On the tail of my recent post about breaking up with my hairstylist, I read in Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly that how we look remains the number one shame trigger for women! She says that “after all of the consciousness-raising and critical awareness, we still feel the most shame about not being thin, young, and beautiful enough.”

Over the  years I’ve heard hundreds of  “I’m not enough” stories from female graduate students, clients and workshop participants. I have my own version of the story. And in spite of over 20 years of consciousness-raising and personal work on these issues, I too have my moments of feeling “not enough.”

Saturday afternoon I had a partial meltdown when I couldn’t get my hair to do what I wanted it to do. I’ve had some bad hair days since going short, but never felt as frustrated as I did Saturday.

What was behind my reactivity? For me it was a feeling of being less than picture perfect. Heading out to several parties with people I don’t already feel a sense of love and belonging with activated the “I’m not enough” messages that Brown’s research indicates we all have and we’re all afraid to talk about.

Where does the expectation that I need to look a certain way come from?

For me it comes from internalizing destructive images and messages about beauty. I live in a subculture highly indoctrinated in the importance of external appearances. Here in Southern California, if you have enough money (even if you aren’t young or thin) you can pay someone to dress you up, do your hair and makeup, and come out looking stylish and fashionable in a way that passes for beauty. It’s a world where beauty  is often only skin deep. You’re as beautiful as the clothes and accessories you can afford. And, if you can afford those, you can probably pay to get your hair colored regularly, blown out weekly, and have cosmetic surgery to “fix” whatever wrinkles, bulges or sags are detracting from your “beautiful self”.

There’s a whole world of Botox parties, style consultants, and other opportunities to purchase services and products to fix yourself up if you aren’t happy with what you see in the mirror.

Lord, have mercy.

An eating disorder colleague told a story that illustrates how our fixation with image is a byproduct of socialization. Back in the mid-1990’s she’d just returned to the United States after 9 months traveling around the world. Digital cameras had recently become available to the general public and were a novelty in many of the areas she visited. The children were especially intrigued with seeing pictures of themselves.

One day, a group of kids were crowded around her, laughing and delighting in seeing “themselves” for the first time. One boy looked surprised as he viewed the screen. He pointed at it and asked the other kids “Is that me?” The others laughed and pointed back, “That’s you!” It occurred to her that those kids had no idea what they looked like. They didn’t have mirrors and they didn’t have cameras.  Her conclusion: “They don’t have an image of their body. They are their body. They don’t have mirrors and photos that turn them into an object of their own observation. No disembodiment. No body image. Just themselves.” Self-image, at least as it relates to appearance, is largely a product of living in a world of mirrors and photographs.

The desire and instinct to adorn ourselves, beautify, and enhance seems to be instinctual. Using makeup, hairstyles, fashion and accessories and even cosmetic alterations of body parts to match cultural standards of beauty is nothing new. Women have been beautifying ourselves since time began and we see it in cultures across the globe–even those in remote areas where the standards aren’t set by big businesses.

But in our image driven subcultures where mirrors and digital images of ourselves are ubiquitous, that natural desire to beautify gets hijacked by internalized images of beauty offered us by the industries that profit off of our discontent and shame.  We compare the image in the mirror to the one in the magazine and fall short. Then, frustration, disappointment, anger and a host of other feelings surface  in self-protection. The helpful message those feelings want to convey:  stop comparing yourself to others; just be you! But because we’re socialized to feel ashamed about our appearance, we turn our anger against ourselves and add another layer to the “I’m not enough” story.

On Saturday after my meltdown, I decided to just do me. I went back into the bathroom, messed with my hair a bit more, and decided my hair was good enough. I don’t have anyone to impress. I’m just going to do me!

I love India Arie’s latest album which includes “Just Do You” – an inspiring song to help us increase our shame resiliency by making choices that align with our truth. In reviewing the video I saw that even India Arie succumbs to cultural pressure when it comes to making videos. Highly stylized, hipster types populate the piece.  While I have nothing against hipsters, in some way it’s just another expression of the pressure to have a style and align with a particular subculture’s standards for appearance. But that’s for another blog. Enjoy the video.