From the time I was preteen, I was obsessed with drawing the same cartoon over and over;
the first illustration showed the shapely backside of a long-haired temptress, and the next frame revealed the fact that the things are not as they appear – a woman with a monstrously ugly face. It was a self-portrait, and I remember that when I drew it, I was feeling the impossibility of ever finding love with a mug like mine.
That was the 1960’s, when the first coloured TV set appeared in our household, and apart from the odd magazine that floated through, there were limited visual standards for what beauty entailed. In my case, I was comparing myself to my older sisters, whose dark-haired, fine-featured beauty was unmistakeable – they turned a lot of heads.
I knew that my overbite and receding chin disqualified me from physical beauty, and I remember distinctly believing that this gave me no hope. Furthermore, I was academically inclined and a diehard tomboy. “Who will ever love you?” floated off the tip of my mother’s tongue repeatedly.
Self-esteem, it seems, has always been a fragile thing. I cannot imagine how difficult it is in today’s world where images of ‘beautiful’ women bombard us, and selfies populate the social media screen.
Raise your hand, ladies, if you have ever felt like you don’t measure up. Well, that’s about everyone. How tragic is this. (If this didn’t include you, please leave your secret in the comments.)
Things could have been different for me, if my mother had valued my intelligence, or spirit, or recognized any gift in me other than focusing so much on the physical. But she didn’t. In fact, beauty was the measure of a woman’s worth in our family, and my second eldest sister, who became a fashion model, set the bar.
What saved me, I believe, is that I also grew up in the time of Women’s Lib when women were encouraged to address and fight for equality. It was a cause I could throw myself into – a battle for human rights.
What cause engages the hearts of young women today, I wonder.
What prompted this post was the appearance of a young woman on the reality show: The Bachelor, and then subsequently on Bachelor In Paradise. (Don’t yell at me, it’s a mindless indulgence that both my husband and I watch.) Initially, the young woman is attractive, and appears to be a contender for the coveted male attention. She receives a lot of flack for speaking up about another girl to the contestant, Ben, and then lying when confronted with her act. (Raise your hand if you’ve never done that. I thought so.)
When she appears again, this time in Mexico, she is unrecognizable as the wholesome, attractive blonde that we first met. She has transformed herself – fuller lips, more pronounced makeup, a new bad girl attitude. I understand that she is setting her sights on stardom, but it saddens me that this is the standard that some young woman aspire to.
As an educator, I have participated in the widespread effort to raise children’s self-esteem. We missed the mark by a long shot. What we now recognize is that esteem derived from intrinsic values is more important than external praise. We have turned our focus to developing character, and resilience. The media still lags behind, and understandably so – they have an agenda to sell a product, and making the audience feel bad about themselves fits their needs.
If I could go back and talk to that young artist whose deflated sense of self obsessively drew a mutated self portrait, or offer a kind word to the young, aspiring actress that appeared on reality TV, I would say: “You are perfect the way you are, and your reason for being on this earth has nothing to do with your physical appearance, and everything to do with discovering who you are on the inside and what you can do to contribute to making the world a better place.”
As I watch my granddaughters grow and develop, I pray that they will come to appreciate themselves for so much more than just looks.