Confidence in beauty; beauty in confidence

Has anyone ever deemed you ineligible to date most people? I hope not, but unfortunately, it happened to me.

In my case, that someone was a therapist. And “ineligible” was the exact word she used. (Spoiler: It was our last session together.) She was wearing a monochromatic outfit and sensible shoes, sitting across from me near a shelf of books on relationships, sex, and intimacy. I was wearing a crimson summer dress that made me feel pretty and confident.

Despite my comparatively scant dating experience, I have surprisingly solid self-esteem, and I genuinely appreciate constructive criticism. So when she uttered the word “ineligible,” I was confused but not alarmed. I sat thoughtful and silent while I made several educated guesses about the practical guidance she must have had in mind: Am I off putting somehow?Maybe I’m not sending the right vibes. I bet I could improve my body language to become more approachable. I should read some articles about that.

I didn’t figure it out on my own. So she spelled it out for me: “There might be exceptions, but by and large, men in DC won’t date a woman who is overweight.”

I was about 20 pounds heavier than my current weight when she said this. It doesn’t excuse her words, but still important context. It’s also important to say that she was obese by any definition, which is how I quickly diagnosed her as projecting her own insecurities onto me. I felt confident that the roles should have been reversed and that she should have been coming to me for therapy.

I still remember feeling so odd when she quipped on my way out, “I am just coveting that dress.” It felt like adding insult to injury, like she was saying, “Well, no one will actually date you, but hey, at least you have an eye for fashion.”

It didn’t hit me right away. Quite the opposite, actually: I left feeling proud and emotionally strong for seeing right through her redirected self-loathing. And I was happy with the fact that my weight didn’t even enter my consciousness when she called my romantic appeal into question. The truth is, I’d actually never felt better about myself physically. I was making positive and affirming life choices; I was eating healthy foods; I’d discovered physical fitness activities I enjoyed, like zumba and yoga; I’d started to find my own fashion groove — exhibit A, the crimson dress.

But my confidence that I’d escaped unscathed by her remarks slowly dwindled as I processed the reactions of well-meaning friends. Mind you, they said all the right things: mainly, that she was a sorry excuse for a therapist for saying that to me. I know they felt that with conviction. But, when they tried to assure me that she was way off base… I don’t know. It felt labored, forced. I got the sense that deep down they agreed with her but couldn’t bear to speak that truth. I couldn’t help but think back to the girls in high school who had no qualms whatsoever about me hanging out with their boyfriends, as though the notion that I was any kind of threat to them was laughable.

We could definitely debate about whether I was unfairly putting words in their mouths, but either way, that’s when the wound started to bleed. I’d worked for years to overcome my fear that my weight made me undesirable, but instead of healing my insecurity at its core, I buried it deep and pretended it didn’t exist. This brought it back front and center, where it was inescapable. It brought me back to closely examining myself in the mirror.

I decided I was uncomfortable with what I saw, and I did lose weight, about 20 pounds, like I mentioned. I felt pretty good. But I couldn’t lose the specter of the word “ineligible.” After all, if I’d been so foolish as to talk myself into the belief that my weight wasn’t a problem before, how could I trust myself to know when I’d achieved the minimum threshold of desirability (whatever that means)? Even more to the point, was that threshold even physically possible for me? One thing that many people are disappointed to learn when they lose weight, myself included, is that you become a smaller version of yourself — that’s it. Your body is still your body; you can’t diet your way toward a fundamentally different physique. Speaking for myself, I can become a less plumpy pear, but an hour glass figure is simply not in my genetic cards.

I’ve worked hard, but I’ve already gained back some of the weight that I lost. I’ll probably lose it again, gain some or all of it back, and continue this see-saw indefinitely depending on an unknowable number of variables. It’s a trend I’ve seen bear out over multiple scientific studies, and I’m no special snowflake in this regard.

My sister is also waging war against our genes by doing a hardcore fitness program to get back to her pre-pregnancy weight. She’s a real badass about it, too. It’s not unusual for her to run to the bathroom to throw up and then jump right back into her circuit training maneuvers. All to see other women in her class melt back to their pre-baby weight with one-tenth of her effort. It can be demoralizing.

Physical fitness is one thing, but in seeing her suffer through harsh disappointments in a Herculean effort to reach an arbitrary ideal aesthetic, I suddenly became indignant about the absurdity of it all — how one perceived imperfection can crowd out everything else in the psyche and make all other beautiful qualities seem small, or even non-existent. My sister has perfectly almond-shaped eyes; gorgeous thick, curly hair; and a curvaceous figure that in my mind is luxuriously feminine and beautiful. For her to think of herself as “less than” would be nothing short of tragic. In that moment when I told her those things, because I genuinely believed it, my sister became my surrogate, and I felt like I was talking to an externalized version of myself. I realized that it would be equally unfair to categorically write off everything that I am, mind, soul, and body, as unworthy of love. I thought of the physical qualities that make me feel beautiful, things like my smile and the way my complexion stands out against a crimson dress. The most important thing about it is that reclaimed the power I’d forfeited to that therapist and even my friends.

Listen, I do sometimes still wonder what people see when they look at me, how it impacts potential relationships; I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. And while I still wonder, I worry a lot less these days. This is liberating beauty of confidence: not needing someone else’s permission to feel good about yourself.

I wrote to that therapist earlier this year, mainly to plead with her to never again say such things to another client, someone potentially even more vulnerable to the emotional fallout from hearing words like that. I told her that the most therapeutic thing she could do would be to identify the unique beauty in each client and nurture it. That despite my imperfections and moments of doubt, I know there are innumerable ways in which I am not only eligible but exceptional. Confidence is the most attractive quality of all, and we all have reason to claim it. Actually, this experience has taught me that claiming it for ourselves is the only way we draw from its power.

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