With so much internal and external pressure to be beautiful, it's no wonder women go to such absurd lengths to achieve the goal of perfection. Fear that we will not measure up leads to stifling conformity as we try to squeeze ourselves into the mold.
Conformity is not the only cost of our obsession with our bodies, however. There are psychological and financial price tags as well, not to mention the toll on our physical health.
More than half of American women have gone on a diet at some point in their lives. That's probably because the three-quarters of women who are of normal weight consider themselves heavy. And then there's the financial cost: We spend some $33 billion a year (yes, billion) on diet books, diet foods, diet programs, and diet accessories.
Worse, disturbing numbers of women -- vastly more than ever -- are basically starving themselves. National Institute of Mental Health statistics show that over 3 percent of women suffer from bulimia and over 4 percent from anorexia. This trend takes the fear of fat to a fatal extreme.
If we can't starve our way to beauty, many of us turn to costly medical interventions. In 2005 alone, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, more than 10 million cosmetic surgery procedures -- including liposuction, "nose jobs," breast implants, eyelid surgery, and "tummy tucks" -- were performed in this country. That's more than a 10 percent increase from the previous year. And those numbers don't even include the close to 9 million relatively minor procedures, such as face-freezing Botox injections.
An especially ugly truth is that women are going under the knife at a younger and younger age. Thousands of teenagers are getting breast implants, even taking out loans if they can't afford them. According to a Texas A&M study reported by Richard Conniff in The Natural History of the Rich: "It is customary for upper-class parents in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to give their daughters breast implant surgery as a high school graduation gift. It is explicitly recognized by both parents and daughters that the young women will get more dates and be more popular in college if they have larger breasts. As one student put it: 'Among the wealthier families, the boys get hot cars for graduation, and the girls get big breasts.'"
And if changing our bodies isn't enough, we're resorting in larger and larger numbers to changing our brains, with mood-altering drugs. A 2004 Centers for Disease Control study found that one in ten women take antidepressants such as Prozac. The National Sleep Foundation (yes, there is one) found that 63 percent of women experience symptoms of insomnia several nights a week. And one health care company reported that in 2004, 58 percent more women than men took prescription drugs to sleep. Sure, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to take these medications, but can anyone doubt that part of the reason for their popularity is that women need a way to shut down and get some respite from our constant fears and anxieties?
On Becoming Fearless About How We Look
The first step to becoming fearless about our physical appearance is knowing that our fears of inadequacy are manufactured and mass-marketed. The fear-generating messages of perfection we measure ourselves against come not from Moses on the mountaintop but from the multibillion-dollar cosmetics and fashion industries whose profits are directly tied to our levels of insecurity.
As Jean Kilbourne writes in Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, the reason so much is spent on market research and advertising is because it works. Marketers know that if they team up with the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry, they can not only sell us fantasies but also then sell us the products we think will help us realize them.
That's only half the story, however. We are, after all, the ones perpetuating the game of comparisons. The urge to compare, to see how we're doing relative to others, is a part of the human condition. But we can enlarge our perspective to dilute the power of our narrow, self-destructive comparisons. I know this is hard, but if we can't completely stop playing the comparison game, we can at least start changing whom we compare ourselves to. Instead of comparing ourselves to Angelina Jolie, how about comparing ourselves to a victim of Hurricane Katrina, a woman who lost her legs fighting in Iraq, or a woman diagnosed with breast cancer? They're out there, too. When we do this, we are sure to tap into our reserves of empathy and gratitude instead of our endless self-judgments, fears, and jealousies.
It was only when I began observing the critical voices inside me rather than giving in to them that I could start to take control over them. Instead of being drained by the negative self-talk, I found myself amused by it the way you are by a naughty child. We have a choice about what to do with the messages we hear. We may not be able to tune them out entirely, but we don't have to let them run the show.
For example, if the voice is saying something specific, such as "I want to slim down," "I need more exercise," or "It might be fun to get highlights," then fine, go ahead and do it. But if the voice is just mindlessly nit-picking and running us down, we have a responsibility to lower the volume. If we let these voices deplete our energies, they will. Since the comparison game is a game that no one can win, why play in the first place?
Putting our energies into a creative project can help put an end to our obsessions with ourselves. Actress Rosanna Arquette confessed to "stressing" about having a "chicken neck" as she approached forty. But the obsession to look perfect -- all the more intense in her profession -- no longer consumed her after she reached out to others and produced a film called Searching for Debra Winger, about balancing motherhood and art. "It set me on my path to stay positive," she told me, "to connect with other women, my tribe. We have to cut out competition, because we are all on the same path of fearlessness, to be truly who we are, and this is our birthright! It's time we support and love each other in what we want to do in life so we can look at each other and know we are safe. Let's celebrate each other's individuality, blessings -- and cellulite."
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