As a lecturer in Women and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I have the great pleasure of teaching a seminar on body image. But with that honor comes the difficult reality of listening to my students’ heartbreaking beliefs and ideas about their bodies and their worth. As we were exploring media literacy and the impact that marketing has on us, an idea came to me. Impulsively, I dared my students to go natural for a day.
I had no idea how many of my students would take on the challenge, but come the morning of our experiment, all of them walked in without any enhancements- no hair products or styling aids, make-up, or perfume. Needless to say, they were breathtaking. And they started to see it, too.
The Charlotte Observer (the local paper) sent a photographer, and I wrote a piece about the experience to accompany the photos. To my dismay, some of the commenters on the piece lamented the fact that university resources were being directed to teach this sort of class. What a waste, some of them said. These kids will have no marketable skills and an inflated sense of self, they continued. Having spent three years teaching this course, I cannot disagree more.
I’ve had a varied career, doing work that I felt really mattered, and this body image work is some of the most important work I’ve ever done. Contrary to what some might believe, the accomplishment at the end of the semester isn’t that a smattering of young people get such inflated egos from feeling so much better about themselves that they lose all perspective. The real accomplishment at the end of the semester is that my students leave the class less paralyzed about how they feel about themselves and with freshened, invigorated perspective so that they can go out and do work that they feel really matters to them and the world. That, at the root of it, is the most important side-effect of the self-acceptance so many writers, teachers, activists teach.
Body image work, you see, can really change everything. This is what I say to those who doubt its validity, who think that how someone else feels has no impact on them whatsoever. How the woman down the street feels about herself can actually impact many of us in significant ways. Just think: what if that woman is a school teacher and she feels defeated. If she can’t call out her best self, it’s hard for her to champion someone else’s best self. That someone else might be your child or grandchild. Suddenly, you want what’s best for her, right? Suddenly, you want her to no longer be paralyzed, right? Suddenly, it is not so frivolous. Multiply that reality by all of us. If any of us is hindered in being our authentic, best self, then the world suffers.
We each have a purpose that is uniquely ours. If we are consumed by our bodies, then we are taking valuable time away from the work we are meant to be doing and the gifts we are meant to be giving to this world, from our mission. If we are in the mirror, assessing, obsessing, critiquing, despairing, we are not doing the work of our lives.
What are you not doing while looking in the mirror, lamenting your fate? When we get sidetracked, we are taking away from the time we can invest in our purpose and passion.
And the world is too precious, its needs too real, for anyone of us to be hindered by the marketing, the madness, the messages that comes at us in warped speed in an attempt to slow us down, distract us, dull us.
There is no room for us to play small or scared. But to not play small or scared means we must do the work that allows us to slide into our best selves. Because when we arrive there, what we have is not just self-contentment. What we have is the ability to pull off one of the many miracles this world needs. It is not cosmic accident that we are here, right now. We are, each one of us, the ones the world has been waiting for. Our realization of this truth and our ability to embrace it changes everything. We can’t afford for that not to happen.
I originally wrote this piece as a guest post for Medicinal Marzipan on April 28, 2011. In case you didn’t make it over there then, I wanted to share it here, too!