I consumed a few pieces of media about self-image this past week that have been rattling around in my brain ever since. Seems like something I should write about, no?
The first, a Huffington Post article about Jennifer Lawrence, makes some very valid points about how it’s acceptable for women falling within a standard definition of “beautiful” to make comments about their weight and diet habits. If you’re overweight – you better not even mention eating! And if you’re petite – well, you don’t have a “real” body. The other bit was a Dateline piece called “Second Chances” that chronicled the experiences of teens who were bullied for their looks and underwent cosmetic surgery to correct their identified “flaws.” This was a tough one that has me struggling about what I would do in that situation (oops, that’s another show). On the one hand, I think everyone has been teased or criticized at some point (by self or others) about their physical appearance. It’s almost a right of passage to go through that awkward phase in the adolescent/early adult years where you learn what is most important about yourself (which may not, in fact, be that you have a perfectly straight nose, as your peers would suggest), and it seems somewhat extreme to have cosmetic surgery at such a young age. Further, who is some teen without a fully developed frontal lobe or a magazine editor with no personal interest in my life to tell me what I should look like? And why the heck should I undergo painful cosmetic surgery to change my appearance so that said person is satisfied? Now I realize I say this as a person who has matured past her adolescent years and has some experience with building self-confidence under her belt. (And I do have some experience overcoming body shaming. My personal favorite is when a date told me I’d be the hottest girl he knew if I had a push-up bra and a spray tan. Um, thanks? Needless to say, that didn’t go very far.) I also realize that teens form their self-concept based in part on feedback from their peers. It also seems that teasing has gotten much worse over the years, particularly with Twitter and Facebook, which allows people to attack others from the security of their own homes, making the self-concept building process ever more precarious.
Like it or not, looks do matter, and not just for teens or celebrities. Psychology research shows that people who are rated as being more attractive also often are rated as having other desirable characteristics and may enjoy advantages regarding employment. So what’s a person who doesn’t look like Gisele (the highest paid supermodel) or Adam Levine (reigning Sexiest Man Alive) to do? Certainly it isn’t desirable or feasible for everyone to have surgery to look like carbon copies of a physical ideal that changes over time (it wasn’t that long ago that Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian swayed popular opinion on backsides). Further, drastic weight loss or cosmetic surgery, the supposed fixes, don’t always make people feel better about themselves. Before you despair, there may be other options. I’m not talking about Spanx or makeup tricks (though nothing wrong with using those, either). Instead, we can shape how we feel about ourselves by focusing not on our physical flaws but on things that are important to us, doing what we are passionate about, doing things we excel in, and building upon our personal strengths.
To start, take stock of your values (see my post on Resolutions, Goals, and Values). Are aesthetics important to you? If so, maybe there are ways that you can engage that value without focusing on your flaws. For example, maybe you can decorate your office space or buy a new outfit or interesting accessory. Not so much a visual person? Find another valued activity to pursue (and friends with similar interests).
Next, focus on the things that you appreciate about yourself. Sometimes people need to seek input from others in identifying their positive qualities. These can be physical (nice hair, eyes, smile, abs, etc.) and from any other domain (maybe you’re a great cook, really funny, care about animals).
Feeling good this day
Now, let’s work on building our feelings of worth and competence. The key here is on building. This can be done by practicing tasks with which we have some success, challenging ourselves ever so slightly more each time, and receiving some type of encouragement from a social support along the way. This means stepping away from the mirror and stepping into something we enjoy or can master. Not feeling like a supermodel? Really awesome at finishing crossword puzzles? Complete a challenging puzzle to give yourself a boost in the “I can do it” department. Although building self-confidence in one area may not increase self-confidence in another area, with enough of these boosts, you may start to feel so good about other talents (and be so busy with them) that you have less attention to devote to your physical insecurities.
Finally, and this is the biggie, practice radical self-acceptance. Learn to appreciate all aspects of yourself, trying not to label them as “good parts” or “bad parts.” This is not easy.* (Really, nothing related to self-growth is. As one of my fitness instructors reminds the class, “if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”) Even as a “mature” adult, I have good days and bad days. There are times when I’m ready to be signed up as the next Victoria’s Secret model and days when I can barely concentrate in barre class because I’m too busy noticing every flaw I see in the mirror and comparing myself to the perfectly coiffed, barely sweating, willowy blonde next to me. At these times, I try to remind myself that the dripping sweat, smeared makeup, and wild hair, although perhaps not my best look, are not proof that I’m not pretty enough, but instead are signs that I’m working this class and that my body is getting stronger with every move.
*Lest I sound too preachy, I should again say that these practices often are much easier said than done. Lots of practice is required, and these alone may not be enough. There are tons of resources for self-improvement available, and counseling may help for some people, too.