According to most dictionary definitions, self-esteem is confidence in our own worth and abilities. It is about self-respect. Despite containing the word “self”, it has very little to do with our inner world, because we lost that sense of identity by growing up in a society that demands commitment; still, it does not know what to do with such an enormous income of data besides capitalising on our insecurities. I thought about it for a long time. The more I looked around and inside of me, the less tangible the meaning became. It started to expand and leak into all the abstract compartments of my mind. It is a vicious cycle. So, the challenge for me was to find its purest meaning. I decided to go back in time into my own experience.
I grew up believing that I could do anything. I was born in Kazakhstan and my perspectives were not so bright. Still, no one ever told me to limit myself, and my mother did everything in her power to give me a better future. I crafted my abilities and sense of self based on what I enjoyed doing, not by comparing myself to others. I am also neurodivergent, so I benefited from accepting the information from the world around me as neutral and only later giving it meaning. I soon learned that outside of my inner circle, things came with pre-tailored connotations, and challenging the status quo would push me into isolation. That is when my descent into forced normality began. My mum and I moved to Italy when I was ten, but despite us finding better opportunities, evolving in a strong patriarchal environment with rather poor attempts at laicism from the government did its dirty job on my mind.
School was particularly difficult. My queer coming out was dramatic and unnecessarily heavy. Everything around me was screaming there was something wrong with me. Only later on, with the advent of the Internet, I could see that I was not the only strange kid. Thanks to a concatenation of coincidences and my high interest in things that kept me distracted from studying, I started modelling. That became a little escape from the pain and boredom. It gave me a substantial boost in confidence, but it also taught me to rely on aesthetics. Up until that point, my inner sense of self and confidence felt fragile but protected. Through modelling, it came to the surface for other people’s judgement and manipulation. I developed a hyper-femme ethereal modelling avatar, and it poured itself into every aspect of my private life. Since it was celebrated and loved by everyone, I trusted it to become my reality. I felt confident in my job, but I lost my self-esteem. It simply could not rely on something as fickle and ever-changing as the outer layer: the colour and length of my hair, make-up, clothes, how I faked grace in a photograph for the cis male gaze. When people told me I was not beautiful enough, I believed them, I let them in. I also believed that it was all I had to offer. I punished myself every time my body could not keep up with the high demands of my job. I became my own enemy, forgetting that my inner world needed nourishment and it had nothing to do with how the world saw me.
I did not know what was wrong and how much of an impact it had on my most meaningful, deep, intimate relationships. Still, I could feel it. It was like a synthetic blouse sticking to my skin in summer. After much torturous thinking, I stopped modelling and lost myself further. I gave up the only tool I had to navigate myself. It was painful, but it felt right. Soon after that, I started taking pictures myself. I conducted a year-long self-portraiture experiment to observe myself changing. Because aesthetics were all I knew, I used photography as a means to survive. I had no idea of how art worked on the human mind, but I was re-claiming my sense of self on an intuitive level.
I needed to go deeper and desecrate everything people knew about me. I started to rebuild part of my identity through pornography. It felt honest, unmasked, visceral, dense and tangible. I regained full agency over my body, I could choose what to share with the world; the images released in my own time and on my own terms were far removed from who I really was by the time they hit the viewers’ retina, and that felt safe without losing its authenticity. Porn had and still has its own challenges in my life, but I will never forget the feeling of freedom as I shared my first orgasm on camera. It had nothing to do with looking pretty; in fact, it had nothing to do with how I looked like at all.
As I was observing my non-binary bodily entity creating new connections in my videos, I started coming out as Trans. It was not only in the way I moved, breathed or touched; it rippled under my skin, I felt it in me when nobody was around to see it. This time, it was hidden but far from fragile. It was my inner core. I decided that it would be the place from where to grow my self-esteem. It could stem from the root, branch out, entwine, flourish, or die out if I haven’t cut it off myself already. Being Trans to me is the ability to destroy and rebuild myself based on the vibrations of the inner core. Self-esteem is the confidence in my ability to remain open to the world, the active decision to allow it in or leave it out. My self-respect glows when I am able to challenge the environment around me, when my inner world leaks into the rigidity of our society, when it burns and melts its surroundings like lava, and by doing so…it changes the world.