I know, for many women, it’s hard to tell yourself you’re beautiful and actually feel it. It’s hard to love your own reflections and the person you are right where you are.
Similarly for me, even with these bold statements and lengthy essays about self-love and body image, there were countless times I would look into a mirror and feel sorry for everything I saw.
Even when I did find myself beautiful and lovable, very soon I would start to doubt it and think maybe I was wrong; no, actually I wasn’t beautiful and worthy of love at all, like how dare I even think that for a second.
Love myself and believe I’m beautiful or good enough — it sounds all so simple, right? Yet, somehow for a long, long time, it was an unimaginable thing to me.
Maybe for a day, I managed to convince myself I was beautiful and worthy of love. But the next, I would just see all the flaws crawling out from every part of my body and I would come to loath every inch of it.
I would desperately try to do this, change that, hoping to earn the “beautiful” status as my naive mind was fed the belief that being beautiful meant being loved.
The sad thing is even when I was all dolled up in the most glamorous outfit and people would tell me I was “hot”, “gorgeous”, “sexy”, I didn’t feel it.
Compliments and flattering selfies didn’t mean anything. I didn’t believe it. I would always feel like I wasn’t good enough, dripping in insecurity and anxiety every time a pair of eyes was laid on me.
As it turned out, no matter how much I’d changed, inside I was still the ugly duckling in middle school when the boy I liked would say to me I was too ugly for him to date.
Back in school, I wasn’t the woman I’m today.
I had a tomboy haircut and a little chubby figure, no cute clothes or pretty make-up. I would be completely unfiltered and freely speak up my mind and I was bullied badly.
Some kids — sometimes even adults — intentionally or not, would pick up on my look, my size, the way I naturally was, and throw unkind labeling words like “ugly”, “weird”, “strange” behind my back or even in my face.
See, I was never taught by my family to place importance on my look but when the world kept repeating it to me and treating me based on it, long enough, I started to care and genuinely think I wasn’t beautiful then eventually disregarded all other good qualities I had.
It was as though life was one big beauty contest and my worth was all determined by it. Not by kindness, not by intelligence, not by creativity, not by hard work. But solely by the way I look and appear to others.
For that very reason, to me, especially as a female born and raised in a sexist society which put an exceeding value on beauty and superficial qualities, growing up was incredibly tough.
Since then I’ve grown into a well-refined woman — far out of the pre-puberty awkwardness of middle school— and shaped my own thinking but, at 14, what did I know?
I was just a little girl full of hopes and dreams, so eager to explore the crazy big world out there. I was a blank slate that hadn’t yet developed the ability to filter what was thrown at it.
Everything was taken to heart and deeply memorised — mostly for how hurtful it was. Over time, it was instilled in my core belief system that everything that happened to me was a direct result of my look or how successful I appear to others.
Although I gradually knew what to think rationally, i.e. there are so many other factors and outer appearance isn’t always relevant, I could never really internalise it.
I would still automatically attribute every cause and reason to my superficial qualities.
And when these qualities were emphasised too much, it means I was constantly comparing myself to other people and it was impossible to ever truly love myself and feel confident.
Practical Changes (2011 to Present)
In 2011, I left Vietnam for London to attend an A-level school (pre-university). It was my chance to leave behind all the social judgments placed on my look and redefine myself.
That said, for the following several years, I struggled immensely to accept and love myself. I didn’t have to take people’s unsolicited comments about my body anymore, but it was when the voice in my head got louder — and beauty was just one of its many favourite topics.
In the UK, I was often one of the very few Asians in the room. That combined with a young face and a foreign accent made me feel painfully anxious and self-conscious. I felt inadequate and inferior to my classmates or even random people I saw on the street and social media.
External achievements didn’t matter much because I’d downplay them all in my head anyway. I was worried I wasn’t good enough, I was a fraud. Somehow I also believed I was messed up and destined for unfortunate outcomes. My self-esteem was on the floor.
The consequence of this went far beyond self-image issues. It led to weak boundaries, terrible life and relationship decisions, traumatising break-ups, endless nights of crying myself to sleep, and destructive escaping habits.
I was lonely, depressed, and wanted to disappear.
Luckily, I was self-aware and resilient. Even in the darkest times of my life, I never gave up on myself. I soon realised that my mind and heart and my desire to become a better person were significantly more powerful than any psychological pain.
These were the changes that vastly improved my quality of life — and saved me from myself — in no particular order:
pursuing my writing
getting rid of my glasses
publishing my first book
going out of my comfort zone such as trying improv and taking solo trips
changing living environments and job roles fairly frequently
surrounding myself with people who share the same values and interests as mine
The most eye-opening, life-changing realisation for me is that, at the end of the day, my reality comes down to the thoughts in my head, the way I live my life, the people I spend my time with, and my reaction towards what happens to me on a daily basis, which are all the things I can deliberately control.
Surely, I — or anyone for that matter — didn’t deserve to be bullied or mistreated and it wasn’t my fault that my thinking became skewed, but if I keep letting it hold me back from loving myself and being whoever I want to be, then it’s my responsibility.
It’s ridiculous that despite the obvious psychological damage, I kept restricting my life within other people’s opinions and allowed them to determine my worth.
It’s ironic that I had always been judging myself and others based on this vanity system I claimed to despise, and that’s how I surrounded myself with so many wrong people who had such different values from mine and inevitably got hurt.
I even consciously ignored all the positive things people had said to me and, instead, I chose to believe all the nasty ones, writing them all over my body and identity for years and years on end as though they were facts.
They aren’t facts. They are the subjective opinions of some people who did not know me well and frankly do not matter to me. They are the standards I refuse to be measured up against.
I have a choice to think differently, live differently, and spend time with the people who appreciate me for me.
Thanks to all the practical changes I’ve made, gradually, I’ve become self-assured and level-headed. I respect and love myself enough to confidently decide for myself what’s good and not good for me and build my life accordingly.
The Outcome: A Transformed, Wholesome Life
I’ve learned that appearance matters, but it’s not everything.
Self-love is much bigger and shines much brighter. It’s in the way I feel, in the way I carry myself, do my things, and treat others. It’s in the substance, not superficiality.
Loving myself is about being able to embrace everything I’m and being confident in my skin like I own my beauty instead of having my self-esteem easily affected by every comment about me or envying and feeling threatened by other people’s beauty and success.
It means accepting who I’m and seeing my worth even when no one sees it. It means taking good care of my body, my mind, and my heart. It also means being kind and gentle and forgiving to myself even when nothing feels right yet.
Admittedly, this hasn’t been easy. And it won’t always be easy.
The society will keep convincing me there’s something wrong with me, trying to sell me products and services to change myself and please people I don’t even know, and there will be days I feel shitty again, I will look at some internet photos and want to be anything but me.
But I know, with positive mindsets and a wholesome lifestyle supported by like-minded friends and family, these negative thoughts will pass and I will feel strong and confident again.
In summary, my journey from self-loathing to a loving, happy life involves these steps:
Make practical changes.
Make practical changes to improve your self-esteem and ensure your surroundings have a value-adding influence on you. If you don’t know what your end goal is, simply do the next right thing (Loved this from Frozen 2!)
Shift your thinking.
Challenge your beliefs and shift your mindsets through reading and learning from the people who inspire you. Make efforts into understanding yourself better by reflecting, asking for feedback from others, and trying new things (I’d also recommend going to therapy if you think it’s necessary.)
Do what you love.
Pursue your interests and work hard at what you love — this will help you build identity and increase self-respect.
Marie-kondo your social circles.
Surround yourself with the people who share the same values with you and focus on them. Stop paying attention to people who are inherently different from you or simply don’t share anything substantial in common with you.
Cultivate good values.
Identify your core values and what other positive values you could adopt — for example, honesty, kindness, authenticity, and so on. Cultivate them consistently through daily activities and interactions with other people.
Do things that genuinely add value to others. Serve a bigger purpose than your self-interest. Help your communities. The laws of attraction and vibration will bring good things and people to you.