By Mikala Guyton

Growing up, there were several things that I learned to hate about myself. I was taught to hate my belly, which had puffed up quite a bit along with my thighs, arms, and cheeks, after I had been diagnosed with asthma and had to take steroids. My relatives would approach tiny, chubby me, latch onto my sides with their fingers like pliers, and tell me that they could “pinch an inch”. It didn’t help that it rhymed. Actually, it made it worse, more humiliating. And as I looked around and saw ads for weight loss pills and diet books,  the covers of magazines, and segments on the news that told me how I could shed the unwanted pounds and get a beach body, the tables turned. I pinched my own inches. All of them. I pinched in front of a mirror before bed. I pinched in front of the mirrors in the girls’ bathroom at school when I thought no one was looking. I pinched while on the phone with friends who asked me to pool parties and beaches. I stayed away from pools and beaches. I think I stumbled my way into my teens pinching myself, reminding myself of how big I was and how wrong and shameful it was to be that way.

I learned to hate the color of my skin when, in the aisle of a local drug store, crouched down in front of the discount concealers, I couldn’t decide if I was Beige or Caramel or Mocha. Being mixed race (Italian on my mother’s side, African and Native American on my father’s), I felt caught in the middle for most of my life. I just wanted to be fair skinned like my mother. Fair skinned like the women on the cover of all of the Teen Vogue magazines that I had stacked under my bed. I wanted to be anyone but me and I felt like even if I lost weight, even if I somehow became pretty, even if I managed to fit into every other criteria of beauty, I couldn’t escape the color of my skin and the implications that came with it. My hatred was solidified over the years when boys told me that they “don’t date Black girls.” When I was told that I was incapable of blushing. And when the women in advertisements that were trying to tell me which clothes to buy, which food to eat, and which toothpaste to use were all white. I cried a lot. It didn’t seem fair and no one seemed to understand. I became depressed. I wanted to hold myself up in my room where I knew my race wouldn’t matter a bit because it would just be me there. Alone.

I learned to hate my curls when my grandfather told me to “do something” with my hair because it looked like a “mess”. Hairdressers would tell me that I was a perfect candidate for a relaxer. One hairdresser even got frustrated and told me to comb my hair out myself (which both surprised and shamed me because, although my hair was a bit tangled, my mother taught me to never let it get knotty). Classmates would stick pencils in my hair. They would roll up pieces of paper into tiny, little balls and throw them into it. People would pet it, or pull it, or dig their fingers into it and complain about being stuck. It was too big. Too messy. Too different. But when it was straight…! When I took the time to straighten my hair (which usually only took about an hour or so if I asked my mom to do it for me) strange and wonderful things would happen. Boys would pay me more attention. They would flirt and compliment me. My best friend’s older brother once said that it made me look “hot.” People who normally wouldn’t talk to me would start conversations. People who passed me by would smile brighter. People would look at me with an air of relief and ask me why I didn’t straighten my hair more often. They’d tell me I looked much better with it straight. It was like my hair made me a whole different person. Except it didn’t. And when it curled back up again, the spell would wear off.

Our perceptions of beauty are culminations of our experiences. Family, friends, complete strangers, popular culture, not-so-popular culture, they all teach us how we should define where we stand in a world hyper-concerned with physical appearance. I spent nearly two decades of my life letting everyone around me tell me how I should feel about myself and the message was always the same: I was inadequate. But one day someone showed me candid pictures that they had taken of me. I was laughing. My glasses were slightly askew from the rising of my plump cheeks, I could see the outline of my stomach protruding through my shirt, and my hair was frizzy and sticking up where it shouldn’t have been. But in that moment, as I laughed wholeheartedly at I joke I don’t think I will ever remember, I was happy. Nothing mattered. I didn’t care about the way I looked or the color of my skin, and from the smiles on the faces of the people around me, I could tell they didn’t care either. And I thought, ahhhhhhhh. In that moment I was beautiful because I was enjoying life and doing what I love (laughing like a fool).

Growing up, my true self had taken a backseat to my insecurities. It didn’t matter how good I was at drawing or that I knew all the words to “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” I never noticed how caring I was or how clever I could be. All I had been concerned about was how ugly I thought I was. But when I finally stopped and asked myself what really mattered, I got to know myself. I was finally able to see my positive attributes and acknowledge my faults. Being able to see these things about myself allowed me to strive to be better. Not skinnier. Not whiter. Not prettier. But better. Healthier. Happier. And now, every once in a while when I look in the mirror I think, “Hey, who’s that cutie?”

There will always be someone telling  you aren’t good enough. It’s a societal problem that will take a lot of time to fix. But I think if we could weed through all of that bullshit and see ourselves for who we really are, we’ll be able to see that we are all beautiful. We will be able to treat ourselves and others with more compassion. And we will see that our value — our worth — lies deeper than our physical appearance. We learn to dislike ourselves; we are taught what is beautiful and what is not. We destroy ourselves to try to attain that beauty. But I think it’s safe to say that if we can learn to hate ourselves, we can learn to love ourselves, too. It starts with getting to know you.

Mikala Guyton is a senior at the University of Hartford and a member of Women for Change. She  participated in the Harriet Beecher Stowe salon discussion about Campus Sexual Assault on March 14.

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