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The Beauty Myth

In Celebration of International Women's Week

I attended a thought provoking and inspiring networking event on Monday at Chambar, sponsored by the Women’s Collective.

At the event a panel of women entrepreneurs were discussing an array of different topics, and one in particular stuck with me that I felt motivated to talk about, and that’s the beauty myth. It’s the premise that women are moulded by and encouraged to think about and spend time on how we look. This pressure often leads to unhealthy behaviors in women and a preoccupation with appearance, and it compromises the ability of women to be effective in and accepted by society.

The room was filled with intelligent, driven and compassionate women. Women that are achieving success on various levels, i.e. career, family, meaningful friendships, etc. As the discussions continued and the women speaking were being honest and candid one thing that stood out is the struggles they face in business and in life BECAUSE they were women. It became clear to me that as far as we have come, women still have a way to go.

From a very young age girls are praised and noted for being pretty, sweet and beautiful. Boys are praised for being strong, fast and smart.

I can’t help but wonder how different women would be – how different I would be – if we received praise for our essence, how would that shape who we are and how our lives work out differently?

I began to think about how this myth moulded some of my life. I can remember this myself as a small child. I would get complemented on wearing a nice dress or when my hair was curled. I recall seeing that the girls that got attention and praise were the pretty ones. I remember wishing to be many things but mostly I strived to be perceived as beautiful. The key to success seemed to be about how we looked. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s is the fairest of them all?” The books, movies and fairy tales I grew up with delivered the same message, the beautiful ones got the attention, got the guy and lived happily ever after. So there shaped some of my efforts, I wanted braces to straighten my teeth, a perm to change my hair shape, tanning creams to make myself darker, pills to curve my appetite, picking clothes and colours to flatter my body, mostly not liking what I was and taking steps every day to hopefully one day become beautiful. And did I ever reach it?

Do we ever reach it? How many women do you know that feel content with themselves, never mind even feel good about themselves, or thrilled?! Would that be then perceived as self-absorption, conceit or narcissism even?

When I’m in the bathroom I can overhear the chatter of women picking apart themselves, one by one, “oh gawd, look at my hair today”, “these jeans are just too tight”, “would you look at these bags under my eyes”, and I here too am guilty of sometimes being my own worst critic. I’m going to step out on a limb here and even thought I haven’t spent much time in the men’s washroom, I’m going to bet the same self-deprecating discussions are NOT happening. “My belly is just too big in this shirt!” or “Gawd I am looking so old tonight!” – can you imagine?!

The mission of trying to get beautiful and maintain it continues on as I get older. Beautiful eyelashes are all the rage, not to mention a thicker filled-in eye brow, a rounder bum, an eight-pack and now I have to fight the signs that my body and skin are changing as I age, which are fates that are inevitable in all of us.

And then there are thoughts about being too pretty, too sexy for an event, thoughts that run through our brains as we get ready for work in the morning, “is this shirt cut too low? Are these pants too tight”, “do these glasses make me look smarter?” Will men and women notice me enough but not too much so they take me seriously and listen?

When I worked in Sales, I was told I was doing well because of my appearance and my female presence. I was never praised on my ability to close a deal, my people skills or my dedication. Could this have then encouraged me to focus a little more on how I looked going out on a sales call I was going to strategize this sale or better educate myself on the product?

Then I became a massage therapist and I turned to the other side of the spectrum. I tried to desexualize my appearance as much as possible: no make-up, no tight clothing…for the last thing I wanted was to encourage a man to have sexual thoughts while I was performing a medical treatment on them!

When I self-reflect, sadly, I have to admit I am absolutely guilty of perpetuating this behaviour. I will constantly compliment women on how they look, “I love your blouse”, “your hair looks nice today”, “wow, look at how beautiful that woman is”.

I have to believe that some of this is behavior is taught and learnt. Receive praise when pretty, feel good, repeat, notice beauty, talk about it and make others feel good, repeat.

Social media is a major player in this, a perfect forum to compare, taking the perfect selfie and endless tip and ways to hopefully one day be beautiful, but beautiful enough that people notice, like and also compliment us on how we are looking.

What if we were able to put this down, how much mental energy gets focused on this? In what other ways could we expand ourselves? In what other ways could we feel valued? Furthermore, could this change also shape how we are seen and felt in this world? How do we step away from this, how much focus is too much?

These aren’t easy questions and therefore don’t have easy answers. Regardless, I’m committed to do something about it. I am going to start with myself. I’m committing to noting when and how much I’m thinking about how I look. I’m going to write down all my strengths that have nothing to do with how I look. I’m going compliment three women on their character this week and repeat every week. I’m going to observe what happens!

I think we also need to include men in on these conversations. Most men I know love to help, we just need to let them know how. My husband happens to be one of these helpful guys, and is a feminist at heart. I’m going to ask if he feels inclined, to complement me on something that speaks to my essence. Let’s talk to our friends, brothers, fathers and sons!

I’m taking the time to talk about this because it really struck a chord within me because I think it has had a negative impact on my life. I also think it helps to create a healthy mind, attitude and presence.

In the name of your health if you are a woman reading this or in the name of the women you know I would like to challenge you all!!!

Notice and communicate an inner quality to three women you know! How about using the word “beauty” in a different context, like for example “you have a beautiful way with words” or “that’s beautifully argued” or “you have a beautiful inner strength”. Together let’s change the dialogue, change how women evaluate and see themselves and therefore better support the health of women around the world!