I’m a big believer in being genuine.
Open. It might seem like I’m a pretty private person, and in a lot of ways, I am. But at the same time, if you ask me, I won’t hesitate to tell you my life story. (Now you know, so beware!)
I believe that we all connect through stories and experiences, and that’s why I’m usually open to sharing mine. Even when it’s uncomfortable or embarrassing. Even when I’m worried about what people might think. Even when I might be criticized. Even when I put my foot in my mouth. Even when it hurts.
We always get to choose what story we want to tell, how, whether we ever share it. But for me, it’s important to do it. It’s part of growth, getting to know our true selves, part of the process of life. That’s why I often share my experiences as part of my business and my guidance with clients. And it’s why I share so much on the Good Thing We’re Perfect podcast too.
On the most recent episode, we talked about beauty and the age-old question, “Am I pretty?”, and as soon as we finished up, I feared I’d gone too far. In what I’d said, how I’d said it, in what I’d shared. I felt like I sounded like an ass. I physically felt anxiety coursing through my veins. As I listened to the episode myself yesterday, I realized why.
In this short conversation, in so many words, I was sharing my story. But I wasn’t sure I was getting to all of it. And when we only know parts of the story, sometimes it falls apart.
I got to thinking about it, and I thought, hey, I’ve told this story before. I’ve written it in greater detail. And maybe it’s time to share it.
Below is an excerpt from my book manuscript. It comes from the section of the book that tells all of my stories. A section of the manuscript that likely will not show up in the final text, but something I want you to see. It’s more of the story. (Still not really all of it in only 1500 words, but it’s more.)
You don’t have to read it, you don’t have to listen to the episode, you don’t have to care anything about me or my story. But if there are two tidbits I hope you’ll think about today…
Remind yourself that everyone has a story and you might not know all of it.
And this question of “Am I pretty?” affects many people more deeply than you’d think, and while fretting about the individual answer to it is usually a waste of time and energy, talking about the question itself is a gateway to changing the stories of women all over the planet.
Up until probably eight years ago, I struggled to believe that there was anything else valuable about me as a person beyond being smart, and also, being pretty. Every choice I made aligned with fitting into one of these two boxes. Specific to pretty, it was beneficial to use my looks and my body, because the thin ideal, and being considered attractive according to cultural beauty standards will take you far in life, and it’s inherently meaningful. (The sarcasm strikes again.) Combine these two boxes, and what I understood from my limited life experience and early worldview was that, basically, being conventionally pretty and academically smart would set me up for life.
What kind of life? Based on the first twenty-five years of mine, that’s up for debate.
But I know I’m not the only woman out there to feel like these two traits are highly important and carry a lot of weight. This is the stuff we tell a little girl from the moment she emerges from the womb and still looks like a weird little alien with a bow stuck on her head. We coo and coo and call her a little princess. She’s so cute. And if we have the presence of mind to realize that it might be damaging to place so much emphasis on looks, we switch to smart. She’s a little genius! She’s going to be a doctor!
Research is now showing that this type of feedback is highly problematic and has messed up a lot of girls and women in roughly, oh, the last fifteen generations. But we still have trouble with it. Think back to when we didn’t even know how harmful one seemingly innocent comment about a little girl’s pretty eyes could be, for example, the ‘80s and ‘90s and early aughts (i.e., my formative years). What a mess, right?
Yeah. I was a mess. Still am, some days.
It took about thirty years to come to the conclusion that maybe looks weren’t everything, and also, it would be OK if I wasn’t the best or the smartest at everything. Most shockingly, I might survive if both of those things were true. Perhaps that sounds dramatic, but being at least one or the other (good looking, smart), preferably both, formed the foundation of who (I thought) I was for a large chunk of my life. It required a lot of life experience and peeling back layers to not only unearth that foundation, but to rebuild it in a different way.
And pretty really was a bear. For all the complicated standards and conditioning I had to detach from around striving to be the smartest person in the room, there were more, so many more, around being the prettiest.
I’m certainly not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only woman who has been affected by this. I mean, by the time little girls can walk, they’re being judged by how cute they are. By the time they’re in school, pretty starts to become a measurable attribute for social standing. And shortly thereafter, it’s easy to learn and accept that at least a portion of a girl’s worth as a person is determined by exactly where they rank in terms of culturally accepted beauty standards. How many of us were groomed by the time we were toddlers to look a certain way? Dress a certain way? Wear our hair a certain way? Eat a certain way?
Are you nodding at this?
I say again: it can be such a mess.
The problem is that, too often, and too soon, pretty starts to transition into sexually attractive. That’s where the real mess happens. We begin to learn that not only is it important to be pretty to be accepted in general, that conforming to traditional standards of beauty affords one a certain level of privilege and opportunity, but it’s important to be desirable. If we’re not, we’re seen as less worthy. So then, we strive for it, and we work with what we have to make sure we’re always desirable, or more desirable to more people, sexually, sure, but also, in terms of career and relationships and life in general. It’s shocking to discover just how highly conventional beauty is valued in our culture and our society. I’ve been working in this field for nearly a decade now, and there’s extensive research spanning decades pointing to how important this is perceived to be, and the impact it can have on self-worth.
Growing up living with this as a backdrop and not really knowing anything about misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, bias – it took a lot to go back and uncover what was at play and how it affected me. Turns out, there was a lot at play, and it affected me greatly.
Even for those of us who can get by being reasonably average in relation to conventional beauty standards, who can manage to get through formative years relatively unscathed with a decent sense of self-confidence, it’s rare to get all the way through life without some deep-seated negative feelings about our looks affecting us from time to time. Or maybe, it happens more frequently than we care to admit. Again – this all relates to your definition of the Spectrum of Choice Confidence.
I remember getting to college and being reasonably confident in myself, feeling pretty good about how I looked, my body, who I was. And then, I roomed with an angel. Just slightly taller than me, but most importantly, with the longest legs I’d ever seen, the “perfectly perky” B-cup breasts, long blonde hair and ice blue eyes, a light dusting of freckles, and a smile that could light up a room. Oh, and also, she has a killer personality and came with an equally gorgeous red-headed best friend. My confidence was pretty quickly and easily shattered.
I’ll never forget taking pictures together and posting them on the absolutely heinous website, www.hotornot.com, and getting comments like, “Soooooo hot, but your brunette friend is a dog.” Like, what do you even do with that?
I wasn’t sure. I muddled through and made it work. I didn’t let myself get too close or do too much with her so I wouldn’t have to compare myself constantly and be the dowdy friend in the shadows. And honestly, I really didn’t have any trouble finding the boyfriends that I wanted. In fact, we probably both had an equal amount of boy trouble. Being more conventionally beautiful didn’t necessarily set her up for an easier road than me. And outside of the message of how sexually attractive we were was the most important thing about us, we were also equally successful academically and in our other extra-curricular pursuits. Hair color and legs did not affect those accomplishments.
Still, I had her up on a pedestal for a long, long time. Really, until more than ten years later, when, being firmly in my thirties and having worked my way through a massive amount of self-development and learning to love myself wholly, I realized her blonde hair didn’t mean anything for me. And she certainly wasn’t perfect. She was a human just like me, with her own stories and insecurities (I mean, I think she must have at least one or two?). I had a lot of envy and insecurities about myself, and it wasn’t until I could dissect them and see myself differently that I could see her differently too – as not just pretty on a pedestal, but as a truly beautiful human being and an amazing woman to have in my life. But the internalized conditioning I had about it for so long wreaked absolute havoc.
There are days when it still does. Sometimes I catch myself in moments comparing myself to another woman and her perceived “perfect” features, actively having to pull back and realize that it doesn’t take away from me or my space in the world. Or I have to take a second to go beyond someone’s striking beauty to find more meaningful compliments. That’s definitely internalized conditioning at play, and it doesn’t go away easily. It takes work to break down.
For me, though, how this eventually tied to my sexuality became the bigger driver of how I saw myself as valuable. It’s all so intertwined, and that just makes it that much more difficult to unravel later on.
If you got all the way down here, thanks for that. Know that I’d love to listen to your story, anytime.
It’s one of the most interesting things about you.
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