How fearless beauty became effortless



For years, I have vehemently denied that I cared about my face, my hair, the way I looked, and my body shape – especially, my size.

I hid behind the layers of my facade to project an ideal – an ideal that I thought I should be, must be. In the process, I massacred my true self.

How did I become such a cowardly hypocrite?

Was it the time I was publicly spanked in front of the entire school assembly that I lost all my self-esteem? I was only seven.

Or, was it that moment I found out the guy I liked was also screwing half of the girls in school, along with my so-called Best Friend at that time. Boy, was I glad for not losing my virginity to that jerk-face.

So, when did it really begin—my descent into self-loathing?

Ah, yes, perhaps it started when I got transferred into a snooty international school. That must have been in 1984. I had not turned 15 yet, as my birthday falls in the month of December. All the popular girls in school started making fun of me because I did not shave my legs or under arms. I was so innocent then, that I did not even realise that girls had to shave their legs and pits to be pretty. It was obvious they came from a very different background than me.

At my previous public school in Singapore, we did not concern ourselves with such matters. I did not have to change anything about myself or shave off any hair from my body parts, and yet I was still the most popular kid in school. Everyone knew me there, and I do mean, every single one. Thus, it confounded me as to why all the girls in the new school were so pre-occupied with hair, make-up, shaving their legs and pits. Later, I was told it was necessary to a girl’s personal grooming. And only a real girl could understand this.

Fortunately for me, I caught up really fast. I began to arm myself with knowledge because I needed to be a real girl.

Within the first year, I began to comply with their standards of beauty. I grew out my hair, I bought my very first shaver and endured many cuts before I got the hang of it. I even had my hair coloured. I was the first girl in the entire school to have her hair highlighted. Naturally, it caused a stir. Before too long, I had cemented a certain popularity status. It helped too when I became Captain of the Cheer-Leading Squad.

It became an addiction, really.

To be ever so popular, to have people copying your styles, even the colours of your hair. Older students would come to consult my opinion about hair colouring, as if I was the Hair Guru. Quite astounding, if you think about it. I was setting trends at this new school.

Things were rosy for a while, until I realised that I had to keep coming out with new ideas and new trends. Otherwise, I would be over-taken by another Ms. Popular wanna-be. So, the competition did not sleep — even over easter and summer holidays.

It occurred to me that I needed to really polish my game if I were to retain my crown. I had taken to using the facilities of the tanning bed, waxing salons, hair salons and was seriously considering cosmetic surgery as well. I had typical slanty Asian eyes and my nose was crushed by an accident on roller skates — my face was slammed against the wall when I could not stop my skates in time. My nose was never the same after that.

I looked a lot like Voldermort. Well, in my mind, I most certainly did!

By the time I had turned 18, my body had changed so much that I thought I could die every time I looked into the mirror.

I did not mind my boobs. I was very pleased that they filled up nicely. It was everything else. Because everything I ate would grow into inches and took up residence in my body like an unwanted stubborn guest! I had to exercise more, eat less, and did I mention how much I HATED exercising? With seething fury, while we’re at it. To this day, I still despise exercising.

Hence, like a good little coward, I took the easy way out — I decided to go for that fat reduction procedure, double eye lid surgery and reconstruction of my nose. I really thought it would complete me and make me feel prettier.

But it didn’t, and it couldn’t.

Although I looked better from some angles physically, it could not heal the deformity of my mind.

The same horrors haunted me as I awoke and faced each day. The same nightmares repeated themselves more than the bad Scary Movie sequels.

None of the changes I undertook on the outside could plug the gaping void inside.

The truth is, I was unhappy with myself long before anyone came along and stepped all over my self-esteem like a doormat. The real wounds ran much deeper.

I was hurt by that public spanking at seven years of age. I just didn’t realise how much. This is why it mattered so much to me that I had to be popular. It did not matter how I got popular. (But I drew the line at kissing or sleeping with every guy at school. At least, I had some dignity left in my sorry state.)

I was terribly disappointed when the person I liked for the longest time betrayed me with my Best Friend, along with other girls at school. I felt insignificant, and worthless. That fueled my desire to matter to someone. Yes, all I really wanted was just to matter to someone. Unfortunately for me, I went about it in the wrong way.

When I arrived at the new school and the girls made fun of me because I was not as well-groomed as them, it cut me up. I felt like a primitive ape who was not educated in civility. I felt like a cliched “country bumpkin”. Needless to say, it added more assault to my already battered self-esteem.

Is it any wonder that I yearned to be liked, adored, and recognised for the most part of my life?

As I grew older, I had to find courage in facing my own demons and searched for the answers deep within myself. I had to take off the mask which I had crafted with such care over the years, and face the real me.

In the end, all I saw was a frightened little child pretending to be brave and wise. She was a fraud. She fooled others, including herself.

It took a long time for me to come into terms with my own personal issues. As I progressed through life, I encountered all kinds of issues — some were new, and others added ammunition to the old lesions. I had to learn how to separate the old from the new, and seek out the root causes of my pains.

For a long while too, I wondered if I was the only stupid girl in the world who lost herself in this way. Then I looked around me, and I understood.

Though we may stand far apart from one another, and hiss at each other, we all suffer some degree of self-loathing at some point in our lives.

In public, we could parade in all our finery and flash our latest branded handbags (or cars and watches, for the guys,) as if they would enrich our self-worth. However, in private, we know that the truth lies beyond that $20,000 handbag or jewellery. No amount of BB or CC cream could cover up our deep seated insecurities. They are nothing but superficial embellishments. They could never fill up the emptiness we feel inside.

It takes guts and grit to tear away the disguises we wear. After all, we have worn them for so long that we believe them to be our true nature. We do not realise that we are so much more than just a pretty or handsome veneer.

Only in being brutally honest and facing our worst fears, can we reclaim our own true beauty.

The day I became fearless and made peace with myself was the day my beauty became effortless.

Today, my eyes have started drooping as I have aged. I turned 44 last December. Slowly but surely, I am certain that my surgically enhanced eyes will return to their original state in due time.

And my nose is still a little crooked despite the rhinoplasty. Why did I even bother, right? Haha!

As for the fat reduction procedure, don’t even get me started!

Yes, I can laugh at myself now, because I have learnt to love myself. It took quite sometime but I am finally comfortable in my own skin. My reward is that I get to enjoy being me and be happy, effortlessly.

So, please do start your own brand of effortless beauty. Don’t wait until you are old and cranky to revel in the full splendour of your true beauty.

Always remember that you are beautiful as you are, even at your most vulnerable.


This article was first published as a guest blog by Shirley for Effortless Beauty and has been republished with permission. 

{Photo: Andreas Øverland / Flickr}

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Shirley Maya Tan

Shirley Maya Tan

Huffington Post blogger Shirley Maya Tan has been published in, among others, the Elephant Journal and The B-Side. A single mother living in Kuala Lumpur, Shirley writes about motherhood, dating, sexuality, identity and much more. The Art of Fearless Living is an intimate, authentic and revealing portrait of one woman’s quest to live fearlessly in our increasingly complex world.

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