Friday, February 17, 2012

Being Real is Really Beautiful

Several years ago I was asked to write an editorial responding to the question “How do you feel attractive as you age?”  It was an interesting question as I wasn’t quite “there” yet in terms of seeing myself as aging.  And while I am intimately acquainted with my hair stylist and I like a new outfit as much as anyone else, I am pretty busy and preoccupied with other pursuits that don’t leave much time or interest for the relentless pursuit of beauty and youth.

However, a number of recent conversations have had me thinking about how important it is to still value our appearance and recognize our own outward attractiveness and worth even  as we age.  Women over forty are almost invisible in the popular culture.  The ones we see most often have had collagen injections, botox or cosmetic surgeries in order to hide the normal process of aging.  

I am pretty comfortable with getting older (because, really, what is the alternative?!)  However,  I seem to offend some of my peers and even my mother when I refer to myself as “mid life” although I see no shame in it.  In my 47th year,  I do see myself as “in the middle” of my life..  that is if all goes very well and I live in to my nineties.   I can fully appreciate though, this resistance to aging.  If aging means disappearing from view and no longer being valued for your contributions to society.   This week I saw a new anti-aging cream directly marketed “to women over 20”.  Seriously.   So in protest to the anti-aging industry and in support of beautiful mid life and older women everywhere..  I offer you this article, edited slightly from the original published by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund in 2009 and no longer available.

Finding Beauty in the Imperfections

My house is over a century old and despite some labor-intensive face-lifts, it is showing its age. There are cracks on the living room ceiling and it is almost impossible to nail something on the wall without creating a 4-inch gaping hole revealing horsehair and crumbling plaster inside. This house constantly needs care and maintenance – everything from new plumbing to new wires – but it is, without a doubt, beautiful.

Like my charming house, I believe it is the imperfect but natural beauty that makes a person unique and interesting. Many women only become of aware of their own true beauty with age. Friends often tell me that they finally began to feel attractive only in their 30s or 40s. Do we feel more beautiful as we age because our definition of beauty changes? Or are we finally more comfortable with our own imperfections? I think it’s a little of both.

Of course that doesn’t mean mid-life and older women don’t have appearance pressures of our own! We are expected to be thin and work at weight loss into our later years despite our body’s natural tendency to gain weight in order to protect our bones after menopause; we are expected to maintain shiny white teeth despite decades of dinner dates over red wine and hundreds of Sunday brunches with coffee; and we are expected to color, cover, and contour ourselves into eternal youth despite the completely normal and unglamorous process of aging.

my sister Lynn Crowder - this is what beauty looks like
The good news is that despite these pressures, most of the mid-life women I know, while still relatively interested in their external appearance, are no longer consumed by it. For many of us, our lives are like my old house, made beautiful with the riches of love, laughter and creativity. Instead of focusing solely on outward appearances, it’s about the love and energy emanating from inside that shows our true beauty.

In my work and in my life in general, I am surrounded by many pretty girls. Often, these girls are catwalk-thin with wrinkle-free skin, wearing the latest body-conscious fashions. They have shiny highlights, chemically whitened teeth, faux tans, carefully straightened hair and are waxed free of body hair in places that my generation never thought about. These girls are growing up in a generation of beauty pressures and prescribed solutions that surpass anything I experienced at their age. And unlike my bra-burning role models, many of today’s young women don’t seem interested in resisting these pressures.

As a mid-life woman, I could easily feel threatened by them but most of these gorgeous girls simply have no idea of the beauty they possess. Despite their tremendous efforts to achieve this youth-fueled perfection, I can see that they still often feel unloved or unworthy. They are frightened of weight gain, they believe they are unattractive, they focus on imperceptible details of their appearance. I have known girls who spent an entire year obsessed about the shape of their cheekbones, or tormented by how their pants clung the wrong way to their hips. The carefree beauty of youth is lost on them as they struggle against low self-esteem and the culturally-driven illusion that appearance is everything.

The most interesting women I know are those who have made peace with their appearance as they’ve grown older. There is a certain grace about embracing the now that comes with age, regardless of how you look. Beauty is no longer tied so closely with the physical, especially when time takes it out of your control. I have people in my life that are grappling with debilitating arthritis, battling progressive neurological illnesses and fighting cancer. Yet, to me, their strength, courage, determination and spirit make them so much more beautiful than any airbrushed supermodel. Facing adversity or reaping the riches of a life well lived remind us of what really counts and, more importantly, what’s real.

One of my favorite pictures of myself was taken on a beach when my hair was windblown and I wasn’t wearing any make-up. I was completely unaware of the camera and was smiling up at the kite I was flying with my daughter. In one fleeting moment the photographer captured my sense of joy, relaxation and concentration. It was real. I look beautiful because I am completely engaged with life.  Now, when I feel stressed or am lacking confidence, I shut my eyes for a moment and try to remember the kite-flying feeling. This makes me feel instantly capable no matter what I look like that day.

How do I plan to hold on to this confidence as I move into my 50s and 60s? My body and my face are like my beautiful old house. Time will continue to slowly reveal the flaws and I will require upkeep and maintenance to stay healthy and vibrant. Maintaining good nutrition, getting enough sleep and staying active while respecting my body’s decreasing abilities is a practical start.  But it is the laughter, the creativity, and the optimistic quality of my life that will determine my real beauty as I age.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Life Lesson: Stop Should-ing On Yourself

So I have learned something about myself recently.  Or re-learned it as we sometimes have to do with certain lessons.   I don’t respond well to shoulds especially the self-imposed ones.  In the therapeutic groups I facilitate,  I call  this particular version of negative self-talk “should-ing” on oneself.. say it fast… it feels just about as good as it sounds.  Which is to say… it feels crappy.   And when I should on myself,  I instinctively resist… or I feel guilty which in turn becomes a cycle of more negative self-talk. 

As a parent,  with a full time employment, volunteer & community responsibilities and a general over-achiever .. there are a whole lot of “have tos” in my life. This is true for most of you.   For me, in order to stay in balance and to achieve some measure of daily happiness I need to fill in around the edges of the “have tos” with spontaneity, free choice, a little bit of wasted time (Pinterest, anyone?!)  as well as openly pursuing my passions.

Starting this blog, fell under the “pursuing passions” category of life.   I have been imagining it over the past year and trying to determine if I had the time or energy but I thought about it constantly.  It was a desire not a have to.  The day it launched I told my best friends that it didn’t matter if anyone read it .. I just need to write it.  Absolutely true.  But that didn’t stop me from doing a little happy dance when I passed the 1,000 "views" mark after just a few days or when the editor of the Girl Guides of Canada Blog asked to re post one of my entries.   One of the lovely things about passions is that they are sometimes even more fun when you share them with others.

But suddenly I messed it up .. by turning my passion into a have to or should.  One day I wanted to write about Girls, Sports and Self-Esteem. It was too much for one post. So I envisioned a three or four part series.  But by the time I wrote Part Two I was ready to do something else. As I mentioned on an earlier post, I have been writing in my head.  Every morning in the shower and on my bus ride to work, my brain is racing with ideas to talk about but I think ... oh I will do that after I finish the series on girls and sports.  I had already promised there would be more. So I was stuck and angry at myself. I wasn't doing what I should do. What I said I would do. So I stopped writing.

It has taken a couple of weeks but after a friend messaged me to say "don't stop writing,"  I noticed what I had done to myself.  Without meaning to, I had  moved something from the “passion” category of life to the “have to/should/deadline” category of my life.  Today I am moving it back.   I don’t know what topic will come next… I only know that I need to write. And I hope very much that you will continue to join me here!

Do you should on yourself too?  Many of us have a list of rules we think we have to live by. These are our beliefs or expectations of how we should behave or how other people should behave. For example:  I should always volunteer when asked...   I should not make mistakes...  I should go to the gym 3 times per week...  I should be more welcoming to the neighbors...

Notice if your internal dialogue frequently contains words and phrases such as  should, must, ought to, duty. Often we apply these rules to other people too which contributes to making us chronically disappointed, angry and judgmental.

Here are a few tips to counteract that particular form of negative self-talk:

Try replacing the word “should” with “want to” or “would like to”…  
I want to go to my yoga class…
I would like to return that phone call…
I want to invite those new neighbors to dinner…
I’d love to volunteer for that organization..

How does it sound in your head? Does it feel true or sound like a lie?  How does it feel in your body? Do you feel less resistance or guilt when it is spoken as a “want” rather than a “should”?

If the should is something you truly don’t want to do… then step back and get some perspective on it.   What is the worst thing that would happen if you don’t do it? How likely is that to happen?  What is the positive outcome of doing it?   Or try applying  Suzy Welch's 10-10-10 rule ...  what are the consequences of this action in 10 minutes? 10 months? 10 years?  You may just find that depending on the potential outcome… your should will become a want when you look at it this way.

Most of all, be gentle on yourself.   You are most likely your harshest critic. Try speaking with kindness and love, just as you may encourage a child or a good friend who is struggling to complete a task that is looming.  And check in with yourself … have you turned your greatest joys into shoulds and have tos?   Then it is time to take stock of everything on your plate and re-prioritize.   You are responsible for your own happiness and I promise that no one else is going to come along and relieve you of the pressures you have placed upon yourself. This is something only you can do for yourself.

 I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the dayE.B. White (author of Charlotte's Web)

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Girls, Sports and Self-Esteem (part 2)

Apparently writing a blog takes a lot more time and energy than I had imagined!  I hope to be posting more often than weekly... so bear with me loyal followers. I am writing in my head every day and eventually the words will emerge!

Yesterday was National Girls and Women in Sport Day in the United States... I'm not sure if we have a Canadian version of this event but I'll keep you posted.   This reminded me that I haven't yet published my next post which is requiring plenty of research on my part to fully understand the link between sport and self-esteem for girls.  I'll have that up and ready for reading after the weekend. In the meantime, I am re posting this wonderful list from the Canadian Association for the Achievement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity.  I first came across this when my daughter was only an infant.   If you read my previous post on Girls, Sport and Self-Esteem, you can imagine that it had never occurred to me that a biological child of mine would play sports.  I didn't have quite the same analysis then that I do now to understand how much my own lack of sporting interest was at least in part environmental.  I also forgot that I only contributed half the genes!  This article has stayed with me.  Years after reading it, when my sport-loving girl joined her first softball team I remembered...  "buy her good equipment" and we did.  I even went so far as to volunteer as a bench coach last season - a challenge that I hadn't ever dreamed of for myself. Ultimately I understood that my involvement would further enhance my daughter's engagement in the sport.  And if you, like me, don't really know what the heck you are doing when it comes to kicking a soccer ball or the finer points of pitching a softball - look for people who do.  Our extended family boasts two aunts who have contributed their skills and knowledge and time to my daughter's sport development.   

So here... I give you the list that inspired and shaped my own responses to my daughter's budding interest in sports.  You can also link directly to the PDF version here.

How Parents Can Encourage Girls to Play Sport 

Photograph your child being active.
  • Enlarge the photo.
  • Frame it.
  • Be proud of it!
Actively support your daughter's involvement in physical activity.
  • Buy her good equipment - not her brother's hand-me-downs.
  • Go and watch her games.
  • Consider volunteering.
  • Drive her to and from practices.
  • Make sure your daughter has time in her life to be active - don't make your daughter sacrafice her involvement in sport so she can babysit or do housework.
Take your daughter to the park and be active with her.
  • Help her learn the fundamental skills of running, throwing, catching and kicking.
 Be an active role model yourself. 
  • Mom's participation in sport increased participation rates of her child by 22%
  • Dad's participation in sport increased participation rates of his child by 11%
 Emphasize fun and fitness rather than competition and slimness
  • Encourage your daughter to try a variety of new activities and help her acquire the skills and equipment she needs to participate.
  • Avoid comments about your daughter's body size and shape.
  • Love and support her just the way she is.
  • Don't undermine her confidence and take the joy out of playing by telling her "she throws like a girl".  Help her to learn the skills she needs to enjoy sport.
Introduce your daughter to active women
All to often women in sport are viewed as cheerleaders, water girls or chauffeurs. Your daughter needs to be exposed to women who are athletes, coaches, officials and leaders in sport.
  • Buy sports books about women athletes.
  • Watch women's sporting events on TV with your daughter. 
  • Take your daughter to women's sporting competitions in your community.
  • Read the sports pages with her and follow the performances of Canada's great female athletes.
 Plan active vacations or weekend excursions
  • Try hiking, cross-country skiing or rafting. 
reprinted from: 
Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity