Your Worth Is Not Determined By Your Appearance: A Guide To Self-Love During The Pandemic

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“On the long list of things I struggle with, self-image is nearing the top these days. I’ve gained 30 pounds since I’ve been stuck in my home with nothing but my thoughts and my new adult body. It became hard to look in the mirror once I wasn’t able to button my pants anymore. I became friends with my ‘safe’ clothing: baggy sweaters and leggings. Crying myself to sleep and moping around the house became routine. I’m lucky, in a way, to have gained weight during quarantine. I haven’t had to leave the house as much. I’ve been able to hide inside; other people aren’t as lucky as I am. I regularly see big women receiving constant scrutiny of their bodies.

The interesting thing is even when I was considered skinny, I hated my body. When I was in my early teens, I used to scroll through pro-anorexia blogs out of curiosity. As an adult, I can see that’s where my negative self-image began. I have always bullied myself for not having a flat stomach, even when I was underweight. I would look in the mirror and try to push my belly in to make it look flat, just to see how I would look if I was perfect. The way I was conditioned to see my body masked my actual beliefs and even what I actually looked like. When I look back at pictures of myself before the pandemic, I am shocked at how small I actually was.

Now that I’m bigger, people aren’t as nice to me. My clothing hugs my body differently. No matter how much I try to suck my stomach in, it’s still there. Trying to order clothing online became an impossible task since I was so much bigger than I remember being. Going from a size 6 to a size 10 made me spiral. I began to think I was unlovable and unattractive. No matter how many times my boyfriend told me I was beautiful, I wouldn’t believe it. The way I viewed myself affected nearly every aspect of my life. Standing next to my skinny friends made me feel monstrously big. I would look at clothing I wanted and almost buy it, and then tap out over the fear of how I might look in it. God forbid it didn’t fit me. Seeing beautifully delicate girls in cute clothing on Instagram made me sad when I realized I didn’t look like them.

Courtesy of Sara Ashburn

The way we interact with social media has a huge effect on self image. I read hate comments on people’s posts every day, no matter what they look like. I receive hate comments regularly as I’m accused of glorifying obesity. Normalization and representation are not the same as glorification; the vast majority of women in the USA are above a size 00, so why are we only seeing representation of just a few body types in the media? On Instagram, there are influencers peddling laxative teas and harmful diets to vulnerable people, all while boasting about how great their lives are because they’re hot. The sad thing is that diet culture isn’t new, it’s just that it’s become commodified and people are making money off of our insecurities. To combat the harm diet culture has caused, I set out to normalize normal bodies. To show the beauty and the value of stretch marks, scarring, moles, and other unique features.

Three months ago, I saw a statue that changed everything for me: the crouching Venus. I had seen this statue probably dozens of times, but this time it hit me differently. She’s beautiful. Even with her rolls, her belly, and her square hips, she is still considered beautiful. It made me question why I think the things I do. What do I really think is beautiful? How much of what I think has come from societal standards? So I decided to try something. I confronted my body. I took a picture of myself crouching, just like Venus had, rolls and all, and I painted it. For the first time in months, I felt beautiful. Painting myself like Venus was odd because it was a way for me to take my appearance through an artistic lens. For so long, I had equated the way I look to my worth as a woman but now that it’s a painting in front of me, it became hard for me to see it that way. It was beautiful, not for what I perceived beauty to be, but because of the things making it unique. While I painted, I found myself appreciating parts of my body I had always hated.

Courtesy of Sara Ashburn

Unfortunately, due to my incredibly short attention span, I never finished the painting, but it got the ball rolling. I experienced firsthand the influence art can have on individuals. It’s not that rolls and folds are ugly, it’s that we never see it in the arts. We never see curvaceous hips or round bellies on the runway or in magazines.

I wanted to share the feeling the painting gave me, so I decided to start simpler. Lines and flat colors would do. I uploaded my first body-positive video to TikTok. I’ve always wanted to share my art with people and this felt like more than just drawing a pretty picture; it had a purpose. I was shocked to see how many beautiful women felt ugly and unlovable, worthless even. It broke my heart. The problem was much worse than I had anticipated. Hundreds of women messaged me and commented on my posts about how ugly they feel and how my art made them feel beautiful and seen.

Courtesy of Sara Ashburn
Courtesy of Sara Ashburn
Courtesy of Sara Ashburn
Courtesy of Sara Ashburn
Courtesy of Sara Ashburn
Courtesy of Sara Ashburn
Courtesy of Sara Ashburn

But one comment was different. It was left by a young girl, about 10 years old. She wrote, ‘Gross, at least I’m skinny.’ My heart shattered for this girl. It was obvious she struggled with body issues and she was still growing into her body. It opened my eyes to the extent of the problem. When I was 10, I was worried about getting an open swing at recess, but this girl was so consumed by how she looked that it started to affect how she treated other people.

When you claim beauty as your own concept and define it for yourself, the human form is a truly incredible thing, no matter how it looks. I’m inspired by my own concept of beauty, as well as what it can be for others. In the case of our society, the ideal form would be a model, right? That doesn’t have to be the only option though. I think there’s a lot of beauty in a natural, authentic human form. To fully and completely love ourselves, we must be willing to question why we hold the beliefs we do. I mean, in the early 2000’s, we thought skirts over jeans was a look. Aesthetics change but the human form doesn’t. Why must we transform our bodies for opinions that’ll change in less than a decade anyway?

While recognizing yourself as beautiful is a great thing, it’s also not necessary when it comes to self acceptance. This idea was reinforced for me through Pondpajamas on TikTok, who is an outspoken believer of radical self-acceptance; the belief that your worth is not determined based on your appearance. I could not agree with this more. The end goal isn’t saying, ‘I’m the hottest person on earth’—it’s loving myself and my body simply because they are mine.

My art is about representation and normalization; I’m making art of all sorts of bodies simply because we don’t see them enough. When others view my creations, I want it to be a cathartic experience for them. I want it to be empowering. Beauty and self acceptance is within everyone, I just believe you must claim it for yourself. Self-love is hard to achieve, but baby steps make it easier. There is no right way to pursue acceptance with your body. The way I feel about myself still fluctuates, but that’s part of the process. Creating art works for me, but it may not work for others. A lot of self-acceptance is about unlearning the ways you were taught to view your body. It’s up to you to decide how to do this.

Doing what I can to help other people struggling with self-image issues is incredibly inspiring for me. When I was younger, art was a pastime, but now it has meaning. It’s important to me and to my audience. If my art can help people feel seen and heard, then I’ll know I did my job.”

Courtesy of Leo Stephens

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sara Ashburn of Eugene, OR. You can follow her journey on Tiktok, Instagram, and TwitterSubmit your own story here , and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more about body positivity:

‘Pregnant at 18, I heard, ‘You’re young, you’ll bounce back!’ It became etched in my mind. Stretch marks and loose skin? BAD.’: Mom learns to cherish postpartum body, ‘This body is my home’

‘I don’t look like your stereotypical pregnant woman. I won’t have that little bump. This isn’t the body I envisioned myself carrying in, but it so worthy.’: Expecting mom ‘thankful’ for unplanned pregnancy, ‘My weight stopped me from happiness’

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