Friday, March 13, 2015

Am I Pretty/Good Enough?

A few weeks ago, I was walking the streets of Uptown alone (as I'm wont to do) when I popped into the Herkimer Bar for a nice, relaxing Saturday night dinner. I took a stool at the head of the bar and enjoyed a tasty meal of the Herkiburger and tater tots. Thankfully, my plate was free of those dreadful mini-fryer baskets they used to serve the tots in. The baskets themselves were pretty cool, but they severely limited the size of the portion and coincided with a decline in the tots' quality.

Anyhoo, the Herkiburger, while tasty, was also a tad messy. Even though I've eaten there several times, I'd never had their signature dish before and didn't realize what I was getting myself into. This is my worst nightmare when dining alone: the messy "mug." (That's what my mom called our faces when my sister and I were kids.)

People occupied nearly every stool around the bar, so there were many potential witnesses to my embarrassment. Nearby were 4 women who appeared to be in their 20's. One of them looked at me a few times. Her expression seemed a bit hostile, in the everyday-urban-dwelling-stranger kind of way. I thought she might've been romantically involved with the woman sitting next to her and was annoyed that I kept staring at her "girlfriend."

The women's attire led me to suspect they were lesbians, but that may just be a symptom of my growing age and unhipness. They weren't wearing plaid flannel shirts or anything so comically stereotypical. I would describe their wardrobe as "hipster-ly." Originally, I felt guilty about thinking they might be gay, but now I realize I shouldn't. Assuming someone's gay is no worse than assuming they're straight. (I used to know that. Strange that I should've forgotten. I guess the School of Hard Knocks will do that to a person.)

My self-consciousness about my "messy mug" grew until I finished the meal and visited the restroom. To my relief, my mug was nearly spotless. It was just my anxiety that had made it feel dirty, as it often does in those situations. With my confidence (somewhat) restored, I emerged from the restroom, paid my bill and left. There had been other cute girls there besides the "lesbians," but I was too isolated and unconfident to try my luck.

I think this serves as a pretty good allegory for my self-image. I've been insecure about my appearance since my family moved from a small town to the 'burbs after I finished first grade. I went from being surrounded by friends to being an easy, isolated target for bullying. I became a fat kid, and that self-image persisted through adolescence, even though my growth spurt quickly relieved me of my "huskiness."

But, even in the depths of middle school, I still held out a slim hope that I might be handsome, or at least decent-looking. I rarely indulged in this self-flattery, though, because the risks of being wrong were too great. We often shame others for having confidence, but we don't realize how courageous it is to think well of yourself. When someone or something comes along to knock you off your perch, the fall is hard.

Therefore, I chose to remain grounded in low self-esteem. I couldn't bear the thought of getting shot down by pretty girls with extreme prejudice. It was also a handy excuse for my lack of a love life. I didn't have to work on my personality or my emotional issues. I could just look in the mirror and blame the fairer sex for being too shallow to take a chance on a shy, awkward, fat, ugly duckling like me.

Only in the last few years have I really begun to snap out of that haze. Like everyone, I've heard all the cliches that it's what's on the inside that counts, never a judge a book by its cover and the rest of that bullshit. But it wasn't until I made peace with my parents that I started to believe it for the first time since childhood. When I finally developed empathy for them and believed I was worthy of their love again, that's when I woke up.

If you've ever found my behavior rude or arrogant, it was probably just because I was feeling insecure and didn't want to risk even the slightest hint of rejection. Or I was just being rude or arrogant, in which case I'm sorry. Now I'm at least willing to allow for the possibility that I might be handsome, and I've noticed the improvement in my mood and behavior

Thinking better of myself has, paradoxically, made me more humble, because it's led me to think better of others. In the past, when I was with people I didn't like or didn't know, I didn't deem them worthy of my interest. That was arrogant of me, of course, but it was also a self-defense mechanism. I rejected them before they could reject me.

Now I think people in general have a lot to offer me, as long as I don't prejudge them. I also think I have a lot to offer them, that I can cheer people up just by being polite. It seems selfish not to make that tiny effort, even with complete strangers. I'm also more able to accept their gestures as genuine kindness instead of mere courtesy.

Before, when I was with people I liked, I was afraid of messing up and therefore kept my input to a minimum. Now I have the confidence to be myself, because I know that I'm worthy of their esteem. If they're not interested in me, I just move on to the next group, secure in the knowledge that I'll be accepted by the people who are right for me.

The bigger point is that it doesn't matter how handsome you are. If you don't have your shit together emotionally, you ain't got shit. So don't envy the pretty people, because a pretty face is not a ticket to happiness. If you want to be happy, work on your inside, and the best way to do that is by looking outside yourself and helping others.

(This is a big change for me, so it may be a while before my writing skills catch up with my new outlook. I hope in the future that I can put it in terms less Pollyannaish. By the way, that's a real word. I just looked it up.)

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