Buzzfeed brought together five professional models from around the world to share their thoughts on beauty and to reveal what they look like without makeup. And you know what? I was a little surprised to learn that many of them have the same hangups about looks and beauty as most women do. One of the girls shared this insight (or quote), which got me thinking…and inspired this post. She said:
Comparison is the thief of joy.
I didn’t see that coming but I knew I wanted to get into it — social comparison, that is — the minute she said it. Lately, based on the things they say and how they present themselves on social media, I’ve noticed that my younger audience, my nieces, and friends under 30 (and to be honest, some grown women too) are feeding off the likes about their looks and valuing it more than they do their education, friendships, and almost everything else. It got me wondering WHO these gorgeous women are comparing themselves to and whether they know they’re telling the world that they have low opinions of themselves.
When I see these posts and hear comparison comments, an event that happened when I was barely a teenager gets triggered and I sometimes find myself silently screaming to these young girls, Stop! This event could have been worse but it was bad enough and poignant enough to teach me that others can sense our overidentification with looks and some will use it against us.
I was 13 or so and hanging out with musicians in Kingston, Jamaica one night. I was feeling grown because I had made the effort to look older than 13 and felt I was pulling it off. I’m sure you could still guess I was underage and you could also guess that I was as you say today, thirsty. I was impressed by the status of the men around me and was trying my best to mimic the moves of the older girls to get their attention. Basically, I was trying to compete with them. In my yellow mini skirt, which I still remember to this day, I felt like my legs (I was about 5 feet tall at the time) seemed longer and I enjoyed the attention that the men, especially the musicians, were giving them. So I made sure I stood up, danced around, and tried a little too hard to be seen. I remember having a Coke and because I didn’t much care for the taste of alcohol, refused my own but had a few sips from one of the guys. Fast forward to sometime later that night when I found myself passed out in the back of a van away from the event with a 30-something dude who I don’t remember partying with, with his tongue down my throat and fingers (two of them) up inside me. I hadn’t given my consent! I barely made it out of there before things got worse and don’t remember how I made it home but since I had lost my shoes and purse, a long long walk was involved.
I didn’t learn this very valuable life lesson that night, but this was the night that started my journey on a different path–where I began to try and find my worth outside of what I looked like. The lesson that I learned and that I’m somewhat grateful to that experience for leading me to so early in life is this: When we can appreciate beauty but not base our self-worth on it, we won’t be easily manipulated. I’ve learned that men can pick up on our thirst. Some men better than others and the predatory types often use our vulnerabilities and our need to be seen against us.
I’m trying not to be too dark here but when I consider how I ended up in that situation and take responsibility for my role in my sexual attack, I found that it started with a desire to be seen, which led to me competing with and comparing myself to other girls.
I want you to do me a favor now and ask yourself what started you on a path to social comparison. Can you track your origin story? Are there dots you can connect? Are you able to find a life lesson of your own? Do you have behaviors and habits that may not align with who you know yourself to be? How do you try too hard? What would you rather do instead and what’s stopping you from doing that? Do you fear there would be a social cost if you didn’t compete or compare yourself?
30 Day Challenge
If social comparison is an issue for you, even if it’s not a huge issue, I want you to reflect on this quote by blogger Erin McKean now and every day for 30 days.
You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.
What’s the alternative?
The alternative is to become women who know who we are outside of our physical beauties or perceived lack thereof. We can put our minds to the work of being women who own ourselves. If you want to be someone who, no matter what your age, walk into rooms and feel truly confident, there’s one surefire way to do it. Put kindness in your heart and lead with it. I don’t mean the passive, pushover type of kindness that let others walk over you. I talking about the type of kindness that sees others beyond their physical and socioeconomic dimension.
We can still look damn fine on the outside, but when we lead with something beautiful in our hearts and choose not to follow the over-obsessed herd, we radiate a confidence that everyone will be attracted to including the right men, friends, and opportunities.
We can’t just think body-positive thoughts though, we have to detach from the source. The media we consume — reality and commercial TV, social media, print magazines, and certain blogs– subconsciously feed the desire to compete. As you well know, you can find, especially on Netflix, other shows that don’t have the same preoccupation. I especially love shows like Black Mirror because of its social message: we’re complicit! We’ve accepted the intrusion into our lives and feed on the junk without considering what it’s doing to our minds, perceptions, values, self-worth, and ultimately, the quality of our lives. We keep up with that well-known family where everyone looks like they’ve had multiple plastic surgeries. We know their photos are over-manipulated and their cellulite, dark circles, and belly bulges airbrushed out yet we strive for the false perfection they project.
Some part of you knows that we’re being played. My guess is that you fail to ask yourself questions like these:
- When was being played ever a positive thing?
- What do I get out of being complicit in my own self-loathing and comparison?
The level and type of preoccupation we give to celebrities and especially realty-TV stars come at a price to our own happiness. Preoccupation with exterior beauty and with strangers’ lives is a slippery slope to us undervaluing ourselves. Experts say that people who regularly compare themselves to others experience more negative feelings like low self-esteem and engage in destructive behaviors, like lying and disordered eating. And it’s not just that we develop envy, shame, and other negative emotions, we also don’t develop our natural talents and skills when we’re preoccupied with someone else’s fake-as-hell life.
The risk in only playing the beauty card
Many men and most young girls might admire your cache and the social media standing that comes with sharing THAT much of yourself on Instagram, but real women will dismiss you. Men will throw heaps of attention your way, but in private, many, will use your insecurity to control, sexually abuse and in other ways, manipulate you.
Social scientists tell us that the fixation on exterior beauty is an unconscious identification with misogyny in much the same way that colorism is an unconscious identification with white supremacy. Sure, others do it but that doesn’t make it healthy or beneficial to you. Like so many beliefs we carry around–about ourselves and others–we think they are our own when in fact they are the opinions and values of others. But how did it all start? Too often it starts with our own habits and in this case, the habit of over-identifying with the exterior.
Beauty has its place
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not discounting beauty or suggesting there’s anything wrong with looking beautiful–stunning even. Taking care of your skin and putting your best face forward are not shallow endeavors at all. It’s when beauty is your only card or the main card that you play that its cause for concern. Beauty has its place and its only natural to get some self-satisfaction from the admiration of others. Where women and girls need to be careful is when their identity is so attached to something that is subjective. You risk presenting yourself as one-dimensional and live life as someone whose value and self-worth is dictated by others.
That is something we cannot afford. We cannot afford to let comparisons steal our joy. Life is just too BIG and interesting for that. The universe is too vast, our souls too pure, and our energy and worth too precious to risk the empty habit of self-comparison.
Find beauty in all
As you watch these professional models, you might think one is more beautiful than the other. This is another false culture-driven bias that we women and young girls often adapt to our detriment. Our goal as women should be to see all these models as beautiful in their own way and to be able to find beauty in our own mirrors. We’re able to do that when we’re able to see beauty in all things.
And first, find beauty in ourselves.