What Could You Accomplish?

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I know I’ve told this story before, but it has shaped my worldview so I’m gonna lay it on ya again:

A while back, a dear friend of mine told me something that stopped me cold. She said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Sally, do you know why I don’t run for political office myself? It’s because I could never handle the scrutiny and criticism I’d take for how I look. Women in politics and power are constantly under the microscope for their bodies, grooming, and style, and I just couldn’t take it.”

My friend – from what I can tell – is afraid of very little. She has told me that she truly enjoys conflict resolution and adores speaking in front of large crowds. I can quite easily imagine her fending off rabid wolves to protect her young daughter. She has also worked in politics for years and is incredibly informed about public policy and remarkably passionate about her beliefs. So I was shocked to hear her say that the prospect of dealing with press and public critiques of her looks has prevented her from campaigning.

We talked a bit more about it, and she pointed out that helping women feel confident in their looks removes barriers. We live in a world that frequently evaluates women based on our looks and, if those looks are found to be somehow lacking, dismisses us. We know this. And many of us hesitate to step up to positions of leadership, or speak out against actions we question, or put ourselves in the public eye for fear of censure and dismissal.

Another friend – a gifted musician – recently expressed similar hesitations. She has dabbled a bit in performance and stepped into the spotlight a few times, but she mainly keeps her music on the backburner. Because for every Adele there are 500 Katy Perrys, and if she were really to put her all into her dreams she, too, would risk a life under the microscope. Her style, her figure, her hair, her makeup would all be subject to examination and ridicule. And as talented as she is, the prospect of being constantly held up to prevailing beauty standard holds virtually no appeal.

And this is valid. Only a select few of us have the drive, ambition, and talent PLUS the thick skin necessary to deal with the deluge of comparison and judgment that comes part and parcel with positions of power and prominence. No one is required to pursue elected office, an executive position, a career in the arts, or any other avenue if the accompanying scrutiny would be too much to bear. No one should sign up for a life that means constant stress and misery. Really. No one at all.

But knowing that many of us have the drive, ambition, and talent but lack that essential thick skin is why I write about style as a tool for empowerment, self-awareness, and confidence. I don’t actually care one whit what any of us looks like. I just want to help women have one less thing to worry about as they chase their dreams, rise to power, or express their creativity. I want to help women see dressing as a creative, helpful, important means of showing self-respect. Because when you’re confident in how you look, some of the appearance-focused flak that comes at you from the media, from petty rivals, from jealous strangers can bounce right off. Your self-assuredness becomes your armor. You can move through the world with a little less weight on your shoulders. You can get on with the work of your life.

If it weren’t for the very real fear of judgment, many of us would spend more time at the beach, wear bright colors, indulge in trends. Many of us would start more conversations with people we find attractive, go to more parties, pose for more photos. And many of us would run for office, demand promotions, pursue careers in the arts, put ourselves in positions of prominence and rock the world. This isn’t a stumbling block for all, but it trips up more women than you might expect. And until the world sees bodily diversity as the gift that it truly is, I’ll do my best to provide knowledge, tools, and armor to everyone who comes here.

If we lived in a world that was body-blind, what could you accomplish?

Image by Nathan Rupert

  • Shawna

    This is a great article Sally and every time I come to your blog I sigh happily as I read something intelligent, well written and not peppered with f-bombs. I really understand this concept of being comfortable with your outer appearance making it possible to then forget about it and get on with the important stuff. I have been both very comfortable and very uncomfortable. I am 46 years old and have lived through and done plenty, but I cannot think of something that I am holding back on due to discomfort with being judged for my appearance.

    By that I don’t mean that I am quite thick skinned. I don’t think I am. I am inclined to be a very harsh critic of myself in all things including appearance and usually the things I cannot change bother me the most. But any holding back, any reluctance to put myself out there as they say, has to do with fear of being judged on my skills and talents and being found wanted, perhaps even being laughed at for thinking I could possibly have any skills or talents.

    My challenges with appearance in the form of personal style have had more to do with how best to combine what I like with what flatters me. I would not wear brighter colours if I just had more confidence and neither would I adopt certain trends or socialize more. I happen to be someone who loves muddied colours, tends to like only one or two of the trends that pop up each season if any of them and will quite confidently go with what I like rather than what is in or even what is the safe bet. The learning curve for me has been how to flatter my figure when the styles I like don’t really suit my body shape.

    I am very aware that confidence in looking good, however I may personally define that, improves how I function but I have not yet let go of disappointment in myself for wanting and needing to look good.

    • Susan In Boston

      Like you, I haven’t found that body-image issues have not prevented from doing things I’ve wanted to do. I’ve found other ways to thwart myself ;-) And I share your fears about how the world will respond to what I have to offer.

      Your disappointment about wanting and needing to look good saddens me. When Dorothy and her companions finally met the wizard, he gave them only the affirmation that they already possessed the powers they were seeking from him. I believe that putting ourselves together in a way that make us feel good is just one way to get an audience with the wizard before we head out in the world. No shame in that.

      • Shawna

        Thanks for your reply, Susan. I think I was raised in an environment that was very fearful of vanity. I was encouraged to be well groomed and look appropriate but not really to think in terms of looking the best I could possibly look. I think the intention was to foster a sense of self that was not based on looks, but it left me feeling a bit guilty if I do care about how I look. I was raised to be ladylike and subtle and yet I have a bit of an artistic flare to my personality so it has taken me a long time to allow myself to express that. Most people would still describe me as ladylike but hopefully I have mastered lady with a twist. I have spent most of my life trying to please other people and only now, at 46, am Iaccepting that it’s okay, and it’s even good to please myself first.

  • http://notdeadyetstyle.blogspot.com/ Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Great observation, Sal, about the thick-skinned-ness needed for public life. Both genders face it, but the magnifying glass is much more focused on women’s appearances than on men’s (John McCain is balding! How often do we see that written about?). But Hillary’s hair/pantsuit is a big deal? I hope your friend will stay involved in politics, whether running for office or working on policy – we need lots of smart people! xo

  • http://www.janelmessenger.com Janel M

    “Because for every Adele there are 500 Katy Perrys…” Absolutely! I hate nasty commentary on who wore what where.

    I pick my battles. Sometimes you have more influence behind the scenes. I decided I would rather be a Tim Gunn than a Valentino or Chanel. Influence the influencers. So far, I haven’t been disappointed with my choice.

  • marsha calhoun

    Had a bit of an epiphany when I read your words “I want to help women see dressing as a creative, helpful, important means of showing self-respect.” I have occasionally felt a bit guilty for not living up to my creative potential in dressing. I have tussled with the issue of superficiality (which shade of green actually goes with this shirt, and why am I thinking about that instead of thinking about the topic of my speech?), when your words made it clear to me: However I dress, I am showing my respect for myself – sometimes I just plain care more about some things (what I’m doing) than other things (how I look while I’m doing it), and just because I dressed for ease and comfort this morning, it should not be concluded that I am lacking self-respect. If I need to remind folks about what is important when I interact with them, I am perfectly capable of doing so, regardless of how I appear to them. This also demonstrates my self-respect, to myself and to others, and I don’t have to rely solely on my appearance to let us all know that I value myself. But you already knew this . . .

  • A.B.

    She’s so right. I remember however many years ago during the OJ Simpson trial where Marcia Clark was picked apart by the media for what she wore. Shoes in particular.

  • Robin

    Honestly, what keeps me out of a lot of the public sphere isn’t appearance-related criticism, but all its relatives, from condescending dismissal (as you note) to calling women hateful names and sending us assault and death threats for speaking our minds, even if in the same or toned-down versions of the way men do. I’ve been called harsh, disapproving, and even crazy for having and expressing strong opinions, no matter how moderately and calmly I try to do it–opinions that, in hindsight, I’ve seen men express in similar or more forceful ways and for which they’ve earned no such scorn. And when the discussion becomes about my attitude, it’s no longer about the content of my comment, a great way to dismiss my opinions and blame me for it. But at least I’ve kept it one-on-one, so I’ve only gotten criticism; my skin isn’t so thick that I wouldn’t be scared out of my mind if I received the personal threats that more publicly-oriented women do.

    On the other hand, I totally agree that confidence in our bodies and style helps us go out into the world with a much more secure attitude. If I’m not shlumping around ashamed of my body and wearing an ill-fitting (physically and emotionally) outfit, I’m more apt to present my whole self with confidence, whether at the beach, mingling with strangers, or giving an important talk to a crowd. And that’s a big step forward.

    Whew, complicated subject!

  • http://macbebekin.wordpress.com/ Elsa

    I’ve been thinking about this in a smaller way, too, after an unpleasant encounter. A few weeks ago, a fellow customer in a store made an racially-loaded remark, and I (civilly, directly, calmly) called him out.

    He immediately and repeatedly retorted by calling me ugly, which – to his apparent surprise – made me laugh but didn’t otherwise distract me. (And why would it? OH NO, a loud-mouthed bigot I’ve never met before finds me unattractive! It was not a devastating revelation, y’know?)

    But his surprise, and especially his dogged return to the tactic of calling me ugly, pointed out that he thought that would either quiet me or punish me. And he wouldn’t think that if he hadn’t seen it work, either in person or in principle.

  • Judy brown

    It’s a form of control, I think. Women have come a long way, but all the techniques you describe are forms of social control, to keep us afraid and to limit our power.

    Maybe we who see that this is a problem should apply the same techniques to men and see how they respond?

  • Kerstin

    I would be a professional dancer. No brainer. It would be awesome. I dream of it all the time.

  • Sonja

    I’m German, and there are many things that I could talk about when it comes to Angela Merkel and the other female politicians in my country, but if there is one thing that I especially love about our chancellor, it is this: It doesn’t matter that she is a woman. It’s just not important. Yes, when she started her campaign, there was much chitchat and snickering because she is not a conventionally attractive woman, and because she doesn’t dress in a way that’s especially flattering (although her uniform of jackets in all colours of the rainbow does kind of work for her). And then, some years ago, she attended a staging of Wagner’s Nibelungen with a huge décolleté (flaunting an impressive, beautiful bust) and that was cause for gossip, too. And you know what? She doesn’t seem to mind at all, she just has more important things to do. And I love that.
    I’ve seen so many men do the same thing – fat Helmut Kohl, Theo Waigel with his wild, ungroomed eyebrows – that it is such a relief to see a powerful woman do the same thing and gain respect.
    In Germany we have a whole range of female politicians now that are giving such a nice example of diversity: Ursula von der Leyen, who looks a bit prissy, but has seven children and as a Secretary of Defense is now head of the German army, tomboyish Petra Pau, Claudia Roth, who in her youth was the manager of a German rockband, Andrea Nahles, who just does her own thing and returned to work eight weeks after giving birth. And in the USA you have such interesting female figures in politics as well. It’s a pity that there are still so much more men, and that you have to point the women out especifically, but I’m so happy that young women nowadays have these figures to look up to, and that you really don’t have to be, look or act in a certain way to be accepted and respected.

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