“It finally clicked. I have bad self esteem when it comes to men.” — Journal Entry, October 27, 2015
Artwork by Zee Chang
By Zee Chang
May 30, 2016
I have a little man who lives in my head. He’s been there practically as far back as I can remember. He’s a consistent male gaze, approving, disapproving, judging, and watching my every move to see if I met his standards. His form is fluid, constantly shifting and changes from week to week. Currently, he’s here with me and has taken the shape of one of my ex-boyfriends. Or rather, ex-lover. We were never “official,” even though we were monogamous and went out with each other for close to half a year. Welcome to modern dating.
He’s watching me write this article. He’s judging each word I use to form my sentences and scoffs every time I make a typo. He sees the thoughts that skirt across my head, scrutinizing and picking apart each one. Now you may be thinking, how can anyone live like this? This would turn anyone into an anxious, dysfunctional wreck. Well by broad definition, I’m fairly sane and normal. I’m a 26 year old writer slash fine artist and animator. I love making people laugh and pulling socially awkward wallflowers onto the dance floor. By all social accounts, I’m confident and I’ve always gone to the beat of my own drum.
But I’ve had this complex tucked away in the back of my head like a dirty little secret. In all my fantasies where I’m accomplishing something, I have a “male voyeur” in my imagination. Usually it takes the form of an ex-boyfriend, current boyfriend, or a guy I’m attracted to. So whenever I’m accepting my Emmy or Oscar for Best Screenplay in my mind, there he is applauding in awe, or in the case of an ex-boyfriend, regretting all his life’s choices.
This imaginary male watching me becomes the cornerstone of validating my own victory. Which in theory, is absolutely ludicrous. I don’t write for anyone but myself. In fact, when I’m truly dropping into a story, it’s one of the few, rare moments where the little man vanishes. However in my subconscious mind, the presence of this approving male figure makes the moment all worth it. But in reality, moments involving reward or recognition would be just as sweet if it were just my family and a few close friends there to watch. So why is he always there?
Recently, I discussed this with my mother and she admitted that she’s lived with same complex her entire life, even now. This woman is a natural leader, started her own business, and she’s probably the most talented person I know. If someone like her has a little man in her head, there must be others, powerful people I would least suspect, who suffer from it too. Living with the little man in my head has become a total paradox for my feminist beliefs. It’s only recently where I’ve really begun to acknowledge it and ask, why? When and how did this all start? Nowadays, the little man almost always takes the form of an existing person that I have a romantic interest in. However, flashback to my childhood, this wasn’t always the case.
Picture a 3-year-old Eurasian girl hypnotized, inches away from the screen watching the Disney classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Speaking as a total animation nerd, this film is an undeniable work of genius. The animals, aside from their adorable, big-eyed stares, had realistic movements and mannerisms of the creatures they were based on. Snow White herself was drawn with such mesmerizing 3-dimensionality (based on a technique called rotoscoping), that it almost seemed like you could reach out and touch her. Walt Disney set the bar pretty damn high in terms of the first feature-length animated film, successfully blurring the lines between extreme fantasy and reality.
Unfortunately if you’re going to create something that’s essentially eye candy for the senses, it’s very hard for a young, impressionable mind to make realistic distinctions. A particular snapshot comes to mind of Snow White singing at the wishing well. The Prince climbs over the courtyard wall to watch her. Pretty creepy in retrospect. Fast-forward a bit and the encounter ends with the Prince professing his love in song form to Snow White up on the balcony. The idea that a handsome Prince could be watching and falling in love with me on sight at any moment captured my imagination as a kid. What a romantic notion. I grabbed at it like a colorful, candy wrapper packaging a carton of cigarettes and suddenly, I was addicted. But at that time, the man in my head was more of an ambiguous prince type. A mostly blank, indiscernible face with great hair.
As I grew up, I began to develop legitimate crushes, some real, but still mainly in the realm of fantasy. One of them was Harry Potter, who I believed I was going to marry at 9 years old. I would sing in my yard and pick flowers, fantasizing that Harry Potter was watching me from the bushes under his invisibility cloak, not unlike Snow White’s creepy Prince. I also had a thing for William Wallace from Brave Heart, Disney Villains like Gaston, and Benny Rodriguez from the Sandlot. Even at a young age, I would constantly wonder what they would think of me and tried to cater myself to what I thought they would like to see in their woman. Slowly, but surely, I began to objectify myself physically and internally.
Then I became a teenager. As a budding adult, you’d think I’d grow out of these silly fantasies, right? Wrong. They were enhanced, because now an unstoppable teenage sex drive was involved. It became fuel to an already raging fire, except now it was with attainable, real life people. Fantastical romantic placeholders were replaced with living beings in my immediate life. So by the time I started dating for real, I was set up for unrealistic expectation and failure.
This continued on into my 20’s. When I thought I was finally meeting my Prince Charming, it turned out, shocker, that I was actually dating an immature, emotionally underdeveloped human being who knew as little about what he was doing as I did. That didn’t matter on my end. I continued to put the men in my life up on a pedestal, doing exactly what Snow White did for me as a child: blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. Subconsciously, that man in my life became the real life hero, the savior of my story. And everyone looks up to their hero. Boy, did that set me up for a world of hurt.
Vintage Cereal Box Detail, wackystuff flickr account
Every inevitable rejection I had, which usually just amounted to a young, horny guy losing interest, tore me up from the inside. I had put so much emotional weight on every male interaction that suddenly I was equating their rejection of me with my self worth. There’s a reason some of my best artistic work has come from the immediate post break-up period. My idealistic fantasy about this person became temporarily disillusioned. For a brief ghostlike period, no one was watching me. Not a single, fantasy male voyeur in sight and all I’m left with is my rawness and vulnerability. So I’d take that straw and spin it into gold to escape my looming pain.
But then after that grace period, the little man, taking the shape of my former lover, would knock at my door once again. This time, it was to list the reasons of why I got rejected. ”He found you out. You’re not the princess he bargained for. You’re the freak you were back in middle school and you always will be!” is always the first item. “You’re not pretty enough to hold his interest” usually follows immediately after.
I was finally forced to analyze this when one of my more recent break-ups became a catalyst for a slow-descending depression. No matter what evidence I receive to the contrary, it’s always the same lies that every romance film ever taught me: Your looks determine your value, it’s unattractive if you act anything outside of easygoing and sweet, and being angry or speaking up about any discontent is “causing drama.” You don’t want to be one of those “crazy girls,” you wanna be the “cool girlfriend,” don’t you?
The feminist standpoint is to let it all roll off and say screw it, but that’s awfully hard to fight emotionally when every romantic ideal says it’s all your fault. You were supposed to be his dream girl, the exception, and somehow you failed. Thus the self-perpetuating cycle of unfounded guilt and self-loathing continues.
Who the little man in my head is, is less important than what he actually is. The little man is me. The little man is the unrelenting, cruel perfectionist and critic within me; the enforcer of societal norms telling me how I should I act and how I should be in order to be loved and accepted. He’s the trickle down effect of an ancient, outdated patriarchy that’s designed to make women feel inferior. And when I somehow don’t squeeze into that one-dimensional, instagram perfect box, I suddenly turn into a one-woman torture fest, reciting everything I’m not, instead of embracing everything that I am. Which is human.
So how do I currently deal with the little man in my head? I recognize him for what he is. As for the real men in my life, I try to recognize them for what they are as well: complex, layered people with full lifetimes of experiences that differ from mine. When I date them, I tap the brakes to assess them as individuals, not as pretty, idealistic pictures in my head.
The little man’s voice has gotten quieter over the years because I’ve been actively working at trying to reroute my thought patterns and practice a sense of fierce self love. However in my vulnerable, insecure moments, he takes center stage once again and I have to acknowledge him. I welcome him in, remove his mask, and see myself staring back, terrified that I’ll never be good enough. I take my own hand and say “You are capable, you are kind, you are worthy of love. Come on me, let’s make it work.”