If “Beauty is Pain,” is it Worth This Much Suffering?
I was assigned to interview someone for a research methods class. It was supposed to be that simple. I randomly chose a 22-year-old friend who has always appeared confident, outgoing and strikingly beautiful. I quickly realized this conversation could not have been more timely, powerful and heart-wrenching. I know I was recording our talk for a greater purpose than a grade and her story gave a brave, aching voice to the feelings of many. This post is dedicated to my friend ”T” and the countless others who have shared her pain in the pursuit of “beauty.” – Lexie
After brief introductions…
L: So my next question is a pretty broad one: How do you feel about your body?
T: Ha! Oh wow. That’s a loaded question. I…(long pause) I don’t even know where to start…ummm…it depends on the day, but…umm I, just feel…ugh, I don’t like it…I don’t…(long pause)….I just don’t feel like I will ever reach the expectations of perfection around.
L: Whose expectations are these?
T: Definitely men’s. And women’s. I feel like when I walk down the street or at work that people are staring at me and, honestly, I feel like everybody is thinking “She probably shouldn’t even be seen out.”
L: So you talk about other people’s expectations but what are your expectations for your body? Are they the same as what you believe other peoples’ are? Or different?
T: Ummm, I do have very high expectations for my body. The problem is that I have so much fat on my thighs and butt that I will never meet those expectations. And I have come to terms with it, however, I do realize that there are areas that will never be what I want… Like I love to run all the time, but when I run my thighs flap and it hurts! I wish that never happened!
L: So when I asked you that first broad question about how you feel about your body – why do you think you spoke to me about how your body looks as opposed to how it works?
T: Because, I guess, ummm, when it boils down to it…how it looks is more important than how it functions… because, when I’m running, as bad as it hurts, I’m even more concerned about what it all looks like (voice cracks from pushing back tears).
L: When you say you want to work out but your skin flaps, are you using that as –
T: (Interrupting) – More to justify me going to see a plastic surgeon.
L: Oh, OK! Wow. So tell me about that. You want to go see a plastic surgeon?
T: Yes – I’m going to. If anything, just to see what they will say about my thighs. I carry my weight in my lower half and I have lots of skin on my thighs from weight loss and gain. Honestly, for me, I don’t demand perfection. I just want to be comfortable in my own skin and I’d like to have my love handles gone and my thighs…I want to be tight!
L: So can you tell me the first time you remember feeling self-conscious about your body?
T: That would have to be when I was – I believe 7 years old. We were in my uncle’s kitchen and I was standing there with my cousins and we were comparing ourselves and I was thin then, but I was solid because I was an active child and they were lifting me and they could NOT believe how much I weighed! They were like “holy crap!” and then…ummm….I felt kind of worthless. And I…(long silence)…I think turned to food and the weight just poured on me. My family was really hard on me – they expected the best. My mom always had me on a diet. She was always on a diet, too. She’s always been negative about her body. Always. And my body, too.
L: Ugh I’m so sorry. You’ve definitely been hurt by others’ comments. So how have YOU reprimanded yourself when you feel bad about the way your body looks?
T: I… well for many years I guess I….had eating disorders. Ummm for the past three years they got really out of control. I lost a ton of weight because of it. I have a heart condition now, borderline diabetes…I nearly killed myself because of it.
L: And you mentioned you are going to talk to a plastic surgeon? Tell me more about that.
T: Ya ummm, I thought a lot about this. I’ve gone back and forth. I’m not the type of person to take the easy way out. But that I am 22. (Begins tearing up). Nobody deserves to look like this. To have to go through life looking like this and not even being able to date because you’re not comfortable in your own skin. I’m not going in for Double D boobs. I’m not going in for a nose job. I’m going in to remove something that is a burden in my life.
L: What if you you met and fell in love with a man who loved you and you stood in front of him naked and heard him say: “I am so attracted to you and to your body.” I see a million guys able to say that! If you could see that would you still have this work done?
T: Right now, yes. Just because for me, it’s…I mean, that’s awesome that he feels that way, but I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel worthy for anyone to love me like this. I don’t think anybody could. I know that sounds ridiculous but I believe that.
L: It doesn’t sound ridiculous at all. I want to read this quote by a famous scholar from the 70s and hear your thoughts: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women, but the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is a male, the surveyed female. Thus, she turns herself into an object.” What does this mean to you?
T: That I’m not even counting my personality or who I truly am. I’m viewing myself as a piece of meat. (Begins crying). I’ve learned to do that from everything. The media. My mom. The way my mom and hers view themselves. It’s the way everybody sees themselves now.
Interview Ends. Here is my response for “T” and the millions her brave voice represents:
I hear your pain and I know your pain. I do this work to give voice to the feelings we have that we don’t always have words for and I pray that new, knowledgeable voices can be more powerful than the harmful ones we hear too often. We’ve grown up in a world where the voices we hear from ever-present media, strangers, and even our own family members mix with those inside our heads to form painful beliefs about our bodies: “You are not worthy of being loved looking like that.” “You’re gross, why did you leave your house today?” “Stop running – your thighs are jiggling!” The list goes on for days. And the answer: “Beauty is painful, get to work!”
These messages have become so normal for us, our loved ones, and the strangers we pass on the street that we hardly take time to question them. No wonder we believe these painful lies! You’ve seen the billboards telling you to enhance your chest and make those “lemons into lemonade.” You’ve heard the radio ads selling laser liposuction and “body contouring” during your lunch break. You’ve seen the magazines selling sex appeal lining the grocery store aisles. You’ve seen the TV shows teaching how drastic weight loss is what qualifies you for marriage (“Bridal Bootcamp,” “Shedding for the Wedding,” etc.). You’ve seen the movies that exclusively feature ideally, thin, tall, women as the only happy and desirable ones. You’ve seen the way your favorite shows, movies, and magazines zoom in on parts of women’s bodies and pan up and down those parts. You’ve seen women-only stores claiming to empower you in the most disempowering ways. NO WONDER so many women believe such dangerous lies about their bodies. Research backs up the fact that “T” isn’t alone in her feelings: Being exposed to all these media messages listed has been shown to encourage females to view themselves primarily from an outsider’s perspective, hate their own bodies, and endorse media messages that objectify women’s bodies (APA, 2010; Strahan et al., 2008; Zurbirggen & Morgan, 2006).
TODAY is the day to stop selling yourself short by believing you are only your body. Objectifying yourself is never a path to true happiness, despite what you’ve heard your whole life.
If you’re a Beauty Redefined follower, you know by now that all these media outlets, beauty, weight loss and cosmetic surgery industries make billions off female insecurity. They know if they teach us from childhood that female happiness, power and our ability to be loved lies in how we look, then they’ve got customers for life – a customer who will fight a lifelong battle walking down the halls believing people are disgusted by her, who will tell and show her daughters they are “too fat” from their earliest memories, who will believe unless she has been surgically tucked, sucked, and enhanced, that she’ll be unloveable forever.
My heart aches for every girl and woman who believes these “beauty is pain” lies. I fight these lies every day, too. And I know the power in understanding these messages are LIES is one of the most vital actions we can take to find real happiness, power and confidence.
When we recognize the pain we cause to ourselves and the pain we experience in the name of beauty, we can begin to fight back. Have you ever binged, purged, or starved yourself? Have you or someone you know experienced life with an eating disorder? Have you had or considered liposuction? Breast enhancement? A thigh lift? Botox? Collagen injections? Have you ever stayed home from socializing because you weren’t happy with your looks? Have you ever skipped a work out because you felt self-conscious about your body? Have you ever secretly bought diet pills, laxatives, or diuretics to take weight off fast? These are all ways that we come to see “constraining, enslaving, and even murderous” conditions as “liberating, transforming, and life-giving,” as scholar Susan Bordo put it. Have you believed these “beauty is pain” lies and constrained your true happiness and worth?
If you want to take up the lifelong fight against these lies, the time to start is NOW. We know the Beauty Redefined project is powerful because we offer vital strategies to recognize and reject harmful ideals. Use and share these strategies with all you know and love. Let’s start believing the truth! Let’s step back into reality and find authentic paths to happiness and love that do not lead us to swipe our credit card, lie on an operating table, or skip our next meal. Here are a few ways to start now:
- Tell the Truth: When you think a nice thought about someone in your life – stranger or loved one – tell them. Do not ever hold back. Now that you realize how many negative messages we hear each day, counteract those lies! Choose to compliment the girls and women in your life for character traits, actions or talents you admire about them. The compliments that stick with you for a lifetime are those that acknowledge your valuable qualities, like a good attitude, selflessness, talents, honesty and so much more that has nothing to do with a cute outfit or pretty hair (those are nice too!).
- Go on a Media Fast: Choose a day, a week, a month, or longer to steer clear of as much media as you can. That way, you can see how your life is different without all those messages and images, and when you return to viewing and reading popular media, you will be more sensitive to the messages that hurt you and those that are unrealistic. (And on a personal note, I moved to a new house this month and spent two weeks without TV of any kind. I found I was much less focused on my appearance than the month before and genuinely more happy with what I did see when I looked in the mirror. I promise!)
- Be a Positive Example: Research and real-life experience make it clear that when women and girls speak negatively about their bodies and their appearance, they negatively impact those around them. That goes for women talking about themselves in hateful ways in front of their children and family members, girls that degrade themselves in front of their friends, or any other time a woman or girl says awful things about herself in front of anyone near. Start today with a goal that you will never again say something negative about your appearance aloud, and soon the negative self-talk that floats through your mind will become less and less prevalent, too.
- Stick it to the man! The joy you feel when you slap a sticky note with a phrase like “If beauty hurts, we’re doing it wrong!” on a magazine, TV screen, or bathroom mirror is awesome. We’ve got a whole bunch of colorful, happy messages you can stick wherever you’d like and greeting cards you can send to those you know and love. We’d be thrilled to send you some- find them here!
- Help us spread the word: As of November 2011, we have the chance to put up one of our groundbreaking billboards on the Pennsylvania Turnpike because of an incredibly generous sign owner with young daughters. You can help us post our purple billboard that says “If beauty hurts, we’re doing it wrong” on that prominent interstate by donating HERE.
- And for many more ways to fight back, see: Strategies for Girls & Women and Strategies for Boys & Men
By Lexie Kite, 2011.