjoy our efforts to refine and enhance our appearances, but our only benchmarks should be ourselves, not others. Happiness isn’t reserved for the physically flawless, but it is reserved for those who have learned to love and value themselves at every stage of their own journey. Chronic comparison prevents that from happening.
We can strive to improve without devaluing who we are already. To me, that’s the key to overcoming insecurities and gaining true self-esteem. In letting go of comparisons, rejecting the lies of social media, and moving past the ancient origins of our insecurities, we can learn to see ourselves as already worthy, already whole. After that, anything we do to our faces and bodies can be done out of love and care for ourselves, rather than fear. That’s where true enjoyment of beauty begins.