Monday, August 24, 2015

The Differing Definitions of Success

My daughter is applying to colleges this Fall.  She and her friends have had many conversations about grades, extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, etc. and they always come back to the phrase, "It will look good on my college application."

She has one friend who is a little nutty with regard to the prospect of college.  Ever since we met her in middle school, her mantra has been "I can't get anything lower than an A. If I get a B I won't get into a good college which means I won't be able to get into a good graduate school which means I won't be able to get a good job which means I'm going to be homeless."  I'm not kidding.

We also knew people where we used to live who actually embodied the stereotype of desperately needing to get their kids into the best preschool so that they could go to the best private school so that they could get into the best college so that they would ultimately become successful. I don't know what happened to those people's kids, but I'm guessing that some of them veered off of the dictated path to pursue their own, not-as-lofty goals, as kids will do.

I wonder, what were those parents' definitions of success? If I had to make a guess I would say a high-profile career, with an extremely high salary, a large home, a luxury car, and possibly even private workers to help with mundane things like cooking, cleaning, and tending to the perfect little offspring, who would end up on the same path to success.  But what IS success, really?

The definition depends on where you are in your life age-wise, where you live in the world, what you are exposed to, and whatever situation you are currently in. Most of all though, I think it rides on how you were raised to view success.  For example:

Success to the mother in rural Rwanda means finding clean water for her family to drink.  Literally.
Success to the young girl in Mexico means getting to stay in school another day instead of being sold to a human trafficker.
Success to the mother in the U.S. with the premature infant in the NICU means another ounce gained and another day closer to bringing her baby home.
Success to young man in an Middle Eastern terrorist camp means a bomb plan carried out and massive destruction shown on the news.
Success to the toddler anywhere is convincing the parents to serve ice cream for dinner.
Success to the unemployed actor means securing the part that will give him work for the next six months.
Success to the AA member means fighting the cravings for another 24 hours.
Success to the non-profit owner means getting the grant that will keep the organization running for another year.
Success to the paraplegic means getting the wheelchair up the ramp and through the door.
Success to the dieter means the scale reads lower than it did yesterday.
Success to the jigsaw puzzle doer means getting the last piece in.
Success to the clinically depressed means pulling back the covers and getting out of bed.
Success to the skydiver means a safe landing.
Success to the person on his/her deathbed is looking back with no regrets.

What does true success mean to you? Really.  Not someone else's definition. Not what was demonstrated to you on television or on social media of what real success is.  Not what society deems successful by some random standards. What is your heart's, your mind's, your soul's definition of success?

Here's what the dictionary says:
Success: The favorable or prosperous termination of attempts of endeavors; the accomplishment of one's goals.

Nowhere in that definition does it mention money or other material things.  Nor does it mention chasing dreams that someone else laid out for you. Nor does it say that the accomplishment has to be massive or profound or world-changing. When you figure out what success means to you then strive for that above all else.  If it's a high-powered job with a huge salary, then good for you. If it's working in an underdeveloped country with all of your possessions in a backpack, good for you too.  If it's something else in-between, or if it changes throughout your life, good for you.  As long as it's actually good for you.

Ultimately I believe that true success equals happiness, and if you're truly happy, then you are successful. No matter where you went to college or what your next bonus check looks like. More importantly, no matter what anyone else thinks. We all have known plenty of people who were "successful" on the outside but terribly unhappy on the inside. Which is more important to you?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Who in the world is 100% content? The answer may surprise you...

I've been thinking a lot about appearances lately - owing to the fact that I'm on a cleanse/diet to shed pounds for an upcoming photo shoot, and also because my daughter and I have been watching past episodes America's Next Top Model (and enjoying every mindless moment of it!)

If you've ever seen those "100 years of fashion in 2 minutes" videos, or watched a period drama, it's fascinating to see how the appearance norm has changed through the years, often even decade by decade.  The Donna Reed look of the perfectly put together housewife with an updo vacuuming in her pearls from the 1950s is a drastic departure from the braless, straight hair, bell-bottom-pantsuit -wearing mother a mere 10 years later.

Which just goes to show, what's fashionable now, may not be fashionable later...with the exception of one thing it seems.  Thinness.

Thinness has always been the fashionable look for women, even back in the days of Miss Scarlett having her Mammy tug as hard as possible on her corset strings.  With the exception of the 16th century painter Peter Paul Rubens (who, in my opinion, had a wonderful appreciation of a woman's natural body) it has always seemed like for women, the thinner you are, the prettier you are, which translates to, the better you are.

While this clearly has been the ideal in America for centuries, I believe our great-grandparents worried less about it.  One reason is because they simply didn't have the abundance of food that we have now and it was less of an issue.  In the early 1900s and through the wars where food was rationed, people worried more about how much they would have to tighten their belts, not about having to bore extra holes.

The other reason, I believe, is because they were not bombarded daily by television, magazines, and the internet showing what a woman was "supposed to" look like.  They were not constantly shown what some (predominantly) male advertisers in some room somewhere had decided was the "look" of the time. While anorexia has been around for hundreds of years, it did not gain huge popularity in America until the mid-60s when someone decided that the skeletal model Twiggy (also nicknamed "Sticks" because she was so thin) was to be the fashion icon of the era.  The disease took off again in the early 1990s when a new generation was exposed to the waif model Kate Moss, whose bony, heroin chic appearance was deemed the preferred look of the day.

We don't know who makes these decisions behind closed doors and we don't know exactly who propagates them, but the photos and advertising campaigns are everywhere and can't be escaped.


Unless you choose to escape yourself from them.

Eighteen years ago I had the opportunity to hear Hillary Clinton speak at an anti-bullying event for inner-city teenagers in Washington D.C.  One thing she said really resonated with me and has stuck with me to this day.  She was talking about how her grandparents had divorced when her mother was young and her mother and siblings had a difficult life trying to make ends meet.  They had to work hard, but they were not prone to bemoaning their situation or complaining about their lives. Why? Because this was just the way things were, everybody had it hard during the Depression, and there was no television showing them what a perfect family was supposed to look like.  She talked about how they didn't have Leave It To Beaver, or My Three Sons, or Father Knows Best in their faces every week showing them what these families had that they themselves didn't.  Truthfully, no one back then had a home like that because of the times, and most importantly because it was fake. But fake or not, once television showed people what they were supposed to look like and do on a daily basis, they tried to copy it.

Why is it that we are so anxious to jump on the bandwagons of other people's ideas of outward appearance and success and not decide about what's right for us from the inside out?

Another thing that has remained with me for many years is this: Oprah did an interview with an Amish family, who lived on the food they grew on their farm, made their own simple clothing, and had no technology in their lives - no telephones, no television, no computers, etc.  They lived peacefully in their community, whose members all shared the same values and way of life.  Oprah asked the mother, how content are you with your life, she replied, "100%."  Oprah was taken aback. "One hundred percent??" she asked.  "100%" the mother answered again. Assuming that what this woman said was true (and not just what she said for the camera) it was kind of staggering.  How could she have 100% contentment without the conveniences of a car, or phone, or computer, television, washing machine, refrigerator, and the hundreds of other things that we use every day that make our lives easier and supposedly more productive?  But maybe she was so content largely because she didn't have those things. No car payments or cable bills. No machines to break down and then have to have fixed. No distractions from family togetherness or getting things done.  Getting to experience the fulfillment and satisfaction of a successful food crop or canning process.

Not to mention, no In Style or Glamour magazine cover telling her exactly what she is supposed to look like! No "study" published and broadcast online about what a woman's measurements should be at a certain age.  No contrived television sitcom showing her how a family is supposed to act or appear to be.  If you go through your life with very limited outside influences, you're able to trust your own instincts about what's right for you and the people around you. What a beautiful and freeing way to live a life.

Don't get me wrong - I'm a fan of the BBC and I'm extremely grateful that I don't have to wash everyone's clothes by hand. But there's something to be said for listening to one's own heart and mind, instead of constantly being influenced by what someone else thinks is right or best for you.  There's something joyful and comforting about turning off the television and sharing time with your family without artificially designed distractions.  There's something very fulfilling about working toward our own goals and aspirations regardless of what society deems as "successful" for this era.  And there is something blessedly freeing about being comfortable in one's own body, whatever that body looks like, weighs, or how it looks in the latest trendy fashions.

I think it's time we all took a look at the outside influences in our lives and decided whether they are doing us harm or good.  Whether they are from social media, inconsiderate family members, non-supportive friends - we have the choice every day to pay attention to those influences and take them - or not take them - to heart.  Remember when the media purported that smoking wasn't dangerous to people's health?  Or that egg yolks would kill you? Or that car seat belts were optional?

You can't believe everything you read. Or see. Or hear. So don't.  The only thing you can trust is yourself.  Your gut always knows what right. Sometimes it's hard to hear it among all of the outside noise but you've got to try.

They say Rome wasn't built in a day. But guess what? An Amish barn can be.

Why? Because no one's checking their phones. Or fixing their hair. Or rushing off to the gym.  (I'm guessing the barn raising itself is plenty of exercise!)

I wonder how content we could all be if we listened to ourselves instead of everyone else? Do you think you could get to 100%? I know that's what I'm striving for. As the Amish would say, "The way some people look for faults, you'd think there's a reward."

P.S. The Amish also say, "A round wife and a full barn are the signs of good success." Amen to that! :)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Genetics - curse or blessing?

Disclaimer - this one is a little dark.  Feel free to skip if you want and read other, happier, more uplifting ones. 

I recently saw a photograph of the 61 year old model Christie Brinkley.  She honestly looks about the same as she did when she was 25.  Someone asked her what she attributed her incredibly youthful appearance to and she answered, "Genes, and a great dermatologist!"

"Great answer!" I thought. Way to give credit where credit is due.  We don't think about it often, but our genes play such a huge role in our lives - from our appearance, to our disposition, to our personality, and even our ways of thinking.  Genes control so much that we think is actually in our control, and it's a big relief to realize that instead of fighting against what nature intended, we can embrace the genetic hand we were dealt the moment we were created. Because, (as much as we might want it to sometimes) it's not going to change.

This is a topic that can take weeks and years to discuss, but for now I'm going to focus on one area in particular.  Looks - in particular, a person's genetically predisposed natural weight.

I have struggled with my weight my entire life. And by struggled with I mean obsessed over, worked on, thought about constantly, and mostly have felt a great deal of shame over.  The first time I can remember feeling badly about my body was around age 5, and it's been non-stop since then, so that's 2 score, 4 decades, or approximately 14,600 days of constant, never-ending belittling and loathing directed toward myself and my body.  I can count on one hand the times in my life that I have felt truly beautiful, and I'm up to the several millions that I have felt ugly and worthless because of my weight.

Here's the kicker though: I have never been obese. I have never had to shop at a speciality store for fuller-figured women.  I have been what you might call overweight, plump, chunky, and right after my pregnancies I was definitely inching toward those sizes with the capital Xs in them, but I've never been unable to fit into an airplane seat or had to worry about a seat belt closing over me.

Nevertheless, I was led to believe, from a very young age and from many outside sources, that one could never be too rich or too thin.  Literally.  One pound, make that one ounce over rail skinny was unacceptable, and made a person unworthy, regardless of what other talents or skills they might possess.  I couldn't enjoy the pool or the beach fully because my unacceptable body was on display.  I couldn't feel 100% comfortable performing in front of thousands of people because I thought they would all be thinking "What is that fat and ugly singer doing up there? Nice voice, but she doesn't deserve the spotlight." It's a fact that slenderness is a commodity in America, there have been many marginally talented people who have become successful primarily because they look exactly like a Barbie doll.

I wonder how many people in the world are actually genetically born to have a body like that? I have learned, after all of these years of dieting and exercising, that left to its own devices, my genetics would naturally have my body thicker and stronger (and yes, much hairier too!) than the models and actresses that we see on the screens today.  Why?  Well, quite simply because my ancestry on both sides is Russian. Not the petite, blond, waif-like Russians that we see ice skating and doing gymnastics; no, my people clearly must have come from somewhere cold. Really really cold. With evolution making them hang onto every ounce of fat to ensure survival through the Russian Winters!

For a long time I felt cursed by those genetics. Why couldn't I have been blessed with a high metabolism and smaller bone structure? Why weren't "Tiny Stomach and Small Thighs" on the list along with "Brown Eyes and 5 foot 6?" Would it have been so difficult to get "Perpetual Thinness" on my spin of the genetic wheel?

For....well, forever really, I have been envious of women who won that jackpot.  The ones who can eat whatever they want and not gain any weight. The ones who actually have trouble keeping weight on! (Can you imagine?) I have thought for my entire life that that was the perfect genetic attribute to have.  Because honestly, what could be better?

Then recently I started thinking about the people I have known who are actually like that.  Skinny women with sky high metabolisms, that allow them the freedom of never having to count calories or even consider for one moment what's going into their mouths and where it will eventually end up.  Several come to mind.  One that I can think of lost her father and only sibling at very young ages and has never really recovered from those early losses.  Another has serious learning disabilities and was unable to pursue her dream career because of them.  Another lost both of her parents to debilitating diseases and worries about those genetics potentially shortening her own life.  Yet another is a selfish, inconsiderate, uncaring person who is raising selfish, mean, and inconsiderate kids.

The list goes on and on.  Which got me thinking - which of of my genetic traits would I trade if I could just have a high metabolism?  Hmmm....would I trade the intelligence that made me valedictorian and graduate college in 3 years? No way!  Would I trade my singing voice or musical ability that has not only brought me great fulfillment but has also touched other people in many incredible, inspiring ways? Not a chance. Would I trade my capacity for compassion, love, understanding, and empathy that has made me a good parent?  Never in a million years!

Again, the list goes on and on.  And yes, while my body genetically loves to hold onto excess fat like a squirrel stores nuts for the winter, it is also genetically strong, healthy, and everything is in the right place.  It's not prone to being weak or sickly, it recovers every time it gets hurt, and quite simply, it allows me to get up every day and breathe and move and do what I'm meant to do on this Earth.  It's about time that I was grateful for THOSE genes, and not continually focused on the ones that I had considered a curse.

I also have to remember, those extra pounds weren't a curse for my great-great-great-grandparents.  They allowed them to survive, which allowed their children to survive, which eventually led to me being here.  Without those survival genes, there's a good chance I wouldn't even exist!

A different and interesting way of looking at things, don't you think?

But here's the best thing about it all.  I can lose weight when and if I choose to. True, it's harder for me to shed pounds because of my genetics, but guess what? You can't teach musical ability to someone who doesn't naturally have it. Innate intelligence can't be taught either.  You also can't teach someone to be naturally compassionate - you're born with that or you're not.  I am infinitely glad of the blessings of the genetics I have been given, all of which are ultimately more important than how many fat cells I have.

Do I still struggle with body dysmorphic disorder? Unfortunately yes.  But every time I look in the mirror I can remind myself, I'm more than what society says I am.  I'm more than the number on the scale.  Most importantly, I'm enough just exactly as I am today no matter what the tag inside my jeans says.

We can't choose the genetic cards we're dealt, but we CAN choose to make the most of the cards we end up with.  As for me, I'm sticking with the hand I have and going all in.  Do you know what comes when we do that?  Jackpot!!