Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The myth that persists

"Just like 'aspirational' airbrushed advertising in women's magazines, reality TV beauty programming invites female viewers to envy models' unrealistic figures, and, by proxy, their clothes, cosmetics, shoes, and lifestyle products. Though impacts vary, decades of research have documented that women's self-esteem often drops with exposure to advertising and ad-driven media."--From Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer L. Pozner

"Beauty. It touches everything."--Calvin Klein perfume ad

When I lived in New York and worked in midtown, I'd often find myself walking through Times Square to get to my office at 1745 Broadway. Loud, flashy, over-the-top, Times Square is the tackiest of tourist meccas. It impressed me as a child when my parents would drive through it on our way to see a Broadway show. I remember feeling awed by these giant photographs of models and celebrities and Coca-Cola ads. But as an adult, the images on these oversized billboards made me feel uneasy, dwarfed as I was by these scantily-clad Amazon women posed suggestively in the latest Calvin Klein perfume ad or H&M poster.

During most of my time living in New York, when I was in my twenties and early thirties, I was naturally thin. I didn't diet or exercise religiously. In fact I loved food--going to new restaurants was one of my favorite activities in the city and where I used up most of my disposable income. Restaurant Week, when assorted expensive "It" spots offered lunch for $20 and dinner for $30 to us average-salaried workers, was especially exciting to me. As soon as the participating list of dining establishments was posted, I'd be making plans and reservations, emailing friends to quickly line up dates.

Not worrying about what I ate or how much I weighed was a tremendous freedom that I tried not to take for granted. I had other insecurities, but at least in this area I felt confident.

Looking back at my life then, I realize that being thin was nice (especially the whole eating-what- I-want-and-never-gaining-weight part), but it didn't save me from feeling bad about my appearance. Being thin didn't translate into looking like a model or loving myself in a bikini. It didn't make me feel more worthy of a good relationship or confident enough to wear sweatpants in public. I didn't chastise myself about what food I ate, but neither did I think I was good enough in a city filled with images of perfection.

The thing that saddens me about this is even knowing that fitting a particular beauty standard doesn't necessarily make us happy, many of us still aspire to be as perfect as those Calvin Klein models. We may not even know that we're thinking this way, but looking back I see how much importance I placed on appearance and how I rarely measured up to its tough dictates. I immediately felt inferior to prettier friends though I tried not to let it affect our relationship. I would feel unfashionable in a skirt I bought six months ago and feel compelled to buy something new to wear out that night. The feeling was more of a compulsion than an actual choice.

Some women are able to see past the "Beauty Myth," the title of a popular book I read in the nineties. But a lot of us are susceptible. When you're confronted by images that are exalted on advertising posters and in magazines, and you don't resemble those images, after a while this high beauty standard starts to feel like the norm, which can only mean, my dear, that you are abnormal.

I regret not having taken advertising classes in college. Mike talks about a class he took that really changed how he viewed marketing strategy. Even as a college-educated person, I never stopped to evaluate these images and wonder what they might be trying to tell me, namely, buy this and you'll feel better! The answer is beauty and acceptance and if you only buy me you will have these things in spades!

I like to joke that, even though I've worked in marketing, I'm a sucker for packaging. But it's not just the rose-shaped pallets of eyeshadow in a $79 Chantecaille kit that captivate me--it's the longing--informed to a large degree by messages in advertising and television--that have effected how I view my own packaging.

Many women strive to be thin and flawless--it's almost impossible to find a women's magazine that doesn't emphasize this wish and insist we can achieve it by reading another 4-page article filled with "essential" tips and "must-have" products. The most successful woman can be made to feel inferior by just ten minutes of reading Elle or Glamour or even O magazine. As a publicist it's part of my job to look at magazines. Thankfully I've ended up at a Buddhist publisher, where the women in magazines are often bald and wrapped in plain robes. But that doesn't mean I'm not also looking at more traditional publications that always feature young flawless models, even when promoting an anti-aging cream.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to look nice. I happen to love clothes because I like the challenge of finding good pieces and matching them into outfits. I have never outgrown the pleasures of dressing up. But though they may "say" otherwise, beauty ads and diet articles that claim they're helping you to"look your best," are really saying "look like her" (fill in model's name/picture.) Is it any wonder women feel less-than? Is it at all surprising that we silently compare and compete with each other?

I'm older now and not as thin as that city girl I was. When I start to feel bad about that, I try to call to mind how being thin didn't really change how I viewed myself. It was nice when I went to try on jeans and had no trouble finding a good fit even on the first try. But it didn't make my life infinitely better or more valuable.

Everyday I fight the urge to give in to the hundreds of messages that call out to me like sirens from the Odyssey. Often their invitations seem innocent, even helpful:"Sabotage cellulite 24/7 with our all-day, dimple dashing duo" (Bliss) or "Tired of looking tired? We hear you (Origins.)" Sometimes they're downright aggressive (open any Victoria's Secret catalog.) The thought of not "buying into" advertising can be disappointing--you mean self-confidence and contentment can't be bought at Sephora?

If only it were that easy.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Choose compassion

"Young Americans today live in a world of endless connections and up-to-the-minute information on one another, constantly updating friends, loved ones, and total strangers about the minutiae of their young, wired lives. But new research suggests that behind all this communication and connectedness, something is missing. The study found that college students today are 4o percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years."--from "Empathy is so Yesterday" in the Boston Sunday Globe (October 17, 2010)

"What difference would it make in your life if you engaged the world with a conscious commitment to end sorrow or pain wherever you meet it? What difference would it make to wake in the morning and greet your family, the stranger beside you on the bus, the troublesome colleague, with the intention to listen to them wholeheartedly and be present for them? Compassion doesn't always call for grand or heroic gestures. It asks you to find in your heart the simple but profound willingness to be present, with a commitment to end sorrow and contribute to the well-being and ease of all beings."--Christina Feldman, from Compassion: Listening to the Cries of the World, excerpted in The Buddha is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom

My Alma Mater Rutgers College was in the news recently, but not for producing a Noble Prize winner or hosting president Obama in anticipation of the midterm elections. Freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the heavily-trafficked George Washington Bridge in New Jersey. The suicide was the result of a cruel prank committed by Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi's friend and accomplice, Molly Wei. They thought it would be hilarious to use a webcam to broadcast Clementi having a private, sexual encounter with another man.

Were Ravi and Wei cruelly demonstrating their personal homophobia? Probably. But it seems to me that--if you listen to the media--Clementi's tragic story is one of many that we've heard in the past few years involving young people and the Internet. From Megan Meier, the 13 year-old girl who killed herself after being duped by a neighbor into thinking she was developing a relationship with a "cute boy" on MySpace, to Phoebe Prince, who was not just "bullied" but downright harassed by classmates whose constant taunts on and offline led Prince to commit suicide. Reports have said that the teenagers continued to mock Prince on Facebook even after learning of her death.

When I read these stories I can't help but feel that "Generation Wi-Fi" lacks compassion for others, and, even keeping in mind the extreme nature of these stories, I wonder if there aren't more cases of shaming and cruelty happening in this country as a result of the digital boom of the last ten years. I think it has been amply demonstrated that sites like MySpace and Facebook have distanced kids from each other, making it easier for them to lash out online without the consequences, of say, being punched in the face or cursed out live and in person. Worse, the incriminating videos or vicious rumors are not like a nasty note passed between a few girls that ends up crumbled in the trash. They can easily be passed on to anyone in the world and tend to stay online indefinitely. That's a far cry from when I was a teenager, and my worst fear was a stray insult lobbed at me from across the hall. No, this meanness sticks.

But is it entirely Facebook's fault for the increasing number of cyberbullies, or is it the culture at large--with unreal "reality" shows making women, minorities, gays--basically anyone who strays from the mainstream--into the butt of viewers' laughter and scorn and where the modern cult of celebrity has made us as narcissistic as a 16-year-old pop star? It's true that we are living in an age when Google enables us to peek into the lives of others without the slightest effort to really get to know them. Worse, real people's lives can be toyed with as if they're just another source of entertainment on a dull Tuesday night in the dorms. But is that the fault of an efficient search engine or is it more like road rage, when the irrational desire to cut off the car that cut us off is easily played out without either driver even seeing the other, much less communicating with him.

In the Globe, reporter Keith O' Brien does acknowledge that "empathy is such a basic ingredient of the human experience that even babies exhibit it, crying when other children cry or reacting to the facial expressions of adults and parents." But while few young people would openly mock their college roommate about his sexual preferences, there are many like Ravi and Wei who have no problem exhibiting the same mockery online for a few laughs.

Technology and social media are only as good or as evil as its human users. "We are tempted to think that social-media technology drove the behavior, but as a truly ethical matter, the behavior has to be and should be considered human-driven, not technology-driven,” says Scott Foulkrod, a philosophy professor at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, talking to the Christian Science Monitor ("Rutgers Student Death: Has Digital Age made students callous?" October 1, 2010) A person's capacity for both compassionate acts and acts of cruelty have always been present. But the means by which we can act upon our cruelest thoughts have changed, and as a result, young people growing up with the Internet may be tempted to act out some of their darker impulses online, where restraint in the presence of the other person is essentially eliminated.

I'm fascinated by what drives people to do cruel things to each other. I'm also struggling with the concept of human beings being multi-dimensional. Reading Buddhist teachings has taught me that even those who commit evil acts aren't inherently evil. Reading stories like Clementi's makes my guts clench with anger. Someone should shame those two co-conspirators with a webcam trained on THEIR most private lives, I think. But that is not showing compassion, that is making the world into "Us" and "Them," where anyone under 20 is regarded as a narcissistic jerk or worse. I've met many young adults who have shown kindness and compassion, even online. Kids are still reaching out and supporting each other, like in the story of 16 year-old Esther Earl of Boston, who had an online following of admirers who helped her battle thyroid cancer and who, even after her death, spoke of her as if she had been a favored schoolmate and not a girl they met over the Internet. I think that Earl's short life was definitely enriched by her online supporters, and that their good wishes for her show that not every young person uses social media for ill.

I do hope that there are more stories like that of Esther Earl. Our compassion for one another is what makes our common suffering easier to bear. I'd hate to think of a future where we're so distant from each other that feeling empathy for someone is considered a weakness or a waste of time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

(Dis) Contented

"The way we know things depends upon the mind, nothing more. Most of us have moments of deep contentment when we don’t feel a need to alter, express, run from, or invest some special meaning in our experience in any way. Deep contentment shows us that, at least momentarily, our habit of cherishing and protecting ourselves from what we call “other” has subsided. In moments like these, we have stopped objectifying things. We can let things be. And when the mind rests at ease in this way, it accommodates everything, like space." - Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, The Power of an Open Question

If there was a caption running over my head, something that others could see but I could not (and let's face it, there are many things we can't see about ourselves that others can perceive without fail), my caption would be "Not enough."

No matter what I set out to do, in my mind it's "Not enough." When I look in my closet, instead of seeing a reasonable wardrobe for a woman in her thirties who is neither rich, nor famous, nor a fashion model, I think "Not enough." When I look at my achievements in my chosen profession, I don't see the things I got right; I see "Not enough." When I'm getting ready to go out to dinner with Mike or meet a friend at a restaurant, I look in the mirror and almost always say, "Not enough."

I once read a book called Enough. In it, the author talks about how we are bombarded with everything from information we want to absorb, to advertising tempting us to buy more, to multiple choices at the supermarket where there is always a fresh product claiming to be new and improved. When I was younger and used to read Self magazine (a woman's mag whose title says it all) I would write a list of all the products they recommended for women like me--volumizing shampoo to make my "fine" hair as puffy as a an eighties soap opera star; spot cream to minimize the sun spot on my left cheek that an Origins saleswoman was "kind" enough to point out to me; even cellulite cream to reduce the unsightly fat cells that had appeared on my legs after I gained a few pounds in my thirties.

I still make lists, and they tend to take up multiple sheets of paper. I'm not just making lists of products, but of restaurants I want to try, books I notice while reading Publishers Weekly, vacations I want to take, websites I want to bookmark so I can visit them later. My head is often filled to distraction and once one thing is crossed off the list, I'm off to the races, on to the next item. There is very little time for contentment at what I've acquired or achieved or completed. Never enough.

A person could live their whole life this way, but that would be a sad existence. And I'm not saying that we shouldn't jot down a good idea or an interesting web address or a product we'd like to try, even if we know it will probably have the same effect as the last product we tried, which is not much. Maybe this shampoo will smell really good, and that will be enough.

The problem for me (and for the people around me whose lives I directly impact) is that I find I'm very often discontent. And I know I'm not alone in this. Take a perfectly nice day, walking around looking up at the trees changing color (early this year for New England), smelling the pizza being served up at a neighborhood restaurant, seeing people laughing among themselves, and all I'm thinking is what's not right about the situation. Like those puzzles that ask you to find inconsistencies between two pictures, I notice what's wrong--I'm sweating a little in my new trench coat (why did I decide to wear this in September when I know the weather is fickle?) I stumble over the pavement and almost fall down (why can't I walk straight, why am I so clumsy?) I miss the train (that driver saw me and yet he still pulled away. Why does he hate me?)

And there goes another lovely fall day in my wacky world.

Increasingly I agree with the writers and psychologists and spiritual leaders who say that contentment is the most rewarding feeling we can hope for, better than just some abstract goal like "happiness." To paraphrase a quote I read in O magazine (which I read despite the fact that her notion that "we're beautiful as we are, but here are pages and pages of my favorite things that you should buy, which, by the way, cost more than you make in a month) "What if instead of trying so hard to change, I embraced all my (insert first name)-ness?" Instead of worrying about what strangers think about the non-thickness of my hair, it's enough that the people who love me don't give a fig.

We're enough. This crowded train I'm on is enough because, despite the fact that it's crowded and a conductor just asked me to type "more quietly," it's taking me to see a good friend of mine. I'm not hanging off a bus filled with people trying to find somewhere--anywhere--to sit. I have a window seat and a table for my computer. That's enough. My spending budget for the weekend would not impress The Real Housewives of wherever, but it's more than enough. (Anyway, there's nothing real about anyone on "reality TV" as I'm reminded when reading a book I recently picked up, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV)

Our life as it is is enough. What we wouldn't do to have just this life back if we found ourselves homeless, hungry, sick, or dying. I was at a funeral for my husband's uncle last weekend. He was 90 and in poor health, so it wasn't a shock--though any family member or friend's death, whether expected or not--always shocks anyway.

Uncle Ken was a quiet man--in the almost ten years I've known Mike I don't recall ever hearing a word out of him. But in fact he had many passions in life--he had a deep love of nature for one--and he had survived heavy warfare in North Africa and Italy in WWII. I suspect that, though quiet, he was a man who felt that on many levels he had enough in life.

I would think that people like that die without too many regrets about what they didn't have enough of.