For most women I know, stepping into a salon to get their toes done isn’t a confidence-shattering experience. Pedicures are supposed to feel good and bring comfort—some soothing “me” time that consists of dipping your feet in hot water, sinking into the comfort of a massage chair, and flipping through trashy magazines.
In my case, the reality is a little different. I fantasize about being the hot girl casually enjoying a spa day, or the fancy career woman getting gel nails and tapping away on her iPhone. Instead, I’m filled with anxiety from the minute I enter the room. I’m the awkward girl avoiding eye contact with my pedicurist, silently pleading Please don’t look too closely at my toes.
During a recent visit to a nail salon in Mexico, the nail technician removed my old polish then proceeded to stare at my bare feet with thinly veiled disgust. She ran to grab her phone and passed it to me. On the screen, there was a Google-translated message: “Sorry, you need to pick a different color because you have a bad fungus.”
I nodded my head, too embarrassed to ask why certain polish colors—ahem, fuchsia—weren’t okay for my toes while others were. I left the salon before my nails had fully dried, with smeared maroon polish in my sandals and a better understanding of why my mom avoids professional pedicures altogether.
My parents and I have dealt with our weird, non–aesthetically pleasing feet for most of our lives. In fact, it’s not too big a stretch to say toe fungus is the glue that holds my family together. In college, when a close friend told me she might have the same issue, I excitedly called my dad for our dermatologist’s phone number and the name of the topical cream we use. He jumped at the chance to help. She was a part of our tribe. I think we were both disappointed to learn my friend actually had a case of athlete’s foot that eventually went away. For a few weeks, it was nice to believe she might be one of us.
The type of fungus I have is actually part of a bigger problem: eczema and psoriasis. That means I don’t even have to take my shoes off to feel like an outsider. As a baby, I had an incredibly dry scalp and rough red patches in the creases of my knees and elbows. By elementary school, other classmates started to comment on my scaly arms.
“Your skin looks kind of like a fish,” one boy in my fourth grade class remarked. I don’t think he meant it offensively. He was merely telling it like it is, the way younger kids do. And he was right. All I could do was nod in agreement.
Middle school, however, was a different story. In sixth grade, shortly after my classmates and I had learned about the awkwardness that is reproductive organs, two girls I’d once considered friends remarked, “No boy will ever want to have sex with you because your skin feels like sandpaper.” (The real joke’s on them because in the context of sex and dating, my personality is a way bigger problem than my skin.)
I am able to make light of it now, but I’d be lying if I said those words haven’t stuck with me all these years. I can’t tell you how many hookup situations I’ve ruined by blurting out, “I have eczema!” mid-makeout sesh. It seems better to awkwardly ruin the moment myself than to risk the chance of feeling someone recoil at the touch of my skin.
We act as if strong women never feel shame, embarrassment, or anything other than total self-acceptance.
I often wonder whether fixating on my skin is a self-fulfilling prophecy of loneliness. It can be tempting to believe that problems in my love life are as unfixable as my skin and feet—or even a result of them.
When I express these fears to friends, family, or therapists, they tend to opt for clichés. You know, that I need to love myself before anyone else can love me in return. That “we’re all beautiful in our own way” or that “insecurities about flaws are more off-putting than the flaws themselves.” The truth is, those kinds of platitudes rarely offer real comfort, and there are many problems with them.
Regardless of the good intentions, those statements only remind me that my physical flaws are the elephant in the room. No one really knows how to talk about aspects of our appearance that are slightly gross, objectively speaking, so we rarely acknowledge that they are. Our conventional beauty standards are constantly evolving, but the very notion of conventional beauty itself is a constant.
Not all parts of my appearance fit into that framework, and I wish we would stop pretending otherwise. In other words, I’d feel better if you just told me my toes are ugly. Because the reality is that not every part of everyone needs to be beautiful, and insisting we’re all goddesses only helps create a world in which flaws aren’t welcome.
Earlier this year, I had a conversation with a close friend about image and insecurities that I frequently think of. I had recently been dumped and found myself wondering, once again, if my appearance was to blame.
“I mean, could you be cuter? Yes,” she said. “But you’re plenty cute.”
Her response initially caught me off guard, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt comforted. I think what I found so refreshing about it, apart from the blunt honesty, was her nonchalant tone. I wasn’t a supermodel or the hottest friend in my friend group, and it didn’t need to be a big deal. When my friend spoke openly instead of tiptoeing around, not being conventionally hot suddenly mattered much less.
Beyond that, there’s a fundamental issue in the imperative to love every part of yourself because others won’t love you back until you do. When we repeat those sentiments, the end goal of self-love is to make yourself more desirable to someone else, to win them over. It makes me wonder who exactly I’m loving myself for. Probably some guy on Tinder with serious boundary issues.
In our “Yas queen!” world of #nomakeup selfies and body positivity, where we often pretend we were all cut from the same cosmetic cloth, self-love and unwavering comfort in one’s skin have become new standards to embrace and adhere to. Admitting that you don’t love what you see in the mirror isn’t attractive; it can be a taboo on par with bodily functions. We act as if strong women never feel shame, embarrassment, or anything other than total self-acceptance—perhaps because acknowledging that they do would force us to rethink our one-dimensional Beyoncé-ized conception of strong women.
When we reinforce the idea that self-love must precede another’s love, we’re still playing into societal narratives of insecurities and confidence, not to mention a very simplified conception of what it even means to love yourself. We like to think of self-acceptance as an ugly duckling–to-swan journey with a tidy conclusion. Friendly reminder: Sometimes loving yourself is something you have to learn. For some of us, that learning process is lifelong work. And that’s okay.
One good thing about having severe eczema and toe fungus—about having hated these parts of myself for so long—is that it’s given me the opportunity to better understand my relationship with what I see in the mirror. So here’s my take: Self-love doesn’t mean loving everything about yourself; it’s accepting yourself despite what you don’t love. It’s loving yourself despite the fact that doing so doesn’t guarantee the love of others. And it’s learning, in your own time and on your own terms, how to live in a body you wouldn’t necessarily choose.
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.
Opening Image: Urban Outfitters
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