“Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” – John Berger
I recently came across this article at Beauty Redefined, which I strongly recommend reading, about Dove’s so-called ”Campaign for Real Beauty”. The authors, quite correctly, note that Dove is a company who sells various beauty products and has a vested interest in women maintaining some degree of dissatisfaction with themselves. Dove’s proposed concept of “real beauty” is something that every woman can achieve – with the help of their products. However, the underlying point, whose premise we may not even think to question, is the idea that considering oneself beautiful is an essential goal that every woman must strive to achieve. Alternate self-evaluations are never explored as potentially acceptable and healthy, such as “I am not beautiful but I also do not want to be” or “I may or may not be beautiful but ultimately, it doesn’t really matter to me all that much”. In the Dove campaign, while the definition of beauty may be variable, the importance of beauty is not only unchallenged, it is underscored.
As women, we are taught from the time that we are very small that we are constantly being evaluated and that those evaluations, whether good or bad, are things that matter. We are told that we are pretty or ugly or adorable or fat or thin and that those are things to be proud or ashamed of. We are told that we can be anything and do anything, but no matter what we accomplish, it will somehow always be secondary to the way that we look. We see congresswomen queried in interview after interview about their sense of personal style. Sports Illustrated publishes an annual “swimsuit” issue to showcase the bodies of female athletes who are generally neither swimmers nor models. Women who make unpopular decisions in the public eye are decried as more than simply incompetent, but generally “fat” and “ugly” as well. In the 2006 film, The Devil Wears Prada, dark humor is mixed with social commentary when fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly laments the difficulty of finding “lovely, slender female paratroopers” for a feature. It doesn’t matter whether or not appearance is relevant to a woman’s occupation or achievements. The fact of being women, in and of itself, supposedly makes our appearances relevant to everything we do.
In the Beauty Redefined article, the authors chide Dove’s suggestion that women should discover their own beauty by taking and evaluating selfies. They categorize the practice as an exercise in self-objectification, wherein women enhance their self-esteem in the context of a cultural model that overvalues appearance. Beauty Redefined, on the other hand, encourage women to claim their power by focusing on health, fitness, and inner beauty. This definition of beauty shifts women from being objects to subjects, however, in my estimation, it only does so ever so slightly. At its core, the concept of beauty is about assigning a quality to someone rather than simply accepting them without judgment. We can tell ourselves and our daughters that we are beautiful all day long, but we are always cognizant of the fact that some people will disagree. Our status as beautiful will be questioned by others and by ourselves. By prioritizing beauty, we make ourselves vulnerable for the day (and there will be a day) when we look in the mirror, try to say, “I’m beautiful” and a little voice answers back, “That’s a load of shit and you know it.”
Augusten Burroughs writes in his 2012 anti-self-help book This Is How, that the power of positive thinking is not all that it’s cracked up to be. He asserts that claiming to be strong, powerful, beautiful, or whatever it is that one wants to be but falls short of, does not make anyone feel better. If anything, we feel worse, as we are denying the reality of our own self-concept and our feelings about it. However, while we may not be able to appease ourselves by lying about about our strengths and weaknesses, we can choose to remove some of their weight and significance. We can simultaneously desire to grow and change while also acknowledging that our faults do not make us worthless and need not encompass our every thought. Likewise, the things we pride ourselves on need not be the cornerstone of our self-acceptance. We will all gain weight and wrinkles, we will be outsmarted and outperformed, and our most admirable skills may someday atrophy. If there is anything worth figuring out, it’s how to be okay with that.
Self-acceptance is something that I’ve been working on achieving for myself and teaching to my daughter. While I offer her frequent praise, I strive to communicate above all else that my love and acceptance for her is not something that she has to earn or achieve. It is not contingent on any skill, quality, or ability that she has or can lose. When I feel the urge to tell her that she’s beautiful, I try to tell her instead that I love to look at her because she is so special to me. I tell her that her face makes me happy. I tell her that she is precious and that I am grateful for her, not just when she does something cute or clever, but throughout the mundane and unremarkable moments of every day life. I tell her that she lights up my life just by being in it.
Some people try to bolster their self-esteem by posting affirmations to their mirrors and saying them aloud. These notes are meant to remind them of the things they like about themselves or the things they want to see themselves as. Some people use them for reminders of goals to work toward or try to achieve that day. Maybe they find it useful. I’m not really sure. My personal experience has been more similar to what Augusten Burroughs would predict: when I feel really down and in need of a pep talk, the affirmations most people seem to use end up being a waste of my time. They feel disingenuous or irrelevant. However, we all need to look at mirrors sometimes, if only to ensure that we are complying with the basic necessities of hygiene. I liked the idea of pairing the time that I spend looking at myself with words of encouragement and acceptance.
I wanted to come up with affirmations that, no matter how bad I felt, I couldn’t argue with. Words of encouragement that would still ring true when I was ashamed or had failed to meet my expectations. I thought about what would be comforting when I had angered the people that love me, when I screwed up, and when I was fixated on my endless shortcomings. I thought about which points I would have to concede even when I had been hurt or betrayed and was trying to make sense of it. I didn’t want to include subjective assessments like my intelligence or my likability. I wanted my affirmations to be both meaningful and unquestionable, because they reflect my unqualified beliefs about just about everyone I know. This is what I came up with:
When I look in the mirror, these affirmations remind me that no matter what I am struggling with, it is not the core of who I am. While this picture certainly constitutes a selfie, I don’t see an object when I look at myself any more than I see other people as objects. I think of all the faces I love to see because they belong to people that I care about, not because they look like movie stars. No reasonable person is disgusted by their grandmother’s wrinkles or their best friend’s pregnancy weight or acne scars. I can use my picture to occupy visual space in this post, not as a decoration, but as a part of the story. I can look at myself as a human and expect you to do the same. Some of you may regard me as beautiful, while the majority of you most likely will not. However, I can say one thing for absolute certain: I really don’t care either way.