How To Be Effortlessly, Beautifully Yourself (Just Kidding)
Why effortless self-assurance is a myth we should let go of.
Yesterday, a woman walked by with a black bag that said: I AM WHAT I AM. EFFORTLESSLY in big white letters on the side. She was like many other women walking to the subway in Brooklyn– late-thirties, grey umbrella, black hooded jacket, coffee in hand.
I wasn't sure if that slogan was an affirmation or a wish. But the punctuation alone is worth thinking about. The word effortlessly was on a line by itself with a period. Like a challenge.
Most of us have been on a mission to be our authentic selves, unselfconsciously since middle school. And for me, it has never been effortless. As a kid, I was teased at some particularly tender moments of development because of scarring on my face. Middle school doesn't bring out the best in humans, and we carry some of that baggage through life. And surely I'm not the only one whose sense of self-worth can be flattened by random tornados of doubt.
Yet, there was this woman just walking around declaring herself effortless! The thing is, those empowerment slogans are crafty. They purport to be uplifting affirmations. But selling a shirt or tote that says: "I'm beautiful just the way I am," or "I can do anything," or "I am effortlessly myself," is also a clever way for marketers to drag our distractible brains right back to the subject of our own looks and worth. And voila, we are once again hyper-conscious of self and susceptible to self-improvement products.
Sure, positive affirmations are not a terrible idea in the abstract, or in children's books, or meditation apps. But the array of qualities we publicly embrace as ours is just getting longer, more exhausting, and impossible. You can get this entire list on a single tote, poster, or magnet:
"I am beautiful, I am smart, I am strong, I am talented, I am powerful, I am enough."
At this point, I can barely say "I am showered" with any certainty. Just looking at this public self-talk on buttons and bags just makes me question whether I really am strong and talented and enough.
And can anyone imagine men wearing shirts that say: "I'm handsome and successful just the way I am. Effortlessly?" And if they did, would it make the wearer seem more attractive? (I can, however, see the appeal of a guy in a t-shirt that says: "I am showered.”)
Legend has it that there's a moment, a specific year, for each woman when she at last crosses over into effortlessness. And I don't mean death; I mean when a woman slips into her effortless self like a silk bathrobe. For some evolved beings, maybe that happens at 30. And I heard that 60 is the average age of I-don't-give-a-damn-liberation in which we stop trying so hard to live up to all those affirmations. (The '60s are reputed to be the happiest decade for all genders.)
But until then, the unspoken societal ideal for women is to be effortlessly, naturally beautiful and nurturing and strong, like we're in some sort of princess fairytale. Our tote bags may have evolved, but the stereotypical expectations of the 20th century or even 19th century have not changed as much as we might hope or want to believe.
National surveys show that the two traits society values most in women are STILL physical attractiveness and empathy, nurturing, and kindness. (For men, the top two traits society values most in men are honesty and career success and/or earning power. And that pressure is its own kind of trap.)
It's no wonder women often hold two opposing views of themselves. There's the defiant one that says, I am what I am, if not effortlessly, then stubbornly. That's the view in which we are the subject of our own narrative, and we see the world in relation to our accomplishments and intentions rather than the other way around.
On the other side, there's a kind of internal dashcam in which we see ourselves as we imagine others do. On that screen, we are the object of appraising eyes, a person whose value is determined by pervasive culturally-set standards. We can ignore the dashcam, but we know it's there, and it's so hard not to check it. (Our cultivated social media identities are an extension of that.)
The biggest problem with declaring ourselves and each other amazing and beautiful and powerful and all of those things, is that it raises the ante and pulls us toward a well-meaning but tyrannical perfectionism. Because, in truth, we're often not amazing, or at least I'm not. Sometimes we're falling apart, and we're not strong, gorgeous, or talented.
And, most of life is not effortless. To cultivate compassion and nourish a relationship or figure out how to parent a struggling child, or navigate workplace toxicity takes lots of effort and lots of humility because you will falter or say the wrong thing. It’s impossible to take a risk or learn something new unless you can tolerate being the opposite of what we usually consider powerful and beautiful.
But if we can accept that the goal isn’t to be all-powerful, maybe we can open the door for others to be vulnerable, messy and complicated, and unappealing.
It's just hard to boil all that down to an empowering slogan.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are men still pressured to be financially successful and are women are still expected to be attractive and nurturing/nice above all? According to this chart from The Pew Research Center (2017), societal expectations haven’t changed much in the 100 years. But does this data ring true to your experience? Have you resisted stereotypical gender expectations? Are we still living in 1950? I would love to know what you think, so share your thoughts in the comments.
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A Date With the Wind: After losing her sister, Australian journalist Indira Naidoo mended her shattered heart by connecting to bits of nature she could find near her home in Sydney, Australia. And in her new book, The Space Between The Stars, Naidoo explored ways to nurture a connection to the natural world in urban spaces. In this excerpt from The Guardian, she writes about the wind, that most elusive of natural forces.
“To be a successful kite flyer is to be in a waltz with the wind, you and your dance partner drawing on each other’s strength, supporting one moment and then allowing yourself to be carried the next.”
Ugly Beautiful: “Rather than celebrating superficial beauty, [Chinese] collectors exalted imperfection for its expressive possibilities and sought rocks that were not symmetrical or smooth or pretty. The humble rock became, like an abstract sculpture, a medium to explore forms and textures and to express one’s inner being. In the minds of serious connoisseurs, rocks, as microcosms of mountains—or even the entire universe—were meditations on life itself.” From the Weng Family Collection of Chinese Painting: Art Rocks, a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Ditch that beastly inner critic and come write with us during our second annual mini-retreat at Taconic Ridge Farm, a gorgeous spot in Hillsdale, New York, a few hours north of New York City. Sat, May 7, 2022, 10:00 AM – 1:30 PM EDT. Get tickets and learn more here.
Consolation: After Rilke
Spring again. Wet April calls the blue
from the sky, would give me names
for all the green things writhing from the earth’s
numb body. But I’ve been too long
a student of the winter, have memorized the lines
of trees whipped bare by wind—I’ve learned to love
the gray in your hair.
A note to longtime readers:
Please forgive the delay in this week’s column. Some scary health issues have come up for someone close to me and we needed a little time to process and respond. A bonus edition is coming your way later this week. Thanks so much for your patience and good thoughts, Susanna