Dear Thought Pharmacy,
I'm a 21 year old student at a Uni in London. I struggle to go out because of my face. I'm ugly and people are disgusted by my face. After any social interaction I sift through my memories and attribute any negative comments or behaviour as being due to my ugliness. I avoid eye contact because I hate seeing my ugliness reflected in other people's behaviour towards me. I also avoid it because I hate seeing that they're seeing me, if that makes sense. I take hours getting ready, 1 hour to put on make-up, the rest is spent lolling around coming to terms with the fact that people are about to see my hideous face.
People tell me that I am not ugly but let's be honest, those are just social niceties.When a laughably handsome guy from class was interested in me, I was so angry and sad and embarrassed. He was obviously taking the piss out of the ugly girl. I have been getting CBT therapy for my 'body dysmorphic' symptoms for a few months now but it's a slow process and it can't work miracles. I feel like nothing anyone can ever say will make me feel better. My mum has even taken to asking cashiers at the till in Sainsbury's if they think I'm pretty in an attempt to 'prove' that I'm not ugly.
I really feel like this is holding me back from doing things I want to do. Things like volunteering and doing intern-ships and having guitar lessons and starting a society at uni. A friend, well actually more of a good acquaintance, said something that really hit me. He said 'You're the least shallow person I know because you like people for who they are and what they do, not what they look like.' I'm just struggling to understand why I can't extend that to myself.
I would really really appreciate your help, please. I don't want to be like this.
Hello there, you poor thing. I've thought long and hard about you since I got your message last week. I spent the weekend driving up mountains in Vermont and wondering if you were doing ok, and I hope maybe at some point during your days you've felt my energy whisking its way across the salty sea. Of course I thought long and hard about your prescription, but what I was mainly worried about in making sure I wrote you a reply worthy of your bravery in sharing your story in the first place was avoiding cliche ( hackneyed platitudes like "it's what matters on the inside that counts" and others like it) which is why it's contrary of me to start with a big old cliche myself, but start with it I must- beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As I behold you, friend, I see nothing ugly at all. Though you have signed off as so, I cannot bear to address you as "Ugly" so I'm changing your name to one that actually befits you.
I can tell that you're very clever. The way that you use inverted commas- 'body dysmorphic', 'prove' shows you have that thirty-thousand feet ability, the gift of being able to fly very far above your physical body and observe yourself wryly from afar. While your heart is without doubt weighted down to utter exhaustion with self hatred and confusion, It's almost as if you're simultaneously observing yourself. This is a very rare gift, and one, once you've put it to proper use, that is going to help you no end.
Clever girls often have an awful talent for self hatred, of course, it comes with the territory. And as you half-know, at worst it makes you desperately sad inside, at best it makes you rather fascinating at times to others. It sounds like you're working both sides of the coin. You're probably driving that guy at Uni (who by the way has a big crush on you based solely on first sight of that beautiful face, because that's how boys work) utterly wild with what he undoubtedly interprets as your lack of interest and general aloofness (though you know it as paralysing self loathing). You described him as "laughably handsome" which made me smile. You're so cynical and funny. I bet he loves that as well. But you're not seeing that of course. The great news is that once you do, that kind of interest from a guy like him could lead to an intense and raw and beautiful and physical relationship (read: someone to snuggle with, a person to leave the crappy party with, regular body-healing hot-as-hell sex, but this will come later, we have to fix you first).
You're half-right when you say that nothing anyone can say will make you feel better. Right now, nope, nothing can. You're too blocked. You're walking with your eyes to the ground so you don't see the furtive glances. A bit like last week's Thought Pharmacy patient, you're so so so tired, Beautiful. You need TLC. A weekend of garden sunbathing, cups of tea, slices of cake, a dirty Martini sipped extra slow with a loving girlfriend, whatever your poison (those are just a few of mine to get you started). I'm really glad you're doing therapy, and I implore you to try and work at it earnestly and chastise your cynical nature when at times you feel uncomfortable about asking for help. I know enough about CBT to imagine that your therapist has already identified that you're concentrating and projecting externally on your 'ugly face' because of an experience or behaviour pattern in your past. We all have things like this, stitches we have to unpick and wounds we have to lick clean, and It takes hard work and dedication (we Brits tend to scoff a little at the idea of things like CBT as being work as opposed to some sort of namby-pamby alternative therapy- don't fall victim to that. It's bollocks). I also want you to subscribe a little to the (NEW AGE ALERT) Buddhist mantra- What you think you become/What you feel you attract/What you imagine you create. In your letter you used the word 'ugly' seven times. You called yourself 'hideous' and 'disgusting'. Darling girl, these words are knives to you. Your energy is ferocious-just think about what that power, that strength could do if you changed those words around.
All this stuff about it being somehow just "social niceties" whenever anyone says anything complimentary to you is total shit, Beautiful, and in your heart of hearts, I truly believe that you know that. You're just so tired that you can't really deal with attention from anyone right now, and so you make excuses for why people must like you or show you interest. You're stuck in that cycle of feeding your fear. In a strange way, I think that loathing the way your face looks has become an identifier to you, and though you desperately don't want to live in this way, and I believe you when you say that, I think you're also clinging to it a little bit. So often our negative thoughts or behaviours become strangely safe places for us, because we forget who we are without them holding us back. A world alone, without our demon, can suddenly seem almost as scary as the one with it. But you've got to get out and volunteer, do your internships, set up your society, play your guitar like the fierce Joplin-esque spirit that you are. Tell the demon to fuck off.
I found the whole of your letter, the yelp of pain that it was, incredibly moving, but no part touched me more than the description of your exasperated mum imploring Sainsburys cashiers to tell you how beautiful you are. Though I see how, for you, this story is symbolic of the degree to which your negative thinking and body dysmorphia has reached, I have to tell you that a reader, and as your Thought Pharmacist, I loved this story. Because you're right, your mother does think, without rhyme, reason, hope or agenda that you are beautiful, and no, it wouldn't matter if you had a face as nondescript and perfunctory as a thumb or one eye higher than the other or ears as mangled as an England prop forward (you don't mention what it is that specifically bothers you about your face-I guess you feel its just everything). When your mother, who carried you close for nine long months, and felt you wiggle and hiccup and swim around inside her body, was handed you- baby Beautiful, wrinkled and furious and red as a raspberry, she took one look at your perfect face and decided you were the most heavenly and gorgeous thing she'd ever seen. That's what beauty is, Beautiful. It's as simple and natural and mysterious and primal as that. The physical features of anyone's face are just a vehicle for expressing their universal beauty, and reflecting another's love. Your mother gifted you that lesson, and that knowledge, and clearly still gifts it to you everyday. But you've closed yourself off. The shades are down. You have the power to open the ties that bind you, and you must, because the world needs your beautiful, perfect, lovely, soulful and cynical face. All the things you are. All the things you will become. Your prescription is below.
YOUR SONG: I'll Be Your Mirror by Nico
In your letter you described being handed a wonderful compliment- someone described you as "the least shallow person I know". Wowzas, you authentic and soulful creature, you, what a nice thing for someone to say! What made me smile and feel a little sad though was that you first described him as a 'friend', then backtracked to saying he was 'more like a good acquaintance'. Let me tell you, Beautiful, someone who compliments you as he did is your friend. He's being your mirror. Let that person in- he's being Nico in that moment- "Put down your hands, because I see you." You put down your hands for me, Beautiful, someone you have never met outside this big digital space. You can do it for others, and you will. Let them reflect your beauty back at you. This journey you're on means you're going to need all the help you can get from your (many) admirers and friends. Let them help you. Reach out to them, and tell them your story as you did for me.
Here's an odd but wonderful piece of reading for you, and a reminder that there is poetry and big human truths along with dull quantitive data to be found in hard scientific study (now we know why we as a society have somehow managed to fetishise the lab coat). You can read about the experiment in full by clicking the link above, but it essentially goes like this. Remember how when you were very little, and you played hide and seek, you would cover your eyes, because it made you feel invisible? This study set out to try and understand why children do that. What they found was what Nico already knew- that unless a child is being looked at by another, is conscious that someone is seeing them by their eyes locking, they earnestly think that cannot be seen. In short-if their faces are hidden, they believe themselves to be completely invisible. How heartbreaking and wonderful is that? That's what you've been doing, Beautiful. You've covered your face and in turn made yourself invisible. The child in you (and at 21, you are still pretty little) wants to be found. To do that, you have to be seen first. Put on your make up (nothing wrong with a super fun getting ready session and a great lipstick) and pull your sweet face to the sky.
YOUR TALISMAN: "POWER TO OVERCOME" NECKLACE BY PYRRHA
I think you need something to wear that will remind you daily of the battle you are conquering, so I did a little research on trying to find a nice piece of jewellery for you. I settled on this pretty necklace, from ace Canadian company Phyrra (they ship internationally, I checked). It shows a wolf with a rose in its mouth which "signifies one who has the perseverance to overcome obstacles and find joy".I thought that sounded right up your alley, Beautiful. I'm rather partial to the bronze, but it also comes in silver, and I think the design is lovely. I know it's a little bit of a splurge cost-wise, but I think it will be worth it. You can hold on to the cool metal when you're feeling nervous, and be reminded of its message when you catch a glance of it reflected back in the bus windows.
YOUR EXCURSION: GAZ'S ROCKIN BLUES. ADD GIRLFRIENDS AND TEQUILA.
I'm going to go out on a limb here, Beautiful, and suggest that you might also be suffering from "Student in London" syndrome, a condition with which I am well acquainted. I went to UCL for undergrad, a place I felt so excited about, only to find I struggled painfully in my first year of Uni. I thought I was going to be Marianne Faithfull, but instead I was just an over-anxious fish out of water wearing dodgy gap year jewellery, a faded TopShop trench coat and with my Mick Jagger nowhere to be found. I struggled massively with student culture in London, a place that felt vast and cool while at the same time being solely sold 'student nights' which I tried desperately to like but never could. I didn't want to do a "three legged pub crawl" with some still-pubescent slobbering weirdo desperate to go to fourth base. The idea of a jelly shot made my eyes roll to the heavens and my stomach lurch. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to find Mick Jagger at an event with a bouncy castle (the "vomitorium" as a dear friend of mine, at least four flaming sambucas in, so eloquently put it) or with special appearances by the cast of Made in Chelsea. It's kindof weird how British University events geared towards students embarking on hard academic study almost make a conscious decision to further infantilise the incoming cohort, however, like ham and pineapple pizza and people that like cruises, I accept there are certain things I will never understand. But the point I'm trying to make is that I found Uni in London at times unbearably lonely, and in my entire first term, while my pals at regional campuses joyfully notched up their bedposts, I was kissed precisely once, by a boy in a band whose girlfriend was out of town (I only learned this when she answered the door when I knocked on it the next day. FYI he's now an accountant.) Beautiful, I really and truly lost confidence during that term. I felt I was ugly and that no guys thought I was attractive. I hated my face too. All the booze I'd dutifully downed at the dreaded student nights while watching the rugby team smear each other in glitter paint (epically non-hilarious) made me feel swollen and chubby. I had stopped stretching and running and being as active as I like to be. I felt truly crappy and I cried a lot. But then I discovered Gaz's and though I continued to struggle and recover from that time, I felt like I'd found my place at last.
Gaz's Rockin Blues holds court every Thursday night from 9pm at the St Moritz Club on Wardour Street in Soho. It's dark, underground, has been going for years and literally anything goes, clothes wise. Though not in a "I'm just wearing my sweatpants to the bar" way. In a "I just bought this weird cut out dress from Oxfam and paired it with my Grandma's vintage Westwood" way. It's full of hot boys from Camden and there's always a band. The music (blues, ska, vintage girl groups, the night was founded by Gaz Mayall, the founder of Trojan Records) is literally and figuratively off the charts. It's an amazing place to find friends and lovers, but it's also an amazing place to hold fort on the dance floor and do a heart-swelling solo boogie to Desmond Dekker. It just brings that out of you. That's why you need to go. And look, if you go and you don't like it and you feel awful and you just want to leave and watch Strictly Come Dancing with your cat that's FINE too. But I need you to have at least one drink, Beautiful. Just one. I highly recommend tequila (blanco, with ice) which for me at least has the three fold medicinal benefit of making me want to dance, flirt with strangers and being a nice clean hangover. It's also kindof a sexy drink to order and sip as you survey the crowd. Add your best girlfriends. Look around. Lock eyes.
In short, it's the kind of true old London place that instantly makes a regular of you. And as time goes by, and you intermittently prop up the bar through the years in the way I have over the last decade (I still go on my trips home) and you find a safe space to relax and meet people and dance and be free, many people will find cause to tell you about your beautiful face. It might be a friend or a relative or a paralytically drunk hotty who's holding his pint like he would your heart (soft, strong, aloft). And one day, instead of batting away that compliment like Djocovic, you'll actually feel a little swell of happiness and satisfaction, a little heart jump. You'll take that compliment. You'll hold it close. Then you'll know you're there and you've come out the other side. The next day you will wake up, look at that lovely face in the mirror and feel lighter somehow. I hope and I know that sooner rather than later, you'll be feeling as light as air, Beautiful. See you at Gaz's. I'll teach you how to two step.
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