The Ebbs and Flow of Perceived Value

Throughout my life my self-worth has often been tied up in ephemeral possessions: namely beauty, intelligence and productivity. None of it was immutable. In fact, at one point or another, I have lost every single one of those traits and each time I lost myself when they went.

When I was younger I enjoyed reading Chuck Palahniuk’s books. Something about the gore and utter thrill-seeking displays of ridiculousness, lack of shame and articulate, tactful expression of these otherwise gross life events really appealed to me. Now, as a Christian, being particularly scrupulous about what I let into my head, I would not recommend his work. Many of the things he describes really are grotesque and hard to forget. However, there is one book of his that stands out to me, upon reflecting, that I was reading at age fourteen titled Invisible Monsters. The female protagonist suffers an accident that suddenly renders her terribly disfigured after being top-of-the-crop beautiful for her entire life (she was, prior to the accident, a fashion model). Children point at her in grocery stores and call her a monster. Her friendships are vapid, shallow, riddled with selfishness, betrayal and debauchery. There is a lot of emphasis on the absurdity of our beauty culture, infused with plastic surgery and other numbing attributes associated with the slog of losing true value.

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Fun (creepy) fact: if you turn this picture upside down you’ll see a frowning clown in a collar. 

I mention this book because I remember asking myself what I was to do if I was terribly disfigured. I wasn’t yet a Christian, and I vividly remember feeling the utmost fear at this prospect… that I would lose all of my power, my ability to persuade people to love me or draw them toward me. I came to the conclusion that I would kill myself instead of living that way. And I was terrified that at any moment God would take away the beauty that he had given me, just to teach me a lesson. I carried this fear with me for over fifteen years.

Even so, my attraction to myself grew. I became obsessed with capturing my own image, convinced at any moment it could be altered forever and I would never be beautiful again. It’s like I had to preserve it while I still had it. The clock was ticking. Even if I wasn’t horribly disfigured someday, I would inevitably age and my beauty would still fade. I had to have proof that once upon a time I was indeed beautiful.

This was before the age of smart phones and common selfies, but my mom had purchased me a webcam (to interact with my long-distance boyfriend). I spent hours of my day posing for myself and pasting my picture into blog forums on LiveJournal to seek people’s approval — was I even pretty enough to be in the closed, private forum “Hot People Only”? — or for evaluations on HotOrNot.com. I remember reading nasty criticisms of strangers as if their opinions were the end all be all. I have a hook nose? I look like a deer in headlights? I got the lyrics of that song wrong that I posted in the caption of my picture, so I am deserving of ridicule? My stomach was too chubby? Poor fourteen-year-old Karen. I just want to wrap her in my arms and tell her that it is all lies, and to disregard it all.

This inevitably led to eating disorders and the reinforcement of a seriously distorted self image. I began seeking out destructive pro-ana (pro-anorexia websites where other girls afflicted with body issues support one another’s disordered eating habits by posting ways to fool their family, comparison tools and “thinspiration” photos) websites, cutting myself, and engaging in risky sexual behavior to assure myself of my beauty and worth. I was in so much agony but I didn’t know how to articulate or free myself from it.

As I aged my self-worth standard shifted and became more reliant on performance and intelligence — which I excelled at as class president, voted Most Likely To Work At NASA, tutored friends in chemistry, etc.  — and the neuroticism about my looks subsided. In fact it kind of turned into a countercultural ‘fuck you’ of sorts as I shaved my head into a mohawk, dyed my hair, refused makeup and pierced my nose. If I couldn’t be the epitome of beautiful, I wasn’t even going to try. In fact, as I couldn’t fail at being ugly, I’d just pursue that path.

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Sixteen-year-old Karen

But then I moved to France. I vividly remember an eleven-year-old girl at the private school I was attending in the south of France coming up to me. She was wearing an authentic Chanel watch, the one with the clock face outlined in diamonds, that her grandmother had bought her, and she was dressed like a put together career woman in the fashion industry. She asked me, “How old are you?” I responded, “Seventeen.” She said “Then why do you dress like your thirteen?”. I looked down at my tie-dyed t-shirt with my awkward socks and clashing shoes; my short, limp, un-dyed hair (I was growing it out since shaving my head completely) and my makeup-less face. She made me feel so small. And yet, she also made me realize that I was becoming a young woman — the intro stages of adulthood — and that I should carry myself as such, respecting my beauty and femininity. I sent all of my t-shirts home and tried to be stylish. I made friends with the popular kids and ultimately became prom queen. I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, smoking copious amounts of hash, playing video games, having fun and getting ‘okay’ instead of ‘excellent’ grades. And then I found Adderall.

I mention in another post that Adderall is not regarded as therapeutic in France. A doctor won’t prescribe it for you. But my family knew many doctors and it was easy for me to have a prescription written up and sent over. I remember being so excited for it to arrive in the mail. When taking it I became so energetic, so focused. I could be beautiful and intelligent and productive! This obviously was THE pill for me.

By the time I graduated with my International Baccalaureate from France and was on my way to NYU, I was beautifully slimmed, hair perfectly platinum blonde, young and ambitious. But I was still so insecure. I sought out reassurance at every turn, in all the wrong places. You saw the other post. You know what happened from there… I pursued modeling, got sick, blah blah. But this wasn’t the last time I would loop myself into this vicious cycle. Even having returned to Oklahoma — after losing everything I had worked for in New York, including internships, budding modeling opportunities, my degree, etc. — and regained my health, I became a business owner. Once again I had to win all of the awards, had to portray an image of excellence, had to be beautiful, productive and intelligent. On the outside it looked perfect, but at home it was anything but. I was still powerfully addicted to food and marijuana. I would hide from employees, customers and friends. Actually, wait. Friends? I didn’t have friends. I didn’t know what authentic, vulnerable friendship looked like. I thought if I was simply myself I would not, could not be liked let alone loved. I was obnoxious, slovenly, so terribly flawed. No, no I could not let this facade go.

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2014 was the year of performance accolades. I secured big garden design and maintenance accounts for my nursery; won multiple national and international recognition awards; traveled for business (like a real professional!)… and was still internally restless & miserable. 

 

At some point, as I was withdrawing from Adderall, a new acquaintance and I were sitting in a women’s professional group. I was telling them how difficult the pressure had become, how awfully stupid and useless I felt no longer on Adderall, and she said “This isn’t a bad Karen, this a different Karen, and that’s okay.” She would later open the door for much healing to come in my life. Ultimately, she introduced me to Christ and to acceptance. I will be forever grateful. She taught me how to breathe, how to dance and laugh and accept how quirky and dingbatty the real Karen is… and that the more I embraced these things in myself, the more I could lead others to embrace them in themselves as well. It took serious courage and a lot of submission, and letting go. But it was all so worth it.

 

I am reminded of this all today because just recently I have undergone some very big physical changes. First of all, I had a baby. And on my 5’11”, muscular frame, all of the additional baby weight — all 70lbs. of it — made me look like a yeti. I mean, I really packed on the pounds. Which is fine because I have successfully raised my eight-month-old son solely on breast milk, and he is thriving. The weight has slowly come off, but I’m still not the svelte beauty I once was, and let’s face it, some parts of my anatomy will never return to their pre-baby state.

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I should mention that never had I felt more beautiful and at peace with myself than when I was growing my precious son in my body. Surprisingly, the weight gain didn’t freak me out at all.

Second of all, I had other priorities than looking beautiful. Money was tight so it wasn’t like I could go buy a new wardrobe for my newly porcine frame. I was night parenting and day parenting, so makeup and hair styling was on the back burner. If I was running on low fuel, the precious gas I had left was not going to be spent on attempting to look pretty for others. It was going to be spent on fueling my family, my growing love for this new baby in my life, and encouraging my marriage throughout these changes.

Third, and most recently, I dyed my hair red. I was hell bent on growing out my natural hair color and leaving all of the chemical dyes, peroxides and bleaches behind. I was tired of using purple shampoo and conditioner to make sure my hair was just the right blonde. I felt like my natural color coming in made me look tired. I just wanted to look as alive as I felt. And I had this nagging in my heart for a month to stain my hair with henna, a very natural albeit permanent route that would kiss my blonde goodbye until I decided to grow it out. It was exhilarating and I went for it.

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I should mention that during this process I felt very in touch with the 0.2% West African in my genetic code that 23andMe.com swears is there. 

Yesterday, after mass, I was chatting with two friends of mine who are very dear to me. One of them said “Karen, don’t get me wrong, you look darling as a redhead… but I just thought you were so stunning with your blonde hair.” My other friend nodded in agreement. Karen from even a year ago — maybe even a few months ago — might have panicked. Oh my GOD, there was an opportunity to be even more beautiful than I am now and I squandered it! I am less powerful than I was! I’m such an idiot!

Instead, I responded “Maybe this is a time in my life that I don’t need to be stunning.”

My words shocked me. I felt set free. My friends immediately agreed that even if I shaved my head my beauty comes from my face and my countenance… but then I was reminded of Invisible Monsters: what if even my face was no longer there to prop up my image of beauty? For the first time in my life I thought to myself that it would be alright.

God has used many people to His glory who defy the standard definition of beauty. Vanity has so often done so little to impact the world in great ways. The wrinkles on Saint Teresa of Calcutta come from years of sacrifice, of smiles, of pain and selflessness, not years of fretting over anti-wrinkle cream, self-preservation and research on which color eyeshadow compliments her skin tone. I felt honored to be among the ranks of hardworking women of God that were indeed still radiantly feminine and beautiful, but without subscribing to — and clawing to achieve — the worldly beauty we have all been trained to pursue. I felt peace.

And I should mention… did we ever wish for this pressure on our beautiful, undefiled children? Do you think our parents did? Were they ever less valuable based on their appearance or clothing or actions or what they could do for you? No. And as children of God, even if we are now adults, He still doesn’t wish this for us. Let’s protect ourselves as children against the lies of this world. Wrap your arms around baby you and hold on tight. Tell her that this world is cruel and misleading. Tell her she is enough just the way she is. Tell her every day, 60+ times a day.

So although people have definitely let me know how they prefer Karen, and although I know my red hair is not the most becoming hair color I could sport, my heart is at peace with my decision. I’m tired of chasing what the-most-becoming-thing-Karen-could-do is. It’s a worn out, outdated paradigm that zaps me of precious energy I could be devoting to other people and ideas. I won’t ever again let the strangers of HotOrNot.com — or even close friends and family — determine my beauty, my value, or my self-worth. Their comments will never again hurt me because they’re inconsequential. I will pursue true beauty as a child of God, knowing that the light I reflect outward is where my value lies. I am so much more than a face and a body, than intellect or productivity. I could be rendered crippled and still move mountains. And I thank the Lord every day for this insight, this freedom, and hope to impart it to others.

 

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