[Are there young women in your life that you know and love? I need your input on this topic. See the end of this article to make your contribution. And don’t miss the bonus video I’ve posted just because it’s my latest obsession…]
T.M.I. ALERT: read at your own risk.
Does anyone else get a little freaked out when Google seems to read your mind? The first thing I do after I wake up, most mornings, is reach for the laptop on the floor next to me. These days, that’s gotten a little confusing, as I’ve discovered that I sleep better upside down in my bed during the summer months (don’t ask). So it takes a moment to get my bearings after I open my eyes, wonder what kind of eclipse is happening, remember I have a sleeping mask on, check the outside temperature on my phone, say a few choice words in French, turn off both of my fans (the mechanical, not applauding type), then attempt to find the laptop that may be on either side of the bed, depending on the point at which it was discarded in my nightly right-side-up to upside-down pilgrimage. There’s a chance I’ve become a bit of a high-maintenance sleeper…but I blame cancer for it and you can’t argue with that, can you!
A couple days ago, after my tedious wakeup ritual, I opened my laptop to do my customary flyby of Facebook, website and Gmail. And there—in the right-hand column usually populated with elderly singles websites and erectile dysfunction ads (I’m so sorry), were two items that caught my attention. An ad for discount liposuction and another for non-invasive gastric bypass simulating pills. I didn’t mutter a croaky “Oh, puh-lease” and click over to a more interesting site. I didn’t reject the targeted misogynistic cyber-pressure with a rant about society’s stronghold over women’s appearance and the need for us to stand tall (or short!) against the tyranny of T&A (pardon my French). I followed the link to a local liposuction clinic and spent 20 minutes of a tight morning schedule reading about the dangers of anesthesia, the weeks of painful, tight-girded recovery, the loan pay-off options and the finer details of having a small metallic tube rip through pockets of fat to suck blood, body fluids and cellulite into oblivion.
Despite the gory details, I found myself longing for the procedure the way I long for a hamburger and fries. And then I clicked the link to the gastric-bypass site.
How did Google know? How did it fine-tune its marketing to hit me square in my body dysmorphia—that altered physical image of oneself in which we firmly believe that we are an amalgam of every “before” picture we’ve ever seen in the Cinderella Makeovers that turn fat, hairy, yellow-toothed, small-breasted, wrinkle-eyed, mature women into bikini-wearing, hairless-skinned, alabaster-toothed, Marilyn-breasted, taut-eyed, artificially-youthful women with vast appeal to the opposite sex and, apparently, a predilection for frolicking on beaches in slow-motion at twilight while hopeful music plays and friendly dogs run after sticks.
Google didn’t point me to those ads because it’s been spying on me. It pointed me to them just because it knows I’m a woman. And, sadly, it’s a foregone conclusion that body transformation is a carrot my gender has trouble resisting—or the kryptonite my gender has trouble recognizing.
If any of the young ladies in my life (and there have been hundreds in 20 years of teaching) were to tell me that they’d spent 5 minutes, let alone 20, contemplating becoming a lipo-and-debt-crafted Barbie, I’d spend the better part of the rest of their lives chastising them for thinking they need to be anyone else in order to have worth and appeal. But I clicked on that link a couple days ago. I clicked on that link and then I clicked and clicked again. And I felt adrenaline seeping into my blood stream as I allowed myself to contemplate buying an old-but-improved body.
I’m not saying liposuction is evil. I’m saying that the forces that combine to make it so appealing are.
I’m the girl in the burka, you see. Not one of those cloth and mesh garments worn in foreign lands where society censures any trace of femininity. I’m talking about a much more Western concept of the burka, one in which women who are convinced they don’t measure up to media-dominated and male-driven (but female-embraced) standards cloak themselves in an almost apologetic self-esteem tinged with impossibility. The burka I put on every day, without even realizing it, is the behavioral expression of society’s tyranny. Whether it’s consciously or not, I choose to stay out of pictures or stand behind someone if I can’t bow out. I choose to curse the double-digit number on the tag of my new jeans. I choose to step on scales and try new potions and attempt new techniques to whittle myself down to someone else’s size. I choose to dissect my reflection, then shudder a little before looking away—that stomach! That chin! Those thighs! That dimpled skin! How can the world bear to look at me? And how dare I impose on it this vision of inadequacy whose legacy, by all accounts, should be unworthiness, undesirableness and singleness.
May I state that being single in a society that equates appearance with appeal is an added quarter-turn of the knife already firmly embedded in a sub-par self-esteem?
I love this video of Dustin Hoffman recounting the experience of becoming a woman for “Tootsie,” a role for which he won an Academy Award. His transformation into femaleness began as a bit of an adventure, but once the studio’s makeup artists had combined their expertise to make him into as believable a woman as they could, he found himself dissatisfied. “Could you make me more attractive?” he asked. They told him they couldn’t. Based on the features he brought to the transgender table, they had made him into the most attractive woman he could possibly be. And he realized at that moment how very crippling is the broadly-held belief that in the Female Kingdom, only those with a socially-approved physique and sex-appeal are truly worthy of attention and respect. He didn’t want to be a run-of-the-mill, nice but forgettable female—the kind that falls into sad sub-categories, often of our own making, like “sweet but a bit plump,” “plain but brilliant,” or “married because her husband saw past her imperfections.”
Dustin Hoffman realized that even as a man, he aspired to be “that” woman—the glamorous, gorgeous and sexy woman idealized in Google ads. And the maiming implications of that unachievable ambition moved and sobered him.
But I’ve bought into that ambition too. My lipo-researching proved it to me. Despite the endless hours I’ve spent counseling young women to reset the parameters that determine their beauty, I’ve caught myself shamefully averting my eyes from reflective surfaces, skillfully cropping myself out of photos and verbally letting friends and strangers know that I know that I’m fat—before they have the time to reach their own conclusions and pity me. Even in the speaking and consulting I do, I’ve chastised myself for the physical flaws that will invalidate not only the messenger, but even the wisdom I attempt to convey. Have I really imbued cellulite with the power to override truth and God’s calling? Apparently I have.
I’ve tried to combat it. I know how to tell myself about my family’s “big boned” genes, about the cancer-related shifts in hormones and body shape, about the benefits of living a healthy life over measuring down to someone else’s standards. I eat my salads, I walk the miles on my thrift-store treadmill (until it starts to smoke…an unfortunate but often welcome malfunction), I do my abdominal crunches when I have the energy…then chastise myself for eating too much salad, for walking too few miles and doing my crunches way too infrequently for them to actually work.
It’s a not just a single-girls’ thing. Earlier this week, I spoke with a woman whose husband loves and cherishes her, but whose conviction of undesirability cannot be swayed by his affection. This visceral discontent—this silent self-abasement—isn’t specific to age, shape or marital status. It’s frighteningly universal in a Western World that prides itself on tolerance. Tolerance. Really? Then why do “sub-beautiful” women live in self-imposed burkas woven of shame, self-loathing and failed attempts at transformation? Why do we attempt to hide our rebel bodies behind feigned apathy or attempts at invisibility. Because we have relinquished the right to judge ourselves by our own standards and yielded it to a fickle, cruel culture, giving it the power to judge not just our appearance, but our worthiness as well. “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.” And we bow our heads in resignation and defeat.
Lest you misunderstand the purpose of my writing, I need to make it clear that I’m not looking for sympathy or image-bolstering words. I’ve been told I’m pretty, I’ve been told I’m not fat and I’ve been told I’m desirable. I’m making myself painfully vulnerable on this topic because none of those assertions have done anything to change me. Neither have positive self-talk, reassuring verses or an abiding, genuine faith:
I know Jesus loves me … but I have double-chins.
I know I am precious in His sight … but my skin is too white.
I know that I have contributed to this world … but my tummy is too round.
I know I am blessed to even be alive … but my youthful glow is fading.
In some ways, I wonder if it may be too late for women like me to change the engrained conclusions of decades of perceived inadequacy. My life is good and rich and fulfilling. I know I am precious in God’s eyes, I know I have contributed positively to this world, I know that I’ve loved and been loved, I know that I am living healthily and productively and “Kingdomly”… but if I’m not careful, my mind will discount it all, diminish it all, because it has at least partially bought into the lie that there is no female significance outside of beauty. And even as I battle the autocracy of aesthetics, I submit myself to its judging and sentencing. I just want to shed my burka so I can experience my existence more fully—unashamed, unshackled and uncowed. (Ha—“cowed.”)
Why do the opinions of media tycoons and image-peddling strangers matter more than God’s to me? Or than my friends’ and family’s? There must be something we can do about it. If not for my generation, at least for the sake of the younger women we love.
This is the point in most of my articles where I lay out a solid, three-step plan for combating the curse. On this particular topic, it’s where I throw up my hands and declare myself solutionless. To tell you the truth, even after articulating how destructive and unachievable society’s standards are, even after describing the crippling effect they can have on real women living in real bodies…I still have liposuction on the brain. I still can’t think of a better solution to my physical malaise than a procedure that will literally suck the loathing out of me. Except that it won’t. Not long-term. And it won’t change the part of me that has bought into the burka’s necessity.
I want the young women I know to live freely and unapologetically, regardless of their shape and symmetry. So, readers, what can be done? What familial, social or mediatic solutions do you bring to the cult of physical perfection? Can we begin an honest pursuit of freedom from aesthetic oppression? I WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU—what has helped you and how can we all help the next generation of young women growing up in an increasingly intolerant world. Have you read articles and books you’ve found helpful enough to share? What has your experience been? What lessons have you learned by trial and error? Please use the space below to comment in general terms (not specifically about me–I use my “case” only as an example!) or send your thoughts to me at email@example.com and I’ll add them for you. You can also comment on my Facebook page and I’ll transfer your thoughts to this site.
Thank you for joining in this important conversation. I can’t wait to hear from you. And don’t forget to hit “like” (bottom of the page) and share with your friends though the social media links provided.
Perhaps the best way to end is to refocus our minds on our need for Jesus. I discovered Sam Robson yesterday, a brilliant English musician, and have been listening to his hymns non-stop ever since. This one is phenomenally complex and moving. I’m posting it here because I want others to discover him too.
I wonder if parents should be playing a larger role. Self-image gets established well before society’s influence begins to take hold.
“I don’t know the answer either, Michele. Brainwashing, if that is what it is, is difficult enough to overcome for oneself. As you referenced your acquaintance, “a woman whose husband loves and cherishes her, but whose conviction of undesirability cannot be swayed by his affection,” it helped to fuel my own frustration (despair?). As a man, I must not only shuck off the Madison Avenue stereotypes of beauty ~and~ shoulder part of the blame for their existence, but I must expect and know how to deal with the self-negative attitudes of whatever woman I chose to see as beautiful. It is beyond discouraging to conclude after reading your article that even my most ardent love may not break through her own (probably much harsher) self-criticisms to be simply accepted at face value. Yet, at the same time, she may expect me to believe that she doesn’t care about my spare tire, my encroaching baldness, or my own double chin – and, in my case, I have a separate thing to deal with that you didn’t touch on: a permanent disability. How am I to trust her claim that she loves me despite these things if she won’t trust that my love is not diminished by her (perceived) flaws? At what point can a man and a woman just sincerely agree that “you have flaws and I have flaws, but our flaws are not who we are.” As a man, my instinct is to seek out or create a solution, but here we are dealing with a woman’s psyche – and if you women can’t figure this out in your own heads, I know we men will be utterly baffled. The best advice I think I’ve ever heard – and have believed for a long time – comes from a song, and it gives one of those simple-yet-oh-so-complicated answers. I pray that one day soon I’ll have another opportunity to “get it right”. I pray that you’ll be granted a vision of your own beauty that will blind you to the things you think make you less beautiful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcdyC8L_U7A“
Thank you so much for writing “Beauty and Burkas”. If I were a gifted author, I could have written it myself!
I have never been happy with my body: too fat, too tall, too white skinned, too many freckles, ear lobes too large, nose too big… My body has also been through pregnancy and giving birth 6 times. It shows…
The other day I bought a new swimming suit: some special fabric to correct body shape and a dress attached to it to cover my upper thighs.
However, I still don’t dare show myself in public. The things that make it worse are ads, health related topics on obesity, comments from my family (my dad felt it was necessary to let me know that he watched a documentary on tv about a family with 16 children. The mother was still skinny. Or a few weeks ago when he told me it was amazing that people like my husband and I have beautiful children).
I do tell my children they are gorgeous often. Especially my 3 daughters. They are princesses and I hope they will always feel they are! I don’t know what I can do to prevent the world (or my relatives) from attacking their self esteem. It scares me. My oldest daughter is almost 12. It scares me. I myself am a horrible role model, because I do not love my body. I better get my act together, quick! If only I knew how…
I really enjoyed your latest blog post. It hasn’t been easy for our generation (sorry to include you in mine – I know I’m older than you!), but it must be even harder for younger girls with a much more pervasive media than ever before. I greatly admire the singer Adele for being so comfortable with her size, and saying she wouldn’t change a thing about herself. She doesn’t come across as pathetic, but as beautiful and talented and people seem to respect her for her attitude about her weight. We need more like her!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think I took my Burka off in my 50is.
Love this ad and particularly the question: When did you stop thinking you’re beautiful?
I was reminded of it when I read your article.
My husband could have written a similar response to Ben’s…
Wow! You sure have a way with words and expressing things so clearly! Thank you! I can relate so well! My nickname in school was “Hideous face” and, unfortunately, it still haunts me to this day!
I have two teenage daughters and struggle with this one. On one hand I’m teaching them that the world will judge them by their appearance. Is it fair ? No. Is it right? No. But it is a reality. Put some effort into how you want to portray yourself. Neat, put together . The world will treat you accordingly. The studies have been done. Pretty children get more lap time in kindergarten and the more attractive women with less skills will get the job etc. I’ve done a few experiments myself with going shopping with vs without make-up and how I’m served as a result. My point to my girls has been that it’s not really the way you look, are your eyes too small or lashes too short or noise too big, breasts too small or feet too large, but rather the perception you give others of the total package. Even girls most would see as beautiful hate things about themselves and have insecurities. Focus on the stuff you like and play those up. I don’t know how successful I’ve been with getting my point across. One daughter is extremely insecure and doesn’t want to be in pictures, although there is nothing that she would need to be insecure about. My other daughter who has glasses and is a late bloomer, skinny, shorter, needs braces, is a total photo op fanatic, she smiles large and exposes every crooked tooth and struts her stuff although there’s really nothing to strut( yet, anyway). I teach my kids not to judge people based on how they look and all my kids seem to have followed that piece of advice if I look at the friends they hang out with, there is an oddball or “ugly-duckling ” in each group that is totally embraced. And I have talks with my teenage son when he comments on girls’ looks about unrealistic expectations.
I think the solution to the problem begins with us as individuals in that I need to stop looking at other people critically, based only on their outward appearance. One of the things I have begun to understand from working at l’Abri is never to judge a person by their outward appearance, not even by their demeanor. Everyone has a story and until we discover what their story is, and how it has effected their lives, and the way they look we have no right to judge by what is visible..
I wish I could say that I have arrived. I have not. But I am working on it.
I agree with your article-it touched the wounded little girl in me. I am a product of a boarding school and it left me with poor self-esteem and a lack of belief in my worthiness of love. I was attractive but never felt that way. My journey to understanding this part of me took me 48 years, my journey to healing this erroneous recording in my brain was painful and long and at times is still triggered by rejection, and still is occasionally mainly when it comes to men or a relationship problem.
We are a society consumed with appearance and with the thought that we are never good enough. We have a generation of kids altering their appearances by doing lifts, tucks, botox, argumentations and reductions and all the while never feeling quite good enough. I have heard countless young women talk of the mocking from peers and seen self-hatred in action. I know of several anorexic, bulimic young ladies. I have heard of suicides, I know of kids that cut on themselves because they don’t feel good enough.
As women we have to watch so closely what we say, our self-talk can be so instrumental in what our kids think and do! Our television commercials advertise products to improve, insinuating we are not good enough. Our society needs to change, our media needs to change but this is difficult to do. We need to talk to our kids about all of that. We need to push this in our schools-I would love to see you share some of those videos and this to be formed into a talk or workshops in churches and schools. I had a vision of self-esteem workshops for our young people and it should be free-offered in church youth groups, YMCA’s, camps, schools, it could be done in a video series but would be best delivered by a woman who had fought this battle and could personalize her story.
I wish I had time and resources to create such a program but I would be happy to help if you decide to do something like this. We need to speak love and acceptance into our kids lives; to teach them that no one person can or should determine how they see themselves, feel about themselves and think. As women we need to work on our own healing in this area as well! We need to talk a lot more about God and how we are perfect in Him and understanding His unconditional love!
Beauty by the Book, Captivating by John and Staci Eldridge, His Thoughts Toward Me, His Princess, Love Letters from your King by Sheri Rose Shepherd, A Confident Heart by Renee Swope, You’re Already Amazing by Holley Gerth are a few books I recommend. They are all about understanding our worthiness in Gods eyes. Only when we begin to see ourselves as He does do we find peace with the worlds measuring stick and do we stop “competing” with others. Loved the article, the more of us that band together and speak on this topic the more lives will be changed and the more we will see this pattern stop!
I also think a father’s role is CRITICAL in creating positive self-esteem in little girls. If he shows her how precious and beautiful and worthy she is…that *may* alter how easily her body image is shaped by society. Or am I overstating?
My very first thought after reading this is that we need to diet – not from food, but from the toxic, false images we often fill our eyes with. I don’t buy the magazines – in fact sometimes I rebelliously turn them backwards on the stands in Walmart while I wait in line, prisoner to their lies about what beauty is. I saw a little girl – maybe 9 today, she was sitting on the floor of the magazine section of the store reading People or Cosmo or something like – here mom stood there looking at a similar mag. I wanted to scream! I wanted to say – you tell your daughter she’s beautiful but you won’t stop her from looking at those magazines that are reminding her with every page that you are just saying a line – you don’t really think she’s beautiful because you think THAT is beautiful.
Stop looking at the magazines, stop watching the commercials – stop shopping at places with massive distorted semi-pornographic posters of women who are displayed like meat in a butcher shop. I HATE that so often a headless female body is used to sell stuff – how demeaning and putrid – your eyes (window to your soul), your mind, your thoughts don’t matter – that’s what it says. But women buy it – they pick up the magazines, they chain themselves to these erroneous ideas of what is feminine and what is beautiful and what is important. Job talked about how he averted his eyes – we need to do that too – seriously. In borders on sin to willfully submit yourself to un-Godly, false, morally void ideas and paradigms of human worth and significance.
We are made by God in His image as the climax of His creative song. ‘Whatever things are true, whatever things are honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if anything is excellent or worthy of praise – THINK ON THESE THINGS’. In my not so humble and apparently raging reactionary opinion, we can choose not to buy – not to feed the machine that is destroying us – and destroying young girls. Michele – I know you said not to comment on you – but you are beautiful and so am I and I am sick to death satan’s blatant assault. I am not going to wimp out.
I’m not sure the battleground today is so much on a woman’s appearance. High school girls, OK but 20’s, 30’s et al, I believe, have more pressing challenges. You are so honest in your reflections I hope you’ll forgive me for my comments in which I am trying to be a huge supporter. Sharing my thoughts, also, for what they’re worth. (Or not worth!)
In short, I’d say re appearance, how we compare ourselves to beauty just goes with the territory of being a woman in the West. We all live with it, do our best, and get on with life, as you do, too. Men have their constants, too; for example, how much money they earn – – – or not.
Do read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.”
“I’m talking about a much more Western concept of the burka, one in which women who are convinced they don’t measure up to media-dominated and male-driven (but female-embraced) standards cloak themselves in an almost apologetic self-esteem tinged with impossibility.” I think that sums the problem up! A couple thoughts about addressing this culture. First and foremost, we need to stop complaining about our perceived inadequacies! It’s a defense mechanism, but when girls hear the women they look up to insulting themselves, it not only validates societies toxic standards in their eyes (“well, mom thinks she needs to diet, so being thin must be a big deal,”), it makes them insecure about their personal appearance (“Gosh, Michele is so pretty and put together–if SHE doesn’t feel like she’s good enough, what about gangly, awkward me?” or “Mom hates her lips, and my lips look just like hers,”), and makes girls think that self-deprecating discourse is a normal form of communication and relationship-building (“oh my gosh, my thighs are SO HUGE!”) Talking about these issues is HUGELY important, but we have to bite our tongues and stalwartly refuse to perpetuate the societal norms in this area. We have to flat-out reject the lie, even when we feel like it’s true. Second, we have to remember that companies spend billions of dollars making women feel insecure and ashamed, so that they will buy their product–beauty products, clothes, and diet strategies, sure, but also furniture, and designer ovens, and swiffer sweepers. Female insecurity is big business! Limiting our exposure to those messages goes a LONG way toward mitigating dissatisfaction and insecurity. And last but not least, we need to remember that when we have given our lives to Christ, they cease to be about us, that there’s a reason the Ten Commandments warned God’s people against covetousness, and that allowing ourselves to get wrapped up in our perceived inadequacies can actually be a form of idolatry, of making ourselves more important than Christ. I really think that women in our culture are always going to be prone to FEELING these things, unless God does some major renovation in their hearts and minds, but we have to flat-out reject it, call it what it is (a big fat lie that stands against kingdom values while promoting Madison Ave.), and refuse to buy into or perpetuate the lie. Phew! Off the soap box!”
Here’s an article that a friend of mine posted on Facebook the other day. I thought it gave a fresh perspective on the topic you’re discussing here. https://latinafatale.com/2011/07/21/how-to-talk-to-little-girls/
Catching up on e-mail and just read your Burka post. Would like to comment…
To Ben: I am one of those women with a faithful adoring husband who has tried for 27 years to convince me that I am beautiful, regardless of my insistence that I am fat and undesirable. I would like to share a couple things that both he and I did wrong early on and that might give you some insight that will lead to better chances of success! When we were first married and getting to know one another physically, it felt awkward and uncomfortable at times, because I (like Michele) have often been self-conscious about my appearance. I didn’t like him touching my stomach in particular and told him to please avoid that as it made me feel uncomfortable. He, being eager to please, complied. That simple request on my part (which in hindsight I see as not very wise) and his compliance all these years has perhaps been one element that has hindered him from being able to fully convince me that he speaks truth to me about who I am physically.
You see, unwittingly, his willing compliance with my (unwise) request has sent perhaps the very opposite message of the one he tries so hard to convey. He avoids touching my stomach and tho I know it is by my own request, it nonetheless underlines my belief that my stomach is undesirable. To husbands, I strongly recommended a loving and gentle but firm rejection of such requests from your wife. Gently and progressively insist with your woman that you love and want to “interact” with ALL of her body. Of course, you can only successfully do this if you are truly sincere. Don’t fake it, she’ll figure that out. I once read about a husband who would trace his wife’s stretch marks with his finger and tell her how beautiful they were and now long for that kind of loving, and tho I have told my husband so, it is hard for him to unlearn 27 years of wife-pleasing habits.
Michele, as someone who is very critical of my own body, I find that I am also very critical of others’ physical appearance. I have tried (and I hope succeeded? — I think perhaps I have to some extent as none of my children seem prone to judge others by appearance and often tell me, “Oh mom, you’re not fat!”) to not formulate these thoughts and judgments into words, especially around my kids as they have grown up, but I’m curious if this is something that others who struggle with their own self-acceptance physically are prone to? Thoughts from you? Or others? Any tips from anyone on how to change what seems like an instinctive way of looking at people in general?
Thanx for your continued authentic insights and courageous writing about delicate stuff.