‘You look sexy’: it was a comment that left my thirteen-year-old self feeling utterly awkward and rather confused. I’m sure the boy in question was trying to make me feel good, but for me it was the beginning of a gradually increasing sense that my appearance was no longer my own. A year later I was bullied on a youth camp because I wore glasses and I didn’t own Hollister jumpers. I didn’t do anything drastic to try to change myself, but deep within I started to feel very uncomfortable with who I was. Gone were the carefree days of running around in baggy t-shirts. Come thirteen, it seemed that people were judging what they saw.
The beginning of my teenage years was marked by a phase of that horrible self-consciousness. I had lots of moments when I looked in the mirror and wished I could be different. I’d go out and exercise not just because I enjoyed it, but because I was worried about putting on weight. I hated ever feeling like the centre of attention.
I’ve been a Christian for a very long time, and during that year or so I faintly knew that something about my faith ought to be affecting my self-image – but I didn’t let it. When I was fourteen I made a wonderful friend called Esther, who used to tell me that I was beautiful at every opportunity she got. I would shrug it away and insist, ‘I’m not. Not by the world’s standards.’ And Esther would say: ‘But the world’s standards are a lie. God thinks you’re beautiful.’
And it’s taken me oh-so-long to realise that she’s right. Because I really do believe in a God who rejoices in the richly diverse beauty of the people He’s created. And the more I look at the world’s broken standards of beauty – where supermodels are reduced to anorexia and glossy magazines show us airbrushed faces to shame us into spending – the more I recognise them for their shallowness.
By the time I reached sixth form I was in a much better place of self-acceptance. But I was starting to notice some familiar insecurities around me: whilst leading on a kids’ holiday week, I felt a tightening in my chest when I noticed fourteen-year-olds coming down to meals and then not eating anything, and telling me they didn’t want to go swimming because it felt too exposed. They wrapped their arms around their waists and looked at the floor just like I had for years. And seeing that broke my heart.
I’m still on a bit of a journey. I still haven’t quite got to a place where I love the way I look. But I also regularly pair my pink coat with luminous blue trainers, and I’ve stopped staring at the floor. I’ll go for a cycle to Granchester because I feel like it, not because I’m worried I need to. And if I want a second slice of coffee cake then I’m just going to have one, thank you very much.
We’re living in a world where we’re constantly bombarded by the message: ‘You’re not good enough.’ So when I picture my younger self, anxiously worrying over her questionable fringe, I wish I could tell her to stand up a little taller. I wish I could tell her to stop looking at herself and look at a God who gently whispers: ‘You’re good enough for me.’ And I wish that I could reach out and lower the mirror from her face. Perhaps then she might realise just how much there is to see beyond it.