An old friend and I were chatting recently via email. She had sent me a photograph she had taken of me earlier that day. I replied that it made me notice how very white my hair is and that I needed a haircut. It also reminded me that I am not as slender as I used to be.
She replied immediately to say I was “beautiful.” Which I am definitely not. I suddenly realised that she thought I was one of those women who don’t much like their own body and was seeking to reassure me.
I wrote back to say I have never felt ugly nor beautiful, but “pretty enough,” and it was not an issue for me. And she replied, “A rare and precious quality – being happy in your own skin.”
This stopped me in my tracks. Am I truly “comfortable in my own skin”? Do I feel happy about myself? Is it, indeed, a rare quality?
Of course, this has many meanings, but let us start with the physical one.
For as long as I can remember, it never occurred to me to feel that my face or body were not good enough. Yes, I was very short, but that couldn’t be altered (aside from wearing high heels).
Yet I didn’t feel the need to “fix” my body in some way. I never even liked wearing makeup and, after a few inelegant efforts, gave that up. I was – and have remained – a walking WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get).
It was only when I got into my 20s or so that I discovered this was not the case for all women. Many seem to feel their breasts are too large or too small, their backsides are too big, their noses are not the right shape, and so forth and so on.
And so, of course, the business of makeup was born (going back to Egyptian times, if not earlier) and, more recently, plastic surgery.
Much is the advice given about how to alter your physical appearance – dying your hair the right colour, doing the odd nip or tuck, and certainly applying loads of stuff to your face. Even the right colours to wear for you.
But does it make you happier, or indeed, more “comfortable in your own skin”? I honestly don’t know. That is certainly the intention.
But feeling happy, or simply comfortable, with yourself is grounded in much more than your physical appearance. Do you like yourself? Do you think people like you? Do you feel you have done enough to meet your early expectations of yourself?
Our initial view of ourselves must come from somewhere. This may be what our parents told us or how we compared to our siblings. Much labelling goes on within families “he’s the sporty one” or “she’s good with people” and this must rub off.
On the other hand, it may not be fully accurate. I was the middle child of three, with the other two being outstandingly clever. Despite reasonable grades in school, it took me years to realise I was really quite bright as well. It hadn’t seemed so, by comparison, in my formative years.
Our view also comes from our classmates, not only in those many years of school, but also if we go to university and beyond. We may get a reputation for studying or partying or being good at politics. We may have loads of friends or very few.
We try somehow to work out who we are and what we are good at. And how much do certain qualities and skills matter – to us or anyone else?
And many a novel has been written about the rest of life! It has a way of throwing you a hand-up or pushing you down. An abusive partner is very likely to flatten self-confidence, just as a quiet but admiring one will do the opposite. Success in work is much the same.
I cannot do justice to the issue here, but it is all part of the process of learning.
On reflection, I feel this is a lifetime’s work; at least it has been for me.
It is one of the joys of growing older that year by year, you settle in, come to terms with your strengths and weaknesses, and accept yourself in a quiet way. You have achieved certain goals, but perhaps not others, and – it is hoped – accept your life for what it has been.
And the important thing is that you view yourself not on the terms of your parents – or your friends or colleagues – but on your own. It is the all-important bit of “being old” that people don’t tell you about.
How happy do you feel with yourself and your qualities? What has helped you to reach this perspective? What would you advise others? Please share in the comments below.