An Essay on Image, Happiness & Learning to Love Your Goddamn Self


 I moved to California a little over four and a half years ago. I settled into Orange County with considerably more excitement than I think most people have ever settled into the depths of Satan’s asshole with. I was starting college and I was ready for a change. Born and raised in Seattle I had become accustomed to a certain type of person and a certain type of lifestyle, and while I had always carried immense pride for my city, I was ready to start adulting and embrace a new part of the country. I had turned down Tisch’s Dramatic Writing program at NYU to a crowd of groans from professors and peers, and I was determined to prove I had made the right choice by pursuing the more mainstream route of the film industry with Dodge College at Chapman University.

I became homesick fairly quickly. As it turned out, Orange could not have been more different from Seattle, which I realize is a pretty obvious and mostly stupid statement to make, but it caught me off guard more than I was expecting. The lack of greenery and proximity to the water became a constant ache I had not anticipated. I missed nature. The one-story ramblers were far more plentiful than the multi-story craftsman houses I had grown up with and every street was so immense it was as though they had all been built to accommodate a parade if one were to ever suddenly show up. The cute storefronts and small businesses so widespread in Seattle were few and far between in Orange, the city instead filled with chains and strip malls (for anyone properly acquainted with Orange, I’m obviously excluding Old Towne here because we all know Old Towne is cute as shit).

While Chapman was a beautiful school, the “Disneyland of colleges” incredibly white parents commonly called it, my dorm was one of the only eyesores on campus; the place our tour guides strategically kept potential students from seeing until some of them, like myself, wound up there. Admittedly, I actually liked the North Morlan dorm for the most part. I only had one roommate, the place was such a POS they didn’t really care what damage we did to it, and our RA was so rarely seen we actually wondered if she had died at one point. (She hadn’t, as an FYI. Can you imagine that headline? “RA Dies, But Also Maybe Doesn’t Because Like No One Ever Sees Her, So She Might Just Be Locked In A Bathroom Somewhere, Honestly We Don’t Know”.)  Eventually though, the single window view of the parking lot and the 6:00 AM marching band practice across the street at Orange High School did start to drag me down. It didn’t help that our vent mate frequently fought with his girlfriend (loudly) or that the ceiling above my bed had begun to disintegrate and leak brown sewage water until, one day, it simply cracked off and fell on my head while I was sleeping.

Even so, time went on and I adapted. By junior year I was in a nice house – free of marching band wake up calls and leaky poop ceilings – I had come and gone through my “if I don’t transfer right now I’m going to kill myself” phase, and while I did miss the occasional evergreen, I had come to enjoy the palms and the sunny weather. The one thing that I never did quite adapt to, though, was the people.

Chapman is fairly infamous for attracting beautiful people who are academically competent and socially… eh. Not anti-social - honestly the total opposite - but surface level. Worldly experiences are minimal, truly difficult upbringings aren’t particularly common, and concern for things other than one’s self are scarce. Mind you, lack of depth isn’t the case for everyone that goes there, what’s all is that I encountered many more of these types of people in my four years at Chapman than I did in my eighteen years in Seattle.

When I moved to LA a little under a year ago I had my fingers crossed that the twelve-million-person city and its greater surrounding areas would bring about a new type of personality. And it did. Sort of.

The people who are born and bred of Los Angeles are not the type of people born and bred of Orange County, nor are they the type of people that are especially enticed by that kind of lifestyle and for that change I was, and am still, grateful. At first, when I moved here, I loved it. There was so much more to do, the people seemed a lot more interesting, the Trump supporters weren’t a normal part of the everyday, there was a sense of culture. But something was always a little off and for a long while I ignored it.

Something unbelievably special about Seattle is the people. There is a mentality in that city that I have yet to discover anywhere else. People aren’t just open-minded, they’re kind, they’re compassionate. They care not just for what’s best for themselves, but for their friends, their family, their neighbors, their city, their environment. They’re able to do this because there is little emphasis on self-image. Yes, it is nearly impossible to walk two feet in any direction without running into a hipster, but they’re not the hipsters of Los Angeles. They’re the true, haven’t showered in a week, more facial hair than face, clothes from Goodwill, probably don’t own a car, but definitely a bike, cigarette-smoking, PBR-addicted hipsters.

Before I moved to California, corduroys and sweats were my go-to pants. Not cute joggers. Nasty, grease-stained, “these were my mom’s in the 80s” sweats. My favorite shoes, besides Birkenstock clogs (with thick wool socks), were the rip-off Keds from Urban Outfitters. The buy two for $30 ones and I owned a shitload. I rarely matched two of the same because I didn’t see much point in having the same color shoe on each foot. I sported Value Village (Goodwill, but extra dirty) sweaters and flannels. I wore foundation because my zits were a bitch, but it was always the wrong shade and I never made an attempt to buy the right one. By junior year of high school I had stopped tweezing my eyebrows. I did shower every day and kept my hair platinum from fourteen to eighteen, but that was sort of the extent of my effort.

In my high school especially, there was a much stronger emphasis on personality and intellect. If you were cool, you were cool. If you were cool and smart, you were going to do just fine. If you were pretty maybe people would be nice to you, but that didn’t mean they wanted to be your friend. We had all been raised to think as such and because of this I was never that insecure. Yes, I was a teenager, so hormones occasionally left me crying as I stared at my stomach pudge in the mirror, but most of the time I was sure of myself. Since looks weren’t the priority, I had made an effort to delve further into building myself, primarily through my passion for the arts. Academically, the arts were my strong suit (I think I got an A on maybe one math assignment ever and honestly it was probably a mistake, or my professor just felt bad for me). I had been writing creatively since I was eight. I took up every writing class I could in high school and tacked on photography, ceramics, welding, woodworking, music and theater. I spent the majority of my time doing things I was good at. My friends did the same in their areas of expertise, as did most other students. The result was a bunch of kids who knew that, no matter what life threw at them in the future, they would make it just fine. It wasn’t that we didn’t think we would fail at one point or another, we knew we would, but by the time we graduated we had built up a lot of confidence. We were smart and all of us talented in one way or another, and we would figure it out.

Most of the kids I knew from Seattle were like that, as were the adults. There was always a sense of positivity that I didn’t realize existed as strongly as it did until I wasn’t there anymore to experience it. As an outsider in a foreign city, I did not, and still do not, get that feeling from Los Angeles. The vibes are different here. I’ll preface the oncoming statement by saying creativity is one of the big defining attributes of this city and it’s the sole reason I’ll most likely hang around this place until I die even though that thought still occasionally sends me into an aggressive full body cringe. Art is big here. Movies obviously being the clear frontrunner, but craft in just about every form flourishes in Los Angeles and that’s pretty cool.

The other enormous characteristic, somewhat unfortunately, is the significance placed on image. For those who have grown up in it I’m sure it’s evident, but I’m not sure it’s as evident as it is to the rest of the world. I’ve found myself generally shying away from having those dialogues with LA natives, afraid to step on any toes. The truth is image really is a big deal here. A lot of people spend a truly ridiculous amount of time on how they look, just as they did at Chapman. And really there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to look like a grungy piece of shit – I certainly know some Seattleites who would benefit from more frequent showering and maybe the occasional groom – but there is an underlying problem with placing such an emphasis on appearance. It creates a lot of insecurity.

Yes, insecurity is inevitably human. We all suffer from varying levels of it in some way. But letting it define your life and your general perspective on others is harmful. Here’s why: insecurity is a negative emotion. When we are all running on negative emotions, judging others, judging ourselves, we begin to approach dealing with circumstance by turning to pessimism and cynicism. This is what I still have a hard time with in this city. The kindness and compassion and love that was so central to my upbringing in Seattle feels to carry less importance here. 

This does not mean that everyone in LA is antipathetic nor does it mean LA is a city full of hypercritical assholes because it’s not and I want to really emphasize that. This is the simplest way I can think to put it. Because Seattle was a nurturing environment to grow up in, we were able to learn to love ourselves for exactly who we were, flaws and all. There was never a pressure from outside forces to try and be something we weren’t. Differences were embraced. This created a lot of self-love. Self-love, in turn, became love for others and people generally made the effort to think the best of one another no matter the circumstance.

In LA, there is a push to be or look or act a certain way. No, you’re not going to be going down the street and have someone scream, “Hey you look shitty!” as you walk by. (Honestly, thank god.) But the city is saturated with advertisement, more so than any city I’ve experienced in my life. It sets an expectation whether you’re aware of its effect or not. There is a constant demand to keep up with the newest trends, and a lot of those trends fall somewhere between looks, style and fitness. What I’ve found with many people that I’ve met here is that they’re not particularly happy with who they are because there’s always some other image that they’re trying to be.

Obviously, at the core of the idea, there’s nothing wrong with striving towards being a better version of yourself. We should all be making the daily effort to do so. But you’re not going to find a better version of yourself in materialism and superficiality. You might like the way your butt looks in those jeans today as you snap off 487 mirror selfies before posting the 488th one on your Instagram story like it’s low-key, but ten years from now that selfie will not be factored into your self-worth and honestly Instagram probably won’t even exist so {insert shrugging emoji here}.

So what am I getting at? Well before I moved to Southern California I was always pretty confident in myself. Not cocky (or maybe, I don’t know. Maybe I was a total prick. I’m sure I have some friends from then that would love to comment). I didn’t always love the zit apocalypse on my face or the way my weight liked to distribute itself to only my stomach. I didn’t always love that my relationship with the gym was me sweating uncontrollably on a treadmill at 0.2 miles into the run. But all those things were okay. They didn’t contribute to who I was or wasn’t and they fluctuated with time. They weren’t the things I had been taught to define myself by. Deep down, where my personality had been formed from terrible humor, a lot of swear words, an equal amount of compassion and a strong devotion to all things art, I did love myself.

But uprooting and moving to Orange County and then LA brought a lot of changes. I had come from a place where people always started talking about their futures with “when.” “When I make it,” “When I figure this out,” yada yada yada. I was now in a place where the sentence starter was, “If.” “If I make it,” “If I ever figure this out.” LA especially. It was only one little word, but it made all the difference. It was an environment that flourished in self-doubt. No one was sure of themselves, and whether that mentality was initially limited to only a specific part of who they were (career, looks, etc.) it eventually took them over entirely. In a lot of the natives (my age especially) I saw it from the get-go. In a fair number my friends who came from other states, like myself, I watched it slowly envelop them in time. It didn’t take me long to stop saying “when.” It became “if.” As the certainty in my inner self went, so did the certainty in my looks, my physique, my career, my capability.

The insecurities began to overwhelm me. What if I never make it? What else do I really have to offer? Look at this zit on my fucking face. God, I look so fat, why am I so fat? Does anything I’m doing even matter? Do I even matter? I started to hate myself and because of that hate I started to unravel. I was on the attack constantly. I critiqued myself, I critiqued others. I didn’t love me so I couldn’t understand how anyone else could love me. Everyone and everything pissed me off. It was a horrible mindset to be in and it was foreign to me. I didn’t know how to block it out. I didn’t even realize the extent to which it was happening. I just knew I was unhappy.

It did end. Eventually. It took a set of shitty events and it wasn’t immediate, but it got there. What it really came down to was recognizing that the only person who was going to make me happy at the end of the day was myself. I was stuck with me, so if I was going to be a bitch to be around it was going to be a problem. I turned my focus from what others claimed made them happy to what actually made me happy. I took a month long break from alcohol and coffee. I switched my diet. I went back to rock climbing. I cut my TV time by half and started reading again. I began trading my routinely weekend nights out for staying at home and working on personal projects. I sought out new psychological counseling and changed my medications. I made a concentrated effort to look for the brighter side of circumstances, and stop wasting so much energy on negative people.

Day by day things became easier. The tension and upset so central to my previous mentality subsided. I stopped trying to control things that weren’t in my jurisdiction to do so and suddenly my list of frustrations shortened significantly. Each new day became an opportunity. There was a chance to do something different, create something different, be something different. As I embraced that, it helped me embrace myself. I was proud of my efforts. They did, and still do, take a lot of patience and concentration and “thinking before you act,” but one morning not so long ago I woke up alone, just me and all my thoughts, and I sort of liked it that way.

Here’s what I think: happiness should be simple. If you find yourself consistently struggling to be happy, then there’s a problem and, while that problem may be the influence of the outside world, it ultimately comes down to you. At the core of happiness is self-love, self-respect, all those fun positive self-feelings. If you, like myself, have found yourself in the midst of an environment that doesn’t particularly nurture those feelings then be aware of that. You may not be able to change your surroundings so easily, but if you feel yourself becoming all too similar to traits you once disliked in others, know that you don’t have to continue down that path. Yes, you are who and what you surround yourself with, but if you project positivity and good spirits then that’s what you’ll attract, no matter where you are. Remove (to the best of your ability) what’s toxic, add in a little extra support for your health and remember that if you genuinely love yourself, everything is going to be okay. Obstacles will just be obstacles. Bad days will just be bad days. Shitty people will just be shitty people. A fart in the wind will just be a fart in the wind and, at the end of the day, circumstance will only be as bad as you allow it to be. If you remember that, you’ll never have to settle for being unhappy.