When I speak of the Naked Face Project with women, both friends and strangers, 99 percent of the conversations go like this.
Molly: Yep…I’m going 60 days without using any beauty products or performing any of my beauty habits. No shaving, No primping. No makeup. Basically, I’m down to a bar of soap, a brush, some shampoo and conditioner and a toothbrush and toothpaste. (I then tell a little bit of the background…the girl in Girls on the Run who inevitably asks the question, “If you say beauty is within and that I am beautiful just the way I am, why do you wear makeup? Why do you color your hair? Why do you shave?)
Other Person: I could never do that….(and then one of the following statements occurs):
That’s easy for you because you are young.
That’s easy for you because you are, well because of how you look.
My skin is awful. Just awful.. Years of acne when I was a kid left it looking all rough and ugly. I have to smooth that out.
I don’t want to draw anymore attention to my legs than I have to.
I wouldn’t look good without it.
I wouldn’t look right without it.
I’d look old without it. (Please insert a very “downing” tone here.)
I would look awful without it.
I don’t like my natural hair color. It’s drab..
My face is too round.
My hair is too thin.
I have too many wrinkles (Insert downing tone here.)
This list goes on and on and on and everyone of the comments is derogatory in some way shape or form toward the body or appearance..
In the first two weeks of participating in this project, I had the same conversation, but with myself. I would look in the mirror and see an old woman. An old haggard woman. An old 51 year old, unattractive, asexual, short, frail, flat-chested, bony, and too thin woman.
Interestingly, in the first two weeks I was embarrassed to admit that this negative body-shaming language still existed in my head. I thought as the Founder of a Girl’s Empowerment program I should (note the word should…a favorite word of shame) be past all that. But the further I go down this path, the more I realize I’m not alone. Many women laugh uncomfortably when I mention this project. Insert in any one of those response statements a kind of uncomfortable chuckle or even a “I could never do that nor what I ever want to” kind of hand gesturing wave that tucks it neatly back to bed…there is almost a hidden anger there.
I get it. I would never have seen the significance of this small action nor would I have WANTED to examine these things. They were just too scary.
Shame works like that. I’m beginning to realize that shame is the deep and dark unspoken in this conversation around the Naked Face Project.
I asked my Facebook friends to share with me how shame makes them feel and the responses I got were both profound AND richly felt by every single person who responded. Everyone knows shame. The problem with shame, however, is its cunning way of suggesting that you and you alone feel it. That is, of course, how it keeps us captive. Not only do we feel the shame, but the sense of being uniquely broken that comes with it, keeps us from being honest, vulnerable, open about it’s living here, in our hearts, minds, bodies and spirits.
John Tillet, my wise and responsive Facebook friend, wrote this: “When I dig down beneath the shame, I find that there is a core, closely-held and tenacious belief that I just flat out am unlovable/unacceptable. Upon further review, I find that this belief was generated by a young boy who was just trying to make sense of things that he didn’t have the ability to totally comprehend. So, my growth lies in growing out of this little boy’s belief.”
David Ingle writes: “Shame is about the self not being good enough whereas guilt is the feeling of having violated a principle or rule.”
My own sister Emily Wilmer, writes. “Guilt is rooted in sadness/remorse over the effect of our behavior. It is specific and concrete. Shame is rooted in anger directed on ourselves. It is also global as in everything about who we are…about us. Shame is rooted in a lie, Humility is rooted in the truth.”
I remember when i was in sixth grade. My friend Frances developed breasts. I didn’t and never have, frankly. Not much of them, anyway. The attention I had previously received on the playground from the boys, began to wane (from my perspective)…at least in comparison to the attention Frances was getting. Popping bras was the activity of the hour and because I wasn’t wearing one…I was rarely chased, chosen, “liked.”.I can recall now feeling so left out. “Unloveable” as John put it. I think it was about then that I began to correlate my body, my appearance with ME, Molly, being somehow unloveable, unacceptable.” My guess is shame found its way into my life long before THIS particular incident, but as John said, when we are children…we are just trying to make sense of things around us.
What’s really interesting, as I even write those words on this page, I’m afraid to write that…I’m afraid because that’s how shame works. It wants us to believe it is right…and so it keeps itself secret inside of us. It’s the small dark box we tuck away under the bed and pretend isn’t there. We dust around it for years, tuck it further back under the bed. The box grows under there and expands out into many other realms of our lives. That sense of not being good enough or somehow being uniquely broken shows up in all sorts of other ways. For me I spent years trying to hide the shame box through overacheiving and numbing myself out. Straight A’s, President of the Student Government, drinking too much and training for Ironman Triathlons. Joy did not live here. I was living from one quick fix to the next…anything to prove that I…the big me…the Molly who lives here isn’t broken.
I’ve been reading a lot on shame. The process has been both deeply disturbing and wholly uplifting. Shame has been a force utilized for years that has kept women from their full potential. . I could write an entire dissertation about shame and the woman. Shamed for being too sexual, shamed for not being sexual enough. Shamed for being too thin. Shamed for being fat. Shamed for being too pretty. Shamed for being “ugly.” Shamed for being a mother. Shamed for being a working woman. Shamed for aging. Shamed for not being old enough. Shamed for being outspoken. Shame for being too quiet. This isn’t just an American issue. It is a global one.
It’s also not just about women. Actually shame has been (and continues to be) a force used to keep many non-dominant groups from realizing their full potential. Interestingly, the more I read about this, the more I realize that shame within those in the dominant group is often what drives them in using it to keep the non-dominant group…just that, non-dominant. It could be race, economics, geography, religion…but hidden there underneath ALL of it, whether in the dominant or non-dominant group is the fear that we are truly broken…truly unloveable…truly unworthy. As hard as it is to allow myself to be vulnerable…it is often times even more difficult for me to understand and value the fear of being vulnerable by the dominant group…and yet ironically…we are all the same here.
While I don’t know precisely at what point I let shame live here, neatly tucked under the bed of this life of mine, I know that I did. I also, thanks to this project, realize that I am not alone. Not alone at all. And am finding a great deal of comfort in knowing that this universal, kind of woman-body-beauty-appearance shame can, if brought out into the light be a very beautiful and powerful resource to bring women together. Instead of continuing to tuck it away by projecting my fears onto the apperance or degradation of other women, I can bring it out and see all of us as beautiful and whole.
We can open up that big and beautiful box of shame and examine all the stories we make up about beauty, appearance, aging, our bodies, the way we live our lives so that we can once and for all embrace who we are, peel back the layers and get down to the wonder and beauty of just being ourselves…our most wonderful, glorious, full, rich, whole selves.
I could find an infinite number of historical and current references on how shame was and is used (whether intentionally or not) by the dominant group to keep those in the non-dominant group…just that,,,non-dominant. But as one of the women on my Facebook page simply wrote, “Shame doesn’t live here anymore.” I realize that for whatever reasons shame has been used in the past, the present or somehow woven even into my own DNA, the moment I admit it iis here, it simply loses all its power and I am set free…I am free and no longer bound to or living into anything less than my biggest, most beautiful, most empowered spirit.
“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” Jim Morrison.
(Brene Brown has done some absolutely AMAZING work around shame, fear and vulnerability. If you haven’t met her on the internet, or through her books, please consider visiting her in either one of those places. She has also given a fabulous TED talk which I will embed here…she gives us permission to see vulnerability around our “shame” as a strength. Amazing!
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