Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The self esteem question

Why don't any of my female friends feel good about themselves? Why are we all so hard on ourselves? It really bums me out. Last summer, I was sitting with a group of women at lunch and the subject turned to "what I hate about my body" (not too uncommon when talking with women, in my experience). As the conversation went on, I was shocked at what I heard. Friends who I had thought looked beautiful suddenly informed me that I was wrong - hadn't I noticed their huge butt? Or big belly? Or big nose? Or frizzy hair? Or acne? Or height? The list went on and I became increasingly depressed. If these beautiful women hated their bodies, how could I ever love mine?

My own self esteem is awful at best so I could relate to what they were saying. But I also thought they were wrong - the things that they hated about themselves were not as awful as they thought - in fact, in my opinion, they weren't a problem at all, and in some cases seemed to be completely in their heads. And yet, these women were so hung up on these issues that they felt incredibly insecure about their appearances.

How does this happen? Why aren't we allowed to feel good about ourselves? Over the weekend, I told my four year old niece that she looked very pretty. As she smiled and twirled in response, I thought to myself, "Am I making her think that her looks are the most important thing? Should I have complimented her instead on her behavior or intelligence? By complimenting her beauty am I contributing to a poor self image later in life when she decides she's not as pretty as other girls? Is she going to think that her looks are the most important thing about her?"

I went on a diet a few months ago and lost some weight. Yesterday I was on a bike ride with my good friend Sarah and told her about a weight loss milestone I'd recently met. She applauded my success but told me that she'd thought I'd looked fine before. I shrugged off her praise and told her I'd still like to lose ten pounds. Her response: "What!? Don't! You should love your curves! You look great!" Somehow her words broke into a crack in my self doubt and I wondered, "Should I love my curves? But...I thought I thought I was supposed to try to be as skinny as humanly possible? Could anyone think I look good as I am right now - curves and all?" She continued to tell me about an article she'd read recently about how women need to stop being so hard on themselves. (Here's a link.) I want to believe her. I want to, but I'm not sure I can take the leap.

Are we even really allowed to feel good about ourselves? Many mistake positive self esteem for vanity - I don't. But I still don't know how a positive self image is sustainable long term. What about when the wrinkles come? Or the stretch marks? Or a bad haircut? Clearly a positive self image must be based on more than physical perfection.

Recently I asked my mom, "How does one get positive self esteem?" She suggested positive self talk along the lines of that old SNL sketch, "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough, and doggonit, people like me." I pose that question to you too: how does one get positive self esteem? Do you know someone who has it? Do you have it? What's the secret? Is it possible? Please tell me it's possible.


justin said...

Well I'm a guy and I've always had problems with self esteem. It's definitely gotten better over the past few years, but I still struggle with it a lot from time to time. It really depends on the day I am having. I can attribute most of my self esteem problems to middle and high school; I was always one of the smallest boys in my grade. If you're a guy and you weigh less than 110 lbs throughout high school, you are always going to feel like you don't fit in. I never really got picked on for being smaller, but it still affected me a lot. Even now, seeing images of the "ideal" male body can really bring me down. It's not always limited to appearance either; guys are expected to act in a certain way and if they digress from the "masculine" stereotype they are automatically stigmatized. Society has gotten better about this (i.e. "metrosexuals"), but I think it is still a really big problem. Media portrayal is a horrible thing.

I think it's pretty hard to be completely happy with every aspect of yourself all the time. Those people who think that they look "perfect" often have other internal issues with themselves, even if they could never admit it. Everyone has flaws, but everyone has things that make them beautiful too (inside and out). It's just up to us whether or not we want to realize this.

Jenna said...

I think it's possible to have great self-esteem, and it can be hard to obtain and hard to keep. I do think it's something that we have to continuously work on. Making personal goals and reaching them and then making more goals and accomplishing more things is the way we feel good about matter whether our goals pertain to physical, emotional, spiritial, or temporal aspirations. There are things about our personal appearance that we may not be grateful for, but God made us all different; we may not be perfectly beautiful to everyone or even ourselves, but I believe there are only a few people in ones life who will really see past "physical flaws" and love a person for trying to be a good person. And when we are a good person to others, and when we are recognized and loved for that quality, then I would hope self-esteem woulnd't be an absent characteristic.

Brian Egan said...

You can't compare yourself to all the models you see in magazines. All the pictures are photoshopped. All we can do is compare us to ourselves. Like the example you gave of meeting a weight loss milestone. When you can have milestones and goals set for yourself, then you can feel good when you meet those. After all, there is no way we can all fit into the same size clothing. Everyone is different and unique! That's the beauty of the human race. At least that's how i feel.

Cameron said...

Here is the secret :)

Sarah said...

I'm so glad to hear my positive affirmations are sinking in!! :) I think that you are so beautiful for who you are as a whole person. Some of the "models" I see or visual representations of "perfect bodies" totally turn me (and MOST men) off because they are not good role models or decent citizens. I'm far from a specimen of female beauty, but I do feel like I have good self-esteem because I derive it from bigger things than looks...general happiness, good friends, health, wonderful family, career I enjoy, hobbies I love, etc. So bask in your well-roundedness, both in terms of your curves and your interests! :)

Kathy said...

I agree with the thought of attaining and maintaining positive qualities. Its such a good way to combat the negativity. If I pass away, it doesn't really matter if I'm remembered as being attractive or not. It matters what kind of name I made with the ones I care about.

Be that as it may, it can't erase the self-image issue in me. No matter how hard I try to not think about how I look, it always finds a way back into my head. So, instead of beating myself up in the mirror, I decided to try and think of one positive quality. Everything else is out of my control. For a while, at night I was journaling anything positive or any accomplishments I made for the day. Even it was just cleaning my house. It was nice to look at the list and see the good and not the bad.

Heather said...

Since it's my paige your speaking about i will bring up an issue i have been having with her lately:
I don't really wear make-up. I've never really been big on it, but in the last few years haven't worn any for lake of time and care. About 2 weeks ago Paige found some of my lipstick that i buy but had never even worn and she put it all over her face. I got upset and asked her why she did this she said "Becasue i wanted to look pretty" I said you're pretty without it and she said "no i'm not." Where i proceeded to cry and think 'how could she think that? why can't we be pretty without makeup and fancy clothes..why do we have to have these things to think we're pretty? i still haven't figured out what to do about this, but i'm hopeing that she'll have confidence in herself without needed all the glitz and glamour.

Sarah said...

I thought of another thing...I do NOT own a scale. And I basically check the mirror to make sure I don't have a huge white deodorant streak down my shirt before I go to work or out with friends. But I don't spend hours picking apart every wrinkle (aka "character line") or womanly bulge that appears. Besides, weight and acne and all that totally ebb and flow, so the daily obsessions with it are really not the focus of my attentions that day.

jules said...

I think we allow ourselves to feel good about ourselves when we feel good about ourselves. I feel best about myself when I don't have a muffin top in my size 12's.

I HAVE gained weight and while others may tell me I'm not fat and I look fine, it's not the weight that I'm comfortable at. I think when we are comfortable we are at our best. At least for me. I always had pretty good self esteem until I gained forty pounds. Now it's tough, and as I get older, it's tough to lose it, which makes me sad and mad and defeated.

I was always more confident in my looks than my abilities (that sounds terrible) but now that I am waining (sp?) in the looks department..I have become more confident in my abilities. I think in order to have decent self esteem we have to be comfortable with ourselves and confident. So if we can teach our kids that, early on, somehow....I think we may be on our way.

David and Linda said...

I read a quote about 15 years ago that said words to the effect of: I will no longer judge myself based on what I perceive as how other people think of me. It was said better than that, but it made me think about the fact that I was judging myself harshly by some made-up measuring stick. I really didn't know what most people, aside from the insiders, thought of me. I just assumed that they thought that I was overweight and an underachiever, because I didn't have some big career. I have almost always had what most people would consider jobs that are low on the totem pole of prestige. But I have liked them because they all involve service and often to those whom life has overlooked, or who need a boost in some way. I realized that it only mattered what I thought of myself and my goals and the love I had for the people I served. I am happy with who I am and what I do.

Vaughn said...

pretty deep and insightful. I speak from the point of view of my life experiences. I have met a fair amount models and I can honestly say i have never met one that has a decent head on top of their shoulders, they look better than most and are far more self conscious than anyone else i have ever met. The thing that i always laugh about is the fact that everyone who is not a model wants to look like a model, and every model i know wants to look like someone else, or wants to change how they look, and they often do. The majority of the population is running around wanting to be someone else. I went on a photo shoot after reading this and thought about it the whole time, made me laugh.

Katherine said...

Ma, the quote is: "I refuse to live my life based on how I think others perceive me." That's definitely a motto I have lived by. I'd say I have pretty high self esteem. I know I'm not perfect, and I suppose I sometimes "try to look cute" for a guy or an event, but in general, I just try to feel good about me. If I wear purple pants and a red shirt, but OWN it, no one's going to say a thing. And if they do, WHO CARES?! I feel goooood in that awesome outfit. I think the key is definitely, like Mom said, positive self-talk: if you tell yourself, "these gaucho pants look good with tennis shoes and black socks," then who cares what other people say. It's so much more important to feel good about yourself compared with yourself. That confidence will make you attractive to others, make-up or no make-up, curves or none, mismatched clothes or designer labels. Use daily affirmations (Ellen-style) and eventually, if you really work at it, you WILL believe them.
I also agree with Sarah - you look GOOD! :)