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.)?
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.
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
p.s. For you I-want-more types, a couple of resources and some inspiration:
- Collective Shout (grassroots media watchdog combating the objectification of women)
- Girl Rising (video trailer)
- A Mighty Girl (for parents of girls)
- A Beautiful Body Project (photography project)
- Miss Representation (video trailer)
- Amy Cuddy’s TED talk: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are (video)
- Books by Brene Brown: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead or The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are or I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”*
This 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.