After rushing into a restaurant five minutes late to meet friends recently, I slid into my seat, flustered. "I'm so sorry," I said, yanking off my scarf. "I'm so sweaty now. God, I'm such a mess – I should have dressed up more. And look," I said, gesticulating with the fervour of an overenthusiastic tour guide, "I've got this gargantuan spot on my chin." My three friends blinked at me for a second, then obligingly stared at my blemish. "Classic Amy takedown," one said, before pouring me a glass of wine. I smiled sheepishly but, as dinner chat resumed, I realised that I had not only apologised for my entire appearance unnecessarily, but that this was clearly a “thing” I did regularly.
While I knew I was something of a serial apologiser ("Sorry, can I sit here?", "Sorry, that's my big toe you just crushed with your wheelie case"), I had never engaged with just how much I apologised for my looks. We all do it on occasion, lamenting our weight or body shape, or batting back praise with a criticism of ourselves (parodied in Amy Schumer's sketch Compliments), but this moment alarmed me because I realised how unaware I was when I was doing it.
"'Sorry' is a preemptive defence. Saying sorry allows women to point out their flaws and shortcomings before anyone else has the chance to do so," says Dr Cynthia M Bulik in her book, The Woman In The Mirror: How To Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are. "It arms the external eye with criticisms that you are already aware of to keep you from being on the receiving end of an unsolicited critique that you are not prepared for."
With something like acne, a gift of adulthood bestowed upon me when I was 18 that has remained loyal ever since, it can make you so crushingly self-conscious that you expect everyone else to zero in on it with the intensity you do. Pointing out my spots is like a tic – I feel compelled to let people know that I know they can see them too, just so there's no awkwardness. But by doing so, I am essentially apologising for my very being, for existing, imperfectly, in front of them. It is only when I check myself that I question why I am flagellating myself so much for something irrelevant to anyone else. It is *my* face, *my* body after all – what's it got to do with them?
Part of the problem is that we live in a society with a thin ideal and narrow beauty standards that require effort to ignore or unstitch. "Marketing campaigns tell us on a daily basis that we are not good enough, smart enough, slim enough, fit enough or pretty enough," says psychotherapist Emmy Gilmour, director at The Recover Clinic. "We are being taught to nurture an internal bully – because we view ourselves as inadequate, we consistently ‘apologise’ for what we assume are universally acknowledged misgivings."
Even though I regularly post about learning to love myself after years of disordered eating and self-loathing, I still sometimes feel I am justifying my body, rather than embracing it
The growing body-positivity movement to embrace ourselves, whatever our size or perceived “imperfections”, is a vital counter-culture force in an increasingly Instagrammed world. Because what are filters if not apologetic washes to say we were not good enough as we were before? While I love a subtle photo edit as much as the next person, as our “normative discontent” (the term psychologists have for our near-universal negative body image) merges with the high-pressure physical expectations of our online worlds, we're apologising more than ever, even if not verbally, for what we *really* look like.
Even though I regularly post about learning to love myself after years of disordered eating and self-loathing, I still sometimes feel I am justifying my body, rather than embracing it. When I point out that my thighs might not "look like a runner's", but yet they've got me through two marathons, yes, I am proud of what my body can do but, somewhere, am I also apologising for the fact that my legs don't quite meet the more traditional #fitspo standards? Would it not be more body positive to just run the damn race and not mention what my body looks like at all?
Apologising for our looks may serve several purposes, says Dr Amy Slater from the Centre For Appearance Research, whether that's to fit in because everyone else is doing it, to solicit reassurance, to disclose vulnerability (to reinforce friendship ties) or to use as a defence. "But," she says, "while it may even have an initial cathartic effect, this type of talk is associated with numerous negative consequences, such as body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and depression."
Over the Christmas break, there was shock and heartbreak following the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher. Both heroes in their own unique ways, one word kept coming up in the ensuing coverage, comments and obituaries that hit a nerve with me: "unapologetic". They were stars who lived defiantly on their own terms and I was in awe of them for this.
As the earth rotated into 2017, I kept thinking about that word, "unapologetic". I knew I wouldn't be making any resolutions, but I did make one pledge to myself. And that was to stop thinking my body requires an apology. I want to walk 2017 unapologetically, knowing I am enough as I am.
Collectively, we can all play our part, too. "Become aware of when we are engaging in these types of negative comments and conversations," says Dr Slater. "Try to avoid joining in – ignore, redirect or change the topic, and avoid commenting on your own appearance and that of others. Instead, comment on attributes other than appearance."
Loving yourself takes work and constant goal-keeping not to let negative thoughts creep in, but by refusing to apologise for how I look any more, regardless of whether my hormones have reigned malevolently over my chin or my thighs jiggle in my Lululemon leggings, I am slowly separating my self-worth from my appearance. We are so much more than how we look and we certainly don't owe anyone an apology. So, sorry, but I'm not sorry any more. And I hope you'll join me.