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Beauty, Unedited. | Thoughts on buying into the Beauty Myth and why I’m not editing out my wrinkles

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Beauty redefined- learning to leave the wrinkles unedited.

Like neglected houseplants we drooped under the oppressive heat and humidity of a mid-July St. Louis afternoon. I was twenty-one and on my first cross-country business trip with my boss. During a break from our conference we sought refuge in the air conditioning of the nearest shopping mall.

I was paying my way through college so didn’t have much disposable income, but I was more than happy to traipse behind my mentor as she zig zagged across an expensive department store, stopping at the pinnacle of luxury: the high end cosmetics counter.

Her 50th birthday was fast-approaching and she was in search of the perfect wrinkle cream. I laughed and teased her that she didn’t need it – telling her that she was beautiful (she was) – and then declaring that I would never buy wrinkle cream when I was older. Because, after all, wrinkles are beautiful – they are years of laughter and experience and knowledge etched into our faces and grooved into our beings like medals worn proudly on a decorated veteran’s breast. (I think I did some yada-yada-ing about the gray hair crown of glory, too.)

She bet me $50 bucks that I would change my mind. (We shook on it.)

I bit at the Beauty Myth bait

Fast-forward about fifteen years and I’ve browsed the wrinkle cream shelf in my local Target several times. (Still no fancy department stores me for.) Yet every time I find myself picking up products promising to help smooth away the years of laugh lines (let’s be honest – concentration lines are what I have more of), I think back to my naive 21-year-old statement of faith about the beauty of women aging and how it should be celebrated as accomplishment, not hidden in shame.

And then I feel like a hypocrite.

I recall that conversation and the pang of conviction comes because it wasn’t just naivety causing me to make those statements; it was truth. And somewhere along the line I’ve bought into the myth that says youthfulness equals beauty, flawlessness equals beauty, impossible standards equal beauty.

(Did you know that 25 percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize? This baffles me and yet, sadly, doesn’t surprise me.)

And maybe I’ve never actually bought an expensive wrinkle cream but I have learned how to smooth the skin just a little bit in photoshop, and—let me tell you—I resist the urge to “correct” every single time I edit a photo of myself these days. Why?

Why am I not satisfied with the fact that I have a tall, slender build, dark eyelashes, and a thick, wavy (albeit messy) hair? Why do I look with disappointment at my non-existent rear end or my slouchy tummy instead of noticing my nice shoulders or my (mostly) straight teeth?

But wait a second. More importantly, why have I allowed those things to define my beauty anyway?

I’m already beautiful. (Oops, I forgot.)

What about the fact that I’m intelligent and compassionate, articulate and creative? What about my hands that have written dissertations and poetry, thank you cards and letters? The same hands that have served the homeless and built castles in the sand and dug gardens and hung countless loads of laundry? What about my hips that have pushed babies and my breasts that have given more than just a little milk and my arms that have pulled blankets up over the sick? What about my mouth that has sung praises and preached sermons and taught university students and prayed through the dark hours of the night? What about my ears that have listened to lonely hearts? What about my imagination and my dreams and my ideas for a brighter future? What about my eyes that have seen injustices and my heart that has compelled me to live beyond myself? What about my feet that have crossed bridges and cultures and taken me to places where real beauty lies?

Yeah, what about all that?

Don’t those things make me beautiful?

(And can someone remind me why I get hung up on my imperfect chin, again? Because: it’s a chin. Seriously.)

Relinquishing our power to someone else to define our beauty

As a woman I’m quite sure there will always be a tension between what my heart tells me and what my head tells me about my own personal beauty. I’m working through that. Despite the temptation to compare myself to the other women on my right and on my left (and way over there), I’m trying really hard to see beauty redefined in my own life.

Because I look around me and I see an army of women rendered powerless, ensnared in the traps of a fundamental level of insecurity, self loathing, comparison, jealousy, criticism of ourselves, criticism of other women, and an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. We’re caught in the not good enough’s and the I should’s and the if only’s. We swim in murky waters as harmful thought patterns become more and more entrenched, like tire ruts on a snow-packed road, keeping us on course toward a grown-up version of failure-to-thrive. When really we all know we need to veer left; we need to find a new course.

My friend Becca writes about her body image and what she learned spending time in Sub-Saharan Africa: “The freedom I felt in Africa tells me this: The problem is not with my body. The problem is with my culture and all the lies that I’ve grown up with.”

And I think about that, too – how I’ve let my mind be dictated to by a culture bent on exploiting women – and how to break the power of the beauty myth in my own life, so I can help break it in the lives of others. Becca’s fearlessness in the face of her own fear (yes, I know what I just wrote) challenges me:

“That’s the power of the beauty myth,” Becca writes. “It makes us be crazy and obsessive and fearful and competitive and it’s not just our problem and it’s not just ‘a mysterious hormonal woman thing’; it’s a force that is trying to stop women from reaching their full potential. The busier we are criticizing our bodies and measuring ourselves against other (real and not real) women, the more disengaged we will be in the world: we’ll be less likely to speak up and take hold of our rightful place in family, government, media, business and the church; we will be less likely to use our gifts and talents to seek justice and do mercy in the world.  We will keep buying the stuff they are selling.”

Why hello there, beautiful. You look adorable today.

Since becoming a mom I’ve been so aware of the mantras I’m inadvertently teaching my children – what are the messages that they’ll look back on as the soundtrack to their childhood? I’m hyper aware of how I compliment them, and—although I do tell them they’re gorgeous and adorable and strong and handsome and my “beautiful boys”—I try to tell them even more how kind they are, how I love their creativity, how I’ve noticed them trying something difficult, or that I’m proud of them for being generous when I know they didn’t actually want to be.

I tell them that I’m at my happiest when I can hear them sing.

It’s easy for me to see how what I say to them about them will heavily shape their views of themselves and each other and what matters most.

So how then do I translate that into my relationships with other women?

“You look so cute today!”

“I love your dress!”

“Your hair looks amazing!”

“Where did you get that top?!”

So often my default ice-breaker involves complimenting another woman on her looks. (And how much more so do I do it toward little girls – “Oh hello gorgeous, look at your pretty new shoes!”) I never fabricate these – they are genuine sentiments about how I feel – and I don’t think it’s wrong to comment on appearance and affirm a person’s style or physique or features. (A healthy dose of that is important, I believe.) But in my race to dish out a compliment and convey my acceptance of another female, am I doing it in a way that does more long-term damage than immediate good? Am I doing it in a way that perpetuates the beauty myth – that beauty is encompassed in our appearance, both the natural and what we do to enhance it (clothes, make-up, etc.)?

I am size awesome - Breaking the Beauty Myth
(photo source unknown; please contact me if you know)

Over time, we women play these unhealthy messages to ourselves again and again: Will they think this skirt is too short? Do these jeans make my butt look fat? If only I knew how to accessorize better. Gosh, my hair sucks. I wish I could put an outfit together like she can. If I could just lose ten pounds…

Around and around they loop – messages that undermine our confidence and uproot our security; messages that bring accusation against the core of our very being: you aren’t good enough.

And when I pause to examine about these messages, I can’t help but wonder if all my complimenting might be making things worse as my well-intended affirmation feeds into the perpetual myth that beauty is in the color of her lipstick or the curl of her hair. Or that to be beautiful is to be the grown-up version of our sparkly four-year-old fairytale princess.

Maybe we don’t need to do away with princesses altogether; maybe we just need to redefine what ‘princess’ actually means.

If we don’t change our perspective of beauty we will drown in the myth

In a world full of eating disorders, rampant self-harm, pornography, gender-based violence, mental illness, addiction, and a whole barrage of ways in which women are being objectified through the media and across our board room tables, I can’t help but think we are feeding the problem when we don’t aggressively acknowledge it exists. We drown under the weight of the negative messages and feel hopeless to change all the evil out there because there’s just too much and we’re in way over our heads.

It becomes easy for me to turn and pump my fist at the big, scary media machine and declare THAT’S ENOUGH, THIS HAS TO CHANGE. (And it does. We know that. And we should work toward that.) But really, I NEED TO CHANGE. You need to change. One woman at a time – we need to change how we see ourselves, how we see each other, and how we approach a world bent on airbrushing and glossifying the images that make up our lives.

We need to start saying that we’re tired of buying into the beauty myth. We can’t afford it. The bank account of our souls is slowly running dry but we refuse to go bankrupt so that’s it – we won’t buy it any longer.

We need to reach out our hands and pull each other back onto the shore where we can see clearly and breath deeply and find our way home to truth once again. Because the lie – the beauty myth being perpetuated – it will drown us if we let it.

Audrey Hepburn on beauty
(photo source unknown; please contact me if you know)

Beauty, unedited

I saw an article on the Huffington Post today (which inspired this post) about a new magazine called Verily. Tell me their mandate doesn’t blow you away:

“Whereas other magazines artificially alter images in Photoshop to achieve the so-called ideal body type or leave a maximum of three wrinkles, Verily never alters the body or face structure of the Verily models.” –Verily Magazine

Imagine that? A glossy magazine that doesn’t gloss over.

I’m taking my cue from them and remembering how beautiful I am—and my sisters are—without all the editing.

Join me, beautiful one? I dare you.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” – Anne Frank

Love,
A

 

Adobe Photoshop Day Cream
(photo source unknown; please contact me if you know)

p.s. For you I-want-more types, a couple of resources and some inspiration:

 

31 Days of Women Empowering Women at AdrielBooker.comThis post is part of 31 Days of Women Empowering Women, as well as part of a larger movement of writers all over the world joining in with The Nester in writing everyday for the month of October. See hundreds of incredible #31Days projects here.

 

 

*affiliate links

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12 Comments

  • Reply Jessica R 13 October 2013 at 10:16 pm

    I am 31 and the fine lines are starting to show. And the gray hair is coming in thicker now, especially after the trials of this year. But I am clinging to two things:
    – I am proud of my c section scar and my totally worn-out breasts. I would rather have them than no baby. And I am SO PROUD of having breastfed my girl for 14 months – I tell myself that I used up my boobs and I am proud of that. I am trying to apply this to other areas of my body as the thirties make themselves known: it’s okay because I have years under my belt and experience and wisdom that I wouldn’t give away to go back to the 21 year old on spring break (okay, most days this is true!).
    – I saw the following phrase on Pinterest before I turned 30 and it has totally changed my mind about big birthdays and growing older: “Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” Wow.

    (Also, my expensive skin cream? $6/tub organic coconut oil. No way I’m rubbing chemicals designed to make skin miracles happen into my skin when I’m trying to create and grow another little person. Who knows what the side effects of those so-called miracle creams are? And coconut oil is AMAZING and makes my skin glow.).

  • Reply Becca 14 October 2013 at 7:22 am

    Excellent post. I love what you said about he things we say to our children, wanting them to be affirmed in their unique physical beauty but more so in the aspects of their character they actually have power to change – integrity, persistence, kindness etc. there is so much hope for the next generation.

  • Reply sue stendahl 14 October 2013 at 1:25 pm

    thanks, Adriel. Wonderful words; so hard to accept. Wait till you’re my age……..you become invisible to just about everyone and ultimately feel as if it is better to stay home alone than put yourself “out there”
    in the world, where they judge and criticize and compare. “they”, unfortunately, mostly are other women, and we all hurt ourselves and each other by doing this. Yet, it is so deeply embedded in our souls, the worthiness of the beautiful ones and the unworthiness of the “regular” ones……..
    thanks for making a difference, every day, in this ragged old world. :-)

  • Reply Alia Joy 19 October 2013 at 6:06 pm

    I was watching Parenthood the other night and Kristina’s face doesn’t move anymore. She’s all worried and her forehead doesn’t wrinkle. I don’t know if she got botox but for the rest of the show, I couldn’t stop looking. Every time she had a super strong emotion, nothing would happen in parts of her face. I don’t mind the wrinkles but I know every woman has something they obsess over. Your chin, really? I wrote a post a few days ago about being overweight and the way that feels in a world obsessed with beauty. And what I can tell my daughter when she asks me the hard questions about loving myself and seeing myself and in return her, as beautiful. It’s a hard subject to tackle when you’re a mom of little girls. It’s a hard subject to tackle when you’re a woman. Thanks for digging into it a bit. I have been loving your series.
    Alia Joy recently posted..The God I Never KnewMy Profile

    • Reply Adriel 19 October 2013 at 8:42 pm

      I know, it’s dumb right? My chin. But that’s what some childhood teasing can do – it leaves a mark, even when we know ‘rationally’ that it shouldn’t. I deleted and re-wrote that paragraph so many times, because each time I wrote it and read it it sounded dumb to me. But then I decided, that’s me… unedited. And that’s the point of the post, right? It would have been hypocritical to leave out the things that bother me just for fear that I sounded dumb, so the chin thing stayed in.

      I read that post that you wrote about being overweight and about your daughter and it made me cry. (I can’t even remember if I commented on it or not?) But it just breaks my heart – the pain and burden and responsibility of teaching girls what it means to know their worth, and–yes–to know they’re beautiful. I hate that body image factors into that conversation to heavily, but it’s naive to think it doesn’t. I wish the whole conversation, and revelation, was simpler.
      Adriel recently posted..What Jessica Rey didn’t tell us and why the modesty debate matters (Modesty, Power, & Bikini Burning part 2 ) My Profile

  • Reply Deborah Wolf 20 October 2013 at 1:28 am

    Guilty! I am at the age where when people ask me how old I am I reply with ‘I can’t reveal that information or I will have to kill you’ and laugh it off but then go home and google face exercises, miracle masks, and botox. I have not yet begun to embrace the laugh lines as a reminder of how much I have smiled, but focus instead on what I heard as a child – I was the smart one and my sister the pretty one. You would think that I would be happy being smart but I longed to be pretty. So after reading your terrific post now I want to go live in Africa! Heehee. But I do pray that one woman at a time we embrace that kind of culture in our spirits because God made us all unique and beautiful. Pray for me as I go evaluate my cream collection.

  • Reply Grace Kelake 14 August 2015 at 8:54 am

    An inspiring article! Thank you for sharing! Indeed, we are all beautiful.This article has helped me remember that our “imperfections” are exactly what make us perfect.

    There is a quote by Mitch Albom that I really like and that I find relevant : “The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, DON’T BUY IT.”
    Grace Kelake recently posted..It Used to Be a Door : Old Door RepurposingMy Profile

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