Redefining Inner Beauty

Brother J: So, how was your special Mother’s Day Relief Society?

Sister J: It was good.

Brother J: What did you talk about?

Sister J: Loving ourselves.

Brother J: Is that allowed now?

Sister J: Yes. But only for the sisters.

.

Recently our Relief Society did this Ten-Day Challenge to “Redefine Beauty.” (I wrote about it on my personal blog, a little too snarkily for my own good, I think.) Basically, it was a program to get us to focus on inner beauty and spirituality instead of being all depressed about how fat and ugly we are. It culminated in this Very Special Relief Society mentioned in the dialogue above. It was a good lesson, actually–I mean, it was a good lesson for Mother’s Day because it wasn’t about motherhood at all, so no woman could say she felt left out, and it was all about feeling good about yourself, so no woman could say it made her feel bad. Theoretically, anyway.

I thought about doing this Ten-Day Challenge thing–I thought about it very seriously for at least a couple minutes–because heaven knows I could use some inner beauty and spirituality in my life. However, when I got right down to it, I found I could not take it seriously. Perhaps I feared success. I’ve always thought of myself as that person who could make you feel better about yourself just by standing next to me. Visit my home and feel better about your own housekeeping skills. Look at my children and feel better about your own parenting. This is a real service I provide–perhaps the only service I provide. How do I make the decision to risk all of that? It’s harder than you think.

Actually, what is hard for me is to muster up enthusiasm for focusing on inner beauty. I don’t think I feel bad about myself because of the way I think about my outward appearance. It seems like everywhere I turn, someone is telling me to accept my body as it is and how models are all airbrushed anyway and people are too shallow and here’s a website that shows what a real woman looks like after she’s had children, blah blah blah blah blah. I admit that I occasionally feel a little self-loathing because I’m getting older and realize that I didn’t fully…appreciate…my body when it was younger and…firmer…but, you know, I realize that, to a large extent, how I look is not under my control and never has been and therefore is not my fault. And beauty is supposed to fade. That’s nature, and nature is a bad word–but what are you going to do?

When I get really depressed to the point of despondency–when I feel that my self-esteem is really in the proverbial toilet–I am not thinking about my looks. I’m thinking about the stuff that really matters–what’s in my brain and my heart–and I’m evaluating that stuff and thinking, “Wow, Rebecca, you are really not up to snuff. You are not virtuous and lovely and of good report or praiseworthy. Even if your thighs were thinner and your face were prettier, you would still suck. That’s how much you suck. For real.” And I want to tell you, kids, that sort of self-talk is not helpful. More to the point, though, it doesn’t do any good to disregard the outward appearance and focus on the heart when the heart itself boasts such slim pickings, as it were. Rather than a ten-day program to redefine beauty, I need a ten-day program to redefine inner beauty.

Some sample meditations:

Day 1. To jump-start your interest in studying the scriptures, read the naughty parts of Song of Solomon. Use the King James translation for that added challenge.

Day 2. Before you log onto Facebook, take a few minutes to pray. Pray that you will be able to post a status update that will touch someone’s life for good. It may work, it may not work, but at least you will know that you did all you could.

Day 3. For every mean thing that you think but don’t say out loud, give yourself ten points. Heck, give yourself a hundred points. This is really hard.

Day 4. Think about all the things you did wrong today. Now write down all the ones that were illegal. You might be surprised at how short the list is!

Day 5. Have you tried Valium? ‘Cause it’s pretty awesome.

Now, obviously, I am being facetious here. (I say “obviously, I am being facetious” because I know there are many to whom it will not be at all obvious, but I throw the qualifier onto the boilerplate to avoid insulting the rest of you.) Such a program is not designed to increase spirituality but rather to decrease guilt over the current level of righteousness. There’s nothing particularly challenging about it (except the part about getting a prescription for Valium). It’s not even a fair parody of the Ten-Day Redefining Beauty Campaign–which is, to some extent, about improving yourself, and only superficially about solving your self-esteem problems.

Perhaps I’m missing the point because I’m already pretty good at distracting myself from the image in the mirror. My methods are simple. Technique #1: Don’t look so much. Technique #2: When you do look, only look from your best angle and sort of squint a little. Technique #3: Use your imagination. Rinse and repeat, no scriptures necessary. Would that it were so easy to deal with my real self-esteem issues, which all stem from character flaws, which can’t be ignored by looking within. Looking within is the problem, if I wasn’t clear about that earlier.

Something I’ve noticed in recent years is that we ladies get a lot of reassuring messages at church. I can’t remember the last time I went to a General Relief Society Broadcast and wasn’t told how wonderful we ladies are–how much we do for others, how much we contribute to the church, and usually even how lovely we all are. Unfortunately, this kind of talk leaves me cold because I don’t believe it. Discounting the possibility that I’m too cynical for my own good, I can’t help but point out that whoever is doing all this buttering-up has never met yours truly and thus is probably talking about someone else. I do some stuff, yeah–even some important stuff (if you consider keeping Child Welfare and the health department off the premises important)–but I’m not as good as they keep telling me I am. I reckon I’m about average in the valiant and virtuous department, and I don’t mean “Mormon women are incredible” average, but just regular average. If you looked in my purse, you would find three ball point pens, $4.24 in loose change and an unwrapped tampon (“Just in case someone gets a head wound! She’s an emergency preparedness specialist!”)–feeling inspired yet?

At some point I had to figure that these self-esteem talks were analogous to the porn talks that men always get. (Or used to get, before this last April.) They wouldn’t be talking to us about it if it weren’t a problem, right? So how do you think they’re doing? I expect that a lot of people would say that these explicit “you sisters are wonderful” messages are designed to counteract the implicit messages that we are not as important as men are because of the structural inequality in the church, and that may well be true. But I also expect that some women really appreciate these messages and don’t necessarily view them through the gender inequality lens.

I’m not really interested in re-hashing the “if we were really equal, they wouldn’t have to tell us how equal we are” discussion, inevitable though it may be. I guess that personally I have always been of the opinion that God doesn’t care that much about my self-esteem; that He cares more about how I do than about how I feel. So all this talk about how great I am and how great I should understand that I am is a little too Church-of-Oprah for my taste. Or have I simply found a way to complain about the nice things the Church says to me?

It’s true, isn’t it? I suck.

Comments

  1. Those talks can be depressing because I don’t see myself as incredible either. I try not to hold myself up to that ideal though because it’s unattainable. There is absolutely not enough time in the day to do everything.

    The only questions I ask myself are

    “Am I making an honest attempt to improve something?”
    “Am I making any progress?”

    I normally have a list of five or so things I’m trying to improve and 1-2 or normally internal (avoid snap judgments, etc.) and I can usually honestly say that I’m making progress on something.

  2. Michael says:

    Rebecca, if/when you feel like you suck, you can compare yourself to those people you know (like family members) who need to lose 100+ pounds.

    I’ve also learned that for every instance a person has of comparing themselves to another person and feeling like they come up short, there is another person out there comparing themselves to you and feeling the same way. We all have mountains and we all have valleys, and if we insist on comparing another’s mountains to our valleys, we’re going to be very disappointed indeed with the landscape.

  3. Bravo!

  4. Rebecca–I suspect that God cares about BOTH what you do AND how you feel. I do not believe, however, that he would attempt to improve the way you feel by giving you such a lame talk in General Conference.

    Ways God may actually try to better the way you feel about yourself:
    inspire the invention of helpful pharmaceuticals
    inspire kick-ass songs to turn up really loud
    give you funny fabulous kids
    allow you to travel to see and read about how screwy everyone else is
    roller derby
    Sunday morning talkshows
    Slurpees
    Hair dye
    etc.

    These are things that actually improve our lives.

  5. I don’t know whether you suck or not, but I’ll take your word for it. You do manage to be pretty dang cool while you do it, though.

  6. Chris Gordon says:

    No one this self-conscious can suck. Sorry, the fact that you’re able to articulate these things about yourself and analyze them intelligently forces the conclusion that you don’t suck. People who suck don’t know they suck, and that’s the bulk of why they do.

    People who know they suck are secretly awesome. :)

    I know that when I’m full of self-doubt, I’m the only one who can pull out of it, sometimes with the overt help of the Lord and sometimes with the covert help of the Lord. My wife’s a champ at telling me nice things, and I don’t generally believe her either. Doesn’t mean I want her to stop. Most of the time.

  7. “You are not virtuous and lovely and of good report or praiseworthy….That’s how much you suck. For real.” And I want to tell you, kids, that sort of self-talk is not helpful.

    I don’t know about that, Rebecca. I occasionally find myself believing that it is helpful, or at least complimentary to God’s plan, for us to go through life regularly reminded of the fact that we all are, as individuals and collectively, generally complete screw-ups. I mean, really, conceptually speaking, life really does suck, doesn’t it? It’s pretty much a catastrophe down here, don’t you think? Hence the problem with this whole nonsensical self-esteem thing: why should I esteem myself at all? We’re all just sinners, trying to repent and make the best of and find joy in a crummy situation, every day.

    I like your conclusion, though:

    I guess that personally I have always been of the opinion that God doesn’t care that much about my self-esteem; that He cares more about how I do than about how I feel. So all this talk about how great I am and how great I should understand that I am is a little too Church-of-Oprah for my taste.

    Complete agreement here!

  8. Jacob M says:

    This is a fantastic post, and I found myself laughing repeatedly, mostly in a “I’m just as sucky” sort of way. But I refuse to believe that is all that you have in your purse. I have never met a woman with so few things in her purse. :)

    In regards to how it’s the women getting this kind of Oprahy-“you’re-so-super” talk, I have to point out that the youth have been getting it for years, at least since the mid-90’s, but possibly even earlier. (I don’t remember much church stuff from the eighties, as I was born at the beginning of the decade.)

  9. I don’t know that comparing oneself to someone who “needs to lose” a lot of weight and patting oneself on the back because you’re so much better than someone you obviously think you’re better than really does much for helping someone to truly not suck. In my opinion, that kind of self-congratulatory thing, especially because you usually don’t know what that other person has struggled with either physically (sometimes health problems CAUSE obesity, not the other way around) or emotionally.

  10. My #9 was in response to #2, not the post.

  11. Jeannine says:

    Thanks a bunch. I’m thinking now that I don’t have ANY change in my purse, and I know for sure that I can never find a pen when I need to write out a check…I THINK my checkbook is in my purse…

    Other than those thoughts, I think your post nailed it. I get SO tired of the “self-esteem” stuff. Just the other day I had to “remind” my teenaged daughter that I didn’t really care how she felt about things, what matters is what she does. Ugh. I agree with Jacob that it is taught more and more to the youth. And I’m guessing now to the sisters like you just said. There’s a lot to be said for being positive, but it has to be tied to something real. I know the proverb says “as a man thinketh…” but so much of the time that just doesn’t matter–we need to be doing something concrete to show ourselves what we are.

  12. Chris Gordon says “No one this self-conscious can suck.”

    Actually, how can someone this self-conscious not suck? I remember being taught somewhere to do a monthly self-inventory, and I tell you, that’s terrible advice. Talk about a sure-fire way to learn to hate yourself. I just try to improve myself one little thing at a time and try not to be too introspective, because it just makes me sad.

    It does seem pretty silly to have people who don’t even know you tell you how great you are, but when I’m feeling the Spirit, I kind of share the sentiment. It makes me feel grateful. So I can kind of understand that our church leaders might feel that way when they’re giving talks.

    But as a guy, I’ve always thought those self-esteem lessons the women and YW got were kind of weird.

  13. RJ,
    I just relish chances to read your writing, because I’ve never encountered someone who so brilliantly and consistently blends pain and humor and wit and wisdom and blue collar and white collar and flowers and weeds and tap dance and heavy metal and aged reflection and youthful whimsy.

  14. When we lived in Boston, a sister in the ward whom we almost revered told my wife one day how much she admired us and wished she and her family were more like ours. It stunned us, because that’s exactly how my wife and I felt about this woman and her family.

    Those who think they suck generally don’t suck as much as they think they do – and those who do suck generally think they suck less than they do. So, in the end, we’re all in the same boat – wrong about our own suckiness.

    Fwiw, I like your side of the fulcrum more than the other side.

  15. Chris Gordon says:

    @Martin (#12), I probably should have said “self-aware,” since “self-conscious” kind of has a negative connotation.

  16. I love you Rebecca J.

    One man’s suckage is another man’s…maybe I’ll leave that thought unfinished.

    I’ll tell you what sucks: getting old. But happy birthday anyway. :)

  17. There was a study done (don’t remember who did it but I read about it in high school during a psych class or it was an interesting titbit my teacher shared) in another country (I’m thinking Europe) that found removing mirrors from your bedroom increases a person’s sense of physical beauty and generally increases their feeling of self worth. It’s been years since I’ve had mirrors in my room and I can tell you the difference is pretty clear since I now don’t see a reason to wear make up knowing I look perfectly fine and overall just feel better about myself based on the outward perspective.

    But honestly, after reading a few general conference talks I got the feeling that what I felt mattered more than what I did. IE: doing service but feeling un-service like kinda ruins whatever service you were doing in the first place. I think being happy is what matters more than anything else.

    Any theories to why leaders feel the need to constantly remind women about how great they are? Are the husbands unable to do it? Is it that women/teenagers are committing suicide in droves due to unhappiness? Please don’t tell me this is all a ploy to somehow say depression is really a side effect of not being told “you’re wonderful” enough.

  18. Personally, I think they do it because women tend to be too hard on themselves. Which I think is partly the point of Rebecca’s post, but maybe I’m wrong.

  19. As someone who has dealt with depression, I don’t know that saying that God doesn’t care about how you feel is totally accurate. I think saying that God doesn’t care about how pretty you feel is.

    Self-confidence is important, but I don’t think that comes through redefining beauty. I think it comes from moving past the idea of equating feeling beautiful with feeling confident, which is a much more difficult thing to turn into a cutesy booklet.

  20. I think there are times we are too hard on ourselves and times when we let the pendulum swing the other way and let ourselves off the hook too easily. I don’t know if it’s possible to be objective about oneself. Maybe, when I’m in an awesome mood, I can focus on ways to make myself more awesome; and when I’m in a suckish mood, I can focus on what I manage to accomplish despite sucking so much. Maybe that will strike an appropriate balance. The Valium will certainly help with that.

    Michael (#2) – I may not need to lose 100 pounds, but whenever I hear about you taking a 15-mile bike trip, it reminds me of how out of shape I am. (In an inspirational way, of course, not a self-esteem-wrecking way.) :)

  21. britt k says:

    I find it ironic that these talks about how we shouldn’t develop our self esteem based on how others see us are interspersed with a constant barrage how great other people think we are.

    I think God cares about our feelings…it’s just he keeps them in perspective. (hint they may be more or less important than I think they are).

  22. After reading your post I think I am going to start telling people that “suck” is the new “awesome”

    What a marvelous blog entry.

  23. “But I also expect that some women really appreciate these messages and don’t necessarily view them through the gender inequality lens.”

    Some? Nearly all. And they need to to hear it. I am consistently amazed at the logical leaps women will go through to denigrate themselves. It’s as though they refuse to believe they’re a good person until proven beyond a reasonable doubt. And even then only for a day or so.

  24. I suppose like other commenters, I find the constant barrage of “awesome women talks” to be their way of blowing sunshine up our [beep].

    That said, self-esteem, in my opinion, comes from how we intrinsically define ourselves. For instance, if I define myself solely by how clean my house is, I would be the biggest loser of the bunch. But, if I define myself by my talents and intellect then I have a much bigger pool to draw from.

    Because I don’t know you, I can’t tell you where your strengths lie; obviously, based on the forum you are writing in, one is writing and another is your ability to academically analyze many topics. Perhaps this should be the focus of “Redefining beauty?”

  25. Mommie Dearest says:

    One area, that I am aware of, in which you definitely do NOT suck is blog-writing. Your posts are almost always merely awesome, and when they’re not, they are spectacularly awesome.

    In our public discourse in the church, we tend to traffic in quite a lot of euphemistic folderol, especially when the topic is about anything related to women. For some reason we just don’t speak things plainly. I don’t want to deconstruct why this is, (because I can’t do that as good as Kristine) but I would like to point out that one of the reasons that your posts are consistently awesome is because you do not ever serve us up any of that BS.

  26. Josh B. says:

    is the ban on gender inequalities for a month over?

  27. Josh B. says:

    (nothing to do with you, Rebecca J. I just don’t know if its legit for me to comment or not)

  28. Josh B., please shush.

  29. Kristine says:

    MC–the problem is that we need to be told in ways that are sincere, by people who know us. Generic praise is insulting.

  30. MC@23

    “I am consistently amazed at the logical leaps women will go through to denigrate themselves.”

    You mean we weren’t supposed to take the self-esteem talk at face value? It’s just the first act of kabuki theater, second act guilt and self-denigration (third act comfort and reassurance that we’re not really that sucky after all)? You mean I’ve been doing it wrong all along?

    I’m so embarrassed.

  31. michelle says:

    I think there are times we are too hard on ourselves and times when we let the pendulum swing the other way and let ourselves off the hook too easily. I don’t know if it’s possible to be objective about oneself.

    I think this is really true. I struggle with that tension so much. I think Elder Holland hit the nail on the head, though, in inviting us to let the Spirit help us know what to focus on.

    Incidentally, I think it’s interesting that you (and others) say that all women hear is ‘you are so great.’ I think most of Sister Beck’s talks have been pretty direct about inviting us to do better…even to the point where women have complained that she was asking too much, or not being sensitive enough. I think her counselors’ talks also have invited us to improve. Nevermind all the talks in Conference that are to both men and women.

    When she spoke at our regional conference, Sister Beck basically said, “You are doing better than you think you are. But you can be doing better.” (She said something to this effect in the General RS meeting a couple of years ago, too.)

    In short, I really think we do get both messages.

    Another thought: A friend pointed out to me that Eth 12:27 says that the Lord will show us our weakness. I”m beginning to think that it’s all to easy to get in the way of that inspiration happening by either being in denial when the Spirit prompts, or focusing on weaknesses that maybe aren’t the priorities God has for our growth because they bother US, or we think that we ‘should’ focus on them. But at least in my experience, a lot of time I’m wringing my hands about things that the Spirit is not actually inspiring me about.

    Tough stuff, this tension.

  32. So your leaders are basically monologuing about how great “you” are, when you know that “you” refers to other people who fit the accepted stereotypes.

    I think it’d be pretty hard not to feel alienated, lose self-esteem, and feel like you don’t matter after a lifetime of that. Probably most of the people who seem to fit the stereotype even feel left out, because they’re worried to death that they don’t.

    There’s always something more that you need to do, if you want to be a really good person.

  33. “MC–the problem is that we need to be told in ways that are sincere, by people who know us. Generic praise is insulting.”

    Why is generic praise insulting? We are talking in generalities here, right? When you say “we”, you are speaking of LDS women generally. When a speaker says that “LDS Women are Amazing”, he’s speaking of LDS women generally. It’s not insulting.

    “So your leaders are basically monologuing about how great ‘you’ are, when you know that ‘you’ refers to other people who fit the accepted stereotypes. I think it’d be pretty hard not to feel alienated, lose self-esteem, and feel like you don’t matter after a lifetime of that.”

    See, this is what I’m talking about. A compliment is turned around judo-style into a grave insult. You just can’t win.

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