By Dr. Heather Wilder
Every day, women are faced with thousands of images that represent what we have all come to accept as beauty. On the front page of nearly every magazine stands a 6 foot something, generally Caucasian, long-haired, emaciated women who looks like no one I have ever actually known in my everyday life. She does not look like my friends, family, clients or even those women I pass in the grocery store and I imagine that she does not look like the people you know either. Yet, we all compare ourselves to her and scowl at our bodies wishing they were taller, and thinner and less rounded. We pull and tug at our hair and fill it with chemicals in an effort to make it smoother and straighter because we have been taught that beauty is defined in very narrow, unforgiving terms.
Therefore, when we look at ourselves, we often look harshly and hate those ways that we do not measure up to those women judging us from the fronts of those magazine covers. If we were our only critics, we might just find a way to love ourselves a bit faster but we are faced with comments and commercials, and pageants that only reinforce what we already believe about our own beauty.
For example, the other day, I was standing in line at the grocery store when I was greeted with the usual array of magazine covers. Except on this day, one particular magazine had dispensed with the usual model sprawled cover and “how to please your man” campaigns to share pictures of unsuspecting sunbathers. Of course, no unsuspecting sunbather article could be complete without a headline like “Best and WORST Beach Bodies.” The bodies depicted on the cover were headless, just begging you to delve inside to find out the identities of those persons with those “shameful” bodies. As I was standing there feeling angry and imagining the violation that those headless sunbathers must feel, the two men behind me in line also noticed the article. “Oh my God, Oh my God, Look.” one man said as he laughed. “Yeah. That’s sick. Disgusting.” his friend replied.
Though I was still angry, I found myself looking down, remembering the last time I had on a bathing suit and then thinking, “Yeah. I should go back on Weight Watchers.” As I heard the thought happening, I was once again angry and I looked back at the men who so tenaciously scoffed at those sunbathers, only to find that they were in less than perfect shape themselves. Notably, the cover only featured female sunbathers, mostly “shamefully” headless with the exception of one particularly trim woman who was featured with head intact. To me, this cover epitomized the hurdles and the shame that women face as they view themselves and reiterated the message that only the most perfect women can hold their heads up high and feel proud. Those men in line also reminded me that the objectification of women has created a dynamic where women are valued far more for their beauty than any other attribute she can possess. In turn, women are devalued and have subsequently learned to devalue themselves and other women for being less than magazine-cover beautiful.
To make matters worse, the inherent racist undertones of our culture send an even more sinister message to women of color. Regardless of race, most women will never grow over 6 feet tall, be able to count their ribs in the mirror, or have perfect flawless skin that never wrinkles or sags. However, women of color are faced with a beauty ideal that holds Caucasian and Caucasian-like features as the most coveted and most beautiful. These ideals have been internalized by women of color and result in even harsher views of themselves and other women of color. For example, lighter-skinned black women are often more valued while darker skinned women are ridiculed, ostracized or called ugly by their peers. Similarly, those who choose to leave their hair in its natural form are criticized and often pressed by others to conform to a less “ethnic” presentation while those with straighter and smoother hair are revered. Similar patterns also occur in Asian and Hispanic populations and result in a similarly unattainable beauty standard that results in self-loathing and poor self-esteem.
It might seem impossible to learn to love ourselves in the face of so many messages that have encouraged us to devalue and underappreciate the inherent beauty in all of us. However, we can all begin the journey of healing our inner critic with a few steps:
Understand the ways that you have internalized the messages that society has given you about the beauty of women.
You can do this by noticing what you say to yourself in the mirror. Notice the self-criticism and check that against the reality of real women you know. Are the real women you know perfectly shaped? Are they all a size 6 or smaller with perfect abs? What do you say about other women in your head? Do you judge them for putting on a few pounds or for not losing the baby weight? If you are a woman of color, do you criticize yourself and other women of color more harshly and/or strive toward Caucasian beauty standards?
Challenge the negative talk about yourself and other women with real facts.
–Real women have curves and few have perfect abs.
–Real women are tall and short, big and small, curvy and boney
–Real women have curly hair, wavy hair, straight hair, kinky hair, short hair, long hair and it is not less beautiful in its natural form.
–The average woman in America today is a size 14 and weighs approximately 163 lbs.
–The average height of a woman in America is 5’4”.
Remind yourself that women of all sizes, shapes and colors are beautiful, we just have to stop looking for “perfection” and appreciate what is there. If we can all stop expecting women to fit into the same magazine cover persona and notice the beauty in each other, we might just start to notice it in ourselves.
Don’t be afraid to get mad.
When you really begin to notice the ways you and the women you love have been impacted by societal beauty messages, you might begin to feel angry. If this happens, don’t worry. Anger is simply one sign that you love yourself enough to be upset when you are treated badly.
Confidence is Beautiful.
We have all seen the phenomenon of confidence. When a confident person walks into the room, we all look. We are drawn to that person and, in our head, we imagine this confident person having a host of other qualities that we have not witnessed, but believe are there. Men have mastered this technique and use it to their advantage because we assume the confident person must have a great deal to offer and we are drawn to their power. Therefore, the more you believe in your own value, the more the world will see your true beauty.
I highly recommend that you begin your journey toward loving yourself by watching the following video that was created by Dove. This video highlights the way women view themselves as less beautiful than the world perceives them. Dove Video
Heather Wilder, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of Rhode Island. She is co-owner of Wilder Therapy and Wellness, located in Cranston, RI.