A Woman’s Body: Being Okay with Just Existing

Why is the world obsessed with commenting on women’s physical features and appearance? Why is there so much pressure to conform to societal expectations about how we should look and what our purpose is as human beings, specifically as females? Why, as women, do we worry so much about the way we look, how others perceive us and how we can be more beautiful?

Why do we have to be attractive, anyway?

I have been stripping away lies for two decades, starting from the time I was about 9, when I started becoming aware of my body and the object that it is in the eyes of culture.

I remember specifically being told once that I should eat less fries and start exercising more (although, I don’t recall anyone ever mentioned this to my brothers who ate the same amount or more), being told a few years later that I had “slimmed out” confirming my previous 10 year old chubbiness and countless other comments about my body, all of which shaped what I thought of myself – what was wrong and what I was getting right. Over time, I would listen to this feedback and make adjustments to conform more and more to the beauty standards thrust at me from every media platform and good (or bad) intentioned neighbor.

I realize there are men who also are shamed and bullied for their bodies, but as a woman, I am not able to speak to their experience – and even what I say here is limited to my own perspective growing up as a female in a beauty obsessed culture. Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University writes in her book, Beauty Sick, “Some men suffer from appearance worries, many quite significantly…The depth and breadth of the influence of beauty concerns on women’s lives means that, on average, looking in the mirror is a substantially different experience for women than it is for men.  Beauty sickness may not be exclusive to women, but it is overwhelmingly a women’s issue.”

I also cannot speak to the experience of transgender women, who as they transition definitely begin to experience having their body objectified and held up to this standard of “pretty” in a similar, yet unique way.

Women grow up understanding that they will be looked at.  When I am out with my children, people often stop to comment on their looks.  My daughter has long, curly blonde hair, big eyes, and olive-y toned skin.  She loves to wear dresses (equally as much as whatever is conveniently found in the top of her dresser), so she often hears things like, “What a beautiful dress you are wearing” and “Oh my, your hair is gorgeous” and “What a pretty little girl you are!”.  My son has been told he is handsome or has a beautiful face, but increasingly less often and not nearly as much as my daughter.

My daughter recently told me that the reason she doesn’t want to wear certain clothes that she owns and likes is because she doesn’t want people to notice and comment on the way she looks in them.

At age 5, my daughter is already acutely aware that out in public, people are looking at and evaluating the way she looks. This makes my heart drop and feel gritty and I am sad that my daughter does not feel like she can just exist. And it is amazing the smile and joy and pride she gets out of hearing me tell her that she is smart, strong, fast, clever, creative, and thoughtful. Yes, girls should know they are beautiful. But we need to redefine the word “beautiful” from simply meaning, “pretty”.

I have often wondered at why I have felt so self-conscious about my appearance for so much of my life. Maybe it is not all “in my head”.  Maybe it is because people do look and do comment. Sometimes I feel the way my daughter does – I just want to BE without worrying about what others think or notice. At 29 years old, I am only just starting to learn how to do this.

It is starting to work, a little.

Just this morning, I woke up and looked in the mirror fresh out of bed and I actually thought, “I like the way I look.” Flaws and all, I’m happy with me. And what exactly do I owe to anyone else? Do I owe attractiveness to the grocery check-out clerk or my friends or acquaintances?

Easy pep talk to give myself, until I am sitting behind the steering wheel and looking at myself in my visor mirror before getting out of the car.

I am learning to let go little by little to the beauty myths, that somehow beauty brings satisfaction and happiness and once my skin is a little clearer or my tummy is a little flatter or my hair looks a certain way or I have the right clothes I will then stop worrying about what others think.

It is all a lie and a distraction. The more I strive, the more I lose myself.

We are told attractive women are more likely to succeed in the workplace, that wearing makeup will help gain you promotions and friends and exciting opportunities. Youtube is flooded with makeup and beauty tutorials. SO MUCH MONEY is spent on cosmetics and plastic surgery it is mystifying. We are so wrapped up in looking a certain way, in our identity and our appearance that I truly believe we waste years of our lives on something that won’t last forever, because we can’t stop the aging process. Maybe we can hide it or postpone it to an extent, but one day, we wake up and look in the mirror and we are no longer in our thirties. Around the time we should have found ourselves and be displaying strength in who we are, we are instead grasping at something fleeting that we have no control over retaining.

As Engeln suggests, it is a power we do not get to keep:

It might not be fair that people care so much about how women look…but if this is the only kind of power our culture is really willing to give you, you might as well use it. It’s no secret that beauty is a kind of currency for women. It does offer a type of power over other people.  But let’s be honest about what kind of power this is…the power beauty gives resides on unstable ground. It’s power that exists only if others are there to acknowledge it. It’s never really your own power, because there’s always someone else in charge. Even worse, it’s power with a strikingly strict expiration date, because the link between youth and beauty is near universal. It’s power you don’t get to keep. (Beauty Sick, 2017)

I do not have the answers and this is a deep issue that seems simple on the surface.  My own experience is different from many others, but if I could go back and talk to a younger me, I would be affirming that nine year olds worth and beauty and strengths and try to help her realize that the problem is not her, but with the surrounding culture.

I am really glad that there has been a shift to focusing more on being fit, active and strong, taking care of our bodies and letting our natural beauty shine. I realize there can be the same problems in comparing our bodies to fitness models, which can be just as unhealthy of an obsession. I am thankful for photographers and artists and authors who are normalizing female bodies of all shapes and sizes, and showing what a “normal” mother’s body looks like after going through the changes of pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding.  I remember specifically realizing one day that I was comparing my body to 19 year olds who had never had a kid and that it wasn’t fair to myself. I recall the healing that took place when looking at Jade Beall’s work, “The Body of Mothers”.

Maybe this is easier for me to say, because I have never been good at applying makeup and have skin issues that make me sensitive to most of it anyway, but saying goodbye to the status quo makes me feel better about how I am treating my body and just because something is an ideal, why not try?

And this is even a more complicated issue than I realized, because I also like to feel attractive.  We all do. We wear certain clothes and jewelry and style our hair and wear make up and I don’t think there is anything wrong with this.  We are individuals and expression is important.  What I want to know is how can we be okay embracing uniqueness and stop trying to fit everything into a tidy little box?

How can I identify and be happy with my own personal beauty and attractiveness, because I will never look like _______?

Is it possible to just exist the way it seems many men do without inviting commentary on who I am?

I could write for days on this subject.

So, I’m wondering. Honestly, truthfully, if you are willing, leave a comment. What are the thoughts that you most hear when you look in the mirror?  How do you combat those feelings of ugliness? Who do you try to look attractive or pretty for? What have you been told about the way you should look? How do you feel about that? Does any of this resonate or do you have a different perspective and experience?

-bec

Part of the Process

I have been attempting to write everyday.

I am finding that most of what I write is not worth posting and not heartfelt. I simply type out lines of words and thoughts that aren’t necessarily cohesive or true or intentional or compassionate. It is part of the process.

But I am realizing that when I fail to connect the flow of words on a page with the beat of my heart, the result is hollow. There is no content, no point, no draw, no change.  No invitation to stop and sink into the meaning, which we must find ourselves.

If I write to convince, I start to doubt my certainty in the first place.

If I begin to research in order to back up my claims, I dig a hole of searching for answers and I must stop before I can’t reach the top anymore.

So there are many drafts of half-hearted posts, lines of thoughts and beliefs and statements I feel strongly about voicing, but I haven’t found the words.

Writing everyday is liberating and discouraging and exciting and depressing and rewarding and just hard all at once.

For whatever reason, I have a flame inside and I must write. I must write words so they don’t burn a hole in me. I hardly even know what I am saying or what it is that I am bursting with, only that the words will come.  It is not really for you, reader, that I write. Not yet. I hope some day it might be, except when I write to you, I begin lose myself and the only reason this blog exists, this tiny speck of information in the vastness of the internet, is to reveal something.

Something about myself, about the world we live in, the choices we make, the things we get used to, the people and issues we dismiss, what is important and what is superficial.

I am learning how to speak and write from a place that is not so influenced by those around me. I am learning not to compare. I am learning to put myself out there, embrace vulnerability and not do things simply to gain approval.

-b.e.

 

 

What Does Your Worth Hinge On?

I have kept a journal since I was 10. I still have a box of them up in my closet, filled and hardly cracked open, but there.  Years of personal thoughts and growth and conflict and feelings and breakthroughs scrawled on musty papers with edges curling up.

I don’t know why I keep them, really, but there is something that feels almost sacred about the unedited version of me that is kept within those pages.

When I write in those books, with my own hand on physical paper, I don’t edit. I don’t pause to rephrase a sentence because maybe it is a little “too much” or doesn’t fit in with my “voice”. It is a therapy session, a brain dump, a place to put the deep feelings that I have stuffed down again and again.

It is prayer.

I usually write before bed, and I always feel lighter afterward.

Growing up, I learned to hide feelings at a very young age. I distinctly remember watching a girl who seemed to be afraid of everything and cried at the slightest upsetting, and I did not want to be her. I wanted to be brave, strong, shake things off – like a boy. I had older brothers and most of my friends were boys and I always wanted to be tough, I was out to prove something.

That toughness also taught me an unhealthy way to manage those deep feelings, because I didn’t realize that I was as sensitive as I am – I just coped by de-sensitizing. It is easier to just not feel those big feelings.

Sometimes when I write, I am saying nothing at all. It is just words being spewed onto a page, but once in a while, a piece of truth can be spotted within all of the chunks.

Like this:

“So much of my personal value hinges on how I feel about my body.”

A lot of this has to do specifically with how thin or thick I feel.

It is true that when I nourish my body with the right foods and movement and rest, I do feel amazing and confident and like I can do anything and feel happy and beautiful and content. And when I eat junk and laze about I begin to feel ill and my spirit dampens and I am not as kind or gentle with myself or others.

But, my value?

That I am no longer a valuable human being if I feel bloated or fat or red or splotchy or dimply or wiggly or hairy or large?

I have had an interesting journey throughout my life of learning what it means to be a woman, have a body, live in that body, compare that body, be OK with that body, take care of and nourish that body, and even begin to love that body.

We all have individual experiences of this, and I’m certain mine is not 100% unique to myself, but it has taken me nearly 30 years to peel away all the lies I’ve been told and have told myself about my body and embrace it for the exquisite, breathtaking, strong and unique gift it is.

I can say now that I love my body.  But, I also struggle to not worry so much about the way others perceive it.

And I learn to stuff it. Way. Down. There. Where no one can find it or know about it. Hidden beneath layers and pages and stuffed within words that no one will ever read where it is safe and I don’t have to look at it and deal with it.  I can just console myself when I feel bad about myself by believing my choices and feelings are wrapped up in my inherent value so I am off the hook to take responsibility and do better, guilting myself to change.

But, looks don’t really matter – right?

That’s what we say. This is a superficial feeling that shouldn’t be validated. I do agree to an extent – no one should feel like or be treated as less or more because of the way they look.

But we are all looking for love and acceptance.  We all want to feel attractive – although I know that at times, I have felt resigned to simply accept my unattractiveness to the point where my self-esteem was crumpled up and I lost so much of who I was it took years to rebuild it.

I wish every young girl, adolescent, woman could hear their worth spoken over them again and again and again.

And it is why I try to be so mindful about what I say to my daughter about her body, my own, and others. How I act when I look into the mirror.  Because the lies are pervasive and it is so easy to let them sink into our bones and filter our worth into only what we see in the mirror.

-b.e.