A couple weeks ago I wrote about finding body confidence. I’ve since then had several very good conversations that have made me realize that I had completely the wrong idea about what my friend meant when she said she wasn’t confident enough to post photos of herself online.
I was viewing body confidence as a sense of feeling comfortable in your skin, a self confidence of knowing what your shape is and not being bothered by the ways it isn’t perfect. This meaning leapt out to me first and foremost because for most of my life I had ZERO confidence in my shape, I hated my body. When my friend told me she lacked confidence, I thought she meant she was feeling sensitive about her weight. But I was wrong, because there’s another kind of confidence: confidence against judgment.
Women (and to a much lesser degree, Men as well) are constantly subjected to judgment in our lives. Judged for being too fat, judged for being too skinny. Judged for not being pretty enough, judged for being vain. Judged as a prude, judged as a slut. Judged for not smiling enough, judged for being too bubbly. Judged for dressing down, judged for dressing up. Judged for being assertive, judged for being timid. Judged for being too selfish, for being too selfless. For not being motherly enough, not sexy enough, not modest enough, not feminine enough, not masculine enough, not cis enough.
It’s like we’re in a race with a dozen finish lines all in opposite directions, and no matter which one you aim for, it’s the wrong one. We walk through life with this endless barrage of devaluation, and like the old story of the five monkeys with a ladder, we start to engage in the very system that beats us down. We dole out equal judgments on others, but also upon ourselves.
I’m careful of what I wear because I don’t wanna be over thinking while wearing something like “is this too tight” or “can you see my bra” cause those were things I’ve been criticized on.
I’ve had men leave disturbingly sexual comments on plain old selfies. Was my lipstick too red? Did I tilt my head too suggestively? Was I showing too much chest? It can drive you crazy if you think about it too much.
This is especially harsh for mothers. Maybe this is a white middle class suburb thing, but there is this expectation that a mom should be basic. If you’re putting time into your appearance then that implicitly means you’re neglecting your child. I’ve felt the judgments when showing up at kindergarten pickup; if I’m in anything dressier than leggings and a t-shirt, people give me looks.
I like loud colors and accessories but I don’t indulge in them often enough for worrying I look too kooky. And it’s been worse for me since becoming a Mom. I don’t take any time for myself and I felt silly wearing my bows in front of other Moms.
I feel this myself in my own presentation. A lot of my fancier outfits only get worn to work, and even then I often feel myself holding back because none of the other women in our office even wear dresses (that darn California casual work environment) and I feel compelled to tone it down. The same friend I mentioned above once made the comment “You’re just so extra,” and it hung on me for weeks, because I do worry that I am too flamboyant for what is socially acceptable in Southern California. I worry that my wardrobe distances me from other women.
The confidence that my friend lacks is not about her own body image, but in her ability to stand against that onslaught. She already felt so much pressure in her own local space to be something other than she was on her own that she couldn’t bear to put herself out there to be subjected to the whims of the internet.
So how do I do it? How do I find the courage to post photos of my body on Instagram? How do I find the confidence to be so extra?
A big part of it is all of the wonderful women in the body positive space. I see your posts, your own confidence, and it inspires me to do the same. The first time I posted an underwear photo was entirely driven by several other women I follow doing the same, and the encouragement I received for that post made it much easier to do it again.
Additionally, to some extent I have a leg up. A gender transition requires reaching a degree of no fucks given in order to say “I don’t care how you feel about my gender or what I do with my body.” Trans people become immured to a lot of judgment because otherwise we would just curl up into a ball and never progress. There is a trans meme that after two years into transition you become so jaded about society that you just tell the world “fuck your opinions”.
But trans people are not immune to these pressures, in some ways they take on an even stronger weight. Many trans women feel like they have to dress and act overtly feminine in order to make up for the masculine features that were forced on us by puberty, as well as to prove ourselves as women (this was reinforced systemically for decades by our health care providers, but thats another post). It’s a function of trying to “pass” as women. YouTuber ContraPoints has a fantastic video about this problem.
But here’s the thing about posting photos online… strangers judgments don’t mean shit. People will come to their own ideas about you regardless of what actions you take. You can’t change that, so it’s not worth thinking about. My therapist depicts this as a group of concentric circles, like a dart board target. You sit at the center, strangers sit outside the largest circle. Their darts have no point value, they are worthless. It doesn’t matter what they think, because they have no impact on your life. If someone says something nasty about you on your instagram post, just delete it and move on. If you get negative judgments from people close to you, push those opinions further away from center. Their opinions are just opinions, and should mean nothing to you. But the good comments, the people who tell you how much value you give to them, bring those into the inner rings, because those remind you of just how good of a person you are.
I made my Instagram account for a bunch of reasons, but one was because I wanted a place where I could bolster my self image, where I could indulge my vanity, where I could show my body without self flagellation about being seen by people whose I didn’t want to offend. Every time I would post a selfie to Twitter or Facebook I would feel this nagging sense of “Am I taking up too much space? Am I seeking too much attention?” I didn’t want those judgments in the back of my mind. Of course, over time some of my friends have followed this account, and my initial reaction was to flail a bit about how they must think of me, but then something happened. I realized that they are choosing to view me being me. They choose me, for who I am on my own.
"That’s all well and good, but how do I find confidence?"
The day Carrie Fisher died, I read a quote from her that said "Stay afraid but do it anyway. What's important is the action. You don't have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow."
I came out publicly as trans a few hours later.
Confidence comes from experience, it comes from doing something and receiving reinforcement that it was the right thing to do. Take note, confidence comes after doing, it will never come first. Confidence without precedence is Dunning-Kruger effect, and is an undesirable personality trait. The only way you can boost your confidence is by “doing it anyway”, as Carrie Fisher put it. Confidence will follow through.
Scared to post that skimpy photo to Instagram? Do it anyway, confidence will follow through. Afraid to ask for a raise at work? Too scared to put yourself forward? Woman up, step forward, and confidence will follow through. Want to speak at a conference but daunted by stage fright? Put one foot in front of the other and get out there. Confidence will follow through.
The more you do, the easier it gets.
The hard part is filtering out the bad negative reinforcements and only cultivating the positive reinforcements. On Instagram the negatives tend to come in the form of fat shamers and creepy men, and while that can easily be removed by blocking, it still has a lasting affect on one’s self esteem. Bad remarks stick with you and get amplified. You have to counter act that, manually, by deliberately telling yourself “this is just one bad response among dozens of good responses, I can ignore this”.
That probably sounds easier said than done, but here’s how you foster that. Take the time to encourage the confidence of the other women around you. Reinforce them, reward them, make them feel special and full of worth. Women are amazing at complimenting each other, and being able to partake in that was one of many gifts my transition rewarded me with. We’re all in this together, and when you’re paying those compliments out, turn them around and say them about yourself as well, because you deserve them too.
Every woman is beautiful, EVERY woman, yes that includes you, dear reader! Even from unflattering angles, bad lighting, and bad hair days, every woman is a goddess, and anyone who fails to see your glory is a heathen and not worthy of attention paid.