Our Mental Health Specialist Courtnay Veazey inaugurates the New Year with advice on how to find and reconnect with our authentic selves in a way to build our own standard of beauty independent from the standard set my advertisers and the beauty industry
A magazine that I have recently fallen in love with is Vogue. The past few issues have featured actresses that I admire (Emma Watson, Rooney Mara, Meryl Streep), well-written articles about culture, fashion, and the arts, and beautiful photography. While Vogue is a joy to read, it is can also a detriment to my body image if I allow it to be. The beautiful photography that I love are mainly advertisements for fashion houses featuring women with flawless skin, pearly white teeth, and size zero. I notice the skin, teeth, and pant sizes because those are the things that trip my “I feel ugly and unworthy” switch.
My skin is not flawless thanks to acne breakouts, a scar from my childhood bought with chicken pox, and its tendency to be oily. While my teeth are straight thanks to braces, they are surely not the color of pearls thanks to my coffee addiction, my size zero days disappeared after I stopped dancing and gained twenty pounds in college. Most of the time I am okay with these things because they are part of my humanity. However, my comfort with them and myself begins to deteriorate when advertisers (both in print and visual media) remind me that because these “flaws” I do not meet their ideal standards of beauty.
Just to make a point. I have a recent issue of The Oprah Magazine sitting beside me as I type. Here are a few messages from advertisers:
“If you have dry skin, meet a life-changer.”
“Life puts the wrinkles in. Now nature helps take them out.”
“Thicker, fuller hair is yours.”
“Instantly transforms dull, dry skin into beautifully radiant skin.”
“Our new vision of skin perfection.”
According to these messages, the only thing wrong with my life is dry skin, and if I hydrate, everything will be perfect. Dry skin ruins your life and must be instantly transformed. Wrinkles must be removed. Thin hair is a no-go. The only standard for beautiful skin is perfection. A lot of people accept these messages as truth and thus are unable to see and accept their bodies as beautiful because they fail to meet the standard. This is when Vogue can be a detriment to my body image, if I start to believe that to be beautiful is to be perfect.
Why does perfection equal beauty? As I listen to clients’ stories in the therapy room, I find that their reality, their grime, their brokenness is what makes them beautiful because it is all those things that make them who they are. Also, their desire to accept all aspects of themselves makes them beautiful. I have never looked at a client and thought to myself, “You know, if your skin were more radiant, then I would like you more and feel emotionally closer to you.” If I wouldn’t say that to a client – or a friend or family member (because I do not hold a standard of perfection for them to be “beautiful” “valuable” or “loveable”) then why would I say that to myself? Essentially, when we allow advertisements to dictate standards for our body image and thus self-esteem, we are telling ourselves, “You know, I would like myself better if I had clearer skin or whiter teeth or a smaller butt or….” How sad. Is it really true? Why do we so often direct those sorts of statements to ourselves? Think about it, if you wouldn’t say it to a friend, for whom you care, appreciate, and value then don’t say it to yourself. (Easier said than done, I know. I struggle, too.)
We need a new truth to tell ourselves. Let’s call it the truth of Authenticity. Authenticity is living fully in your true being, and embracing yourself as you are, inside and out. There is something powerful about knowing, and owning whom you are (mentally, emotionally, and philosophically) and accepting and honoring it. Our body image and self-esteem is intertwined. Think about it. When we don’t feel good about our bodies, we tend to not feel good about who we are as human beings. The opposite is also true. If we feel good about whom we are, then we tend to feel good about our bodies. When I remember that I am more than my body’s physical appearance, and reflect upon who I am as a total person – artist, photographer, counselor, wife, lover, friend, daughter, etc. – and what I have achieved, I feel intelligent, valuable, worthy, loved, accomplished, sexy, strong, confident, and beautiful. These are elements of my authentic self. I am not my skin. I find that the more I connect to and express my authentic self, the better grasp I have on my personal standards (for my body) and lean less in default to those set by advertisers. I love my body. To create a personal standard, you must be in tune with and accepting of your authentic self, because knowing who you really are, and the value in it self empowers you to maintain an independent opinion regarding what makes you (or anyone else) beautiful.
Re-connect with your authentic self if you haven’t already. I say re-connect because I believe we are born with this authentic self that exudes honesty, confidence, and energy. Think about how honest children are. They always share what’s on their mind. They don’t censure. Over the course of our development we experience situations that cause us to believe that honestly expressing ourselves is not the “right” choice. Children are often scolded for speaking their authentic thoughts because though true to them they might be hurtful to someone else, thus they are taught not to say such things, to be nice, to have “tact” so they/we begin to hide that honesty and realness. The Question is: How do we re-connect? Re-claiming and re-connecting with this honesty is a constantly occurring, lifelong process that is as vital to our lives as the breaths we take. Dr. Poonam Sharma, a licensed psychologist in San Antonio, TX, suggests asking yourself the following questions to help you re-discover your authentic self:
-Who am I when no one else is around? What am I thinking? What am I doing?
-Who am I when others are present? What do I present to or hide from others when I interact with them?
-What is most important to me? (Not to my family, my friends, my significant other, but to me.)
-How does my behavior reflect my values?
-How do I typically express my true feelings? Do I keep them to myself? Do I journal? Do I become angry? Do I verbally share them?
-When do I feel most comfortable showing up as myself? Where I am? What I am doing? Who is surrounding me?
-When do I have a tendency to run and hide? Why? (Personally, I hide my true feelings when I assume that my response will disappoint someone. I am such a people pleaser because I feel good about myself when others think of me in a positive way. I hate disappointing people.)
-What price do I pay when I’m not real?
-When do I feel energized?
-If I could be myself all the time, what would my life look like?
Take time reflecting upon and answering these questions because intimately knowing your authentic self is the only thing that will empower you to view the surreptitiously persuasive messages sent by advertisers as what they are – forms of persuasion that involve a ridiculous amount of computer re-touching. You define you. No one else – especially advertisers – deserves to have that privilege.
Excerpt from Jean Kilbourne’s Killing us Softly