You know the ones. The kind you could only sneak a flip through while in the waiting room of your mom’s doctor’s office. The kind you weren’t allowed to read until you were a grown up, as though our mothers knew to preserve our innocence, maybe not from 102 New Sex Positions, but from the idea that we are constantly a work-in-progress, that our worth need be earned.
When you’re young and impressionable and first gauging your concept of what a happy life could be, what you see most commonly idolized impresses itself on your little kid sponge brain. So you trace the guidelines and create your own blueprints from the images that become self-evident the more and more you realize their omnipresence: in practice, in print, as solutions for avoiding what you fear and goals for getting what you want.
They happen to be common for a reason: they are the ones that prod at your deepest insecurities, and fuel your perpetual state of changing, hoping, trying, working, becoming.
They are the ones that drive you to betterment by convincing you that however you are is not good enough.
The point is that the cultural rhetoric we received on the things that really matter – on how to build a relationship with yourself and coexist in a relationship with someone else, on how to help others and find your way, on how to determine what matters and who doesn’t – narrated our existence in a very narrow, limiting, disempowering way.
Simply, it was never about how to develop self-esteem that isn’t physical, from someone else, or based on temporary, mindless things.
Success wasn’t choosing a new religion, there were no essays on how to outline a budget on a starting salary, or why we shouldn’t shame any bodies, or how to accept your normal, average, mid-sized frame for what it is. We never read about what it means to know who you are, or how to figure out what you really want or what had to be learned in the 30 years someone spent single and healing before they were ready to commit to a partner (rather than the physical makeover that landed them the date.) And we never read about how to heal the deep, lingering sense of unworthiness that convinces us it’s noble to compulsively diet and shop and smile and prove yourself to yourself.
But we read these magazines and devoured them. Those glossy illustrations of a warped, collective mindset. That the only food is diet food. That the women who were desirable were lithe and smooth and mostly naked and posed effortlessly, carelessly draped over a man. They were sensationalized and appealing. They made sense on the most instinctual level. If I want to look at the prettiness of these women, clearly a man will want to look at me if I am the same way!
Be more by being less, by being consumable and enjoyable for someone else – and let us convince you that it’s your joy to do so. Earn your calories by working for them. Earn your relationship by putting out. Acknowledge that your homeostasis is “unworthy.” Make yourself matter.
Acceptable – liked! – women are the ones who make everyone comfortable. The ones who are universally regarded in a positive light are sweet and unthreatening and everybody’s friend. If you think about it, I am sure the trend runs true in your experience as well. The women who are most accepted are the ones who could fit effortlessly into anybody’s life, whose entire “goodness” is based on how appealing and available they are to everyone else around them.
They are small, and everything that equates to smallness. Quiet and thin and agreeable and calm and willing.
And unsurprisingly, the best way to be smaller is to convince yourself that you are not okay as you are. It keeps you in a perpetual state of questioning, and therefore, willingness to change.
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But let me be clear that the problem is certainly not any one publication’s representation of what womanhood means. We are the problem.
The writers and editors curate what we demand, they present what grabs our interest, and so it seem(ed) we want(ed) these things – and many of us still do. We want to earn our worth and be better and prettier and more likable – which is not the problem. Wanting to be better is not the problem (everything is about growth at the end of the day.)
The problem is that you’re not supposed to linger in a perpetual state of “reaching for something more.”
You don’t divide your life between “periods in which you are transforming” and “periods in which you are living.” There is healing and experiencing, there is rest and adventure, but there is no behind the scenes, there is no show, there is no performance that you put on for anybody but yourself and your illusions.
And so what happens is that our thoughts begin to keep us trapped in discomfort – they keep us failing ourselves because our standard is not only impossible… but imaginary. Crafted by consumerism, driven by ego, sustained by ignorance.
You can accept who you are while still wanting to be more. Self-hatred is not the starting point for real, lasting, genuine self-improvement. You can end the war with your body and other women and your expectations simply by realizing who created them. You can understand the unknown infinities you are capable of once you’re done being brainwashed to remain at the gym, on a diet, staring at the body before you rather than the life ahead, serving others… and allowing it all to determine why you matter.