After writing that last article I went to the bookstore and low-and-behold, they actually had some of Brene Brown’s books. I was kind of shocked because this is a smaller bookstore and they NEVER have Brene Brown’s books. And that day they had 3 of them which was faaantastic. I already own The Gifts of Imperfection, have been waiting to get the paperback of Daring Greatly and could NEVER find I Thought It Was Just Me. Well, they had all three today, and ITIWJM was there for reals, in paperback. SCORE!
So I bought it and have been reading it til the point of headache and beyond, since. I’m halfway through and I’m really witnessing a lot of things about me, things I used to do to myself and things I maybe still do but am getting much more aware about.
I just read a whole section about one woman’s personal journey through coming to understand her shame triggers around appearance. There’s a whole critical thinking thing in it that I won’t get into because what it really made me think about was this particular episode I had about this very thing and just how sick I got over it. (You can download the worksheet for the book from her site brenebrown.com and I highly recommend you get the book as well, either from Indigo or Amazon)
I’ve struggled with body image my whole life and there are probably a lot of reasons for that. Being violated is surely one of them, but also simply being a female in a culture that dictates to the tiniest detail what acceptable femininity and beauty is, is another big part of it. Considering what had happened to me, how my body had basically been stolen from me, it is no surprise that I might be more susceptible or vulnerable to the messages in our media about how I am supposed to look.
So… Story Time.
I was newly dating a guy and was really raw from the last relationship. He, the new interest, was (and is) a pretty fit guy. And like every guy, somewhere, there is a collection of photos of “hot chicks.” And as every woman who has ever lived with a guy, at some point you find this collection, maybe by accident (in my case), maybe he shows it to you (douchebaggery? Maybe… Maybe just idiocy…), or maybe you go snooping for it (not really your best move). To be honest, I had come across it accidentally the first time… the second time was kind of by accident because I was looking for something else but I decided to look *there* just in case and then, knowing full well what I was seeking would not be in *there* I looked anyway. I spent perhaps the next hour clicking through photos of super fit chicks with perfectly perky breasts, straight teeth, tight everythings posing with their muscely muscles doing muscular things like holding weights, or dressed in boxing gloves, booty shorts and a crop top that shows the titillating underboob. And with every photo I said to myself, “see you don’t look like that so what do you really have to offer this guy? Clearly this is what he likes, not fat, frumpy, doughy thighed saggy boobed limp armed girls like you who don’t have ANY tattoos accept for the one shitty one you got in someone’s basement while the artist was drunk.”
For at least an hour.
And there was a moment when that little voice inside me said “this is stupid and hurtful and you’re doing this to yourself. You’re hurting yourself with these lies on purpose. All you have to do is turn off the computer, walk away, go for a bike ride, hell, pick your nose I don’t care, just anything but this.” And I said… no. Fuck off. I deserve to feel like this because I’m an ugly woman. And I carried on with the self abuse.
Eventually, after I’d crossed the threshold of pure shame exhaustion, I stopped and wrote an angry rant on facebook about why guys have pictures like these and beauty standards are bullshit and fuck you media and how am I supposed to believe a man when he tells me how beautiful or sexy he thinks I am when none of his collections reflect women who look like me? Or women doing things other than just almost showing their vaginas? Is this what we are supposed to be? Which message am I supposed to believe?
And it reminded me of all the other times I had done this exact thing. This ritual of finding an endless parade of women who look perfect and comparing myself to them and practically salivating with self loathing for all the ways I did not measure up, would never measure up and would always be less than a good enough woman because I would never be a fit, firm, petite muscle beach babe with a perfectly flat stomach free of stretch marks and loose skin. I had already ruined my body. It was broken and ugly and therefore worthless. This behaviour had started around the same time I began reading teen-girl beauty magazines (go fucking figure…). Frankly, reading those magazines only lasted maybe a few months, but it was enough to start the process. And I would hold myself up against every female I saw, judging if I was better than her, more valuable than her, or less, based purely on a beauty standard that was dictated to me by someone who stood to gain $$$ off of my poor self esteem.
Later, after some reflection and realizing that my rant had more to do with brushing off my stupid behaviour, trying to shame others for the shame I felt (look up shame screens by Brene Brown…) and using my loud angry facebook voice to do it, we talked. I confessed to him that I just felt really ugly and chose to participate in the ugly behaviour because I really thought I deserved to see why I wasn’t good enough for him.
And that’s the thing about shame. You believe you deserve it. You believe you are unworthy of connection, support and love because you have no value as a person. Brene Brown draws that line between shame and guilt; guilt is thinking you have done something wrong but you are still worthy of compassionate treatment. Shame is thinking you are something wrong and deserve punishing treatment. I would suspect, that to achieve a position of greater power over yourself, you become the punisher, which is a more powerful position than the punished, almost like you are attempting to climb up over yourself.
I wish I could say I don’t do this anymore but I do. I just don’t take to that level anymore. I wish I wasn’t still as mired in the shame web of female beauty standards, but I am. I will likely always be vulnerable about whether or not I am beautiful enough to be of value, and it really has so little to do with what I actually look like and so much more to do with what I am told I’m supposed to look like. Everyone, by now, has seen that meme of the shifting female beauty standards and even of those women who do measure up… The tricksy thing about it is, she may never feel like she “measures up.” Frankly, that she, we, I have to measure up to someone elses standard of beauty is really fucked up to begin with.
But, here I am, concerned about it and so I do still compare myself, automatically, to women I see in the media, on the street, on the bus… I measure myself up, without really intending to, and mark the stick for how short I fall. While I do not allow that to enter my conscious mind without some very firm self talk about how useless and degrading it is, not just to me, but to the women I reduce to a bunch of body parts, too; that she and I are equals not based on our physique but based on our common humanity, I still catch myself being afraid of and angry at women who pull beauty off easily because they have the “perfect face, perfect body, perfect teeth” and are even really nice people. I hear myself getting judgey “she’s probably a bitch anyway; you’ll never be as good as her; if only you could afford braces to straighten your teeth; you need to work out more; she’s better than you.”
I wish I had an answer to why I do this to myself and to how I can free myself completely from this habit. But I don’t. Not yet anyways. Shame is an incredible beast; it makes you feel so loathsome and alone that you actually want to be alone to continue looking at the ugly under the microscope as if to prove to yourself it is the only truth; that you deserve this status as reject. Currently the best medicine I have is to be compassionate and empathetic with myself and acknowledge that feeling ugly, outcast, unworthy and rejected from the community is a hard and unpleasant way to feel. And I am most definitely not the only one. That this story, even this very habit, is one I share with millions of people all hiding in their bedrooms huddled over a computer or a mirror examining themselves, collecting the evidence of why they are so deserving of their private torture.
And I guess all of that is why I am sitting on this article right now, thinking… hmm publish don’t publish… do people really need to know… I unpacked this with my friends… But something I just read in Brene Brown’s book ITIWJM is this:
“When we strive to understand the context or bigger picture, we don’t give up responsibility. We increase it. When we identify a personal struggle that is rooted in larger issues, we should take responsibility for both. Maybe it’s not just our job to make things better for ourselves; maybe we have a responsibility to make things better for our children, our friends, for our community.
If we understand how larger systems are contributing to our shame and we choose only to change ourselves, we become as negligent as the person who says, “I’m not changing myself, because the system is bad.” Context is not the enemy of personal responsibility. Individualism is the enemy of personal responsibility.”
So the context is this; I live in a society that says valuable women have plump lips, cat-like eyes, smooth skin that is not too white and not too black, long legs, long hair that is of a very caucasian quality, a slim waist, flat stomach with 0 stretch marks, a big round firm butt, large, firm perky breasts and just enough muscle to be considered “fit” but not so much to be considered powerful, and just enough fat to be considered feminine, but not so much to be considered fat. There are a whole bunch of industries that make a lot of money off of my belief that I need to achieve this quality of femininity to have any value or status in society, as a woman. The target is a shifting one so that I am never quite able to reach it and thus must continue to spend time, money and energy to chase it. If I were to quote Naomi Wolf here, I would follow that up with the purpose of all this is to keep me distracted from my own personhood and the inherent power and value in that status. But that might be for another discussion…
So, in light of that contextualizing, and in keep true to myself and my desire to help us all unpack this bullshit and and show one another we are worthy of support, love, trust, care, compassion and empathy, here we go. Publication. Let’s see if we can’t all work together to shake this shit up.