This morning I was getting ready to go out for brunch with a couple of friends, and I started thinking how nice it is to not worry too much about how you look. I was making sure my clothes were clean and my hair didn’t look too crazy – very low bar as I am constantly cleaning up after the kids and my clothes seem to always have some leftover from whatever they were eating. Anyways, those few minutes on my own allowed me to reflect on who I am today compared to a few years ago.

Different cultures have different standards of beauty and society in general has an expectation of how someone should act and what they should look like. Growing up in Brazil, even being from a low income family, it was very obvious how important one’s appearance was. As a teenager and young adult, I was always insecure wondering what people thought of me. I needed to get my hair straight because ‘straight hair is better’, I was embarrassed because I had to wear the same clothes over and over again and didn’t have anything new to show when my friends where talking about the new tops and jeans they just got. I was embarrassed of my body even though there was nothing wrong with it. I always felt the pressure to look better.

Back in college, I used the wear the same pair of shoes almost everyday. They looked very old and the color was fainting. One day, a girl from my class looked at me with a disgusted expression while staring at my shoes. I could almost hear her thoughts: “Oh this is gross, how can she be wearing those shoes?” I pretended I didn’t notice it as I couldn’t do much about it anyways. She looked like a doll: perfect skin and beautiful impeccable hair. She would always wear design clothes and would drive her parents’ fancy cars. Of course many girls in my college were not like her, most of us were not rich and could not afford that lifestyle. However, even among girls that were like me, there was this attitude that a woman has to look good. “A woman must be vain”. I literally heard that a few times. Not being ‘vain’ was taken as a bad thing.

Body shaming was another thing that I saw over and over again and people were not shy to express their opinions on one’s body type. Lots of it was in a form of a joke and you would see people with similar body type making fun of others and even of themselves. It was ‘normal’ to say that someone was ugly, and the best compliment you could give a woman would be to say how beautiful she looked. I was no different. I thought that women should look beautiful, always. Because I could not always afford the cost of being ‘beautiful’, I ended up being self conscious and insecure.

I believe these feelings are very similar for many teenagers no matter which country they come from. Everyone wants to fit in and feel special in some way or another. The problem is if one gets obsessed about the idea of fitting in and ends up putting more efforts on ‘showing’ than ‘being’. So many people go into debt to show a social status they don’t have. Too many people go on unsafe diets and unnecessary surgeries to get the ‘ideal body’. So many of us focus too much on the outside forgetting to improve what really matters – our inner selves.

Do I think it is important to be beautiful? I would say that it is important to feel beautiful, and to love and accept yourself. I personally don’t think it is bad to try to improve your appearance, to wear makeup if you like it, or even buy nice clothes. The difference is on the focus we put on those external factors and the price you want to pay to achieve it.

Someone wrote: “The difference between loving yourself and vanity is purely based on the fact that loving yourself makes you a stronger person. You come to a point of acceptance of yourself, being content with which you have decided to be, whatever it is. Vanity is an overwhelming obsession with ourselves. Vanity does not give one confidence or security. In fact, one could argue that being vain is the result of a lack of confidence and security.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement and I wish I had this wisdom a few years ago.

Back then, I was worried how I looked like and I really wanted people to like me. I always had a lot of friends but somehow I still managed to feel insecure. Of course a lot of factors contribute to one’s feelings but I am sure that being made fun of because of my body or my clothes didn’t help. Today, as a grown woman I am happy with myself. I know who I am and I am comfortable with it. I think it is interesting to see that once I got on a position that I could have almost everything I wanted I realized that ‘having’ didn’t make me a better or worse person – I was still the same with better clothes and a nicer car. What made me change the way I saw myself was to realize that people that really mattered to me didn’t care if I had new or old clothes or if I was driving a brand new car or no car at all. People that mattered only wanted me to be happy.

Today, I have two daughters and I wonder how I can positively influence them to love and accept themselves and to respect others for their differences. I want them to feel beautiful no matter what the social beauty standards are, and I hope they will be confident enough to be themselves while having a healthy lifestyle. This is a new chapter in my life, learning how I will transfer what I’ve learned to my kids and how I will allow them to learn on their own. If only you could pass all your wisdom so they wouldn’t have to suffer and make the same mistakes…