Sunday, August 11, 2013

Breaking the Beauty Myth (with 16 Girls in a Turkish Bath)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote what is by far my most widely read and shared post:  The Beauty Myth (And Why I'm Not Buying It Anymore), a quasi review of feminist and activist Naomi Wolf's 1991 book, "The Beauty Myth".  Can I just say that Naomi Wolf has actually read the post and tweeted it to her 36,000 followers?!? I was school-girl giddy to say the least.  I'm sure she does that for everyone who writes about her, but still.  I promptly retweeted her tweet to my 44 followers, I'm sure they were very happy for me.

we are going to frame this. ;)

When I first posted the blog I had a whole list of other topics I wanted to write about that related; so many more layers of openness I wanted to type out.  But then I got scared.  I suddenly felt shy and embarrassed and I haven't even written anything for two weeks.  So this is my attempt at continuing the conversation, at least for my own process, growth and healing.

My husand and son were walking in our neighbourhood shops recently when he noticed Saf was staring at a bigger than life-size poster of a woman (or maybe four women?  You can't say for sure because their faces aren't showing: a mark of objectification in advertising).  Chris asked him what he was looking at and he said, "Their private parts are showing!"  Maybe their "private parts" aren't technically showing but my son hasn't yet been desensitized to these types of images and that was his way of saying 'Something is wrong'.  Bless his little heart, I pray daily that he always sees women as people and not objects to be exploited and used as props to sell things.  I complained through a few different mediums (including unreturned phone calls to Cotton On) and the poster is still there.  I will continue to complain and also continue to withhold my business from their shop.

That evening my husband and I had a long conversation about how to protect out children, not even just from sexual abuse and pornography, but just the ill-effects of the every day media.  I don't want my daughter to think she can't be anything she dreams to be or to believe her greatest value lies in how she looks and whether or not boys are attracted to her.  (I recently watched the trailer for a documentary called "Miss Representation" which tackles this subject and looks pretty incredible, thanks for the tip Katie!). 

Where can we go to protect our children from the media, with their sponge-like hearts and minds?  I have a few Middle Eastern friends and they tell me that body image is just as bad for women in their communities, even though they are covered head to toe in loose black cloth in public.  I've traveled a bit, so tried to think about where in the world I've felt content and good about my body?  I remembered: rural South Sudan.

Over the course of three years I've spent 13 months in Sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, South Sudan, Cameroon–each a unique and diverse world of it's own).  While living in these places I felt remarkably good about my body, the same body I wore when the plane touched down in Australia, but almost immediately a sense of shame and inadequacy would return.

I was surrounded by women who appreciated their bodies in so many shades of brown:  women who helped their neighbours birth babies in mud huts, who dressed and walked like royalty in their bright form-fitting attire, women who knew the traumas of war and still chose hope and return and birth.  The Cameroonian midwives couldn't believe that white women wanted to hide their breasts when they nursed their babies in public.  Sudanese Miriam taught me to carry water on my head, wash clothes and shell groundnuts by the fire where she listened to my stories and told me her own.  And I'll never forget Mama Ruth in Capetown and her soliloquy of the day that God made her, how He made her body different than the rest of the mamas–with small hips and a round tummy–but it was good.  And then God reached down and wiped gorgeous dimples on each of her cheeks, smiled and placed a plentiful gap between her front teeth.  She processed her sense of inadequacy through this captivating monologue and had us all celebrating the ways we stand out from the crowd with Divine approval.  I began to appreciate my body's uniqueness, especially my diastema.  (Did you know that a gap in your front teeth often represents fertility and good fortune in many parts of the world?)

In rural Africa I was at my heaviest weight, but I felt good. I used my biceps to pump water under starry skies, my legs to walk dusty roads into town, my hands to palpate the promise of future and child, my voice to sing with loud strumming around camp fires, my ears to listen to mother-words tell the tales my babies need to know.  I had no more than six cm of mirror to my name.  Just enough to make sure I had nothing in my teeth.  I didn't watch TV, didn't look at magazines, didn't post selfies on Facebook, didn't see anyone else's faces there either.  In fact, the internet was usually a drive (or a 4 1/2 mile walk) away.  Modesty was confidence, humility and covering your knees.  Breasts were for babies:  let them be accessible if you've got a nurseling running around.  I was busy, heart-deep in the terrifying and resurrecting work of doing life in community, when it's all out on the table and there's nowhere to run.

The freedom I felt in Africa tells me this: The problem is not with my body. The problem is with my culture and all the lies that I've grown up with.  In no way do I romanticize the place of women in many African contexts.  There is much abuse, child marriage, FGM, systematic rape and heart-breaking oppression but African women still carry themselves like queens, without the self-loathing that many western women experience.  And there are some very powerful women there, changing the world.  Have you ever seen the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell?"  Leymah Gbowee is my hero.

The Beauty Myth is a power of it's own, like greed, violence, apathy and materialism.  It wants us to believe that we are simply individuals who are insecure about our bodies, but as I wrote last week, there is a much larger and more insidious force working against us.  It does it's best to hold us down, keep us consumed with ourselves and therefore consuming the stuff that advertisers want to sell us. But this power won't have the last word over our lives and our cultures.  I believe that Jesus' teachings, death and resurrection set us free from all of the powers that seek to enslave, steal, kill and destroy in God's good creation.  But it's still hard, isn't it? There's much work to do.   A whole lot of hard work.  Much un-learning that needs to happen, a lot of new thought patterns to adopt and maybe some deep healing–as deep as our collective wounds have gone.

So much change needs to happen within the media, especially for the protection of our children in regards to the images they are regularly exposed to.  Collective Shout, Peace is Loud and A Mighty Girl are all organizations who raise awareness, sound the battle cry, encourage and inspire women to step into their powerfully equal place in the world.  And just as much of the battle is in our own minds.  Naomi Wolf closes The Beauty Myth by noting it's not about whether we like to dress up or shave our legs, whether we wear make up or dye our graying hair–what's important is the motivation behind what we do with our bodies.  When I get dressed in the morning is it because I'm wearing self-hatred and disappointment and need something to cover it?  Or do I know without a doubt that I'm beautiful and want to share the unique beauty that I carry with the world?  She writes,

How might women act beyond the myth?  Who can say?  Maybe we will let our bodies wax and wane, enjoying the variations on a theme, and avoid pain because when something hurts us it begins to look ugly to us.  Maybe we will adorn ourselves with real delight, with the sense that we are gilding the lily.  Maybe the less pain we inflict on our bodies, the more beautiful our bodies will look to us.  Perhaps we will forget to elicit admiration from strangers, and find we don't miss it; perhaps we will await our older faces with anticipation, and be unable to see our bodies as a mass of imperfections, since there is nothing on us that is not precious.  Maybe we won't want to be the "after" anymore. (291)

I think one of my most profound experiences of body acceptance happened in Damascus, Syria.  I was doing a Middle East study abroad program based in Cairo but we traveled all the way to Istanbul by land (and a bit of water).  It was an incredible experience and I owe so much of my life today to that program and the people who taught and studied alongside of me.  One of the program's many traditions is a visit to the Turkish bath.  I was shocked and horrified when I heard this and spent at least a week with a dull ache in my stomach.  The last thing I wanted was to be naked with a bunch of beautiful, thin girls.  It wasn't just the extra pounds I had put on because of the amazing food we ate (but what a great reason to gain weight, ohmygoodness), it was all the lies I believed about what women should look like and what I thought everyone else did look like.  I didn't back out though.  I went and it was so good.  Life changing in fact.  Two hours of humidity and exfoliation by old Syrian mamas, splashing water at each other and laughing in the way you only can when completely exposed.  It was amazing to see what all of these women actually looked like: while they were all gorgeous, none of them were air-brushed or photo-shopped to perfection.  We were all pre-pregnancy and young, but none of us looked like the women in magazines or on TV.  We were way more beautiful than that.  Wolf writes, "We need, especially for the anorexic/pornographic generations, a radical rapprochement with nakedness. Many women have describe the sweeping revelation that follows even one experience of communal all-female nakedness." (280)

This may be even more true following childbirth; your body has just brought a whole new human into the world and you should feel pretty damn good about yourself.  But the stories of actresses and models getting back in bikinis six weeks after giving birth are unavoidable.  I gave birth the same weekend as Beyonc√© and she was back on stage waaaay before me.  (I'm still waiting for my nanny and personal trainer to show up.)  And that Hollywood pressure trickles down to us regular women: to look like a hard labour was effortless for Facebook photos and then be back in jeans two weeks later.  I still looked pregnant following the births of my two babies (BECAUSE WE ALL DO) and then my body took most of that uniquely feminine fat and made it into some pretty sweet milk (literally).  I've lost the pregnancy weight but I still tell the secrets of growing babies -  stretch marks and lactating breasts, soft skin around my tummy always, my arms now more defined with a baby generally on my hip.  I have more freckles now and my hair is darker.   Wouldn't it be great to see more real life post-baby bodies where we can affirm and celebrate the miracles that have happened?  Wouldn't it be awesome if at a baby shower all the moms who have given birth got (at least semi-) naked and showed off their pregnancy badges?  We'd probably grow more realistic expectations for ourselves.

I have found people quick to compliment my shedding of weight.  I appreciate that but I really didn't do anything to make it happen other than breastfeed my kids and sometimes take them on walks and try to eat fairly healthy (although I'm known to pick up a double cheeseburger every week or so).  What is so much more meaningful is when someone says "Wow, I see how hard you work for your kids."  The mothering is something I have much more control of and exhaust myself over (don't we all?) and when someone does encourage me in that way it makes my whole day lighter.  What kinds of compliments do I give to other women?  Does it focus primarily on hair, body and clothes?  Or do I call out the kindness I see, the confidence and truth and grace evident in their lives?  

Since reading "The Beauty Myth" I've paid close attention to the words I think about myself and others.  Thoughts can come but I don't have to take ownership of them.  The need to compare myself to others is fairly ingrained in me and I am working hard to stop that.  When that begins to happen I've decided to look at each of the women at the park or in the room, to really look at their body and then say to myself, "This is what the body of a beautiful woman looks like."  Can we all be the beautiful one?  YES YES YES!!!  I'm stepping out from under the power of the beauty caste system because within those strangling confines we all suffer and we all lose.

I want to also be very cautious about what I spend my time viewing.  Whether it's ads in a magazine or style pinboards, if it's making me feel bad about my life then I stop looking.  I'm not a Pinterest user and I know it's a great resource and organizational tool for people (who, unlike me, like to be resourced and organized) but recently I was checking out a few style boards and afterwards I told Chris, "Wow.  I feel crappy right now."  He noted that I hadn't talked like that in a long time.  Media is powerful and we need to be aware of our weaknesses.  Use it for all the good that it can do in your life and the world but we needn't subject ourselves to even subtle discouragement about the way we look, how we decorate our homes or what crafts our kids make/destroy.  [By the way, did you watch The Sapphires?  Wasn't it great to see four talented, beautiful women in the lead roles who looked very different than most of the women we see in movies?  So good.]

So maybe I won't head to South Sudan anytime soon but I'm going to keep fighting The Beauty Myth right here, for myself, my friends and the children in my life.  Sometimes that means making complaints at the mall, signing off from social media, or using it to sign petitions, going deeper in conversation than I'm naturally comfortable with or calling out the lasting beauty that I see in the women around me.  We are free from the powers of Beauty Myth, they've been found out to be lies.  And the more we learn to love our own real life bodies, just as they are, the more we will be free to love the real life bodies of our neighbours and people 'round the other side of the earth.

Barbara Brown Taylor, who talks about praying naked in front of a full length mirror says it beautifully in "An Altar in Our World",
"The first thing I understood was that it was not possible to trust that God loved all of me, including my body, without also trusting that God loved all bodies everywhere.  God loved the bodies of hungry children and indentured women along with the bodies of sleek athletes and cigar-smoking tycoons.  While we might not have one other thing in common, we all wore skin.  We all had breath and beating hearts....Wearing my skin is not a solitary practice but one that brings me into communion with all these other embodied souls.  It is what we most have in common with each other."
And if there's anything the world needs right now I think it's to realize how very much we have in common with each other.


How do you feel the media affects your view of your body?  If you've given birth, did you feel pressure to lose the weight and hide any traces of that miraculous process as quickly as possible?  Do you know of any shows or movies that portray women in realistic and empowering ways?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!


  1. this is something I've had a hard time with my whole life and mostly it's been a losing battle. your blog is something I really enjoy reading even though we have different views on religion I still feel I can take something away from every single one of your posts. these two posts on the beauty myth have given me a lot of food for thought and I can't tell you how much it is helping me. I've been moved to tears because I don't feel like I'm alone. I know pretty much everyone has body image problems but somehow I always felt like I was in it alone. thank you.

  2. thanks so much for reading and sharing your experience, Sarah. I think the more we can talk openly about how body image and the media have affected us, the more we can de-stigmatize the shame that we often feel towards ourselves. Its a long, long road though - will probably take our whole lives!!

  3. Awesome stuff! I grew up in Nigeria ( Live in the UK now) and you are right all my aunties look like beautiful amazonian women..They rock! I have to make a conscious effort to rephrase the self talk that goes through my head. I carried my babe, birthed him & i am nursing him 27 months later that is a badge I should prioritise over the many stretchmarks I gained.. my bump was huge! Ironically, I never felt more sexy & feminine that when I was pregnant. It was so good not to hold in the belly & just appreciate the amazing miracle God gave me. Good thoughts.

  4. Wow, this is beautiful. So needed this reminder this morning, well, i do everyday. I love the encouragement to watch the way in which we compliment other women- it's true I always have a tendency to compliment the outer appearance instead of what I see on the inside! Everything about this post is amazing!! Thank you! I actually live in South Africa with my hubby- and yes I totally know what you are saying about their bodies and how they dress, its so different here in that regard. But I know they too are beginning to feel pressure from media- especially the younger generation. But there is something so beautiful about the african women here that we in the west are missing...

  5. I struggle with self image on a daily basis. It all started with my own mother who has been overweight since she was a child and has always made bad comments about her body and allowed her poor body image to take over her daily decisions.
    One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to go swimming at the lake a half a mile from my childhood home. I always wanted my mother to go swimming with my 3 brothers and myself, and she always wore her bathing suit, but would rarely jump in with us, instead she would stay in her large, bulky, and disfiguring beach coverup, and read her books watching us from the shoreline. I remember feeling so dissapointed that she did not want to swim with us.

    And it took me many years to realize that she was embarrassed about her body, which led to turning down many events and fun days that involved putting bodies on display in anyway.

    In my mind as a young and influenced girl, I quickly realized after gaining wait during puberty, having no friends, and everyone telling me how much I was like my mother, that I was spiraling down my mother's same path and quickly. This in turn perpetuated a growing cycle of eating as healthy as possible (i.e living on oatmeal and salads w/lean chicken breast on it, some fruit, and nothing else)
    At times when I indulged on anything sweet or in anyway 'extra food' as I had deemed it. I would then go for a run, or swim or anything to 'burn off the calories' .
    This cycle made me go from went a 'plump', 130lb, pubescent, 13yr old girl to a very 'lean' 105lb 15 year old young lady, with c-cup breasts, standing at 5'8".

    I starting getting all kinds of comments about my size, weight, frame, breasts, etc. It was endless, women hated me, boys and men alike oogled me and my body, gushing over me with compliments. My mother was jealous of me and treated me poorly. And to this day makes compliments about how her body was never 'this small'.
    Everywhere I looked were magazines, billboards, commercials, movies, EVERYTHING said I needed to look and feel this way forever.
    I have struggled with these feelings for years and it has infected my mind in a way that no woman should ever have to live with, life is hard enough without thoughts of body image.
    But now I am much older. I am 25yrs old, married to a wonderful, and loving man who loves me no matter how my body looks. My body has bore, breastfed, and nurtured two amazing little boys who love me just as I am, and all they care about is if their Mommy will 'go swimming with them' (and I do)
    - As it should be. <3

    I hope and pray daily for a better world where our bodies are no longer on display as a source of criticism and scrutiny.

  6. P.S. This is the second time I have read your blog, I love the topics you have covered that I have read thus far, and your words are very thought provoking and inspiring. I look forward to reading more! Thank you for doing what you do. <3 <3 <3

  7. Miss Representation is a moving worth seeing. Yet, it is everyday conversations that will make the change that needs to happen, happen. It is time to make it happen. How often have you heard mothers comment on how cute their little girls look, in their 'little girl sized' but truly women styled clothing? Need I mention the show Toddlers and Tiaras here? I find combating this more challenging than my own body image. I feel frustrated at attempting to combat how very young girls are taught that their body is what matters, even as their parents say 'Oh aren't you smart'. It is a confusing message to hear for me, how much more so for their young minds. Yes, we all want to feel good about themselves and yes, I do like to wear pretty clothes. But, to be at peace with one's size, or how one fits into those clothes when everyone comments on exactly whether you should or should not wear 'that' is a challenge. Older women often experience freedom from all this, because so often they are invisible in the 'beauty' realm. Finally, when older, one is free. And as an older woman, I look back and say, why couldn't I have been free all this time to simply be myself. In high school I had a substitute teacher who was about six feet and 'big boned' (as my mother would say). She made it a point to discuss her body, to say that she was a big woman and that she was comfortable with her body. To a mixed gender class. I don't think she was actually accepting of it, but working towards it ,and one of the ways was to say out loud to teens, I am proud of who I am. I still remember her. And yet, one small moment after years of being taught otherwise is not enough. We need to find a positive way to impact the YOUNG girls, not teens, the wee young girls, so that they will grow up without this beauty myth. Combat it on all levels. Media pushes its point but it is US who accept and promote its ideas. The next time you think of telling a little girl, oh don't you look cute, think of what you are promoting. It is a challenging. I say it too, especially when that little girl is smiling at me, and looking for affirmation that she has her hair up, and her shiny shoes on and she went to all that effort to look pretty , so I should say she looks pretty. I am not going to make her happy if I don't say how sweet and wonderful she looks. And yet, it must start somewhere....

  8. wow, your comment is packed with so many ideas ... i have a daughter (19 mos) and I struggle too with the clothing that is available for her, how so much of it are mini-versions of adult women's fashionable clothing and of course it's not blatantly 'sexy' but just the fact that it's trying to womanize her bothers me. I also think it's very interesting that you talk about how invisibility from the 'beauty realm' sets older women free ... I guess the hope that we can all begin to choose our own invisibility (or invincibility?) regardless of our age will bring some change ... I totally agree that it starts with little girls - it's kind of terrifying but so true. Thanks so much for your thoughts!!

  9. thanks so much for sharing your story ... it's amazing how so many of us can relate to these pressures and feelings of inadequacies. I really want to be a mom who loves my body (and my children know it!) regardless of where it goes in size and shape and texture ... and to be someone who uses my body to do fun things with my kids! Isn't it amazing to be married to people who love our bodies unconditionally? I have found that to be very liberating although I know that if I wasn't also coming to the place of loving my body as well, then all of my husband's affirmations would still be meaningless ... here's to hope for the next generation!

  10. Hi Charissa - Thanks so much for reading. I haven't been to South Africa for over 8 years so I'm sure things are really changing, especially in the urban areas. Do you think the pressure is for young women to look more 'white' or is it pressure to have a distinct look that is more black African but still unattainable in it's perfection? When I was there being 'skinny' had a big stigma attached it (HIV/the onset of AIDS). Is that changing?

  11. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog! Nigerian women are some of the most confident and strong women that I have ever met! I had the opportunity to work with pregnant and labouring/birthing women and they always had this point where they would shed their wrap and just get naked (usually around transition) and I remember always thinking how incredible their body looked! How have you found the body image pressure to be in the UK after growing up in West Africa? And way to go for nursing your boy for 27 months ... so good. We are on 36 months (my son) and 19 months (my daughter) and I'm pretty sure that a lot of my extended nursing./bedsharing/babywearing ways got inside me while living in Africa ... :)

  12. I totally would love to see women birthing in Africa! I would say living in the UK probably gave it more prominence, as you probably know, Nigeria is getting quite westernised? Our ideals are changing I feel... Well from what I have observed I have now lived longer in the UK than in Nigeria. :-) thank you! He loves his "mummy milk"

  13. Bek @ Just For DaisyAugust 13, 2013 at 10:46 AM

    Absolutely love this post. Such a huge problem that I see over and over again. We haven't had commercial TV in our home for about 18 months and it is such a wonderful change. Watching TV at friends houses or hotels is really strange and the advertisements feel like a real invasion into our space and our family.
    Good on you for speaking out against the Cotton On poster - we need to do this more often and really fight for our daughters, and their daughters. And ourselves. Thanks... folowing your blog now - glad I found you! :)

  14. I think it's such a great idea to limit commercial TV - I had a brief stint with watching Sunrise in the mornings and then realized that half of it was trashy and exploitative - not exactly news! I had a good conversation with a rep. from Cotton On yesterday - I'm hoping some other friends will join in and give them a ring! Thanks so much for reading!

  15. I LOVE this blog!!! Thank you thank you thank you for your honesty and your insight! I have only just got back to pre-pregnant weight, and my son is 20months old! Funnily enough I still need a new wardrobe cos that weight is a different shape now... my style has completely changed! I definitely felt the pressure to get back into shape quickly though, had a nervous breakdown at 6 weeks when I still looked 4 months pregnant! I am so very thankful to God for redirecting my focus in that time.. I really really am fearfully and wonderfully made, and I believe that now more than ever :)

  16. yay!! thanks for reading! yes i definitely know that even when you lose all the baby weight your body is still never the same - in the best way - and it sometimes takes us awhile to grow appreciation for the changes! I think changing our expectations is pretty crucial and we will probably enjoy our newborns even more if we aren't feeling the pressure to get our bodies back to 'normal'!

  17. excellent post - but where is my photo credit? I took that last photo. :)

    Love you heaps! You/this post inspire me!

  18. haha. you are fully credited now. i will send you your check in the mail very soon. ;) miss you friend. wish we were pumping water together under the stars ... xx

  19. Your words as always are inspiring dear friend.

  20. this post has stayed with me and been on my mind a lot. I'm also reminded of this post every time I see a special k commercial. they're replacing pants sizes with words like confident and sassy. in past commercials they've had a scale that read beautiful and other compliments instead of numbers. their motto is " you're so much more than a number" this really makes me feel good and its a great message. I know they're just trying to sell their product but it doesn't matter. I can't be the only one realizing these commercials are better than the ones showing skin and bones models

  21. you're right - i think even small steps in the right direction are at least steps! i feel impacted when i see women of varying (and normal!) sizes and shapes on screens - it helps our collective understanding of beauty to grow! thanks for stopping by!

  22. I love this. I've read it before and even as I read it now it speaks volumes to the turning over of ideas and personal challenges I'm currently engaging. It's so tired really. The whole idea of body hate and discontentment. I've decided even if stepping out from under the burden and lie of fabricated beauty makes others uncomfortable (and myself for a bit too), I just want to live that way. I'm deciding what's beautiful and confident. And freedom is a hell of a lot more attractive than discontentment and fabrication, and it feels a lot better. Thanks for writing and wrestling on issues that often go unnoticed yet hold incredible value. You encourage and challenge me in the best of ways.