by Bri Watts
I was full of laughter before I was full of insecurity.
“You must laugh a lot. People who laugh a lot have wrinkles around their mouth; they call them laugh lines.” Some guy at a gas station said this to me. That was the beginning.
I went home, looked in the mirror, pulled up the corners of my mouth. I realized that not only did I have two baby lines enclosed by two toddler lines framing my smile, there were two young adult lines running from the catch of my nose to the middle of my chin.
When I talk joyfully to people, I wonder if they notice the way my cheeks raise to draw lines under my eyes.
In middle school, there was a mob happening during lunch on the stairwell for no reason. I didn’t want to fight, but I wanted to be part of it – I wanted to walk through destruction. I was punched square in the face. Since then, there has been a slightly thick and nearly unnoticeable bulge across my nose. When I smile too hard, the bulge becomes a horizontal bridge stretching across, connecting my mountainous cheeks.
Chaos; that’s what I create for myself. The destruction I have a tendency to run through is constant curiosity about if people notice the slight chip in my top two center teeth, from the time I crashed the hardest part of my body into another girl’s in middle school when play fighting under our desks – or the fat under my chin, or my sideburns, or the little lone hairs that surface above my lip, my chin line, my cheeks.
I’ve studied the mirror so often, so long, I know the parts of my face so well. I imagine the parts fit together and make rhythm, flow, and rupture. I wonder what the whole looks like to people. Once, I wrote:
I’d rather see white space where my chin holds fat,
parentheses in place of folds made
from cheeks extending around my mouth;
my sideburns and hairy neck,
turned into unedited repetition.
If I could wear poetry as a head,
my face wouldn’t distract me
I am so distracted by how others see me that when I consider what the love of my life will say to me when I meet them, I don’t imagine them saying “I love the way you think critically; I adore the way you see the world; I’m amazed by how brave and disciplined you are; my favorite thing about you is your sensitivity.” No.
I want to hear “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen; I love your smile; I don’t care how hairy you are; I love your high cheekbones; your nose is my favorite thing”.
I measure my worth based on what I look like. I obsess over how other people see me based on what I see of me in mirrors and my front camera.
Grammy, who grew up with no front camera, no full body mirror, barely a full face mirror, whose family didn’t have a camera until near adulthood, says, “Y’all focus on small stuff. Y’all pay attention to stuff that don’t matter.”
In middle school, whenever there was a new girl, the only thing that mattered was if she was pretty. I wanted to be her friend because of what she looked like. I didn’t care if she was kind or smart or funny or even if she was mean or selfish or dishonest.
“As long as you clean, that’s all that matters. You lay out your clothes, you get your hair done, you’re presentable: it don’t matter what you look like. What do you feel like?” Grammy declares this like it ought to be common sense to pay more attention to how you feel than what you look like.
There is an unnamed narrator who is also an Invisible Man who spoke of a recurring nightmare someone once had “in which she lay in the center of a large dark room and felt her face expand until it filled the whole room, becoming a formless mass while her eyes ran in bilious jelly up the chimney. And so it is with me.”
And so it is with me, too.
I’ve felt like my non-symmetrical face falls lopsided like my breasts fall, like putty, and my hairiness makes use of me like I’m a field untended to. I feel like I can’t imagine anyone could look at my face for an extended period of time and not get sick.
I have come to this conclusion after full albums worth of looking in the mirror, taking selfies, vlogging, staring at my reflection in dark windows.
I’ve looked at myself so long that sometimes I can’t recognize who or what I’m looking at. My obsession with what I look like has been a thief of ideally precious moments.
In highschool, I started recording my face while masturbating, just to get a glimpse of what any partner of mine sees. I would record several times, practicing different expressions until I found the perfect, most attractive one.
Sex doesn’t get to be an art of pleasing another person when I’m concerned with what my face is doing. Pleasure for myself cannot be prioritized when I know that at times my face contorts in ways that can be mistaken for pain, because I know how large my neck looks when I hold my head back strained, or that the “o” face many actresses make during movies, on me, looks more like I’m giving birth than practicing for it.
April Bernard said to me once, “the women these days are a lot more timid than they used to be 20, 30 years ago … a lot more insecure.”
How can we be secure in anything but how good we look when we can see what we look like all the time? We can only go so far in life, can only feel so much, when everything we do – that anybody else can see – is calculated.
Timidity comes easy to me, because I know that, naturally, my left eyebrow arch is slightly higher than my right and I have a birthmark on my tongue that can be assumed to be anything. I know that at times when I get angry or am goofy, I look like my father – which makes me feel like I look masculine, which must mean I don’t look feminine, which means I’m ugly.
When I was a tween, I sat in front of the mirror and practiced different facial expressions – pout, smile, be shy, be sexy, be disgusted – no, wait that’s an ugly face, don’t make that one!
On the tram, I watched for 20, 30 minutes, a girl no older than nine, pose and make a series of facial expressions, waiting for her father to capture her. Already, her security is being built on a foundation based on her ability to always look good on camera – on her desire to be an ideal instagram post. I only had access to a mirror at home; she has a mirror on her 24/7.
I spent 3 hours in front of a store mirror, before I spent $400 USD on a new wardrobe to wear in Australia, because I read a blog that said Aussies wear casual, mostly flowing, clothes and resist anything or anyone who take themselves too seriously in character and fashion.
What I wear has nothing to do with who I am or what I like. I don’t know what I like, because all I’ve ever tried to express was what would be most accepted.
When I was 20, I inherited two pairs of jeans from Grammy that were most likely about as old, if not older than I am. I thought about how unlikely it would be for me to have any clothes that would last as long, because of how often I trash wardrobes when a new fashion sense that I think I should have emerges.
Insecurity has no anchor, it is only ever dragged. I’ve started to imagine how much money, energy, and time I’ve lost being dragged around. How much could I save if all I ever worry about is if I am clean and presentable, about how I feel instead of what I look like?
Beauty can corrupt. Beauty will fade. Beauty will run you a wild goose chase. Beauty can steal all traces of confidence. Beauty means nothing, I’ve learned just months ago, as long as it is used as a measurement of worth.
I thought if I looked good to people, I could secure acceptance. What I look like has nothing to do with who receives me. Beauty is an advertisement, not a promise, not a commitment.
Insecurity is an inside out monster who takes internal fear, feelings of unworthiness and insignificance, and arranges it that it becomes an obsession about what you look like instead of how you feel.
I’ve spent years wanting to be seen as beautiful. What I’m finding is that even if people saw me with far more grace and wonder than I have seen of myself, it wouldn’t matter if I never tend to my heart – because the acceptance I have sought based on how I look has always truly been about seeking acceptance for who I am.
If I’m pretty enough, I’ll be good enough.
But when I started to feel beautiful, I still didn’t feel enough.
If security has no basis in external appearance, neither does love or acceptance. If security isn’t determined by what we look like, most of my life has been a heart devouring lie, a thief of laughter that I can never get back.