Thursday, April 18, 2013

Real Beauty

I saw a Facebook meme recently that really stuck with me.    

It stuck with me because it's true.

As a mom, this instantly made me rush back to memories of how I spoke to my own children, wondering yet again with what baggage I can blame myself for having saddled them.  I did my best, but I know it wasn't perfect.  With the best of intentions I wanted to give my children a 'fair' view of themselves, gently given, with a focus on their strengths.  It's a personal pet peeve of mine, those people who seem to have no real idea of who they are; who've allowed only the positive, from any source, to become their "true picture" of themselves.  You know the ones...they usually have strong opinions about others that are prefaced with "I'm so glad I don't do/am/feel/look like that" when, had they even the slightest sense of self-awareness, would realize immediately that they are exactly "like that".  Whether despite me or because of me though, my guys are two pretty amazing menboys and I'm so proud of them.  My own childhood memories came more readily on this topic, not that I didn't grow up in an at least 50% supportive environment (my mom was father was the opposite).  But, at least for me, this saying is true.  

It's strange being a female in our society.  Not having traveled, I can't speak for women of other cultures and am curious if it is the same for them, this strange paradoxical way in which we grow up and form as women.  From the time we're young, we're told we're pretty/cute/adorable/beautiful, but then told not to let it go to our heads because no one likes conceited girls.  We're told to finish our food, but then  we hear our grandmother mention (in that tone) that we look as if we're gaining weight.  We're told we look good in red; but that skirt makes our butt look big.  And we wonder why we're confused by the time we hit adolescence.  

It isn't just everything we're bombarded with constantly by the media (Example:  A recent magazine cover: 'The BEST chocolate recipes!" right next to "Lose 50 pounds in 3 weeks!"...What the $&@%?).  It starts in our families, at home.  

And that outer noise almost always becomes our inner voice; the one that generally belongs to someone we don't particularly like but whose opinion we seem to value above all others: the one that just keeps knocking us down.

I found a video today quite by accident.  It's one I hadn't seen before and it really affected me in an unexpectedly visceral way.  But first, there's an interesting back story.

Dove, a well-known American brand of beauty and personal care products under the Unilever umbrella, launched an ad campaign, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty based on a study entitled The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report led by Dr. Nancy Etcoff of Harvard University and in conjunction with a number of other august entities. 

The mission of this study was to find out what beauty means to women today and why and, armed with that knowledge, see if we can change how we think and talk about beauty to make it more real to every woman rather than ideal: in a nutshell, how we feel beauty is portrayed and how that affects our own well-being.  They interviewed 3,200 women from 10 countries between the ages of 18 and 67.  And their findings were quite staggering.  For instance:
  • 4 in 10 women around the world strongly agree that they aren't comfortable describing themselves as beautiful.  And this was completely without regard to age.  Think about this one:  Universally, nearly HAlf of us were so uncomfortable by the thought, we couldn't describe ourselves as beautiful.
  • 42% of us rate our beauty as 'average' and 69% rated their physical attractiveness as just 'average'.
  • We overwhelmingly don't like comparing our own beauty and attractiveness to our sisters and consider ourselves, by comparison, far less attractive than other women.
  • 60% of American women rated their body weight as 'too high' regardless of whether or not it was.
  • Almost half (48%) of women surveyed felt that when they felt less beautiful, they didn't feel as good about themselves in general.
  • Only 13% of us are satisfied with our beauty. 
  • 2/3 of all women surveyed agreed that "physical attractiveness is about how one looks, whereas beauty include much more of who a person is".
  • There was a very strong correlation between how a woman felt about herself and how satisfied she was in her intimate relationships.

The study itself (link above) was fascinating reading and I encourage you to look through it and see what jumps out at you personally.

In September of 2004, Dove launched the first phase of this new ad campaign with commercials and print ads featuring 'real women', not models, of various sizes, shapes, and colors.  I remember seeing the commercial on television for the first time and breathing an inward sigh of relief and a quick 'thank you' to whatever goddess is currently in charge of the mental well-being of us 'normal' girls.

And I wondered if it would take off, or if I was one of the only women happy to see diversity personified in her underwear.  Apparently I wasn't the only one as they've gone on to do other ads, and I've seen billboards along with the print and television ads and have been impressed with every one.

But here's the video.  Watch it, and then we'll talk.

Wow....this really blew my mind and, I'll be honest here, actually teared me up.  The way that universally these women described themselves to the artist made me truly sad!  All of them, every single last one of them, was beautiful!  To see how they pictured themselves in their own minds, picking apart every small, insignificant detail that no one but them would even have just really hit home because I do this too.  And I'm guessing, so do you.

I remember I was a young teenager, maybe even just a preteen, when my sister told me I had ugly feet.  I don't even think it was meant maliciously; we were typical siblings and put each other down routinely.  But for years afterward, I was self-conscious about my feet.  Honestly, there's nothing wrong with my feet.  In fact, I like my feet!  But that is just one example of how our self image is molded while we're young and affects us for the rest of our lives.

My mother is beautiful.  Just gorgeous.  Perfect strangers comment on this when they see her.  She's aged gracefully and has amazing style and presence.  But she hates to have her picture taken.  In fact, the only reason she allows me to take her picture when I'm visiting her is that her own mother, now passed, hated having her own picture taken so much that pictures of her are a rare commodity.  And my mom feels that lack now that she's gone and doesn't want me to experience that same thing at some point.  I'm very grateful to her for acknowledging this and making the effort.

I hate having my picture taken too.  In fact, I had to have one taken recently for something at work.  My manager took one picture, and I turned to leave.  She asked if I wanted to see the picture first, to make sure it turned out the way I wanted it to, and I remember telling her "If I look at it I'm just going to hate it and pick it apart, so just use the one you took.  I'm sure it's fine".

We all have that mean little person in our head...the one who tells us we aren't as good as or as strong as or as smart as.  The one who looks back at us in the mirror in the morning, meets our hopeful gaze that is seeing we're having a good hair day and tells us "Yah, it's not that good!".  The eyes that look out from behind our own at other women and compares us to them starting from the top down..."See?  She's way prettier than you".  The voice that sneers at the new outfit we purchased last week and were so excited to wear, gives us that look and says '...really? You're really going to wear that out? Where people will see?"  

And we listen to it!  Like a child who's put in his place and told he's wrong, we listen to those put-downs and our whole demeanor changes, eyes cast down, smile turned to sadness, and we accept it as truth.

Sadly, I'd say that my self esteem right now at the age of 43 is probably the best it's been in my entire life!  Like most of us, I've been in bad relationships before.  Relationships that tore me down rather than built me up and, like so many of us, started with the very first and most important male relationship we ever have first: my father.  But I've waited a very long time for the relationship I'm in now.  In fact, I knew the moment I saw My Person 19 years ago that he was who I would end up spending the rest of my life with at some point.    And in the same way that I knew this, I also knew I'd be happy.  He's the first man I've ever been with who makes me believe I'm as beautiful as he thinks I am.  We've been together almost six years now and that hasn't changed even a little bit.  He takes care of me.  Not just the outside parts of me like making sure the tires on my car are safe and that the ice is cleared off the sidewalk so I don't fall during bad weather.  He cares for the inside of me.  That mean-spirited voice that tells me my nose is too big, my eyes too squinchy when I smile, and by boobs are too small:  his voice is louder than that mean little person who lives in my head, whose opinion I've listened to for so long.

I think I do this for him too...he's a very talented costumer...I'll have to do a post about the amazing costumes he makes from the ground up, like Captain America and Judge Dredd.  He's just... well, amazing is really the only word for it.  But I listen to his inner voice all the time because it isn't just inner...he actually vocalizes a lot of it.  Now, I can't sew and barely passed Home Ec in high school because of it.  But I know that ripping seams sort of just comes with the territory, especially if you're self-taught.  He has a fancy sewing machine that is so complicated I don't even look at it.  But I'll hear him saying "You idiot!!! I can't believe you did that!  You're so $&%# stupid!!!", and I've actually been shocked to hear out loud what I know goes on inside his his fathers voice.  Lately I've started saying "Hey! That's my friend you're talking about!  Stop it or I'll beat you up!" (to which he immediately justifies his statements with explanations of why they're so well-deserved.  But makes him smile at least.)

I don't know about you, but I'm really going to work on this.  One way I can start is how I deal with compliments (which right now, is not very well).  If someone at work gives me a compliment, I reply graciously.  But I'm guessing it must come off as insincere considering my internal voice is saying "They don't really mean that... they're just being nice".  (First of all, shut the hell up!).  On the other hand (and I might say, quite strangely!), when someone whose opinion I care about gives me a compliment, I generally try to convince them they're wrong.

My Person: "You look like you're losing weight!"  
Me:  "No I'm not...still as fat as ever".
Seriously?!  Why would I do that?  Do I really want him to think I'm fat rather than notice that I might be losing weight?

My Person:  "Wow!  Love the work outfit!  You look fantastic!"
Me:  "Thanks...but these pants are too big and I'm not sure about the shirt..."
Again, "?!!"  What am I thinking?  Why would I not want him to think of me in the best possible light?  I know that he doesn't just make things up with which to compliment me: he's actually noticing my outfit or a change in how my clothes are fitting and mentioning it with all sincerity!  Why don't I take it as such rather than trying to talk him out of thinking I'm fantastic?!

I don't know how much of this is human nature and how much of it is brain damage.  But I do have control over me.  And as much as I'd like to deny ownership of it, that mean little voice in my head is me; I control it, not the other way 'round.  And the same goes for you; you do too.  Dove has made a concerted effort to point this out to us, and we're plenty smart to see its benefit.  We are beautiful.  Every one of us.  How different life would be if we started believing it.