I think I'm pretty.
A sharp pang of embarrassment strikes me as I type these words. My heart rate elevates and a flush runs up my neck and blossoms across my cheeks. My first instinct is to go back and delete those incriminating four words, purging them as if they never existed. I figure the least I can do is qualify them. I want to pull out a grocery list of criticisms I have about how I look: I hate how my thighs brush together when I walk, I hate the softness of my belly, I hate the slight fuzz that rests along my upper lip, I hate the perpetual rosiness that splatters across my cheeks. Maybe I should say "I think I'm pretty, but I hate my personality and I'm not that smart or interesting." Anything to mitigate the fact I like my reflection.
But here's the catch: I do think I'm attractive. I like how I look; I feel comfortable in my own skin, though it took me a long time to get here. So if I believe I am attractive, why do I have such an adverse reaction to admitting this? It's not an assertion of superiority or an attack on others. There's no I think I'm pretty "and you're not" tacked on the end. I'm not issuing a challenge. Why am I so scared to admit I might actually like myself?
The thing is, I've been taught since I was little to be modest, humble, demure. This is a common trait to teach little girls. From a young age, girls are encouraged to say thank you for a compliment but then immediately deny it. Just accepting a compliment can backfire dramatically. In a famous scene in the movie "Mean Girls," the antagonist Queen Bee Regina George compliments the new girl Cady with a simple "You're, like, really pretty." Cady thanks Regina, who, appalled, shoots back "So you agree? You think you're really pretty?"
There is a cultural expectation of low self esteem for women. When nearly half of women on college campuses exhibit symptoms of eating disorders and depression, appearing to have high self esteem makes you an antagonistic and unlikable figure. How dare she like herself? If you don't hate yourself, you won't fit that angsty teenage girl archetype. You're opening yourself up for relentless judgment. You'll receive messages saying maybe you'll be pretty, but only if you lose some weight. Or that someone thinks your nose is hideous. No one, especially other girls, will stop until your self esteem is brought down to the base level of zero.
As if tearing each other down isn't bad enough, girls are rewarded for disliking themselves. Throughout the summer of 2012, the band One Direction promised me "When you smile at the ground it ain't hard to tell you don't know you're beautiful. That's what makes you beautiful." My question is will I still be beautiful if I knew I was beautiful? Would Harry Styles still serenade me about my hair flips if I looked him straight in the eye and smiled?
There's no way to win in the game of low self esteem. When I spent my junior and senior years of high school on my knees in front of a toilet, trying to vomit my way to a thigh gap, I was miserable. I see no poetry in how I cried in front of the mirror, no deeper meaning behind my impulse to dissect every flaw I could find in myself. When my agony about my appearance began to leak into other facets of my life, from my performance in school to my ability to maintain friendships, I realized a simple truth: There is no beauty in hating yourself. But liking yourself means utter scorn from your peers and adults. Post a picture of yourself with red lips to any social media platform and "attention whore" will be in the comments. Adults will write critical editorials about how millennials are conceited and narcissistic. If you try to strike that awkward balance of posting a pretty picture and calling yourself ugly, everyone scoffs at your obvious hypocrisy. There is no way to win.
We need to stop worrying about liking ourselves too much. Women are already fighting an uphill battle against the bombardment of unrealistic beauty standards. It's one thing to dislike how you look because of an illness like depression or body dysmorphia. It's another to do it because we're told to base our self worth on how much we dislike our appearance.
Alexandra Della Santina is a student at Columbia University. Twitter: @santinadella.
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