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! :)