woman looking into hand mirror
Photo: Thinkstock
Have you ever heard one of those near-death stories where someone recounts an out-of-body experience? I just love them, especially when they include details I didn't expect. For instance, I've heard several previously nearly dead women say that when they were ostensibly peering down at their bodies from a distance, those bodies looked unexpectedly pretty. The physical form they'd seen as less than lovely when it was "me" proved quite appealing when they saw it as "that lady down there on the floor."

Why is it that most of us, like these women, obsess about our own appearance? Even my most gorgeous friends feel depressingly imperfect, while the rest of us sit around contemplating either a makeover or suicide, depending on how far we stray from our physical ideal.

These self-judgments can't be mere aesthetics, or we'd evaluate ourselves and others on the same objective criteria. More likely, it's a social impulse, born of every person's longing for acceptance and fear of rejection. Something in the human psyche confuses beauty with the right to be loved. The briefest glance at human folly reveals that good looks and worthiness operate independently. Yet countless socializing forces, from Aunt Clara to the latest perfume ad, reinforce beliefs like "If I were pretty enough, I would be loved." Or the converse: "If I feel unlovable, I must not be pretty enough."

Such thoughts are seductive because they relieve us of the responsibility of developing self-worth (turning it over to some longed-for or long-suffering lover). Inevitably, though, that someone—parent, friend, partner—doesn't love us enough, or we somehow fail to sense their love. We feel rejected, abandoned, alone. It's unbearable. Realizing that we've surrendered our self-esteem to others and choosing to be accountable for our own self-worth would mean absorbing the terrifying fact that we're always vulnerable to pain and loss. As long as we think the problem is our bodies' failure to meet a certain physical standard, we have something concrete that we (or our local plastic surgeon, who does a fabulous tummy tuck) can work on.

And so we dive headfirst into the endless project of improving our physical selves. No cosmetic strategy ever fulfills our hopes, since what we hope for—the knowledge that we're acceptable—is almost completely unrelated to physical appearance. We begin to think thoughts like If only someone loved me, I could accept myself. It's a Catch-22: Before we can feel loved, we must feel beautiful, but before we can feel beautiful, we must feel loved. You can swim down that spiral for decades, maybe all the way to your grave (from which you can brood about your sudden realization that your looks were actually okay all along). There's another way to go, and I suggest you use it.