Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Woman in the Mirror

There are aspects of growing up a woman in our society or of raising healthy daughters that are extremely difficult. A particular challenge is helping yourself, or your daughter, to have high self-esteem and feel comfortable and at ease with your/her own body. There are so many expectations for women to be thin, beautiful, and eternally youthful; meet the needs of children, partner, and parents; work, maintain the home front, and be fun while doing it. Most women are at war with their physical self for most of their lives, with a constant negative soundtrack playing in their heads that they are not enough. We compare ourselves to other women, to women who are air-brushed, and to runway models with eating disorder behaviors.

This week, I really enjoyed reading psychologist Cynthia Bulik's new book, The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are (Walker and Company, 2012). Bulik is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, a Professor of Nutrition at the UNC's School of Public Health, and the Director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program.

This is a book I would recommend to all women, and to parents of girls. If we are going to help the next generation of women navigate these destructive forces, we need to be educated about what we role-model, and what we say to our daughters. It's powerful. Men count here, too.

What I especially liked about this book was the easy, approachable style of writing. I also appreciated that the author took a life span view of women, from infancy to grade school, middle school, high school, college, marriage, working, menopause, and the issues of aging. At each stage, Bulik illuminates the unique body image pressures and self-esteem hits common to women. Middle school is a particular time of great challenge for most girls in both the body image and self-esteem areas. The transition years beginning and ending college can be vulnerable times for women, as can the period in which they are engaged and planning a wedding, and adjusting to their new body after each pregnancy. Adjusting to menopause can be a time of vulnerability for women, too.

It's also really tough in our society to age. Older men get defined as charming or distinguished, while older women can feel invisible, ignored, and unappreciated. There is increasing media and marketing pressure on women not to show age, and to use cosmetic surgery to help retain a youthful appearance long after they are not youthful. Remember when grandma could just be grandma? She didn't have to do yoga and Pilates and own a business. Mine had wrinkles, baked cinnamon rolls, and was beloved by all. I can't remember her begrudging the aging process.

Throughout the book, Bulik offers worksheets that you can download from her website to help you identify the negative thoughts that may be running overtime in your head about your body. She has a worksheet on tracking how often you hear other people comment about people's weight, etc. It's so common that we can be oblivious to the negative messages that besiege us as women, from others and the internalized ones we beat ourselves up with.

She also suggests we track the number of times we say "I'm sorry" as women. Stop being the emotional shock absorber at home and at work. Be careful about all that apologizing for things you had nothing to do with. Men really do not do this. We need to do a better job of speaking up, advocating for ourselves in relationships and at work, and being direct about what we like and want. We need to stop the war on our own confidence and self-esteem.

While we want to be healthy, active, and vital, it's a problem to confuse our body image with the broader construct of who we are, our self-image. They are different and distinct. I highly recommend this book to women, the men who love them, and parents of girls. It's time for us to all do better at not devaluing ourselves, other women, or our daughters by confusing the woman in the mirror for the real woman of substance inside each of us.

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