There’s a magic in gathering women together before going out for the night, but there’s a troubling, common theme, too.
Someone ― perhaps everyone, at some point ― will express a negative thought about themselves.
It was in one of those moments, getting ready for an evening out with a group of girlfriends, that I made up a rule. For every bad thing we said about ourselves, we had to follow up with two nice, complimentary things.
My friends played along. We laughed and encouraged each other to share kind words. A friend texted me the following week to let me know she had implemented the rule with another group of women. It felt great, but insignificant. I soon forgot about it. As someone who champions body diversity, it’s been surprisingly difficult to put those ideals into practice in my real life.
That is, until a few months later, when I was sitting at a table filled with admirable women. People like model Katie Wilcox, designer Malia Mills and StyleLikeU founders Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum, to name a few.
I mentioned my little rule in passing, and was struck by the reaction it got across the board. An idea I had started in jest was garnering an engaged response. At one point, one of the women at the table even abided by the rule after making a negative comment about herself.
All of these women ― successful in fashion, in business, some married, some with children ― all shared common feelings. That regardless of the many positives surrounding us on a given day, it’s way easier to focus on the negative.
Despite the fact that standards of beauty are shifting, it is still dangerously easy to glamorize other people’s lives on social media and in turn, feel bad about your own. While it might seem small, I started to believe that by simply bringing the positive to the forefront in such an intentional way, we could all make a real change for ourselves and the people around us.
Turns out, I’m not alone. Dr. Allison Chase, Austin executive director at the Eating Recovery Center, told The Huffington Post that among women who suffer from “severe eating disorders” like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, the “last thing thing they let go of” in their journey toward living a healthier life is concern over their body image.
Chase cites social media as a major cause of that struggle. “We’ve gotten to the point now in the world we live in that it’s difficult to tell if that concern is the tail end of eating disorder issues or if they’re just like 95 percent of the women in our population.”
“Every now and then we get the idea that things are shifting ― as if requiring models to be over an 18.5 BMI is some sort of huge accomplishment,” Chase added. “We would hospitalize someone with that BMI here. It’s not going to help us if we don’t keep changing the industry ― [that’s who] sets the landscape,” she said.
Mills, a swimwear designer who has made it her mission over the past 25 years to provide an inclusive, inviting environment for swimsuit shopping, is one of the people who’s slowly but surely invoking that change. As she explained to The Huffington Post, “Our journeys are so personal and we all enter the body image discussion through so many different doorways. We like to say the revolution starts with you.”
Fashion industry aside, Dr. Lili Knutzen LMHC, MA, MED, a New York City based psychotherapist, says the tendency in women to self-criticize goes much, much deeper.
“After many centuries of social construction, women are not wholly supported to express self-confidence and empowerment,” Knutzen said. “Women have been chronically devalued for their physical appearance through objectification and shame. That lends itself to internalizing the belief that no matter how hard they try, nothing they do will ever be good enough.”
In turn, Knutzen adds, “This social construction is so pervasive, it becomes your personal belief system, expressed through symptoms like body image issues, perfectionistic tendencies and self-imposed pressures like overachieving or devaluing accomplishments and questioning capabilities. Society puts you down.”
So how do we look beyond social media and the traditional ideals of beauty? “The first step is being aware of it. The second step is loading yourself up with hard data and information about women’s shared struggles, accomplishments and progress,” Knutzen said.
Wilcox, a new mom, echoes that sentiment. She told The Huffington Post that giving birth has given her a renewed sense of self-love. “We live in a world of conditions when it comes to the amount of love we allow ourselves to receive, based on what we have been made to believe we deserve. Having a child has made me realize that strong, powerful love we feel as mothers for our children is the same love we need to feel for ourselves.” This is something she feels can be accomplished by engaging in “small intimate connections with inspiring, like-minded people.”
Mills, too, emphasized the power in women coming together to share experiences, struggles and stories. “Like the badass Gloria Steinem’s talking circles ― small groups galvanizing big change, one fierce conversation at a time. We’re all on the road to less ‘shit talk’ and more ‘love thy differences’ –– our mission, our mantra, our driving force. Let’s do this ― hell yes, we can!”
Amen to that.