What We Don’t See…(Part 1 of 1,000,000)
What we don’t see is all of the things that influence us from moment to moment. This is called part 1 of 1,000,000 because each of us could write this article each day for the rest of our lives and never capture the amount of unseen influences on us. So, I shall try to capture this with one small but massive experience in the hopes that it helps us all become more aware of the external influences that press on us, impacting everything about us, shaping our conversations and actions, and we have no idea it is happening to us. Our brains are so meticulously wired for survival, we often react and act without even noticing. One moment we are fine and the next we feel…off, weird, disrupted, upset, and if by chance we do notice it, figuring out the cause can seem impossible. We chalk it up to something we ate or an earlier conversation that didn’t go our way, but rarely do we connect it to something external, immediately and secretly influencing something internal.
Here is my story for the day. Fashion is really not my thing or remotely in my comfort zone. Accessorizing is uncomfortable and most clothing is too. Not that I would rather be unclothed but jeans and a t-shirt are my daily uniform at home and keep me safe in my own skin. However, “business casual” is my work requirement and so I effort to find the closest to comfort in that world. Shopping is irritating, confidence-killing, and feels like a waste of time. More often than not, I leave a store empty handed only to slump into the next vacuous space of retail to siphon my energy away. My sister, Justine, loves fashion, loves to shop, and thankfully loves me so she is my main fashionista and wardrobe savior. Recently, she suggested Pinterest for me to get some new ideas and see what is happening in my business casual world. Late to the social media game, as usual, I venture forth to this platform and type in my search request. And this is when the madness begins.
Picture after picture, which is really selfie after selfie, of emaciated child-women in clothing size zero begin to fill my computer screen. “Are you kidding me?” My mouth agape and my pulse quickening from disbelief or possibly disgust, I can barely stand it as I scroll and scroll, looking for someone who looks like they actually eat or live on the same planet I do. “Who the hell looks like this, no one I know…How do women look at this day after day and not go insane?…Those pants would never look like that on me…How can she possibly walk in those shoes?” and so on. I finally manage a deep breath and mumble “ignorance is bliss” and begin to review my mental, emotional, and physical history of avoiding consumer advertising. This is why I hate this whole process—it does not exist inside of reality, only fantasy, and a damaging one at that.
In my younger years as an athlete, my wardrobe and uniform were easily set and justified. During college, it was the athletic department issued sweats, not only for comfort’s sake but also for the pride and confidence it instilled. “UCLA Swimming” blasted across my chest was not just a t-shirt or sweatshirt, but an identity. A safe place to land after my self-concept had been tossed and turned around by sitting next to a “pretty girl” in class. See, I was never that and never fit that main-stream mold of girl because I would much rather be running around, playing sports with the boys, with dirty finger nails. “Tomboy” was a common label for me as a child and while it was an attempt to put me somewhere “fitting,” all it did was make me feel like I stuck out. Those early, many years of never fitting in have not left my consciousness and while hard work and maturity have helped, it always seems to have an immediate and drastic effect, triggered easily and more often than noticed. You see, sometimes I don’t even notice the upset. That is the part that bothers me, having this disruption become such a normal part of my day that it is now a steady-state. How many times per day am I “upset” and not connected to it? How has this uncomfortable emotional reaction become so comfortable? What does this cost me every day?
For those of you who know me, this is not the presentation or conversation you have experienced. I come across as confident, self-assured, and comfortable in my own skin, and for the most part, after years of hard work, I am. While I am not a beauty queen, I am not an ogre either. I admit to working hard to look good and have been blessed with good genes and an absolute love for physical activity and working out. I stay fit for many reasons, one of them is how I look, for sure. It is human nature to want to look good and I am no exception to that rule. My ego drives me to the gym each day to maintain my shape as I stealthily glance sideways at the man on the treadmill next to me to see if I am running as fast as he is.
The “beauty industry” makes $445 Billion a year (Forbes.com). Buy this and you will be gorgeous, they promise. Promise on the other side of fear, on a coin they minted. A coin every woman alive, and probably more men than will admit, carry with them everywhere. Captain America and Magic Mike might have replaced Superman but the rippling muscles, chiseled chin, and sparkling blue eyes have got to have a parallel effect on men and their psychés as Pinterest has on me. As a psychologist, I cannot help but end up in the swirling thoughts of how this effects people, how they tolerate this constant onslaught, and how they get or stay healthy despite it all. Data aside, we don’t. We all toil all day to keep up, measure up, and beat up our views of ourselves put up next to the impossibly set “ideal.” Damn, this pisses me off. How do we get better and feel better if we are constantly assaulted, or is it insulted, by what we cannot possibly become? Just this morning while trying to avoid watching any of the dozens of tv’s at my gym, an infomercial caught my wandering eye. It was for a skin cream promising to reverse aging and tighten up all those unsightly wrinkles on your face or neck. When did nature become unsightly? The “set” was populated with older, eager, believing women, all looking longingly at the celebrities endorsing the product. More promise, more hope, more bullsh*t because those damn celebrities so obviously have had plastic surgery! How can they not see that?! No one, and I repeat no one, looks like that at age fifty naturally (I am 51 so I know what age and gravity do). So incredibly ironic and deceitful that these Botox-laden, surgery-inflicted faces are peddling a cream promising to look like them that my blood pressure rises, and I force myself to look away. Another insult to so many women who are convinced to be so unnecessarily desperate that they will not notice the external force preying on their internal weakness. Naked Emperor = 1, Consumer = 0.
And so now I must recover as I fall off my soap box full of assumptions and anger, feeling weak and injured. There is, I know, another side to the beauty industry. There is a powerful side of care and commitment to the way beauty makes a human being feel, which is wonderful. There are companies motivated by making someone feel better about themselves, beautiful really, and I would be more than remiss in failing to address their existence. I have a friend that loves make up and how she can change her mood and impact how someone sees her in just five minutes. Like everything else, there is more than one side to the story. Perhaps the woman that loves makeup experiences the same self-defeating thoughts and emotions I have around fashion each time she walks into a gym or sits next to an athlete in class. Microaggressions against the self—unintended slights or biases that result in deep pain, only this time done by the self, to the self.
Awareness is the key, always, so how do we raise awareness? There are several ways to train your awareness muscle, mindfulness being one of them. Dr. David Vago, a cognitive and behavioral scientist directing research on neuropsychology and neurobiology at Vanderbilt University, has proof that mindfulness works. In his TEDx talk, he describes research results on meditation and mindfulness and the power they contain for developing awareness. “The idea here is that when we practice mindfulness, awareness and wisdom work together, helping to reduce the time spent in judgement and evaluation, to be situated in the present moment with our sensory awareness, and to allow the emotions to arise and pass without the impulse to act.” Allowing emotions to arise and pass without the impulse to act. Those, my dear, are some of the most powerful words ever put together in a sentence for it is not about avoiding or preventing emotions, it is about managing the impulse to act as a result. So much of what we label as actions are really reactions, and primally-driven ones at that. As a human being, emotions are part of the deal. Sometimes, they are the best part of the deal. It is the times when they are negative that can wreak the deal and those are the times we train for. My awareness around my negative relationship to fashion saves me in a few ways. When shopping is necessary, preparation is always practiced. Before opening any app or webpage or going to a store that is likely to illicit a reaction, I take some deep breaths and remind myself to notice my emotions without heeding the impulse (to bolt) they encourage. I seek to model my sister’s love for fashion and style and how it helps her express herself beautifully. I look to expand my relationship to myself and widen my view of who I am and what I can be. When it works, a feeling of pride and growth surge from within, empowering me. When it fails, I feel a little sorry for myself for a moment and then just dust myself off and try again. Sounds campy but really, it works. Awareness, commitment, action, change. That is the order of go…so go.