Stand naked in front of a mirror for a long time, under unflattering light if possible. Trace the rises and falls of the little ripples on your skin — the scars, the dimples, the cellulite — and think about how much you try to hide these things in your day-to-day. Wonder why you hate them so much, and if this hate stems from somewhere within yourself, or as a result of being told all your life that it’s wrong to have physical flaws. Wonder what you would think of your body if you never looked at a magazine, if you never thought about celebrities and models, if you never had to wonder where someone would rate you on a scale of 10. Look at yourself until the initial recoil softens, and you can consider your features in a more forgiving frame of mind.
Listen to the music which makes you want to both sob and dance with uninhibited joy, and allow yourself to repeat any song you want as many times as your heart desires. Think of the person you are when you have your favorite song in your headphones and are walking down a street you feel you own completely, swaying your hips and smiling for no good reason — remember how many things you love about yourself during those moments, how much you are willing to forgive in yourself, how confident you are for no good reason. Try to think of confidence as a gift you give yourself when you need it, instead of something you have to siphon from every unreliable source in your life. Dance because the music makes you remember how much you love yourself, not because it allows you to forget the fact that you don’t.
Write a list of all the things you like about yourself, even if you think it’s a self-indulgent and narcissistic activity. Start as early as you like in your life — put down that time you won a trophy playing little league soccer when you were eight and then got an extra-large shake at the DQ on the way home, and don’t feel silly for remembering it. Try to understand how many sources in your life happiness can come from, how many things you could be proud of if you chose to. Ask yourself why you so tightly limit the things you take pride in, why you set your own hurdles for happiness and fulfillment so much higher than you do with anyone else in your life. Let your list go on for pages and pages if you want it to.
Touch and care for yourself with the attention and the patience that you would someone you loved more than life itself. Rub lotion in small circles on your elbows and hands when it is cold and your skin is dry and cracked. Make soup for yourself when your nose is running and curl up, with your favorite movie, in a pile of expertly-stacked pillows. Light a few candles and let their glow flicker against your body. Admire how gentle they are, how delicately their warmth touches you — wonder why you don’t let yourself do the same. Soak your feet in warm water at the end of a long day, until they have forgiven you for walking on them for so long without so much as a “thank you.” Listen to your body when it aches to be touched, and don’t be afraid to give it every orgasm that you may have been too ashamed to ask for in someone else’s bed.
Be patient with yourself, and don’t worry if a switch doesn’t flip in you which abruptly takes you from “crippling self-doubt” to “uncompromising self-love.” Allow yourself all the trepidation and clumsy, uneven infatuation that you would with a promising stranger. Try only to be kinder, to be softer, and to remember all of the things within you which are worth loving. Listen to the voice in the back of your head which tells you, as much out of sadness as anger, “You are ugly. You are stupid. You are boring.” Give it the fleeting moment of attention it so craves, and then remind it, “Even if that were true, I’d still be worth loving.”
I suspect it’s difficult for men to imagine a world in which their bodies have long been inextricably linked to their value as an individual, and that no matter how encouraging your parents were or how many positive female role models you had or how self-confident you feel, there is an ever-present pressure that creeps in from all sides, whispering in your ear that you are your body and your body defines you. A world where, from the time of pubescence on, you can feel the constant and palpable weight of the male gaze, and not just from your male peers but from teachers and sports coaches and the fathers of the children you baby-sit, people you’re supposed to respect and trust and look up to, and that first realization that you are being looked at in that way is the beginning of a self-consciousness that you will be unable to shake for the rest of your life.
Even if they are never verbalized, the rules of bodily conduct for females become clear early on: when school administrators reprimand you for the inch of midriff that shows when you lift your hands straight in the air or youth group leaders tell you that the sight of your unintentional cleavage is what causes godly young men to fall, you learn that your body is dangerous and shameful and that it’s your responsibility to cloister it in a way that is acceptable to everyone else. You learn that your body is a topic of public debate that everyone is entitled to weigh in on, from a male classmate telling you that those jeans make your ass look huge to the male-dominated United States Congress dictating the parameters that rape must fall within to be considered legitimate. To be a woman, and to live life in a woman’s body, is to be held to a set of comically paradoxical standards that make you constantly second-guess yourself and jump through a million hoops in pursuit of an impossible perfection.
It doesn’t make sense to call ourselves ugly, because we don’t really see ourselves. We don’t watch ourselves sleeping in bed, curled up and silent with chests rising and falling with our own rhythm. We don’t see ourselves reading a book, eyes fluttering and glowing. You don’t see yourself looking at someone with love and care inside your heart. There’s no mirror in your way when you’re laughing and smiling and happiness is leaking out of you. You would know exactly how bright and beautiful you are if you saw yourself in the moments where you are truly yourself.