Instead of  being yourself and daring the world to embrace you as you are, so many trade individuality for smiles, likes, “loves”, and comments. But what gets lost in the hustle for everyone else’s approval is perhaps a more simple truth: if you don’t first learn to fall in love with who you see in the mirror, no amount of praise or social media followers will ever be enough. As Anttoni tells us, there’s such a thing as toxic beauty–but the antidote is self love.

My first memory of someone describing my attractiveness was when I was with my first boyfriend at 16 years old. At the beginning of the year, I was an ugly duckling. And then I got a haircut, shape up, and my eyebrows done, and then I was feeling some type of way. To hear someone say, “Oh my God! You are so fucking gorgeous,” everyday for three years made me feel so cocky and comfortable. But while dating him, I began to depend on that and took it overboard. And that’s when it became a toxic beauty.

I call it toxic beauty because, although I wanted to hear that I was beautiful from everyone, there was no love in it. It was a cold, I-don’t-give-a-fuck-attitude. A this-is-what-I-look-like-and-what-I-can-get-with-it attitude. It wasn’t Toni. I was lost and was trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to become.

To hear someone say, “Oh my God! You are so fucking gorgeous,” every day for three years made me feel  so cocky and comfortable. But dating him and holding on to that, I took it overboard.

When I got my first taste of being in the club scene, the toxic beauty took over the more I got involved in the gay scene.  Instead of relationships that were deep and meaningful, I only focused on the one thing I felt people wanted from me and the only thing I felt I could offer: the physical, my body.  None of the men cared about how I felt; they didn’t want to see me. There was no, “Take all that off, let me just see you.”

At that time, I was hurting inside, didn’t know who I was, and didn’t love myself. I thought no one would want to marry me because of my past. So, when someone I was with proposed, I said “yes” to the ring, not to the guy. Eventually, he ended up leaving me for someone else, who I felt looked quite average. That’s when I realized it wasn’t about what I looked like; it was about how I saw myself.

At first, I couldn’t leave my house without makeup or a haircut. In my mind, I still needed the right outfit. I needed to walk in and everyone say, “it’s him,” instead of me commanding a space with just my presence. I craved that feeling of everyone knowing and wanting me.

But after my divorce was final, things changed. I started over. First, by focusing on every part of my body that I didn’t like and learning to fall in love with myself all over again. I would tell myself I was beautiful as often as I could and didn’t rely on hearing it from someone else–eventually it worked. Once I stopped focusing on what I looked like, people were able to actually see me.

Now, I’m more vulnerable than I ever was. I’m attuned to my feelings. I’m kindhearted. I communicate. I’m not an asshole. I’m not cocky. I’m not cold. I care about how other people feel. All around, I’m a happy guy. I think living in my skin now has made me more human than I ever was, and as a result, I’ve been able to overcome the toxic beauty that used to run my life.

For a long time, my relationship with beauty always felt like it was between two different people: the ugly duckling and the person getting the “oh my god” response from everyone I encountered. That lasted from 16-27. It was only in the past three years that I’ve been able to finally love and see me.

Once I stopped focusing on what I looked like, people were able to actually see me.