Archive for February, 2012

re-picturing CONNECTION

A couple of weeks ago, I got a peculiar note from a local playwright indicating that he had written a short play called “Oogle” that was inspired by an article describing some of my research. He (yes, it was a man who wrote this play) thought I might be interested in seeing an application of my work that I “might not have anticipated.” So, my husband and I ventured out (on Valentine’s Day no less) to “check out” this research-inspired production.

It was a 2-person piece in which a man was staring at a woman’s breasts as she was looking at a painting in an art gallery. Rather than ignoring it or leaving the situation, the woman instead confronted the behavior. She let the man know that even though he was “just looking” that his behavior was unacceptable. Spoiler alert. Only after she flashes him her breasts and then gouges his eyes out, leaving him blind, can they have a connected, intimate relationship. Somewhat even more interesting than what was happening on stage, was what was happening in the audience. People didn’t know whether it was a comedy or a drama. Nervous laughter escaped people’s lips.

We talk a lot about ogling, leering at, and “checking out” women in this blog.  I’ve talked about some of the consequences (distraction, safety concerns) here.

However, I wonder if at a more basic level, ogling makes us feel disconnected from the people around us. In a recent study published in Psychological Science, Eric Wesselmann and his colleagues trained one of their research assistants to avoid eye contact, make eye contact, or make eye contact with a smile to a passerby. Immediately following this seemingly innocuous gesture, a different research assistant approached the person and asked questions regarding connection. It turns out that even though only 45% of people consciously noticed the eye contact with or without the smile, they felt significantly less disconnected (and more connected) when someone had made fleeting eye contact, regardless of whether they smiled or not. I wonder if ogling someone serves the same excluding function as just avoiding eye contact altogether.

But here’s the rub. When you ask men about the purposes behind the gaze, they often say that it is flattering and represents interest (often romantic) toward the other person.

When do you feel truly seen by other people? Do any of these instances involve being “checked out?”






What happens when we get over the need to look perfect all of the time and see that we are enough, we are (imperfectly) beautiful, we are (already) pretty? Is that the destination, the end game? Actually, I think it’s just the beginning.

Once we accept that we are worthy, regardless of what our body looks like, then we can turn our attention to the real business of appearance authenticity. A different set of concerns start to surface. Questions change from “Do these jeans make me look fat” to “Do these jeans look like me? Do they reflect my style or what I truly value? Do they reflect on the outside what I think and believe on the inside?

You might not want to hear this (especially if you spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and money exercising, dieting, buying the latest fashion trends trying to “look good”), but it is actually much easier to accept the world’s view that we must look a certain way to be attractive and have worth. At least the world tells us exactly what this looks like and how to get there (if you doubt this, just open a fashion magazine – although on the surface the models may be different shapes and sizes, there is actually very little latitude in terms of what is considered beautiful in our culture). You need to be thin –diet and exercise. You need to dress fashionably – spend your money buying the latest fashion fads. You need to erase any signs that you are a human being – all hair (accept on your head) must go.

If we just listen to the world, then we don’t have to do the soul searching that might reveal our appearance authenticity – what our unique perspective and experience attracts us to in terms of our appearance. It’s actually very simple, but at the same time very difficult to do. We have to “check in” with rather than “check out” ourselves once and a while. What do you like? What do you prefer? I love turquoise. I hate yellow. Wool is itchy, but warm, so I always wear a cotton t-shirt underneath. I like the one-of-a kind pieces that come from local businesses and vintage stores. I want to buy from clothing stores that support my values. How much of your wardrobe actually reflects your true, authentic appearance?

Another shortcut we might use is to look around and find another woman who is exuding her authenticity through appearance. And we think, I want that. So, we go get her haircut, her clothes, or her bag.  However, playing dress-up with another woman’s authenticity doesn’t work. Once we don her costume, we wonder why we’re not exuding the same radiance as her. If we delved a bit deeper into what that urge really means, we would realize that her specific appearance doesn’t really matter. We don’t want to look like her. We don’t want to be her. But we do want to feel her authenticity. We want the feeling of being alive, being in the moment, of coming back (or going to) our true selves that comes from someone who knows who they are and is not afraid to show it to the world.

We also don’t do ourselves any favors by acting agnostic when it comes to our appearance. In graduate school, I had a consciousness-raising experience and was so angered by the fact that women were constantly judged (and never really positively) by our appearances.  We were judged as unworthy if we weren’t conventionally beautiful and we were judged as incompetent if we were. This was somewhat paralyzing when it came to my own appearance, so I chose to focus as little time as possible on it. However, whether we like it or not, we are always making choices when it comes to our appearance. We choose what to wear each morning. We choose to wear make-up or style our hair. We choose new clothes once our old clothes wear out.

We can choose to play it safe – by accepting what the world tells you about beauty, by trying on other women’s hand-me-down authenticity that will never really, or by acting as if appearance doesn’t matter. Or we can choose to search our deeper selves and start making sure that the outside reflects the inside.

When was the last time you “checked in” with, rather than “checked out” yourself? Does your appearance represent the true you?

re-picturing THE LOOKING GLASS

What relationship do you have with your mirror? Or perhaps more importantly, what relationship do you have with the self you see reflected back when you gaze into the looking glass?

In social psychology, we use the term the “looking-glass self,” to refer to the idea that our identity (at least partially) develops from how other people see us. Or perhaps summed up best by C. H. Cooley (1902) who coined the term: “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” Although this applies generally to how we think others perceive us, it is particularly important to how other people view us through our appearance – the image that we project (sometimes purposefully, sometimes inadvertently) through the clothes that we wear, our make-up and hair styles, the way that we walk and hold ourselves, the emotions that we show, and the like.

How important is the looking glass to your identity?

One way to begin to consider this question is to examine your relationship with the mirror. Although mirrors are thought to merely reflect reality back to us, looking in them is actually an interactive process between the mirror and the viewer.

1)   How soon do you look in the mirror after the start of the day? I get out of bed and immediately capture a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I head into the bathroom.

2)   How often do you look in the mirror? A lot. I actually find myself inadvertently creating mirrors all around me. I notice my reflection in the door of the coffee house, my husband’s sunglasses, even the computer screen.

3)   Can you go into a room with a mirror and not look at yourself? Yes. Although now that I’m paying attention, I’m not sure how often I actually avoid (rather than seek out) mirrors.

4)   How many rooms in your home contain a mirror? All of my bathrooms, my dining room, my office. Not my bedroom, though.

5)   Do you like what you see when you look in the mirror? Sometimes. More than sometimes. A lot. (This was a pleasant surprise. However, as I write this, my inner critic is screaming Narcissist! Didn’t the looking glass get him into trouble? Our culture has many narratives regarding the looking glass).

6)   Do you think the mirror actually reflects your true self? It depends. Sometimes I pose for the mirror very similarly to how I pose for the camera. I might suck my stomach in or smile similarly. I think this reflects one aspect of me, but not all of me.

7)   Do you look in the mirror even when you are all alone or not planning on seeing anyone else? Yes. However, I don’t think this is completely driven by always thinking about how others my see me. I want to completely engage my true self. My physical body and appearance is part of that.

Are you still having trouble determining what (if any) role the mirror plays in your life? You might consider going a day, a week, or even a month without mirrors. It turns out that you wouldn’t be alone.

I am simply enamored with Twyla Tharp and her book, The Creative Habit, which focuses on how creativity is accessible to everyone if we simply make the time and space to practice it. One part of the creative habit, according to Tharp, is to temporarily rid ourselves of the everyday clutter that distracts us from our own creativity. In this context, she suggests that we go a week without clocks, newspapers, even speaking, but perhaps most interesting to me was her suggestion to go a week without looking in the mirror.

See what happens to your sense of self. Instead of relying on the image you see reflected in the glass, find your identity in other ways. This forces you to stop looking at yourself so much and start focusing on others. You’ll be forced to think more about what you do, and less about how you look. There’s a difference between how you see yourself and how you think others see you; you might get confirmation back or you might be surprised. Either way, it’s a discovery process. It’s also a great technique for heightening your sense of curiosity. I guarantee that after a week without mirrors, you’ll be dying to see yourself again. It could be a very interesting reintroduction. You might meet someone totally new (Tharp, 2006, p. 33).

It turns out that Tharp is not the only woman to ponder the potentially distracting role (and other roles) that the mirror plays in her life. Check out the mirrorless, month-long journies of Autumn Whitefield-Madrano of the Beheld (love this blog!) and Marriane Power of Daily Mail.

What do you see when you reflect on (and focus on your reflection in) the looking glass?

re-picturing RESPECT

Although I can talk until I’m blue in the face about loving my body, one of the most frustrating experiences for me as an artist, researcher, and photographer is running into women who strongly dislike or hate their bodies or particular body parts. I want to shake my head at these women. And tell them how wrong they are…that they should love their bodies. Perhaps if I convince them, I can also convince myself. I love my body in a lot of ways, but there are still some aspects that I have yet to completely embrace.  And lately I’ve wondered whether love is the end game when it comes to our bodies.

Is it possible to love your body completely and fully all of the time?

I don’t think so. Progress and not perfection.

I’m wondering if a first stop along the way to the loving destination is to respect our bodies.

Generally speaking, respect is conceptualized as esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person. Applied to the body, it would involve seeing the body as worthy, even if it is not completely lovable. In fact, you could respect different aspects of your body without even necessarily liking (much less loving them).

Case in point. Have we ever talked about my feet? If so, you will definitely remember. I am not a big fan. My feet our wide and my toes are stubby, short, and crooked.  A friend of mine once told me that he would never walk around without shoes on if he had my feet. And last week, my physical therapist added further insult to my running injury.

Well sort of.

He told me that I had the biggest fat pad on my heel that he’d ever seen. Great. Another thing to hate about my foot. What is a fat pad, you ask? It is a one-inch structure on the heel that is designed to absorb shock and cushion the heel bone.  Although I’m not crazed about being a fatty when it comes to my feet, that fatty heel is one of the things that keeps me from injurying my foot during running. Do I love my fatty heel? No. Do I respect it and am I grateful for it? Well, yeah.

Do you think there is a difference between loving and respecting your body? In what ways do you love your body and in what ways do you respect your body?