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Philosophy

Cheryl Strayed on Loving Yourself and Being Vulnerable With Your Imperfections

Photo from Vanity Fair: http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/11/cheryl-strayed-wild

The narrative that we hold of ourselves determines how we lead our lives. If we change the story we tell, we change how we live.

As the famed Debbie Millman once said, “If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve.”

Why is it so hard to love yourself?

For one, we’re hardwired to be social animals, therefore we care about how other people perceive us. We are always imaging what people are thinking and feeling. We seek validation and reassurance because it feels good to be seen, heard, and understood. If we were lone animals, we wouldn’t care about these things because it wouldn’t be important to our survival. But to belong, to be seen as both loved and lovely, is at the heart of human nature.

Some of the best advice on loving yourself and being vulnerable with a potential partner comes from Tiny Beautiful Thingsa fantastic compendium of heartbreaking letters that touch almost every trial and tribulation that a human being can experience, and heartwarming but no-bullshit responses that pushes us in the direction we must go.

A woman in her mid-fifties just got out of fruitless marriage. She’s excited for the possibilities, but then she writes, “And at the same time, I’m terrified that I’ll never feel the tender touch of a man. . . . I worry about sex. I haven’t been with another man for a long time. The sex in my marriage was routine and uninspiring.” She then lists all her insecurities.

Sheryl Strayed responds with such beautiful empathy:

“Looks matter to most of us. And sadly, they matter to women to a rather depressing degree—regardless of age, weight, or place on the gorgeous-to-hideous beauty continuum. I don’t need to detail the emails in my inbox from women with fears such as your own as proof. I need only do a quick accounting of just about every women I’ve ever known—an endless phalanx of mostly attractive females who were freaked out because they were fat or flat-chested or frizzy-haired or oddly shaped or lined with wrinkles or laced with stretch marks or in some other way imperfect when viewed through the distorted eyes of the all-knowing, woman-annihilating, ruthless beauty god who has ruled and sometimes doomed significant portions of our lives. I say enough of that. Enough of that.

[…]

There isn’t a shortcut around this. The answer to your conundrum isn’t finding a way to make your future lover believe you look like Angelina Jolie. It’s coming to terms with the fact that you don’t and never will (a fact, I’d like to note, that Angelina Jolie herself will also have to come to terms with someday and probably already struggles with now).”

Acknowledging this is key. Chasing what seems like a solution because it’s easy, safe, and expected is what leads us to madness. This woman could have easily undergone surgery and changed up her wardrobe. But it doesn’t solve anything, it merely covers it up. The problem most of the time is not external, it’s internal.

Strayed hits us with advice that we need to hear:

“Real change happens on the level of the gesture. It’s one person doing one thing differently than he or she did before. It’s the man who opts not to invite his abusive mother to his wedding: the woman who decides to spend her Saturday mornings in a drawing class instead of scrubbing the toilets at home; the writer who won’t allow himself to be devoured by his envy; the parent who takes a deep breathe instead of throwing a plate. It’s you and me standing naked before our lovers, even if it makes us feel kind of squirmy in a bad way when we do. The work is there. It’s our task. Doing it will give us strength and clarity. It will bring us closer to who we hope to be.
You don’t have to be young. You don’t have to be thin. You don’t have to be “hot” in a way that some dumbfuckedly narrow mindset has construed that word. You don’t have to have taut flesh or a tight ass or an eternally upright set of tits.
You have to find a way to inhabit your body while enacting your deepest desires. You have to be brave enough to build the intimacy you deserve. You have to take off all your clothes and say, “I’m right here.””
This is so excruciatingly difficult because vulnerability is an act of courage.

Sheryl shares another cold-hard truth:

“So let’s talk about men. A whole bunch of them will overlook you as a lover because they want someone younger and firmer, but not all of them will. Some of them will be thrilled to meet a woman just exactly like you. The sexiest not-culturally-sanctioned-sexy people I know—the old, the fat, the differently abled, the freshly postpartum—have a wonderful way of being forthright about who they are and I suggest you take their approach. Instead of trying to conceal the aspects of your body that make you feel uncomfortable, how about just coming out with it at the outset—before you get into the bedroom and try to slip unnoticed beneath the sheets while having a panic attack? What would happen if you said to Mister Just-About-to-Do-Me: I feel terribly self-conscious about how droopy my body is and I’m not sure I even really know how to have good sexy anymore, since I was frozen in a boring pattern with my ex for years on end.”

Exactly—what would happen if we did something like that? Many of us would be paralyzed in fear because of embarrassment. There are times when we may do this simply out of desperation, learning that, wait a minute, the truth works! Not everyone can reciprocate that, of course, but honestly is there any other way?

Strayed continues:

“In my experience, those sort of revelations help. They unclench the stronghold of one’s fears. They push the intimacy toward a more vulnerable place. And they have a spectacular way of revealing precisely the sort of person one is about to sleep with.”

And Strayed ends the letter with a bang:

“I know as women we’re constantly being scorched by the relentless porno/Hollywood beauty blowtorch, but in my real life I’ve found that the men worth fucking are far more good-natured about the female body in its varied forms than is generally acknowledged. “Naked and smiling” is one male friend’s only requirement for a lover. Perhaps it’s because men are people with bodies full of fears and insecurities and shortcomings of their own. Find one of them. One who makes you think and laugh and come. Invite him into the tiny revolution in your beautiful new world.”

Tiny Beautiful Things has become one of my favorite books of all time. Cheryl Strayed’s grounded, honest advice on heartbreak, failure, career changes, or whether to invite the father that left you early in life to the wedding, are all humbling, inspiring, and sometimes heartbreaking.

— PAUL JUN