Love the You You’re In

This month, I find myself in the position of having my first ever author interview coming out. I have been fortunate enough to be in conversation with the lovely Rue Sparks and she will be sharing a review of Thrive and an interview with yours truly later this month. This is very exciting. But I’m not here to talk about the excitement with you. I’m here to talk about the panic.

Panic? Why would I be panicking about this lovely turn of events? What about answering thoughtful questions from a wonderful human being who wants to help showcase my work could possibly make me feel anything other than privileged and excited?

Rue is delightful.

The interview questions were considered and gave me space to talk about things that are important to me.

But then came the request for a headshot to accompany the interview.

Ah.

Cue panic.

I live a strange, dichotomous experience when it comes to how I look. Going about my day to day life, I generally feel entirely comfortable in my own skin. I generally consider myself wholly average on most counts but I am fortunate to have many, many people in my life who manage to make me feel beautiful. This is a great gift. It enables me to move through the world with a fairly stable degree of confidence.

Right up until I catch sight of myself in a mirror or see a photograph of myself.

It is incredibly jarring to feel comfortable – even beautiful – only to have those feelings brutally contradicted by your perception of your physical appearance. It feels absurd. Like it should be a logical impossibility. But still, I will so often put on an outfit that I love and feel great in, only to find that when I later see photos of myself, or even catch sight of my reflection, in that outfit, my brain will question “Is that what I look like?” and firmly decide “I’m not beautiful at all.”

So when I was asked for a headshot, I panicked.

One of the things I have always wanted to do as a writer is create and reveal beauty. To craft fantastical, imaginative beauty and to reveal the beauty in the most mundane things. So I panicked, because I did not want my un-beautiful face to accompany words that I hoped would bring beauty into the world.

At this precise moment in time, I feel less attractive than I can ever recall feeling before. The last 18 months have seen my body go through unexpected pain, restrictions and traumas, and my physical self has been notably changed by it. I am still trying to reconnect with my body – easier said than done right now (thanks, Covid!) – and as a result, all of the more recent photos of myself make me incredibly uncomfortable. So I trawled back through my photos, feeling steadily less beautiful. The only ones I found that I even vaguely liked were low res, highly filtered selfies from Snapchat and Instagram. “I know!” I thought, “Our wedding photos! I like how I look in those.” Seven years old, sure, but they still look like me. So off I want to our wedding photos, sure that this was the answer. As I flicked through the literally thousands of photos of the most joyful day of my life, I could have cried. Again and again, photos that I had remembered loving and thinking myself beautiful in seemed to only scream out the flaws that I was suddenly hyper aware of.

It speaks to the state of my mind at the moment that this happened quite so dramatically. The things that normally send me into a spiral are usually to do with something I’ve said that I’m worried will be misconstrued, how I can tell a loved one that I really don’t feel like meeting up/going out/talking, or something I’ve forgotten to do that will, of course, cause the end of the world. It is very, very, very rare that I will spiral because of my appearance.

And I really got stuck in it. The draft email to Rue with the line “Headshot attached” sat on my desktop for 48 hours whilst I slowly spiralled into doubt and shame and sadness.

I have always been a great believer in that wonderful Roald Dahl quote:

“If you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”

The Twits, Roald Dahl

So why didn’t I look lovely? I just couldn’t see that loveliness in myself anymore.

The end to this spiral came in a highly unexpected form. It came from a review that fellow indie author, Dreena Collins, left for my book:

Thrive is a beautiful, unique, quirky, yet accessible collection of thoughts, stories and poems, headed with simple black sketches. Eden describes it as: ‘an imperfect collection of imperfect words which are meant to, in some small way, imperfectly express all the (im)perfection of life.’ Each piece seems to flow into the next; I read it in one sitting. 

Hills and shadows come to life. Trees watch us. Stars surround us. The earth, personified. Nature runs strongly as a theme through the work – ‘skeletal trees stand testament to a Lifeless season, We hang stars on every branch and bough…’ – yet despite its dream-like content this is a collection which is very grounded and real. 

In contrast to the vibrant, vivid life of nature, human bodies are abstract or dehumanised. Battlefields. Winged. I was reminded that my body is a shell, a house, and inconsequential when set against a backdrop of planets and stars. The whole collection is determined to remind us of what is important: of nature and life. This is further emphasised by a skill with words that means that Eden’s work is driven by a beat – many of the poems are filled with monosyllabic words that make them appear deceptively simple:

Let your eyes seek ​
The grain of wood in the table ​
Or the shade of green in the leaf ​
The cloud shapes in the sky ​
And the dust on the ground at your feet…

Eden has a comforting tendency to broach these fundamental, existential problems or questions yet resolve them by suggesting simple solutions: reminding us, for example, that we are enough (‘Just because we are Broken Does not make us useless.’) or even that we can fix ourselves, because ‘we are our own glue’. 

Fantastical and yet tangible – this is magic realism at its truest; Angela Carter meets William Carlos Williams. 

Simply beautiful.

It’s that bit in the middle that got me and brought tears to my eyes – I was reminded that my body is a shell, a house, and inconsequential when set against a backdrop of planets and stars. The whole collection is determined to remind us of what is important: of nature and life.

This is what I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten one of the purposes of my own work: to show that imperfections don’t stop us from being beautiful and that our bodies are transient but our being is not.

As soon as I got home I went to my laptop, attached one of the photos I’d pulled out as a possibility and sent my reply to Rue.

I didn’t suddenly see myself as beautiful. I didn’t suddenly feel attractive despite the flaws that leapt out at me. But I did remember that it just doesn’t matter. I did remember the many conversations I have had with people I love who were adamant that they are not beautiful and how baffled it made me feel because all I see when I look at them is pure, abundant beauty. And I did remember that what we are taught about beauty is so incredibly narrow for a concept that is – that should be – so huge and gloriously diverse.

We are taught to believe that beauty only comes in very specific sizes, skin colours, features and presentations. We are told, over and over again, that if we are not those things then we cannot be beautiful. These lies seep into our subconscious, and then our conscious minds, until we are so convinced of them that we can even feel beautiful moving through the world in one moment and allow the world to take that feeling away when it reminds us that we don’t fit into that box the next.

So this is my reminder to you to love the you you’re in. To remember that the world might think it can dictate what beauty is but we have the power to reclaim beauty in its fullness. At this moment especially, our bodies and our minds are carrying us through a collective trauma, so be kind to yourself and know that this experience, any experience, does not diminish you, your worth or your beauty.

An excellent article I read on The Good Trade this week had this pearl of wisdom to offer:

“…no matter what our bodies look like, we should be kind and grateful to them for providing protection when we’ve needed it most. “Our first reaction to those [bodily] changes might be sadness, frustration, or embarrassment[…]but I encourage you to practice deep gratitude toward your body. It has kept you alive during a global, deadly pandemic. It has also housed your fears, boredom, and frustration for months. Thank your body for keeping you alive.”

Dr Anna Hoffman

I leave you with some of my own words – that I would do well to remember – in the hopes that they might remind you of your own beauty:

This skin
Has been my battleground.
Pitted and pocked
With scars
That can’t all be seen
It is the parchment
That holds my story.
This world would trample it,
Have me disregard it,
If it could.

Day in
Day out
I am told it is

  • Not enough
  • Too much
  • Imperfect

That I should

  • Fight it
  • Remodel it
  • Tweak it
  • Tuck it
  • Tone it

But I choose to

{Embrace it.}

This skin
Has been my battleground
And my shield.
A shelter for my soul.
And I will not let anyone
Tell me
That it is less than
Beautiful.

Go gently, friends.

J x

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