My voice isn’t ugly; your beauty ideals are

How a pandemic allowed me to unpack one of my deepest insecurities

By Nawa Tahir

Teen fiction has made me idealize a lot about the ‘perfect hot girl.’ This is the girl about whom men fantasize and adore. She has long silky hair, curves, soft lips, and a sexy voice — always a sexy voice.

My guy friends in high school also used to talk about girls’ voices, which confirmed my doubts about myself. If you really think about it, having a ‘sexy voice’ seems like a fake ideal, but to me, not living up to this ideal was always a confirmation of my belief that I was never good enough.

I was in no way close to any of the ideals that were supposed to make a woman adorable and worthy of love and attention. I used to hate my voice for a lot of reasons, which I now realize is because of the unfair beauty standards that are shoved in the face of every young girl. All the women on TV had this calm soothing voice while mine felt abrupt — a bit hoarse.

My voice has never been womanly. It was always a bit childish. It is heavy in a way that would make others around me think that a young girl is speaking. To add to these insecurities, I could not pronounce soft ‘s’ sounds well due to the shape of my teeth. Some words don’t come out clearly, like ‘science’ or ‘fifths.’

At the start of high school, I told myself that I would patiently wait for puberty to do its work. Someday, there would be enough estrogen in my body that my hormones would develop a voice I wouldn’t be ashamed of.

So, while waiting for that voice to come around, I refused to send any voice notes or videos of myself speaking, so as to not have a record of how ugly my voice was. I told myself that way in the future, when my ‘hot voice’ came around, I would have nothing to be embarrassed about. And until then, I could be uncomfortable with myself because I knew that my time to love myself would come around.

However, by not being able to bear hearing a recording of myself, I never realized that I was engaging in a very deep-rooted form of self-hatred. I started to speak less and less in group conversations so that fewer people would listen to me. I would talk quietly so that the only people who heard me were the ones I intended to be heard by.

Then came a time when I would not talk enough during one-on-one conversations. My insecurity deepened, as I also decided against sending voice notes in my family’s WhatsApp group chat — not even allowing the people who had given birth to me or grown up with me to hear me.

There was always a fear within me that someone would hear me speak and hate me for it. People might think my voice was childish, ugly, and not womanly. That was the last thing I wanted, so I decided this voice had to be kept deep down inside; it had to be contained like a monster that could take away all the love people had for me.

At some point, I thought I had made my peace with my insecurity. A voice is what it is, and you can’t force it to change. Then I crossed an ocean to start university and fully realized that now it was definitely too late for puberty to do its wonders — the time for miracles had passed.

Fiona Tung/The Varsity

When I moved to Toronto, I realized for the first time how much I despised my voice. I was too silent in a city that would allow me to state my opinions. In the beginning, I told myself that my silence was a result of being scared of my own thoughts and that they were too strong or too bold.

However, that didn’t explain why I still refused to send a voice note for the simplest things. If anyone sent me a voice note, I would feel uncomfortable knowing that they expected me to respond through one as well. I felt like that weird girl in teen fiction novels who refused to participate in society’s norms.

Then, COVID-19 hit. The pandemic has not been kind to anyone. In addition to sickness and the loss of lives, it also brought the lockdown. That was when people really had to sit with their family members, friends, or in some cases, just their traumas.

I was one of those who only had the company of their trauma. It took me more than a month to realize that there was no secret pathway that I could magically create for myself where I could run away to escape my subconscious.

Some elements of my subconscious seeped into the very conscious parts of me. Once they were there, only therapy and patience could get me through. I sat through numerous therapy sessions, trying to understand why I felt the way I did. Once, I even saw my therapist tear up when I narrated a story from my childhood, a story that I later realized was the beginning of my insecurities about my voice.

To not feel like the pretty girl, to not think highly of yourself, to believe that you only matter because of qualities like your good grades, is really a very terrible feeling. When I unpacked my insecurities piece by piece over the pandemic, I understood that the high-achiever mentality I kept up helped lock away many of my insecurities for several long years.

When I started to do poorly on my exams, all those insecurities came rushing back. I didn’t fully understand them — I thought they were new, and even as I write this, I realize I still don’t know exactly where all of them are rooted.

Maybe it was the excessive number of teen fiction novels I read at the age of 12, or the women I saw on television whose voices were all much better than mine. Maybe it was the fact that my teeth are a little crooked because of my nail-biting habit. When I was a child, the only way that elders around me could stop me from chewing my nails was by telling me that I was destroying the shape of my teeth.

I would then ponder over why the perfect shape mattered so much. It took me a while to understand that an imperfect shape did not conform to beauty ideals. The shape might also make it impossible for me to pronounce some sounds correctly.

I don’t know exactly how I unpacked all of these insecurities during lockdown in the summer. But somehow, by the end, I had recorded myself reading my poetry for the first time and posted it on my Instagram poetry account at the start of September. This was the most vulnerable I had ever been publicly. And the most significant achievement is that I did not think of deleting that post, not even for a moment.

I also started sending voice notes to everyone for the first time. I remember how I made a new internet friend through Twitter during lockdown, and when she would send me voice notes telling me about her day, I used to decide against sending her voice notes in reply. But then one day, I decided that there was not much else to lose. I had never met her and if she judged me for my voice, then so be it.

A few weeks later, I told her the story of my nail-biting and pronunciation issues. She said that she loved this part of me because it is something unique that I have. She told me that there are the small things about people that you get to know when you really become close to them and that she was glad that she now knew this small thing about me.

Her words made me look at myself in a new light. Maybe for the first time, I finally saw every painful embarrassing thing about me as something people would be grateful to know about.

The battle against insecurities is a long, neverending one. The insecurity about my voice was only one that I was able to get over during lockdown, and there are still numerous others that I haven’t even thought about. I can’t tell you a direct way to tackle insecurities because the truth is that I still do not know how to do that. This just happened to me. And I’m sure this is something that has happened to many people during the pandemic.

I might have started taking many more antidepressants this summer, but nevertheless, I am proud of where I am now. I can only hope that we don’t need another pandemic to get the time to genuinely and profoundly care for ourselves.

After all, when we are made to sit with our traumas and no longer hide behind masks, we can realize who we are underneath or start to understand who we are. For me, it felt like an epiphany: one day, the insecurity was there. The next, it was gone.

Fiona Tung/The Varsity