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What I Know About Beauty Now That I'm In My 20s

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I've spent a lot of time thinking about beauty. As a little girl, I thought I was gorgeous, because I was me. As a teenager, I was less sure, but I still rocked my own style. In college, I gained weight and wished I could change the way my face looked. I got a nose job the summer before I moved to NYC, pretty sure it would improve my life dramatically. And in Manhattan, I learned never to order dessert, because dessert felt like failure.

Then, at twenty-three, I'd had enough. I was tired of feeling unattractive, tired of feeling guilty for eating carbs, tired of wondering how much better my life would be if I just looked a little bit different... If I was just a little prettier. I started a body image blog called Eat the Damn Cake, which I'm still writing now, just after my twenty-sixth birthday. Through writing about my own struggles with beauty, and listening to other women and girls talk about theirs, I've learned a lot. Here are some of the most important lessons:

Forget the beauty rules. I learned early on that certain colors go together and others aren't allowed. I learned that if you have a heart-shaped face, you should have long hair, and if you have a long face, you should have chin-length hair, and if you have a big nose, you should have very long hair, to draw the eye away from the nose. If you are plump, you should never wear horizontal stripes, and you should always wear black. If you have small breasts, you should get a pushup bra. There are so many rules, and I think I probably know them all by heart. And then last year I wanted to cut my hair off, but I knew I wasn't supposed to, because I have a big nose and my neck is not long enough and I am not tiny and waiflike. I got a buzz cut anyway. It looked fantastic. It felt fantastic. I felt free. Everyone loved it. The rules are wrong. Ignore them.

This is your real body. Right now. The one you're in as you read this. When I gained twenty pounds and suddenly had defiantly squishy thighs and a rounded belly and chubby upper arms, I kept thinking that this wasn't me. This was an invasion of fat cells that had taken over my old, real body, and replaced it with this new, foreign one. My heavier body felt like something I needed to tolerate until I could return home, to my thinner, more legitimate self. But after a while, I had to admit that I wasn't going back. And more importantly, I had to acknowledge that this is me. I own this body. I own the thick thighs and the stick-out belly and the bigger breasts. They're all mine. And sometimes, when I put on a tight dress and shake my new, plentiful booty, I am so proud that this is the real me.

You don't have a perfect weight. You just have different ways of looking at yourself. There aren't many changes you can make that will fundamentally improve the way you perceive yourself. You just have to start seeing yourself as beautiful. I know, because I got cosmetic surgery, and guess what? It only changed my face. It didn't change the way I felt. I don't think people should never try to change anything about themselves, but I think we should examine our expectations.

If you want to wear it, wear it. I mean, you should probably try to find it in your size, just as a general precaution, but other than that, if you love the way something looks, go for it! For the longest time, I thought I couldn't wear short dresses because my legs aren't long enough. I felt like this was some sort of law, and the proportion police would snatch me off the streets the moment I stepped outside in the wrong outfit. But I love flirty sundresses, and one day I just bought one, and wore it, and I felt flirty and sunny, and it turned out there weren't any proportion police. Which makes sense, because they would have arrested me for my stubby toes long ago. I hear women say, "I can't wear..." (name your article of clothing) all the time. It doesn't matter how much they like it, they are simply not allowed to wear it. You're allowed to wear it! Put those shorts on!

Stop tweaking. Tweaking is my term for the little mental adjustments we make about our appearances. If my waist was a little narrower... If my eyes were a little bigger... If my jaw line was more defined and my skin a tiny bit clearer and my lips slightly fuller and my ankles had more of a taper and my nose was just a hint shorter and if maybe I could just have some cheekbones? Just a suggestion of cheekbones, please? I can tweak all day long. I know how everything about my appearance can be improved. Seriously -- call out a body part, and I'll tell you how it needs to change, just a little, so I can look better. But the thing is: I look like me. Not like Me 2.0. And tweaking is mean. Because it's small scale, it doesn't feel as mean as, "I hate the way I look! I'm hideous!" But in the end, it can amount to the same thing. When I realized how much I tweak, I started trying something new. When I look in the mirror now, I observe something good about myself. Nice ears! Could they be improved? It doesn't matter. They're nice the way they are.

Don't try to be more beautiful, try to like yourself more. I hate it when people say, "Beauty is all about confidence! Just smile! Smiling is sexy!" We're not stupid. We know that beauty can be completely superficial. Supermodels are still hot, even when they're in a bad mood. We know that people judge other people based on appearance all the time. That's why I keep buying different kinds of mascara that all end up looking exactly the same. But instead of worrying about how exactly we're supposed to be more appealing, whether through enough self respect to make us radiate positivity or with a new, expensive skin cream, we should work on liking ourselves because we're likable, and leave beauty out of it entirely for a moment. Realizing that I like myself, appearance notwithstanding, hasn't made me any hotter. It's made me happier. And we should all take happy over hot. Because we should all remember:

You are so much more than your appearance. There's so much more to like. In my case, I am weirdly awesome at the game Set, and I can harmonize with almost anything on the radio, for at least three seconds. It seems obvious that we're so much more than our outsides, and yet, we're stuck here, secretly believing that if we could just be more attractive, everything would be better. You are already better. Because beauty isn't actually the trick to happiness, no matter how certain TV seems on this point. Self-acceptance is. Or at least, it's one of the tricks. Another one is really cheesy pizza.

Not being stereotypically stunning has its perks. You can sometimes go invisible, when you don't feel like getting checked out on the subway. You can be pleasantly surprised when you look amazing in that glittery outfit. I used to secretly think that really, I mean, really, isn't it always just better to be gorgeous? The more I like myself, the more I'm not sure. I have grown to appreciate some of the ways in which I'm atypical-looking. My face and my body tell a story about my lineage, about my ethnicity, and my history. My appearance has participated in shaping my understanding of myself and the world. Maybe it's contributed to me being sensitive, being a writer, being good at making grilled cheeses. I can't be exactly sure, but I do know that it can feel pretty badass to be different, when you appreciate your differences. And there's very little agonizing over whether you should focus more on the Marc Jacobs campaign you're representing, or on your movie career. Phew.

It's OK not to believe the negative. Sometimes I think we only hear the bad things. I vividly remember this girl coming up to me in Hebrew school, when I was twelve. She had her friends behind her. She said, "Um, ew. What is she wearing?" and pointed at my shirt. It was a very cool shirt, with a peace sign on it. At least, I thought it was cool. I went into the bathroom and cried. My relationship with peace signs was forever changed. Since then, a lot of people have told me I dress well. At least, I think they have. I always forget. The negative sticks, the positive is easy to dismiss. They didn't mean it. They were just being nice. I'm done with "just"s. I am learning to accept the niceness. I am learning to delete the bad pictures without a second glance. That's not how I look. I look like this good one. I know, because I recognize myself in it. It's not dishonesty, it's being fair to yourself.

Cake tastes better than skinny feels. When I moved to NYC at 22, it seemed like all of the women I met were really, really thin. They all worked out a lot. They all did yoga a lot. They were all runners. And they never had dessert. Actually, they didn't have pizza either. Which felt tragic, because there was so much amazing pizza, everywhere I looked. Something happened to me, from being around these dessert-free women. I started feeling guilty all the time. You ate a lot of carbs today! Guilty! You bought a donut! Guilty! You haven't gone jogging in two years! Really, really guilty! I was always messing up.

When I did order cake, I felt like I was giving in. Like I was cheating on my thinner self. Like there was actually something sinful about dark chocolate cake. You know what's sinful about it? That so many women think enjoying delicious food is cheating. It's not cheating, it's enjoying life. Since I've figured that out, I've gotten better at enjoying every bite.

You can work on it, and it can get better. And by "work on it" and "get better" I don't mean "learn to do your makeup so that you look super sexy" or perform those "ten tricks for looking slimmer!" or "have some work done." I mean, you can work on feeling more beautiful, the way you already are. There's no quick fix or neat trick or cosmetic product for this. But the great thing is, it's free. It involves you reminding yourself that there is something spectacular about your uniqueness. That the way all of your parts come together to form a whole person is very cool. That there is always something about the way you look that you can appreciate. Every day, I write what I call an "unroast," which is something I love about the way I look. When I started doing this, I thought, "This will never work." Two years later, I feel more beautiful all the time. I feel more beautiful, not because I look different, but because I am me.

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