I spend a stupid amount of time thinking about my appearance. How can I care less? | Leading questions

I’m a young, conventionally attractive woman. I’m happy and self-confident; I have wonderful people and relationships in my life; I am doing well in university and feel excited about my future. Yet, despite my immense luck and privilege, I spend a stupid amount of time thinking about my appearance. I scrutinise my face and body every day. Even more oppressive is my fear of getting older: I am constantly anxious about how my looks will slip as I age.

I know this is a sexist waste of time; it’s disrespectful to myself, and to all the older women I’m terrified of becoming. But I can’t seem to shake it. I wish I could care less. How can I?

Eleanor says: First, don’t be too impatient with yourself. It does not make you vain or vacuous to have this preoccupation. A billion-dollar industry is designed to harness your attention and money even though you know it’s a sexist waste of time.

It might have been 80 years since it was acceptable to say that appearance was the only measure of a woman, but that’s only two or three cycles of daughters sitting on the bath edge, watching their mothers doing their makeup and stepping on to the scales. Most of us have spent a tragic amount of time – any at all – staring in disappointment at the only body we’ll ever have.

I love the way you put it – that this is disrespectful to the women you’re terrified of becoming. But I don’t really think you’re terrified of becoming them. I think you’re terrified of being seen how they are seen, including, in some way, by you. I think you’re fearful of what it will feel like to live in a wrinkled, softer body if part of you subscribes to the system that condemns them.

The good news is it is possible to retrain what you see as beautiful. I know this because I once needed to gain a lot of kilos in a hurry and my friends recognised that that might not be easy for a woman in an Instagram world. They made a concerted effort to peel apart thinness and beauty – they showed me radiant smiling photos of people who took up space; they would point out a passing woman whose breasts hung low and moved when she did, and notice out loud to each other that she looked shapely, feminine, free, fun. They would praise parts of bodies that I’d never thought to – the soft, intimate Aphrodite-curve of a stomach above the pubic bone, the peek of fold where arm meets chest under the strap of a singlet.

Over time it literally changed my visual experience – I now do not experience thinness as beautiful. I don’t like it when I can see my ribs. I like to feel a thick denseness between me and the chair I’m sitting on. I feel more beautiful when I weigh more.

I think you might be able to do something similar, especially with age. Lines can be the etchings of your biggest smiles, the frowns you learned from, the proof that you change and grow.

Delete anyone on Instagram who is thin and 20. Seriously, what are they teaching you? Nothing you want or need to learn. Focus on the parts of yourself that will not diminish with time – humour and wisdom are not like collagen. You will make more of them as you age.

And remember that our default ways of seeing are not natural or necessary. Any statue in any gallery testifies that we did not always think lean teens were the peak of beauty. Seeing is tangled up with belief; don’t let either be handed to you by juvenile men in boardrooms who want to take your money.


Ask us a question

Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.

If you’re having trouble using the form, click here. Read terms of service here.


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.  Learn more