In the early 2000's I was a teenager, a sophomore, and someone who for the purposes of this article I'll call Lydon the Younger. This person that I was is probably familiar to you. He's unsure of himself and self-deprecating. He is awkward around people he doesn't know, he isn't convinced that anyone actually likes him, he is convinced that the people he is attracted to don't like him, and mostly he wishes that the world would either ignore him or explode to save him from the aggravation of failing to live up to the expectations (and perceptions) of the people around him.
Yes, Lydon the Younger is, at an atomic level, a typical teenager.
It is kind of patronizing for me to say this as an adult. I recognize this and so I try not to say it about teenagers that are not Lydon the Younger. But when I look back at who I was then, I see in Lydon the Younger a young person who doesn't realize how common his frustrations are, who doesn't realize just how relatable his everyday anxiety is.
I think part of this is that there is an idea of what a teenager looks like in pop culture that you never feel like you are reaching. When the protagonist of some teenage drama stares too awkwardly at the girl he's pining for, or the girl feels overlooked by the guy she shares a table with in chemistry, there's something familiar in that. But when those actors overcome their hurdles, that feels like a fiction we can hope for but have given up expecting. I can't do that, we think. I look nothing like that!
Maybe I'm wrong. It's been a long time since I was Lydon the Younger.
What I can say is that he was someone who didn't value himself. He fancied himself a writer, he honed an image of frivolity, and he allowed others to believe in an unsettling intensity that, together, made him feel better about the ways he felt he didn't measure up to the people around him. Lydon the Younger was always the one around people but never the one people were around. He enjoyed the casual use of profane and sexual language but was an embarrassed romantic at heart. And, in many ways that really mattered at the time, he didn't feel pretty.
Looking in the mirror, there was nothing in his cheap haircut and clothes that anyone else could want. He knew and was friendly with many people, people he admired for their talents and social graces, but he was secretly jealous of their beauty. In that mirror, he could see how different he was from them.
Now, as an adult I know that there are many things that make a person attractive. A sense of humor matters, as does intellect, and confidence. A generosity of spirit and an ability to carry a conversation matter. Honesty matters. Loyalty too. Of course there are physical traits that are commonly accepted as definitively attractive in the same way that we all just kind of accept that pizza is good, but beauty is as subjective as what makes the perfect pizza (I mean, there are some heathens that insist on putting warm fruit on theirs!). The point is, being beautiful is more than looking good.
But Lydon the Younger didn't know this. In his world, he was that perfect state of mundanity that allowed him to blend into the background. He attributed the few girlfriends he had managed as luck or a trick of being funny enough to overcome the blandness of his, well, everything.
And then sometime in his sophomore year, a friend named Melinda uploaded his picture to a site called Hot or Not. Hot or Not was at the forefront of social networking, developing quickly into a place where you could meet people - real human people - online to set up a date. Today the option to swipe left or right to share someone else's time is taken for granted, but the idea got its start before most of my students today were even born.
But when Melinda put his picture onto Hot or Not, it wasn't a dating site. It was a place of pure, unadulterated objectification. A picture would be displayed, you would rate the person in the picture on a 1-10 scale of attractiveness, and after finding out how others had rated them, begin the process over again. It was even possible to look up pictures by rating. You could be sure that the most highly rated people were those pictured in the most salacious way possible.
And although it doesn't look good on me now, I'll be honest: Lydon the Younger - like many teenage boys (and yeah, girls too) - was a bit of a little jerk: he and his friends would also look up the worst ranked people. They would see pictures of these people - whose pictures were either put up maliciously or who were genuinely looking (with hope) for some degree of validation - and mock them. As an adult I'm appalled at this behavior, but empathy comes with time and experience.
So my picture, right?
I had absolutely laughed and rated cruelly many pictures on Hot or Not myself and with friends, but I always kind of figured that by laughing at them I was somehow separating myself from those labels. Those ratings. Because when I was honest with myself, I was sure I was ugly too. (I certainly acted ugly then, I admit).
But for Lydon the Younger, finding out that he was a 7 by people I didn't know? That he had somehow escaped the "or Not" side of the scale was a genuine shock and a perverse kind of validation. It didn't take long for the feeling to wear off. Had his worst fears of his appearance been confirmed he probably would have worn that for years, but it is easy to ignore praise when we are so used to seeing ourselves a certain way. I think it is probably pretty common for us to hold on to judgments that meet our own self-critical view of ourselves and forget the compliments (explicit and implied) that people pay us. This may very well be a way of keeping humble, but it also keeps us from feeling valuable.
It wasn't until recently that I realized how absolutely terrible this 7 was. Honestly, I had not thought about being rated in this plainly gross way until recently, when one of our presidential candidate's history of rating women on this scale was brought up. I think it is hard for men to recognize the degree to which women are objectified, but for a moment I remembered being objectified myself, and as an adult person who values himself in a way that a 1-10 scale cannot fully express, I felt kind of gross for having been so judged fifteen years ago.
And yet at the time a part of Lydon the Younger needed that. Not the number, but the feeling that he had value. That he looked good enough for people to like him. He knew he was never going to be that hot guy from the rom-com on the varsity team whose hair manages to be as perfectly formed as his biceps even after taking off his helmet, but feeling attractive mattered. It sucks, but it's true.
It took years, but eventually I learned that I had a lot more control over how I felt than I realized. I started acting. Not in the theater or drama sense, but in the sense that I would pretend to be something I wasn't. Confident. Happy. Good looking. Even if I didn't really buy these labels myself, over time it seemed like other people did, and the trick about acting a certain way is that if you do it long enough, it stops being pretend. You often hear that you "shouldn't pretend to be something you're not," but if you can be the person you want to be and that person happens to be more satisfied than the person you are now, I say ignore that advice with prejudice. I ascribe more to the "fake it 'till you make it" cliche these days.
When my act became me, when I stopped considering the value that others placed on me and became satisfied with the value I had for myself, the world became more simple. This clarity helped me realize that my 7 wasn't important because it made me feel pretty, but because it made me feel valuable. That feeling didn't stick with me long because being valuable to someone else is infinitely less important that feeling valuable yourself.
So if you are anything like Lydon the Younger, pretend to be valuable. I can tell you that you are - unquestionably - valuable, but my validation of you has a pretty short shelf life. Commit to being the person you want to be, someone that lets you define your own rating.
You don't have to be perfect, or even pretend to be. I sometimes play at infallible for a gag, but I have faults. I see them and I hope you do too. I don't want to be a 10 by any scale (although this is a half-truth, because I would strongly consider alakazaming Ryan Gosling's looks given the opportunity). What I want is to be a seven. Not in beauty, but as a whole person. I want to be in a space where I feel good about who I am now, where I am a better version of myself today than I was in years or even days past, and where I have room to grow to become even better. Make no mistake, I'm still uncertain about my appearance: I've got a gap in my teeth you can drive through and I have a future as one of those men whose beard seems to be a distraction from the odd shape of his shaved head.
But I am a solid seven.
(Originally Published February 23rd, 2017)