By Shelli Stanger Nelson, Founder and President
We are a society that is insanely obsessed with outward appearance and approval. So much so that I believe, one day, this external fixation could actually be a major factor in the demise of our entire species. If we do not become motivated to righten our course, we will be a society of empty bank accounts, empty minds, empty hearts and empty souls. And this, certainly, is death at its truest description.
We are on an insanely unfulfilling journey that yearns for acceptance and approval from outer egoic structures rather than finding true peace that comes only from self-acceptance and self love. The only way to secure this unwavering confidence is to stop comparing the self to others. And the only way to stop comparing is to develop a grounded sense of self based on a healthy inner egoic consciousness; to ground the self in one’s character rather than appearance.
Character is the driving force behind a healthy super-ego rather than one that is punitive and destructive. When we develop character we develop a healthy ego and vice versa. This healthy ego, in turn, is what inspires us to be happily productive, to give freely of our talents and treasures, to share our true nature with society in a meaningful manner. When we live from a grounded character we become less burdensome to ourselves and to others and are more inclined to resiliency and fortitude rather than hopelessness and reclusiveness. We are motivated to develop ourselves to our highest potential simply for the inner satisfaction rather than for outward recognition.
I decided to write on the topic of external appearance for a couple of reasons. One, we can see the wrenching pain of hostile body image on-line in, for example, the works of Lily Myers poetry and Brittney Gibbons TED Talk.
I also recently asked the students at Rukha ®Academy to submit a reflective homework wherein they named negative and judgmental thoughts about the self and others. Nearly 100% of the student body, which, is all women at the moment), wrote of hyper-critical judgments of the self in every aspect of their being. The insults started with the hair and made its way to the soles of the feet. Then it crept along the floor and oozed into the deepest crannies of their being.As a woman I was sadly not surprised at the self-abuse.
As I read the homework and the private inner thoughts buried in each person’s whirling, swirling mind I became gripped with a sense of dread. “How are we ever going to get beyond this insanity”, I wondered.”When will our self-worth as women ever shift from our appearance to the quality of our character? When will we, women, allow it to be so?”
I tried to get a sense of how much this affected men, but I didn’t get much of a response from my various social media inquiries. The men who did reply felt that yes, men also feel this need to self-criticize. It was interesting to me that but a handful of men were even interested in making a comment. I know if I had asked women their thoughts, my in-box would have been brimming. The main theme I learned from my minor input from men is that they seemed most concerned with body fat and physique, which included things like height and other indicators of physical fortitude. Also men talked about their changing emotional needs as they age. Absent from the laundry list of self-critiques of men were things like wrinkles and facial features.
I’ve studied enough psychology and sociology to understand that at a basic level, we are wired to survive and procreate. In the book, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement”, author David Brooks discusses at length how human beings are drawn to the opposite gender as heterosexuals through a subconscious draw toward what we see as being capable of both keeping us safe and helping us to reproduce. While this is all true, this article is intended to go beyond our physiological drive and rather, to reflect on how we might diminish the focus on outer appearance and acceptance and shift to a means of a more secure self-identity.
So back to my students homework.
As I became witness to the heartbreak and self-loathing carried like a thousand tons of wailing voices, I could also feel the burden of my ancestor’s similar gloom. And sadly, I could relate to all of it myself.
This villainous critical voice has no bounds. As a bio-energy therapist, I hear about the laugh that’s too loud or too dorky, the thin hair, frown lines and sagging necks. I hear about the cellulite and the calluses, the bowed legs, bulging tummies, blue veins, crooked noses and marshmallow hips and thighs. The self-descriptors I hear are, “disgusting” and “ugly”, “homely” and “wrong”-as if there were a “right” texture of skin or hair color or size of a foot.
Our self-recriminations don’t stop with our skin and body and hair and teeth. They move on to having the wrong zip code. We judge the year of car we drive, the size of our engagement ring and the level of education we’ve attained-no matter if we are a high school drop-out or a post-grad, somehow we manage to degrade the self.
As we scrutinize the self, we do so similarly to others. The hidden torture of the punitive super-ego in females is morbidly somewhat cannibalistic. While so many women use not only our insane minds, but horrifically, sometimes also our hands, to rip and tear away at our bodies, faces, breasts and yes, even our fingernails, we do similarly to other women. We give sidelong glances at our sisters sizing them up, judging if their clothing is suitable or their eyelids puffy. “She looked just horrible”. We criticize the women who are more fit and more vivacious than we deem the self. We look at our sisters and define them as fat or fit, sexy or dowdy. Many times our insecurities, covertly disguised as disinterest, even cost us relationships. When I hate myself, I hate you.
This isn’t new information, people. The idea that we are steeped in self-loathing, especially as it relates to our physical appearance has been going on for as long as I can remember, and before that. Today it’s even more pandemic. And why not? All we have to do is watch 10 minutes of television, glance at one magazine cover, watch one cable show or click on one webpage to be assaulted with commercials festooned with glowing skinned, Osmond white-toothed , leggy girls posing as married women and mothers, appearing perfectly fresh and energetic outside their manor home with it’s riverstone foundation, stamped concrete drive and beachwood deckchairs sitting around a patio table set with layers of linen table dressings and stacks of matching outdoor tableware all displayed beside the outdoor wet bar. How can we not help but feel inferior?
I sure don’t look like that. And a lot of times I don’t feel fresh or energetic. And I don’t ever recall putting on lipstick to sit on my back deck.
I can get sucked into the desperate multimedia blitz to remain forever young, to lose weight and feel like I don’t measure up; to tighten and expand and smooth and lift any number of body parts. As I wander through the cacophony of bewildering options, that old familiar voice that I thought I had packed in the moving trunk and covered with old, unused quilts begins chanting anew.
These are the voices of kids in school who called me, “Shelli Belly”. The voices in high school that said, “you’re not pretty enough to belong to our group”, They are the voices of teasing and mocking when I didn’t have the right brand of jeans. They are the voice of my father who used to walk up behind me as I stood at the kitchen sink and pound gently on my slightly saddle bagged thighs when I was 16. It’s the voice of the mirror whose reflection never looked cute enough. It’s the disinterested glance of the hot guy on the dance floor when I was 21 years old. If I miss the chance to slam the lid down on the trunk, I can easily fall into the belief that I am not enough and don’t deserve. Just plain don’t deserve-anything.
We have been talking about the disease of low self-esteem, which is often based on a comparison of the self to other through external approval, since the beginning of time. We are talking about competition and jealousy, which are both facets of the negative ego. If you think this is a phenomenon that hasn’t been around a long time, check out the Hebrew Bible. Remember the story of the inferiority Cain felt within himself and the jealousy he felt toward Able when Able’s gift was seen as preferred. Cain’s jealousy became so great, the competition so fierce, the need for external approval so desperate he actually murdered his own brother.
We must begin to define ourselves from within instead of from without. But be careful. We all want and actually need, a mirror of the truth of who we are. We all need someone to say to us, “hey, you look smashing in that outfit” or “You really made a difference in my life”. To deny that we as humans don’t receive nurturance in this way is to move to a place of isolated detachment rather than healthy inter-dependence. This detachment then becomes nothing more than an inability to value and appreciate the fact that we have the need to be in relationship with others. When we bond and attach to others in a healthy way we understand that we have responsibilities; responsibilities to the self and to society at large. We shift from the idea of “I don’t care what you think” to “You matter to me and I care about how my thoughts and behaviors affect you”. We see the content of our character emerge. When I love myself, I love you.
Conversely, we must not ground ourselves in an outer egoic affirmation. We must ground ourselves from within. If we don’t it won’t matter how many compliments or acknowledgements we receive. It won’t matter how big our biceps, how smooth the skin or how skinny our jeans. Nothing poured on from the outside will reach the parched and choked crying small part of us packed away in the attic trunk in the absence of a positive, healthy ego whose voice is the voice of God.
What I try to do as I work to overcome my hostile super-ego that wants to convince me I’m insufficient, is that when I catch myself agonizing over my rough skin, my feet that wear a size 8 1/2 (and sometimes 9) shoe with the right big toe crooked from a fracture, the nail thick and rough; when I hear my inner criticwanting to hide my hands that are broad and sturdyor my shoulders that are wide and athletic; when I lie down in bed at night and feel my fine, baby soft hair and find my not-so-tight skin I ask myself, “does it really matter?”. Does my dog care? What is the quality of my character? Am I making a difference in just one person’s life despite all of this? What’s it worth to me? Would I trade smaller thighs and lush hair for say, my home, my husband, my kidneys or my life? Because truthfully, in the end, I am just going to die. And the things I acquired, the external beauty I did or did not possess will have meant absolutely zero. When my small, insecure voice wants to push open the lid of the trunk I stop, literally stop, I take a step out of the energy I’ve fallen into. I actually move my physical body to another place so I can get perspective. Then I remind myself of the truth, that God has a plan for me that is much larger than the small story of my too thick thighs or too fine hair.
Before I close I want to be sure to say that there is no devilish hypocrite in improving one’s appearance so long as it’s done from the right intention. People do react and respond to appearances. Facial deformities create isolation and degrade self-worth and confidence. Surgical repairs of a cleft palate is an essential intervention in helping to develop social acceptance. I recently started working with a personal trainer. Likely after some time my muscles will be smoother and stronger and I’ll likely tone and lose fat and gain strength. I’ll probably appear different. The reason I began the hard work and sacrifice is not for my appearance, however. I did it because walking up the stairs was more difficult. My body was aching and my energy level was falling. I could tell I couldn’t do as much in a day that I had done even last year. I was witnessing myself complaining to my friends about how much work it was to do the things I have to do in my life. I decided that the only way I could help my increasing fatigue and weakness was to rebuild some of the stamina and muscle I’m losing as I travel through the second century of my life. I called upon my character to take responsibility for my experience. What it wasn’t based on was the fear that I wasn’t the “it” girl of my 30’s any more. It wasn’t based on the need for my peers to shower me with reflection. While that’s great if it happens, I’m not clinging to it like a leach before I can feel good about myself.
I paint my fingernails because I think it’s fun. And because I sometimes need some fun in my life. If it weren’t fun, I wouldn’t do it. Sometimes I wear funky clothes and unique jewelry. I do it because it’s an expression of my essence and when I express my essence it’s an energetic invitation for others to do the same. I’m not looking for praise or to be special. If someone compliments me, I’m happy, sure. I enjoy being seen and mirrored because I’m in relationship. But my inner child isn’t looking up waiting for the blessing before I can feel good. Am I perfect at this? No way! But I’m conscious of the times I’m in alignment with truth and when I’ve fallen back into the lie.
Rumi asks, “What’s worth more; power over an entire nation, or your own inner peace?”
I’m going for the inner peace. And that is something that no one else can supply me with, nor take away.
I’m sure along the way I’ll stumble over my size nine feet. And when I do, I’ll use my strong, sturdy hands and athletic shoulders to pick myself up again And I will remind myself that I am living a purpose that is much larger than the small story of my beautiful, healthy, powerful body.
And so it is.