This morning I sat down to write my response to this Facebook post. It’s been shared all over the place and stirred up so many feelings in me I wanted to get it all out on digital paper. But as I began writing I had that blogging deja vu you get when you’ve been blogging for as long as I have and it didn’t take long to find a post I penned last year that touched on very similar topics. Rather than reinvent my own wheel I’ve updated it to share today. xo
Lately it seems harder to avoid the media’s spewings about the perfect body. About erasing dark circles and wrinkles. About controlling what you eat. About the 50 Hottest Women in the World! About actresses who look good “for their age.” About the Beautiful People and who they are procreating with. About getting your body “beach ready.” About fatness and thinness and shades of skin colour as if the body is all there is. And the majority of the spewing is aimed at women. I’m sure there’s some aimed at men but it must be published under the cover of darkness for I haven’t seen it.
I occasionally still buy magazines to cut up for visioning and I’m suddenly noticing how young the women in the pages are. How an advert about anti-wrinkle cream is illustrated with a close-up of a teenage face that’s still been retouched. I read about actresses getting digitally slimmed and perfected in films and my heart just hurts. Even actresses themselves are talking about the myth of perfection they have to strive for.
It’s all so preoccupied with the external. If you were to canvas a group of men and women, I’m pretty sure the men would choose to be perceived as successful and the women would want to be seen as beautiful. It’s drummed into us from a very young age that girls should be pretty (external quality) and boys should be brave (internal quality). We’re quick to compliment girls on how pretty they look, on how nice their hair is, on how beautiful they are. The gender binarism in entertainment created for children is quite shocking to me — for girls it seems to be centred around appearance and getting boys to like them; for boys it’s guns and fighting and being the hero. There are exceptions, of course, but they are definitely in the minority. Yet I only have to look at my nephew to see a creative and imaginative child who enjoys “girls” toys just as much, if not more than, “boy” toys. Teaching children who they should be according to who we were taught to be doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.
We’re the most advanced version of humankind that has ever existed and we are still, at our core, animals. Despite our iPhones and internet lifestyles we’re ruled by animal instincts. Women want to attract a mate so they must look appealing to catch the attention of potential suitors. We’re most fertile when we’re young, so youthfulness becomes most desirable. On the other hand men need to show they can provide food for the children and defend us from predators. Our genes want to be replicated — it’s all about survival and our desire for immortality — and you only have to go to a bar on a Saturday night for proof of this. The continuation of the species is the driving force for, well, everything, but we humans have these big brains in our heads and that’s when it all gets more complicated.
Reading Annick’s Facebook post this week made my blood boil, I won’t lie (and do take a moment to read it of you can). The way manipulative marketing and sales techniques are still used to sell to women is unacceptable. YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL! YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL! That’s all I hear and see and it almost makes me laugh because being younger wasn’t actually better. As far as I’m concerned, being OLDER is better. Being OLDER is hard-won wisdom and confidence and calm. Being OLDER is knowing I can survive, knowing I can look after myself, better understanding my place in the world. Being older is so much more valuable and should be revered for the honour and privilege that it is.
I don’t imagine sales people are taught to sell to men in the way they sell to women. Make him feel like the winner he is? He’ll buy it. Make her feel insecure? She’ll buy it. This was so prevalent in the 50s, the era of the perfect housewife and her concern over feminine hygiene, but why haven’t we evolved beyond this? Perhaps in a few generations’ time we will have. We’re still living with the influence of the last century. My maternal grandmother was born in 1899 and I hear echoes of her Victorian values reaching me here in 2016. We’ve experienced so much social change in the last 60+ years, the effects are still filtering through. I’m no social historian (clearly) but has there ever been a time when society has changed so radically — and so fast?
I spent a large chunk of my young life believing how I LOOKED was more important than anything else. The surface of my body was how I measured my worth and most of the time I found it to be lacking. I hadn’t yet found the self-awareness needed to look deeper than my skin and begin healing my hurts, so I became obsessed with the pieces I could see with my eyes. All of this external preoccupation wasn’t directly caused by the media but it certainly lit a fire under it. As women we were told we were second class for so long it got absorbed into our collective psyche. And now that bras have been burnt and we edge towards a society filled with equals? We’re hit again in our tenderest of places — we’re judged on how we look by the harshest critics of all: ourselves. Has there ever been a more effective way of keeping people down? We’re so busy worrying about how we look there’s no time for anything else. We could probably take over the world if we weren’t stressing about fitting into our skinny jeans.
And even then, when we reach a place of body acceptance, there’s someone ready to tear it down. Looking (foolishly, perhaps) on YouTube recently I came across a slew of 20-something women vloggers sharing “look books” of outfits, make-up tips and stories of body acceptance that made me smile so big until I read the comments. The hatred that was being spewed there was unreal. The vloggers’ crime? Being plus sized. The men commenting were quick to remark on how unattractive they found the vloggers (“you’re so fat you’ll never get a boyfriend” — because that’s what we’re taught we should worry about, after all), but even women were leaving comments tearing down these women who were sharing genuinely positive messages. The vitriol and spite was unbelievable. Similarly, Annick’s Facebook post has garnered thousands of comments, yet after reading only a few I saw this one from another woman: “I think…… You should have definitely bought the cream. And saved us the sanctimony of this ridiculous article.” Whatever happened to sisterhood?
So much of this comes from deep insecurity and fear. I’m not happy with myself so I’m going to act out and dump it on someone else (does that ever work? No.) Somewhere, somehow, the idea was first hatched that the fastest way to get something from someone else is to make them feel bad about themselves. You’re not successful enough? Buy this. You’re getting old? Buy this. You’re not pretty enough? Buy this. You’re overweight? Buy this. If you were to visit from another planet you might wonder why half the population has a body that apparently needs to be fixed. Too hairy. Too fat. Too lumpy. To small. Too flat. Too smelly. Too wide. Too much. And whose idea was it to pick one type of beauty and decide that everyone should strive to achieve it? Why the hell are we all still colluding in that?!
I’m using big brush strokes here, of course, and on the other side of this there is so much amazingness in the world. Possibility and freedom, knowledge and progress. Art and music, inspiration and joy. And love, there is plenty of love. I see it and I feel it and it fills my heart. And yet there are still too many mornings when I look in the mirror and make a split-second judgement on my attractiveness. It’s as automatic as taking my next breath. Since hitting my 40s the unspoken judgement is most often “I look tired” even if I feel rested, and though I no longer voice it, I can still feel the chilly backdraft of “not good enough”. I honesty can’t imagine what it would be like to live my life without giving a second thought to my outward appearance. A first world problem to be sure, but one that every single woman I know struggles with. Every single one.
The older I get the easier it is to see what’s really important but that doesn’t mean I’m now magically immune to wishing I looked “better”. I don’t believe we can rewire our thinking to the point where such desires are completely erased, but I do think we can hold the light AND the dark of who we are. Awareness is where it’s at. I am aware of my desire AND I know what’s more true for me. I can be gentle and loving with the part of me that still believes I should look a certain way AND celebrate the fact that I have a fully functioning body that houses a beautiful soul.
At our core I believe we all just want to feel safe. To feel loved and accepted for how we look, how we express ourselves, how we move through this world and how we spend our time. We want to do our best for ourselves and our loved ones and to have that be enough. We’re ALL learning to navigate this world using the tools we were taught. As sentient creatures we’re still so very early in our collective development. We understand how precious life is and yet we still kill each other. We still wage wars over an unseen man in the sky. We’re still so unbelievably self-destructive, like toddlers who put their fingers in electricity sockets to see what happens. So maybe it makes some kind of weird sense that we still make lists of who’s the Richest or the Most Beautiful as if those things have any bearing on how to live a worthwhile life. We are still learning. We’re only just graduating from evolutionary kindergarten.
I truly wholeheartedly believe that if we were all kind to ourselves, the world could change overnight. Love is fantastic, compassion and empathy are wonderful, but it’s kindness — such a gentle simple thing — that, as Stephen Fry once said, dwarfs them all. Kindness is powerful. When you do something for someone else out of true kindness you feel an inward smile, and when you extend that kindness to yourself? It’s like self-healing on a cellular level. If we can all start practicing radical kindness towards ourselves I believe it would be impossible to leave a mean comment for another soul on the internet. Or attempt to make someone else feel crap about themselves just to sell some face cream. If we could all think kind thoughts about the person we saw in the mirror each morning, maybe we’d no longer be able to kill a fellow human being just because they were in any way different to us.
It’s a place to start, non?
I LOVE this post. Absolutely love it. I cannot understand why everyone is so quick to be negative/rude/mean to others just because that person doesn’t fit their ideal image. I am not super skinny. I am active and healthy and that’s all that matters. However, I always get self-conscious. I rarely post photos of myself on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram because I don’t want to know what others think of me. I am nervous about the upcoming swimming season because I don’t want others to see me in a swimsuit. And, that’s because of how unkind people are to each other now-a-days.
I need to start being more kind to myself.
Going to have to add some recent personal experiences to this in my own blog…will cross back to this post, your Facebook post and the One from Annick as well…sigh…maybe if enough women band together we will get the point across…
Thank you! What a relief it is to read this. There is so much vitriol dumped all over us so much of the time surrounding how we want to look. Actresses have whole shows dedicated to tearing their outfits apart and they pick these for a living- the rest of us just walk through ever day knowing we are being evaluated all the time. As I get closer and closer to 40, I feel both more and more tired of feeling this way, and more and more liberated from it. I just want to feel good in my body and less like someone who’s not sure she wants to move completely in to an apartment. As if I can move somewhere else? I think it’s time to give away those pants that only fit when I was training for a half marathon and stop beating myself up for growing out of them. Thank you for this again, you gave me permission to let that go. Big sigh! Much needed.
This is a heartbreaker. I feel the same way about bathing suit season, Stephanie. For over ten years I’ve had an autoimmune condition that leaves big bumpy patches all over my skin. I HATE bathing suit season and love turtleneck season. Perhaps there is a way we can love it no matter what people say about how we look? I’m in if you are. xoxo
Absolutely. Nail on head true. Until we can repair that deep deep wounding caused by where we (society) have been it is going to be a struggle to evolve. Frankly I think so many people are so self-absorbed that they don’t really LOOK at others fully enough to notice if you have pretty shoes or combat boots on. I am way past the dating scene…I expect that is still a meat show. Being older is wonderful but there is still that voice when you look in the mirror…yes, kindness of self l is the hardest of all after being brought up to believe we are worthless after 50.
So well written, so well said. My children know that my “religion” is BE HONEST, BE LOYAL, BE KIND. I even incorporated this into a painting that is now hanging in our home. The smallest of kind deeds does not go unnoticed. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was the main thing that people remembered about us when are have left this earth? That we were kind. It is so powerful…and so easy. Bless you for putting your thoughts to words.
Caroline and Stephanie, I know pretty well the agony that a bathing suit can cause us. I spent most of my teenage years, not only covering my body as much as I could but also, using large bandages around my breasts, so they wouldn’t look so big.
I wonder how many times have I looked in the mirror and hated what I saw? Most of my life.
Surprisingly enough, just recently, I spent some time on the beach and had the courage to wear a bikini at 53. Yes, 53 years old and I have a perfect bikini body in my opinion – healthy and functional.
As Susannah says, being older is a hard-won wisdom and confidence and calm.
Let’s reestablish sisterhood.
Susannah, thank you for this powerful post.
A wonderful article Susannah. As the mother of a 6 year old daughter, it’s got me wondering how I can help her not to be too worried about her appearance as she grows up.
I agree about it coming from insecurity and fear. Through meditation and self-reflection I have realized that I am bothered by the way I am often judgmental of others. I started paying closer attention to my thoughts and how I was feeling each time it happened and realized I was harshly judging others regarding things I didn’t like about myself. It was as if I were trying to distant myself from those things by putting the other person down, making them seem “less” than me. Sometimes I would make comments about them to friends trying to achieve the same thing as if confiding in an accomplice could distance me further. That was not easy for me to realize but I now have more compassion and stop and think if I was that person what would I want to hear? I would want to hear that I have a kind heart, or beautiful smile, or a keen mind. I no longer tolerate negative self-talk in myself and others, gently turning the conversation the other way. I have set a goal to genuinely compliment at least one person a day. It makes me feel better to know that I am sending something positive out into the world instead of tearing someone else down.
[…] “I’m using big brush strokes here, of course, and on the other side of this there is so much amazingness in the world. Possibility and freedom, knowledge and progress. Art and music, inspiration and joy. And love, there is plenty of love. I see it and I feel it and it fills my heart. And yet there are still too many mornings when I look in the mirror and make a split-second judgement on my attractiveness.” A Call for Kindness from Susannah Conway. […]
Thank you for writing this! I visited this topic last week in a blogpost I wrote on confidence – how we are taught to gain confidence upon how we look – rather who we are. This sparked something in me to realize that we are more than just how the media wants to portray woman – and the laws of being a woman. You’re post is liberating in its gentle reminder to practice loving kindness! Perhaps you want to join my campaign on creating awareness on the power of loving yourself – Self Love Rising. Details here: http://www.facebook.com/selfloverising. Thank you! x