I recently bought a new pair of workout pants. My old pair was made from a surprisingly breathable nylon-esque fabric, featured several handy-dandy pockets, and was a style that flattered my figure … if you don’t count the waistband. That waistband dug into my midsection like a vole digs into the loamy spring earth: With GUSTO.* And eventually, I got tired of feeling segmented and self-conscious and bought a new pair with a less constricting waistband that make me feel much less segmented and self-conscious.
And I was thinking about this as I pedaled home on my bike last week. And I must’ve been thinking it pretty close to how I’ve typed it above, because my brain got stuck on its own word choice: Self-conscious.
Negative connotations, right? You hear “self-conscious” and you think, “hyper-vigilant about the perceptions of others, ill-at-ease, uncomfortably focused on one’s own flaws.” Self-conscious, in this day and age, has really come to mean self-critical.
Now, I realize that I get my dander up about word choice and the power of language fairly frequently. I do that because I believe that words can both hurt and heal, and that many people – myself included – seldom acknowledge the power that a single sentence can hold.
But this one? This one is personal.
I spent years feeling fragmented and unfocused, unsure of any aspect of myself that couldn’t be measured by external input. When I was in school, I had grades to tell me I was smart. I had auditions for plays and musical groups to tell me I was talented. Eventually, I had lovers to tell me I was sexy (though I never REALLY believed them). For most of my young life, I had no understanding of my true self – no real consciousness of my identity – outside of what others told me.
Then I graduated college and entered the workforce. Then I left my boyfriend in San Francisco and moved to Minneapolis alone, knowing no one. And then I began to awaken.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I began to assimilate talent, intellect, and body into my personal identity. It wasn’t until I realized that no one was going to build my muscles or floss my teeth for me that I started caring for my body like a friend. It wasn’t until I’d job-hopped enough to confirm my own efficiency and effectiveness that I began demanding regular raises. It wasn’t until I’d spent some time as a singleton that I realized my beauty had nothing to do with anyone other than ME. It wasn’t until I started buying flattering clothes almost by accident that I realized how powerfully my style could influence my emotional well-being. Slowly but surely, I became conscious of the building blocks that made me unique and whole.
I have FOUGHT to be self-conscious. I have worked to understand and accept myself, to identify my own core attributes and to love them. When I was not conscious of myself, I felt timid and weak. I didn’t trust my opinions or place any value on my talents or look at myself in the mirror to make sure I was doing my body justice. When I hid from my own identity, I floundered. And when I became aware and engaged and CONSCIOUS of myself, that’s when I began to blossom.
And as silly as it may sound, it pisses me off that the very term has become imbued with negativity. Why should consciousness of self be shameful? How can we possibly understand and love ourselves, capitalize on our own untapped potential, or find our personal paths to happiness if we are not self-conscious? I realize that there are plenty of other similar terms – self-aware, self-confident, and others – that mean what I want self-conscious to mean. But the outraged linguist in me wants to know who decided that a consciousness of self, specifically, should equate to doubt, discomfort, and fear.
I remember a time when a friend stopped me as I was leaving her office. I was wearing a short dress and heels, as I was wont to do at the time.
“You have GREAT legs, you know,” she informed me.
And I paused. Because I had been thinking that about myself for a couple of months, and was choking on my modest, deflecting, stock response that was based entirely on fear of looking like a self-absorbed jerkwad.
“Thank you! I do, don’t I? I didn’t always, but a couple years of biking works wonders!”
It felt entirely weird to say that, and I still wonder if my friend was taken aback by my sassy reply. But it also felt like I was entering a new phase of awareness in which I actually took credit for my physical triumphs in addition to my intellectual ones. A new level of self-consciousness – the good kind – was opening up before me.
None of this means I’ll be reverting to my old, midsection-segmenting workout pants. But it does mean that I will think about how they made me feel in different terms. Those pants made me feel uncomfortable and awkward, and like it was time to buy a better-fitting pair.
My life has made me feel self-conscious, and because of that self-consciousness I know that I am blessed and blessed and blessed.
*We have a vole problem in our backyard so I couldn’t help throwing in a vole reference. Also, I love the word vole. Say it out loud and TELL me it isn’t an awesome word. Vole, vole, vole, vole, vole. Additionally, vole.