Having highlighted the problem of women undermining themselves and their girls in my first blog, I wanted to use the second to express the spirit in which I hope we can try to address it. How can we start to limit the pressure we put on ourselves around body image, aging and sexuality?
Here’s a common scenario I hear from both male and female clients who are dating or married, in individual or couples treatment, that illustrates what we’re up against:
Both the man and the woman are attracted to each other, but she’s self conscious about her body. He reassures her she’s desirable but she’s too distracted by her imperfections to believe him. Eventually, he finds himself in a position to focus on these imperfections she’s constantly pointing out to him, things he never would have noticed or cared about before. Over time her preoccupation with herself causes her to retreat, and he withdraws because he’s worn down by her rejection and inability to believe how he sees her, and feels about her. She can see her dissatisfaction with her breasts, her stomach or her cellulite, but she can’t see him; and in so doing, she undermines herself, her sexual pleasure, her lover, and perhaps even the relationship.
As a feminist, I understand holding women accountable may be seen by some as antifeminist – a blaming the victim stance. But my objective is the opposite. By now we’re well versed on the impact of sexism from outside our gender, and based on the discomfort I hear in my practice, my study, and the women around me, I believe it’s time to also focus on the damage we wreak on ourselves from within our gender. If we realize how we’re actively participating in inflicting harm, it will be immensely empowering to have control over reversing that trend for ourselves and our girls.
Three things might be helpful to keep in mind as we confront this challenge. The first is, don’t feel guilty. Each of us does this undermining, consciously or unconsciously, because we’ve learned to; it’s the cultural color in which we’ve been dyed. It’s impossible to not be tinted by the negative, unrealistic ways women and girls are viewed because it’s so pervasive it’s molecular. And while it’s maddening that we all do it, there’s a comfort in it too, because it means we can all fumble through trying to improve the situation together without feeling shame.
The second, is that in my clinical experience, undermining, at its deepest level, is usually motivated by a desire to feel emotionally safe. Needing to feel safe is the cornerstone of all human behavior. The undermining itself isn’t helpful, but the psychological goal it’s hoping to achieve is not only understandable, it’s necessary.
If a woman scrutinizes herself, the scrutiny automatically comes with a wish for how she’d like to be different, which might motivate her to move toward that wish. If a woman scrutinizes another woman or her daughter, the scrutiny probably comes with either a desire to feel superior to her, or a desire to protect her from what she imagines will be the even harsher scrutiny of others.
We feel safe when we have the illusion of being beyond scrutiny. If we, or our daughters are the prettiest or thinnest we feel safer because we believe it makes us more desirable, acceptable, and lovable. And why wouldn’t we? It’s marketed to us every day. This understanding of women’s misdirected attempts to feel safe can inspire us to have more empathy and patience with each other.
If we dislodge ourselves from the self loathing component and redirect our efforts toward more effective ways of feeling safe, the problem can begin to fade. The caveat, of course, is that there’s nothing any of us can do to guarantee emotional safety. But trying to live our lives feeling comfortable and balanced in who we are is the best shot we have at being both safe and happy.
The third is the most exciting. These are the fundamental changes women need to make in order to feel a more genuine sense of safety, which will reduce the need to sabotage:
We need to feel more of a healthy sense of entitlement. To everything.
We need to give to ourselves and understand this isn’t selfish, it’s self sustaining.
We need to accept receiving pleasure. Especially sexually.
And we need to feel grounded in a sense of confidence in who we already are.
It’s alright to have some vanity. Wanting to feel and look good is a part of self confidence. And to not feel on some level compelled to physically conform to the society we live in is unwise, because if we didn’t we’d feel ostracized and miserable. The trouble is our myopic focus. We view ourselves through this lens, and we teach our daughters to do the same. The ways we collude in keeping our physicality in the foreground while everything else about us is blurred creates an imbalance we need to rectify. The “beauty” lies in each of us deciding for herself what that balance is.