The big problem arises when the subject you’ve attached negative associations to isn’t something you can get rid of, like your own body. We call that “negative body image.” This post explains how to overcome body image issues.
Ugly Earrings Vs. Beautiful Earrings
Recently while in Peru, I bought some handmade dangly earrings at a street market that I love. I didn’t make the connection until I got home that I once owned earrings very much like them.
At 18 years old, when I lived abroad for a semester in Chile, I had bought a few pairs of very similar handmade dangly Chilean earrings. They were popular there at the time, they came in tons of pretty designs, and I thought they looked really cute on me. When I got home though, I could not bear to look at those earrings.
Sitting in my jewelry box, they seemed hideous. Unbearably awkward and pathetic. Every time I spotted them on my dresser, I felt a zing of contempt, as though they were personally offending me by being there.
Those earrings are so ugly and self righteous. They pretend to be worldly and cultured, but really they’re nothing but a heap of cheap metal and poor quality beads.
I’m not exaggerating that this is how I felt about them. I didn’t give my feelings those exact words at the time, but I really hated them. After nearly two years of sitting in my room absorbing my hostility, I eventually threw them away. On the day I threw them away, I wondered briefly how I had been so duped into ever thinking they were pretty enough to buy them.
What’s the difference, really, between those old Chilean earrings that I hated, and these new Peruvian ones which I love?
These new earrings cost me about three dollars; they are, in all honesty, probably nothing more than cheap metal and poor quality beads. But in my eyes, these earrings are gorgeous. But when I look at them, I get a little zing of joy and gratitude without knowing exactly why. When I wear them I feel like we are in on a fantastic little secret together, like friends passing notes in school, written in a language only we understand.
The difference in how I felt about these two similar pieces of jewelry had nothing to do with what they actually looked it. Let me explain.
Beauty Really IS in the Eyes of the Beholder
Beauty is contextual, meaning you might find beauty or ugliness depending on the context you view it in. Even more importantly, the way we perceive a subject’s beauty is totally dependent on how we feel about that subject in other ways.
In short, our brains perceive our loved ones (like our newborn babies, and our lovers after amazing sex) to be significantly more beautiful than other people’s loved ones. Why? Because we love them! Beauty isn’t just in the eye of the beholder, it’s often in the eye of someone who feels positive emotions and associations with the subject.
The same is true for everything, including both non-significant objects like my earrings, and the way we view our own bodies.
Even if you don’t personify your jewelry with the same gusto that I do, can you recognize how some stuff feels special and beautiful while other stuff is just a total turn-off, even if visually they seem about on par?
What we find beautiful is entirely dependent on how we feel about the subject itself, and what that subject means to us.
We do this with ourselves, too
In my case, it felt true that the earrings I brought back from Chile were objectively hideous. But underneath that story was pain— fear, anger, and sadness— that I simply hadn’t processed yet, about the difficult six months I lived as an exchange student in Chile.
Those six months had seen me feeling trapped and isolated, in an emotionally abusive relationship with my host brother, powerless, and full of self-loathing. Those earrings entered my life at the same time and from the same place as all that darkness came from, and I was unable to separate my self-loathing and fear of the world from how I felt about them.