The Internal-External Feedback Conundrum

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When we discuss fostering positive body image – here and elsewhere – one of the practices that gets a lot of attention is learning to tune out external messages and focus on how you feel about yourself. There’s a lot of judgmental, shaming, comparative, hurtful imagery and discussion about female bodies floating around in the world, and finding a way to focus on yourself can help sort out what you are truly feeling, and what you only THINK you’re feeling because of external input.

Or can it?

I’ve been wrestling with this question for some time: How can I discern what belongs to me and what belongs to others? How do I know the difference between what I truly believe and what I’m told about my body, beauty, sexiness? Because, if I’m being truly honest, those lines are ALWAYS blurry. Do I think I have lovely wrists and ankles on my own, or do I think that because my husband tells me so? Is red really my favorite color, or do I adore it because my mom has emphasized since birth that I look ravishing in red? Do I hate my body hair because it’s actually ugly or because Nair wants me to buy its products? Or both? How much would I love statement necklaces if Lucky and InStyle hadn’t been pushing them at me for years?

And, perhaps more importantly, does it matter? Although I often see the world in stark black and white, I do believe that we can create our own realities. So maybe it doesn’t matter how my love of red was born. I should just embrace it now, and not worry about external influence. Maybe it doesn’t matter if my feelings about my body hair are fostered by advertisements and media input, and I should just focus on managing those feelings. Investing my energy in what can be controlled and changed sometimes feels more empowering than getting stuck on the questions of origin. The scientist in me wants data and history, but my soul just wants to feel good.

Does it sound like I’m questioning everything I’ve ever written about self-love, discovering your own beauty, accepting yourself as-is? I’m really not. This is no crisis of faith, as I still believe that we can learn to see, embrace, adore, and adorn our beautiful bodies. And I will still write about how, and why, and the importance of it all. My crisis is one of origins: How do we know which beliefs come from where? And do those origins impact our actions and feelings, or would we react in the same ways regardless?

I don’t have answers, but I feel the need to acknowledge these as important questions.

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  • Tina Z

    I struggle with this question as well. And I'm not sure if I can separate all the years of marketing messages and messages from friends, lovers, and families and my own opinions about my self-image. But then again, that process of socialization also influenced the development of my opinions about other subjects like politics. You may very well think that you look ravishing in red because of the influence of your mother. I think the difference is that once you recognize that influence you can decide for yourself whether you agree with it or not. Until you are able to do that, you are relying only on the external feedback. But it's supposed to be a feedback loop, that's how we develop and learn.

  • Courtney

    That's a hard one, especially when I know I have to acknowledge that many times other people see me more clearly than I do! I'm at the point now where origins don't matter to me, only positive/negative. I've struggled a LOT with body image over the past few years, after being relatively immune to it for most of my life (three cheers for sudden chronic health problems!). So now I'm accepting that I don't necessarily see myself and my new body correctly, and actively looking for outside feedback that reinforces positive thoughts about my body.

  • Toby Wollin

    Advertising is based on all sorts of ‘needs’ – love, group acceptance, status. Many times, they use humiliation and fear of loss as the tools of choice – this has been going on since advertising started. Because of the geography around our house, we don’t get broadcast tv – and we never bothered to get cable. And although I certainly look through fashion magazines, I tend to view advertisements through my own filter of what I know advertisers’ goal to be: to make me feel inadequate in such a way that I believe their product will solve my problem. So, those negative voices in my head are pretty quiet. Part of this is because I am not young and I have a secure relationship with my husband (33 years married this fall). Another part is that I am very familiar with my body and what it can and cannot do, and what is important (when I cared for my elderly mother, believe me, I was extremely happy for my very thick and strong legs and back because that meant I could lift her off the floor when she had seizures. The fact that I don’t wear a size 10 didn’t bother me one bit). But again, that confidence tends to come with time and the ability to block out those messages.

  • Stefka

    With body image, the lines are definitely blurred for me – and that's connected to lifelong self-esteem issues. I've struggled to believe that I am attractive regardless of weight, fitness, etc., and that has a lot to do with media and society. The opinions of close friends, partners, and family (and images of real women rocking their curves!) have been important in helping me feel confident and realizing the things I do love about my body.

    When it comes to clothes and fashion, however, I'm not overly "trend-conscious". I'm perfectly happy rejecting trends which are uncomfortable or just don't feel like me, and I dislike being told that suddenly certain items or looks are "out of style". But over the past year I've enjoyed exploring my own personal style, embracing new colors and being conscious of what flatters my body. I think of it in terms of being open to inspiration (wherever that may come from – Lucky or the blogger next door), challenging myself to try new things, and connecting with what makes me feel good about myself. And I guess that's where it all comes together for me – like your final sentences, I do think it comes down to embracing (and owning) the beliefs and physical things which make us feel condifent, sexy, etc. regardless of where this influence originated.

  • Vildy

    yeah, well, it's full circle to the speech in Devil Wears Prada explaining how it's no accident the assistant is wearing blue.

    I used to keep loads of back issues of fashion magazines and re-read 'em, too. Then I decided that I was training my eye to appreciate completely outdated styles, silhouettes, concepts. I got rid of them.

    I think we definitely are drawn to – or repulsed by – whatever we constantly see touted. We have a reaction because there is something to react to. OTOH, chasing my own tail, we probably also have a long-term preference for, say, finely wrought items over chunky, rawer styles or v.v. and maybe that has something to do with personality. Of course there are the theories – that I like – that say that personality is formed from social contact and opinion. If you list everything you believe about yourself you can usually link up each statement with a person of authority in your youth. (and of course you can alter or reject that as a more grownup person).

  • Mother of Style

    Although I decided at least 10 years ago to go by FIT not SIZE I still find myself having to repeat that in my head when I try on clothes: It's not the number on the label it's the way it looks on you. It's not the number….

  • Charlotte

    Great topic, Sal, and if you want a vivid exploration of how our realities are shaped, go see "Shutter Island." The narratives we tell ourselves vs. "reality" assumes that there is one constant truth. That's a difficult concept to swallow. Toby Wollin seems to hit the nail squarely on the head in her comment. The whole job of advertising is to make one feel inadequate, so one will purchase the magic item that will bring adequacy & acceptance. Magazine articles do the same. In one home decor mag last year, an article deploring "dull, creamy yellows" in favor of "sharp, green-tinted yellows" was followed 20 pages later by photos of a beautiful house painted in creamy yellows. Had I only seen the first article, I might have been fretting my little heart out over my passe bathroom (joke).
    I had skin cancer several years back & had to have extensive & very visible surgery on my head. This required me to wear a variety of gorgeous scarves and hats to cover my bald spot and the reconstructive procedure. I'd always WANTED to wear gorgeous headscarves, turbans, etc. but was afraid people would think I looked silly–as if I were trying to be glamorous or dramatic. When I HAD to wear them, it turned out that nobody paid much attention, and when I did get comments, they were invariably positive, and usually on the order of, "Well, YOU can wear something like that. I wouldn't look so good in it."

  • enite

    Sal, these things that you speak of will all pass away. In the end it is only love, truth and beauty that matter, and the beauty that matters cannot be measured by the way you describe.

    I know this is not a popular point of view and hasn't been for a couple of thousand years, but I believe it is the truth. You are a wise woman and you are questioning these measures because they don't feel true.

    Yes, we all want to feel presentable, lovely, desired, accepted, but the truth is whatever makes us so will pass away. It is better to set our hearts on more lasting values and enjoy these things, (because believe me I have a closet full of clothes and I am always searching for the perfect haircut) but take them with a grain of salt.

  • Courtney Hoyle

    I think for me it isn't even a mattered of the lines being blurred anymore, but the lines have melded together. Now I am working to correct that. For too long I have believed things about myself because that is what I have been told or have taken in from outside sources. I am finally becoming able to move past that and seeing what I truly see about myself – some of it still parallels what I am told, but so much more of it is just what I see and what I feel. That makes me happier and I am trying to just ignore what is pushed on me and enjoy those things that I truly love, both about myself and about my life.

  • Meli22

    All I can say is that I am human, and I learn via input. I watch others, I browse, I read, I listen, I look, I think, and yes inevitably this all is taken into consideration and processed.

    But, I AM the one who decides what has merit with me. What (I) like. What opinions MATTER to me. what value (x) thing has to me. Whether to take something into consideration.

    My style started by seing this beautiful romantic classic look on others, and has evolved into my own little thing. Colors, shapes, and patterns that I like. Details that are unique. I never would have created this style for myself if it wasn't for reading fashion bloggers, but before I did I was lost style-wise. I took what I liked and evolved from there.

    My body image is more internal than external though. People tell me I am thin, beautiful, etc etc. I don't agree, because I know that those people A) make the best of my positives, which is nice but not the whole truth and B) compare me to others around me, which I dislike.

    My perception of beauty is wide for others, but for me I always seem to hold myself up to what I think is the ideal beauty, or what I find in women as the most beautiful. I hate to say it, but I love above all exotic looks- darker skin, long black thick wavy hair, in a package with longer legs and none of my flaws. I am pale skinned, for instance- nothing is going to forever change that.

    I see me as my mirror tells me- all my flaws, and I try to make good on my positives. I try to reconcile that me as I is never going to be me as I wish to be. I also try to appriciate what I have, because things could be so much worse.

  • FashionTheorist

    Schrodinger said that by observing something, you change it. It gets even trickier when the observation is bilateral: other people observe you, you observe them, you observe yourself…

    I don't think our opinions of ourselves can ever truly be separated from our environment and its influences: we don't exist in a vacuum. Some theorists have posited that without the structures of our society to shape our thought patterns and memories, they don't exist. However, we have the ability to filter, to discern which opinions have worth to us and which are hot air, nastiness, or otherwise not worth our time. Only the truly gullible believe everything they are told.

    If anything, your writings on self-esteem and body image take on greater freight in this context, not less. We can only change the outside world so much: we can't stop the bodysnark and cultural messages telling us to hate ourselves. We can only change our reactions to them.

    Knowing origins is important, but only up to a point. It can provide a useful tool in our analysis of our feelings and impressions of ourselves – but that's all. At some point, it becomes necessary to step back from causation and deal with the situation as it stands, regardless of origin.

  • The Closet of Kim

    I don't think origins matter at all. Especially because it's probably an un-answerable question. Did you like your wrists and ankles before you met Mike? Maybe not, but that doesn't tell you whether you would love them now without Mike telling you that. Same with the color red. Maybe you would have come to that conclusion all on your own. I say go with what you're feeling no matter where it came from. Our ideas, opinions and viewpoints change all the time and it could be for a multitude of reasons.

  • futurelint

    Ahh, the chicken or the egg conundrum… I guess I've always been told I'm "cute", since I was a child, and that is still how I think of myself… never beautiful or ravishing or sexy, just cute… maybe because it's been reinforced in my head too many times… but I guess it's not a bad thing to believe about yourself, I'll take cute over feeling bad about myself any day!

    Do I actually like my red hair or do I like it because little old ladies have fawned over it since I was born and hairdressers tell me they've never seen so many different shades of red thrown on one head? I don't know…

    I guess there are things, like my nose for instance, that I love about myself and have never ever been complimented on, so I guess that one's all me… the rest is probably based on feedback from outside sources… I was always insecure about having "big calves" because I was a gymnast and thus had strong legs, but through blogging, people have complimented my legs left and right and I realized that I was just being a paranoid nit-picky self-deprecating nerd about it and probably everything else about my physical appearance that I hate and no one else notices…

  • Stephanie

    In a way this is what lead me to decide that I prefer to shop alone or just with my 2yo. If I have friends along I'm too tied to what they think looks good and what they think of specific trends. Alone I can simply put things on and see how I feel in them.

  • KrissyBell

    This year one of my resolutions is to not buy anything new for the first six months, and after that, if something new comes into my closet, something old must leave. I did this because I have a lot of clothes; clothes that I love, clothes that I think I should love and clothes that other people told me looked great, but that I don't really like. As I wear a piece, if I love it on it goes back in the closet, if I feel yucky in it, it goes in the give away pile. The Statement necklace thing has really gotten me thinking this season. Everyone is so hot on it, but I hate the way necklaces look on my short neck, so instead of buying one that I think is super cute, this time, I admired it on the rack, complimented my friend on hers, and slipped my huge dangling errings back into my ears. Win!

  • Lorena

    I liked your post.
    I have to say that in many ways, i think that it has to do how you are brought up.
    I was brought up in a house where criticism is an everyday thing.
    Coming from people that love you, even though it may not be said in the best way, make its more tolerable for me. Or at least I kind of listen although most of the time I make them think I don't.
    I know it is not a very healthy environment and that unfortunately these things rub off. I am critical too.
    I am critical but with analysis.
    Now I look at it all with a different perspective, like for example when I am told that I look like a widow because I wear too much black. That brought into perspective and deleting the critical part "look like a widow" brings me to analyze that maybe I do need some color.
    It has to do a lot on how you let it affect you.
    Thankfully I can chose, thankfully I can tell when someone is being plain mean.. or maybe it's envy-
    I can chose which product I think is for me, I can decide if I wear something because I like it not because it is a trend.
    We need to analyze what is presented to us, if not we are just followers.

  • Sal

    FashionTheorist: Thank you, and thanks for the reminder about starting with ourselves. I truly do believe that trying while changing the behaviors of others can feel like a futile endeavor, changing how we react is always empowering. Sometimes the world feels so big it's hard to remember how much of our realities we actually DO control.

  • Cassandra

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter, because this is a very timely post. I've dyed my hair red for years, but was recently considering going back to its natural brown until this morning a saleswoman at a shop gushed about the red. Result: indecision. So I wonder: do I like red hair on myself because it gets noticed, and everyone from my boyfriend to my grandmother to random people on the street appears to love it?

    Ultimately I don't think we can ever disentangle our likes from the reactions they get from other people. I think what we need to ask ourselves is whether we use this entanglement in ways that are helpful or harmful to ourselves and our sense of self-worth. Would I still like myself if I had brown hair or gray hair or no hair at all? I hope so. I think so. But it's worth considering why we do this.

  • Anonymous

    This article seems so appropriate

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/10/AR2010031003943.html?wprss=rss_print

    From today's Washington Post about Congo Sapuers

  • Vix

    I definitely think one must "consider the source" when it comes to feedback or messages–but I actually think one benefits from scrutinizing *positive* feedback as well.

    Now I don't think one should be suspicious of compliments because people have ulterior motives or something!

    Especially if one is a people-pleaser, though, I don't think it's particularly healthy to rely on external feedback for feelings of self-worth…and this extends to behavior, not just appearance.

    Again IMO, it sets one up for waaaay too much validation-seeking, which can then create negative feelings if one doesn't feel appreciated. [And that lack of praise can be indirect (silence/no recognition) or direct (constructive criticism or flat-out disagreement).]

    There can also be this weird situation where someone's positive comments can push one in a direction that's not the best for one. Thinking here of a friend who was really good at her job (lots of raises etc) but eventually had to escape because the job wasn't good for her.

    And then there's my mother, who does not look good in red and avoided wearing it most of her life. A few years ago she bought some cheap red coat and got lots of compliments (because it was cheery! and stood out!) and because she likes compliments she keeps buying more red items. And gaaaah it makes me crazy, ha, because she could accomplish her goals with a more flattering color.

    So while I agree it's a really worthwhile exercise to use an external positive comment to try to boost one's self-positive outlook, that doesn't mean the comment should *override* one's internal viewpoint–that's inauthentic. If down the line they end up matching, that's great.

    After writing that novel (yikes!), bottom line is that I think there's value in keeping one's internal eye at least half-open so that we can each refine what works *on* or *for* us–and also so we could theoretically feel good about ourselves in a vacuum.

    [Which is certainly my goal, but in the meantime I certainly am not immune to a compliment or a criticism!]

  • The Waves

    You have raised one of the questions that has bothered me for years, and I wish I had something really intelligent to say about this. The only thing I have come up with over the years is this: asking the question is more important than getting to the answer. There are days when this really upsets me, and other days I take it as it is. Figuring out who we are and where our thoughts and motivations come from is a big cycle, an endless process. To me, that process is what life is all about, and not finding the answer does not mean that you have not achieved anything while asking the questions that matter to you. It is frustrating though, because there are days when you just want to get to the bottom of things, when you don't want to deal with uncertainty, and when all you want is to find some kind of universal truth about things.

  • Jingle Bella

    Ultimately, I don't think that this question is meaningful. We are social creatures. There is no 'true self and true sense of style' in a vacuum isolated from the rest of society. It's like asking "Is this statement false?" – it doesn't get you anywhere (if it's true, it's false, and if it's false, it's true, so you go round in circles).

    I think maybe a better thing is to try and consider whose influence you want to emphasise and whose you want to quietly ignore.

    You want to feel, yourself, that you look good. You want HM to think you look good. You want your friends to think of you positively (whether that's thinking 'Wow, Sal looks great' or 'Sal wears some things that confuse me – I don't understand why she likes them – but I love her anyway and it doesn't matter'). These people matter, 'the fashion world' in some sense doesn't.

  • Brande

    I think it's a little of both. Though I might only be saying this because of a realization I had the other day.
    See, my husband is the ultra-beefy-workout-like-a-fiend-protein-shakes-and-powerbars type and I'm more of a sit-on-the-floor-painting-while-watching-animal-cops type. But I know that exercise is necessary and good for me, so I've been trying to start a routine. After a few days of working out, I was chatting with the Hubs and out of nowhere I said "I want to be healthy, but I don't ever want to be hard. I like being a little soft and squishy". This coming from the girl who bemoaned weighing 110lbs (at 5'3") just a few years ago. I'm around 145 now and, despite all the images and standards being thrown at me from all sides, I LIKE being just a touch voluptuous. I LIKE feeling like an Elizabethan goddess. It's really quite liberating to realize that I can proudly exist outside of the confines of societal ideals. =]

  • LPC

    I've been thinking about this since I read your post this morning. I think where I wind up is how you get to comfort with your body doesn't matter, as long as you get there, and as long as its sustainable. Feeling good about your body because random men whistle when you're 25, not so helpful. Feeling good because a husband who loves you early whistles? Probably OK.

  • kristophine

    Well, as a social psychology researcher, I have to answer from my little corner of academia: attractiveness is based on a set of values that are largely shared, and where we find our differentiation is in the details. Things that signal health–clear skin, a shiny coat, strong fingernails, whole and present teeth, straight posture–are worldwide. We have a genetic imperative to look for those things.

    Where it gets blurry for me is in evaluating myself relative to specific cultural standards: am I tall enough? How tall is tall enough? I'm average in the US, tall in Japan, short in Norway. Height may be related to reproductive fitness, but very weakly, and it doesn't make much evolutionary sense to obsess over it. Are my thighs too big? Who am I asking? Am I displaying signs of obvious ill health (gasping, difficulty walking, sweaty forehead with waxy color)? If not, then the size of my thighs may be irrelevant to people with whom I might want to mate. Variety isn't just the spice of life–it's the backbone of evolution. We're programmed to vary in what we find attractive.

    But just today I tried on a dress and it put me in a foul mood, because it looked wonderful across my bust and then tightened into unflattering stark lines across my belly, upon which I have accumulated some weight lately.

    So: how much of this is the voices of others, echoing in my head? I honestly don't know. Lots, probably. I envy myself at age 12: I was totally self-confident back then, convinced that everyone was just dying over how gorgeous I was. Although I've grown up a lot since then, I miss loving what I saw in the mirror without reservation.

  • music_of_nature

    Totally agree with you. You have totally captured what I have been thinking but not able to express. Finally, all it matters is we should feel good about ourselves

  • Lady Cardigan

    I am in a hurry so I haven't read the other comments yet, but my reaction is: Suppose you are painting a landscape. You didn't invent the scenery you're painting, and you didn't invent paint or canvas. You're interpreting what you see, and the product is unique to you. We are part of this world and can't get outside of it. Our attitudes are interactions and interpretations. But the result is individual (unless you're painting by numbers, ie following social norms exactly, not sure if anyone can do that these days, when society is so fragmented).

    Sorry if that didn't make sense – it's late here.

  • RETRO REVA

    Sal, what a fantastic question and blog subject ! I am 45, just started fashion blogging after hearing Tyra say that the fashion industry is for the young. At 23 a model is considered too old! My first post was titled "breaking the glass lens" and my goal was to help women feel great at any age. But as I started to blog, post on weardrobe, etc, my self image plummeted! Was I living in a false sense of self appreciation ? Maybe, but it was a nice place to be! So many of my peers had told me how "fashionable" I was – how "youthful" I seemed. I believed it. Are we mirrors of what others see in us ? Or is it a delusion that beauty is really based on the Internal self vs. the External ? In the end, maybe it really doesn't matter. If we lived all alone without any outside influence, I bet we would be just fine, but that's not reality . This subject has been bothering me since I discovered my first wrinkle ! For me, ignorance is bliss, and beauty , grace, and self-acceptance definitely come from within. Maybe it's time to kill my T.V. for a while and focus on nature's beauty ! That seems to ground me ! I see beauty in everyone, whether they see it or not. Time to take my own advise? Thanks for the post and for giving me something to think about other than the next cool outfit or pose I can come up with !

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