A few years ago, I was in Beijing.
My parents are very good friends with this watercolor painter, so I was in his studio. He had a huge space on the 2nd floor of this four star hotel, next to Jianguomenwai. Whenever I go back to China, where I lived for six years during middle school and high school, I get sick. I feel a little angry at my body for betraying me like this, turning feverish and cough-y every time I land in a new country, but I’ve grown to accept it.
So I had a fever, in this cavernous studio, and my mom insisting that I drink tea to flush out the cold. They had a tea table set up in this studio, one of those gnarly wood ones with a little tube that drains the excess tea away. Do you know what I’m talking about? Maybe not. There are very elaborate tea rituals that I know I am offending with my big, runny nose presence. But there I am.
Various characters cycle in and out of this room. The wife of a government official. Some very humble apprentices of this painter who keep very quiet. Finally, I meet a woman in her 40s with braces, who we’ll call Madam. She wears a very expensive purple Moncler jacket, and soft slippers. She is a bit of a shaman. We start talking about health, as I’m clearly sweating, and she starts advising me. Madam gently tells me that I shouldn’t wear round neck shirts, that I should wear v-necks exclusively. She says it with so much love and care that I’m not even phased; I’m leaning in so close to her it’s creepy.
Madam talks about how she has a friend, who also has a round face just like mine, and after she stopped wearing round neck and cowl neck shirts, her whole energy changed. Her entire life changed when she started wearing v-necks. Maybe it was the jetlag, but I could not get enough of this conversation. Of course one’s life would change! This seems most natural!
Later, Madam shows me pictures on her phone of her friend. Glossy, dark, long hair. Round face, yes. And the deepest v-neck I’ve ever seen. Dangerously deep, like past the cleavage line. I had to admit though, it was flattering.
Madam shared her personal story: she was previously overweight and went through a “wake-up” transformational process. So Madam was friends with a woman, a beautiful woman. At first, she thought, since she is so beautiful, there is no way that she could be smart, warm, and wonderful too. But as she got to know her, she found out that not only was she beautiful, but she was wise and courageous and smart and loyal. That this woman was the best. I’m skeptical, but transfixed by this story. I quickly realize that I have some pretty judgmental, dark beliefs about beautiful people. She said to me in Mandarin, it is possible as a woman to “have everything.” She kept saying, “ke yi, ke yi” which means “you can, you can.”
So how it happened was that Madam went to sleep one night, and before sleep, she spoke to her body. She willed it to lose the extra weight. She imagined herself waking up lighter. That the fat would simply disappear. She woke up the next day 6kg lighter. “Zai jian, zai jian (goodbye)” and it was gone.
I tried it, too. When I got home to my apartment in NYC, as I was going to sleep with my cat at my feet. I closed my eyes, and whispered, urgently. Goodbye, fat. Goodbye. Did it work? I don’t even remember. Probably not. What’s important is that I so desperately wanted to be beautiful, that I was willing to whisper strange things to myself in my sleep.
I have some really, really beautiful friends. Like, gorgeous. When I was in high school, and if I would walk next to a beautiful friend, I would get a taste of how people would react to them. Strangers pausing, looking, making little comments, I could see how their eyes would pop a little. Whoa, I would think to myself, is that what it’s like to be that good looking?
In high school I had this insane crush on a friend. We had an easy banter and we would chat on AIM all the time. We got along so well. Months later I confessed to him that I liked him (definitely not something a beautiful girl would do, but alas, I was terrible at flirting so romantic confrontation seemed like a good plan). He let me down very gently, telling me that I was one of his best friends, but that unfortunately he just wasn’t attracted to me.
It’s like when you have a zit, and you convince yourself it’s not that bad, and no one sees it – and then finally a friend comes up to you and makes a joke like, hey that’s a REALLY BIG WHOPPER and you laugh along like, haha I know! But inside you are dying a slow, brutal death of hot-faced humiliation. OK I know I’m not Cindy Crawford or whatever, but holy hell, was it that bad?
I think early on, when you have those kinds of reinforcements of “you’re cute” or “you’re pretty” or “hey have you ever tried contact lenses” you start to come up with Plan B. Alright, so I’m not going to kill it on the physical attractiveness front, so I’d better sharpen my other skills.
Other skills might include: becoming really good at school, having a deep understanding / empathy of other people’s emotions, working really hard, getting good at sports (um, this is hypothetical, I’m terrible at sports), becoming president of the debate club (dork alert! That really happened).
This article will not end with a link to Christina Aguilera’s iconic 2002 hit, “Beautiful.”
But rather, I think it’s important to know what you’re compensating for. Do I feel the need to be the smartest person in the room because I believe I will never be the most beautiful? Did I feel the need to get an MBA so that I could have sustained earning power even in my 50s when everyone’s looks fade? And damn, that sucks. Because that comes from a place of fear and defensiveness.
When you come to my site, I’m trying to project my “brand” as smart, honest, trustworthy, in the know. Because deep down somewhere I believe that’s where I’ll have the most success. What if that changed though? What if I instead wanted my brand to be about authority and weirdly, maybe sex appeal? It’s not impossible. So my operations-mind starts making a short list of things I would have to do to reinvent myself:
Well, we know that’s never going to happen. I’m exhausted just writing about it, sitting at my dining room table in head-to-toe Gap Body. That I’ve been wearing. ALL DAY.
But, I do think we have a responsibility to examine and intentionally deconstruct closely held beliefs about ourselves. When you run a business (especially where you’re selling yourself as the expert, regardless of where you are on the narcissism scale) you need to have a clear understanding about the choices that you’re making. Which choices are being made because you still feel like the dork in high school that’s overcompensating? Which choices are self-limiting? Which choices are true?
I’ll continue to think about this as I get ready for bed, no whispering allowed.