Why Did It Take Me So Long to Start Taking Care of Myself?
I made a rulebook for girls when I was in fifth grade because I was the kid who loved following rules, but it had rules like, “boys don’t like girls who punch harder than them so make sure you always punch harder than them,” because I was the kid who thought girlhood would cause the end of the world.
Barely five feet tall and chubby-cheeked, I believed I was hardened. Puberties were peaking and I hadn’t even started, so I found a sense of immunity in it. Like adolescence was a plague and I was resistant; the only living human in a post-apocalyptic zombie land.
But we all know that wasn’t entirely true. Of course I wasn’t hardened. I felt excluded for not changing while everyone around me did. Add the fact that immense social value is placed in the aesthetic of womanhood; growing up we all believed beauty is social capital. So as a way of consoling myself for not being part of this exclusive girls’ club, I condemned it, and every single member of it. I found pride in my non-girlness and developed an aversion for all these things I couldn’t have. I cursed girls who catered to their newfound femininity, scoffing at them when they applied their gross lip gloss in the school bathroom. Girlness is a weakness, can’t you see? And you’re nursing it. How foolish.
Soon enough I felt I was above everyone, because I made myself believe I was this enlightened young woman who refused to succumb to my woman-ness in a way that every other girl didn’t. I could see that girlness was a curse and I reviled it; I wasn’t made inferior by it, unlike everyone else. It wasn’t until I was older that I discovered there was a name for what I was experiencing—internalized misogyny—because back then I saw it as my innate genius. It was simply me being not like other girls.
Unlearning internalized misogyny is hard. It’s so, so hard. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone admit it, but it took me a good couple of years. You’re radically changing something you’ve known and thought you’ve already figured out; you’re re-conditioning yourself, rewiring your brain. And as someone who grew up using internalized misogyny as a coping mechanism—and, for a time, my only sense of strength—this meant unlearning and relearning almost everything about myself.
It took a lot of reading and constant self-awareness and self-correction, but I like to think I’ve made a lot of progress. I surrounded myself with many brilliant women whose strength are rooted in their very womanhood. I learned about the things that drove me to feel that way, to feel like I was in constant competition with the girls around me. I learned to define womanhood in the way women do, as opposed to the culturally essentialist patriarchal definition.
But the hatred I felt then wasn’t just toward fellow women. I didn’t stay unaffected by puberty forever—much to my disappointment, actually—and by denouncing womanhood, I was denouncing myself. Unbeknownst to me I got stuck in this perpetual state of childhood: I refused to take care of myself and I still lived by this immature mentality where I thought being pretty and being smart/strong/human were mutually exclusive.
Carrying my distorted perceptions of womanhood and my extreme self-hatred throughout high school felt fine—natural, even; doesn’t everyone feel that self-conscious in high school? But bringing those things with me in college really took a toll. I was living in a dorm with no one to take care of me but myself, with thrice the workload, and multiple jobs that took up much of my time. I was in a slippery slope—I wasn’t taking care of myself at a time when I needed it most, so it affected me mentally, which made my work worse, which made me loathe myself more, which made me want to take care of myself even less.
After my first semester I found a loophole: I don’t have to take care of myself if I drown myself in work. I always told myself, “I don’t need to be pretty if I defined myself as something else, i.e. productive, accomplished, etc. etc.” which is, you know, total bullshit, and completely self-destructive and wrong is so many ways I can’t even comprehend. I saw self-care as vainness when it’s actually just Bare Minimum Things You Do When You’re A Human Being. It’s not a ‘girly’ or gendered thing. It isn’t “making yourself pretty,” but even so, what’s so, so wrong with being pretty anyway? What’s wrong with wanting to look good? I wanted to shake my younger self so hard and just scream to my face, “What do you have against beauty? Why do you still think it’s so superficial when it’s not? How can you say you’ve unlearned internalized misogyny when you still see socially feminine things this way? Why is it so hard for you to admit that you want to look good? Do you think it makes you less human? I, for one, think what makes you less of a fucking human is you not treating yourself as one.”
Whenever I get asked what the most embarrassing thing to happen to me is, I always talk about the time I accidentally told my high school crush I liked him at a party, when it was actually the time my mom forced me to get a facial and I couldn’t stop crying while the facial lady did her work on me. For the first five minutes she was just looking at my skin with well-intentioned concern, asking me what products I used (I wasn’t using any) and telling me that the treatment I chose (which my mom actually chose; I had no idea what it was) wasn’t enough to “fix my problems.” It was probably just a ploy to get me to spend more money, but it worked. I was so humiliated to say I was 19 and I didn’t know how to take care of myself, and I looked like this because of it. Things that were wrong about my skin that I didn’t even know about were pointed out to me in excruciating detail; by a stranger, no less. I kept thinking, I didn’t want to be here anyway, and I couldn’t breathe when she started to direct steam into my face.
The facial lady told me not to worry about it when I started crying—facials are painful, apparently—but I still wouldn’t stop, even as the sharp pricks did, even as the steam cleared, even as I was standing behind my mom at the counter, even as we were heading home. It reminded me of that scene is Frances Ha where she apologizes for being a mess: “I’m not a real person yet.” While it was endearing in the film, I felt so ashamed for feeling like that in real life. I’m not a real person yet—when will I grow up, then? When will I just get my shit together?
The day after I got that Cursed Facial, I found myself in between the shelves of the skincare aisle, protruding and so painfully, obviously out of place. I spent the night before learning what a skincare routine was: from its steps (but only the bare minimum ones because I got overwhelmed and almost started crying again) to its products, listing down each step and every product along the way. I was committed to this thing. I wanted to get it right, and on the first try—somehow the stakes are higher for me. I felt like I was making up for lost time so this absolutely had to work.
I was staring at the tiny tubes, harsh overhead light bouncing off its clinical white. The names confused me and I wanted to take out my phone to make sure I was getting the right kinds, but people were coming in and I was standing by the shelf for too long and nobody was actually looking at me but it felt like the entire store stopped and stared. People came and went, knowing what they needed, and I felt sheepish beside them. I ended up buying a box of tiny travel-sized portions—samples, I told myself. I’d test it out; nothing wrong with that, is there?
My mom saw me use the sticky stuff come nighttime, and while she didn’t say anything, I became extremely defensive. “I didn’t buy that, my friend gave it to me,” I’d make up. I didn’t want to admit I cared about what I look like, and that I sought out and bought these things. I was afraid people were going to comment on the changes I was trying to make—since it seems so out of character—and that it would make me feel more self-conscious, which is something I was also gravely afraid of. Everyone, while not ill-intentioned, excluded me in conversations about beauty because I’ve established long before that I didn’t care much for it, so I found it harder to permeate; I found it harder to unlearn my tendencies. When you’re misogynistic the whole world figures it out before you do, and the people around me adjusted accordingly.
Liberation always comes in the form of a teenage girl. Every single positive change I’ve made about myself was sparked by a teenage girl.
Face masks are a sleepover staple, but despite being a slumber party veteran, I’ve actually never tried it before. But one night I said I wanted to do it. And my childhood best friends, who I rarely see because College and Life but know me better than anyone in the whole wide world, said okay. They concocted the powdered exfoliant and spread it over my face, telling me about their previous encounters with their product. Not in a preachy, I-know-this-is-your-first-time way, just in a… normal, usual, typical way. I could cry if I didn’t have the mask on.
Looking back it was such a tiny, mundane thing, but it meant a whole darn lot. Self-care, in familiar hands, didn’t feel like this outlandish thing that made me feel like a toddler playing dress up. It just felt like taking care of myself—at long last, might I add.
One huge hurdle that was dwindling my progress was how I defined self-care. I know self-care isn’t entirely skincare products and body scrubs, but it can play a part. I neglected myself—physically at first, then mentally—for so long because I just didn’t want to look at myself long enough to do a whole routine. Maybe it’s not so much about the little tubes of moisturizer that makes me feel better about myself, but the fact that I have them—I bought them—and I’m using them. It makes me feel like I deserve the attention I’m giving myself. I carried this internal hatred of cosmetics for so long that it feels revolutionary just to have them in my hands, regardless if they actually work on me or not. It improved my relationship with myself, and isn’t that the entire point of self-care?
What’s most important, however, is being aware of all the forces that made me feel inadequate relative to my female peers, who were going through something they couldn’t help. Being raised in a capitalist, patriarchal world, my natural features—things I also couldn’t help, like being a late bloomer—were mutated into insecurities, which then distorted not only my relationship to myself but to womanhood and femininity as a whole. While destigmatizing cosmetics already felt like such a huge leap for me, the work doesn’t end there: I must always realize that in the world I’m in, my womanhood (or the aesthetic of my womanhood, the spectacle of it) is both perceived as my weakness and my strength (women get called shallow for caring about how they look, but are ostracized if they didn’t), and my self-care must not cater to the scopophilic male gaze. In the end, I realized that I couldn’t take care of myself as long as I was still plagued by internalized misogyny. Unlearning internalized misogyny is the real self-care, after all.