Happiness is a feeling, not an image.

(CW: post discusses body image)

Scrolling through my Facebook Memories, the other day, I noticed a status update from 6 years ago where I stated that “Happiness is a feeling, not an image.” Sage wisdom? Trite nonsense? I believe this, wholeheartedly, now. But at the time, was I trying to convince myself of this statement? Probably a bit of both, if I had to guess.

I remember when I was dating years ago, before I met my husband (at 42) that someone said that when you are looking for a potential partner, you should focus on how you feel with them, more than how they look, or how you look together. Fortunately, my husband is very handsome and we look smashing together, but more importantly, I have felt noticeably happy when in the company of my husband, from our first date.

However, we live in a very visually-focussed world. Most of us are not immune. We all have different ideas of how we want to present ourselves to the world.

There was a time in my youth when I acutely remember catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror and not being pleased with what I saw. I was working at Cotton Ginny at the time, unpacking clothes from a box, and saw my reflection in the mirror and I didn’t like it. I was probably about 15. The specifics of what I didn’t like aren’t important. But it didn’t match how I felt, or thought that feeling should look on the outside.

When I was a kid, I had chubby cheeks, thick glasses from the age of 3, sometimes unruly, curly/frizzy hair. None of those things bothered me. I was a VERY happy kid. I loved hugging people. Even kids I barely new in the schoolyard at recess. I was naturally curious and did well in school. I made friends easily and teachers liked me.

Around the time I turned 11, as is often the case, with girls especially, I became very self-conscious. This sudden self-consciousness took up so much of my energy through my teens, that I’m sure it contributed to my gradual, declining interest in school, which heightened around Grade 10 and continued until the end of high school. I wasn’t thrilled with how I looked and I wasn’t happy. This sounds so trivial, wasteful, and silly, from an adult perspective, but I’m sure it’s true. My lack of confidence with my image, contributed to my problems with anxiety and I know (without having a degree in psychology) that the type of anxiety I experienced sapped a lot of my energy. Closed me off a bit from living fully and thriving in all areas, including academically and in athletics.

I recently read that a teacher who taught both math and science in my high school passed away. I don’t have a lot of specific memories of teachers other than my political science teacher begging me to come to class, and this math and gym teacher reminding me that it was just as important to look after your body, as it is to look after your mind. At the time, I was still doing well in math and still had a terrible relationship with gym class. I remember his advice in a positive way. He seemed to genuinely be trying to inspire me to be more athletic. As an adult, and as a fit female in midlife, I wonder if there might have been different ways to encourage athleticism to girls like me. For example, the only time I remember enjoying gym class was when it turned into an aerobics class. I loathed any team sports. Perhaps kids like me could have been allowed to do more of what they like in gym class.

One of the things I decided I wanted done in my teen years, was a nose job. I had a big nose and I didn’t like it. 47 year old me would say that is ridiculous. How un-feminist of me. How unevolved. How immature. But it wasn’t uncommon in my circle of friends and family. And when I was about 27, I managed to save enough money, found a plastic surgeon I heard was good, and I went for it. I felt relieved to some extent at the time. I preferred my new nose. Although, it didn’t heal quite the way it was supposed to, and I had it “tweaked” a year or so later. For the most part I was glad I had it done. The reason I mention this, is because I know in hindsight, it didn’t make me happier. There were still things I didn’t like about my new nose, for one thing. It was still pointed out by strangers, on occasion, as a prominent nose. But also, and of course, I know this now, it was never about my nose. It was about my perception of my nose. What my society told me about my nose. Part of me wishes I had the type of personality that would have OWNED the nose I was born with.

I often talk about how, when I started running, it changed my life (that and adopting my dog, Barley). And it wasn’t only because I felt fitter and stronger. It was because I felt good in my body. I felt a strength and confidence that came from within. That flowed outwardly and I’m sure made me seem happier. I remember a snap shot that was taking of me on route, during my first full marathon. It is a goofy picture for a number of reasons. But I still loved that picture. I was running a marathon! I was a runner! That trumped any goofiness I found in the image.

I know that when I was dating, that the times I attracted dates that were better suited for me, and definitely when I met my husband, Gavin, I was in periods of my life, where I felt happy because I felt good in my skin. And that feeling usually came from doing the things that lend themselves to real happiness. Exercising, spending quality times with friends, laughing and talking, learning things at work or elsewhere that stimulated my brain. Those things might make me seem happier, and therefore, might translate to a more vibrant image, but the feeling of happiness is not derived from the image itself.

I am an over-sharer on social media. I change my profile picture regularly. I don’t think this is because of vanity. I change it because I like to change it to the way I feel at a given time. I like to embrace that I am OK, and happy with however that image looks, because I am happy with where I am in life now and being OK with sharing my image is part of recognizing that.

And when I catch myself in a pose, whether at the gym (in the before times), doing a heavy back squat, or laughing with friends, or having dinner with my family, I want to remember the substance, the good times, the feeling of happiness, recognize my ability and strength in that moment, that just happens to be caught in an image.

Nicole P. is working from home during this pandemic, working out at home, jogging (responsibly) on occasion, and Netflixing with her husband, while cuddling her two dogs. Happily.