I've seen this kind of thing before, though never so dramatically. Most of my clients don't realize that the way they look and the way they think about their looks are two separate issues. Most strive for physical beauty without directly addressing the second concept, assuming that once they "fix" themselves, they'll be filled with peace and self-esteem. But reshaping their appearance is never enough, because although beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, the feeling of being beautiful exists solely in the mind of the beheld. I want Maria—and you—to have that feeling. But getting it requires a few important internal changes.
The cold, hard facts
Self-improvement books, friends, and polite strangers often tell soothing lies about our physical appearance that prevent many of us from facing, discussing, and solving our real problems. So let's get a few things straight right now.
Fact: Not everyone is equally good-looking. I've attended many a self-help seminar where everyone pretends that the 400-pound acne sufferer is as physically appealing—and has as easy a life—as the swimsuit model sitting next to her. "Just put yourself out there," the model will say earnestly. "Join a book club. That's how I met Jim."
Fact: Good-looking individuals are treated better than homely ones in virtually every social situation, from dating to trial by jury. If everyday experience hasn't convinced you of this, there's research that will.
Fact: Beauty is not wholly defined by culture. Yes, there are fads—tiny crippled feet, huge boobs on skinny bodies—but some elements of beauty are almost timeless. In all cultures, people judged beautiful have bodies that exhibit the divine proportion, or golden ratio, of 1 to 1.618. (For some reason, this ratio is found in multitudes of biological forms, from the spiral of a snail's shell to the markings on a tiger's head. In beautiful humans, the golden ratio turns up all over: in the distance between the eyes relative to the length of the lower face, the height of a front tooth relative to the width of both front teeth, the length of the arms relative to body height. Google it and you'll be amazed.) Attractive people are also very symmetrical—in fact the more symmetrical a creature is, the more likely it is to attract mates, from scorpion flies to...uh...I'd look it up, but I can't see out of my lazy eye.
Are you ready for a change?
Now that we're clear about the challenges of not being mistaken for a supermodel, I'd like to speak to those readers who feel their appearance is not perfect. If you're absolutely satisfied with your features, skip to the end of this column. Okay, now that we've gotten rid of her, the rest of us may want to try the following advice:
Get Any Makeover You Believe Will Help
As a life coach, I love makeovers, from new clothes to surgery, pedicures to highlights. But redoing makes you feel better only if approached with the right attitude. I asked a number of stylists, personal trainers, and plastic surgeons about the mind-set that leads to successful makeovers. They agreed on these points:
- Do it for you and only you. Make sure you want the makeover and that those changes will bring you closer to your definition of beauty—not someone else's.
- Realize that a makeover won't take unless you already know how to sustain self-esteem. If you hate yourself, you'll find a way to hate your new look.
- Accept that you'll always look like you. Slather moisturizer and lip gloss on a hyena, and you won't get Tyra Banks, just a moist hyena with glossy lips. Even plastic surgery will leave you looking basically like yourself. "We make small changes," one surgeon told me, "but we can't change the fundamental architecture of the face."
- Don't expect the makeover to fix your life. "Some patients think looking better will automatically bring love and success," another doctor said. "When it doesn't, they blame the surgeon or go in for more procedures."
Most people run a nonstop mental monologue highlighting their physical shortcomings while ignoring their pleasing attributes. Your friends probably focus on your beautiful baby blues, having long ago accepted your short neck and irregular hairline. But your inner critic? Never! She rains criticism and torment upon you all day, every day. It's time you talked back.
For the rest of this day, each time you mentally criticize something about your face or body, you must also find something to praise. ("I'm fat!" versus "I still have my teeth." "I hate my stomach!" versus "I have nice eyelashes—okay, one nice eyelash.") You don't have to believe the praise, just force yourself to say it. Self-talk has a subtle but profound effect on your demeanor and presentation of self. It paves the way for the next strategy.
Change Your Comparisons
Once you've made room for a little positive inner dialogue, put your rational mind to work accepting your appearance. In particular, stop evaluating yourself in comparison to the "50 Most Beautiful People" lists in magazines. Such comparisons make no statistical sense. If you come in at 51, beating out seven billion people, you'll still consider yourself a loser.
Instead, consider that fairy-tale heroines, invariably described as the "most beautiful maiden in the kingdom," lived in teensy prehistoric kingdoms, some of which boasted as few as 150 citizens. Only 75 would've been female, and many of those were too old, young, or experienced to be considered maidens. In other words, Snow White was competing with about 35 other chicks. Next time you're at the mall, instead of comparing yourself to Gap posters, count 35 women at random. Ask yourself how many of them you'd really, truly want to see in your own mirror. Doesn't that feel better?
The point is that while a small percentage of the population resembles Reese Witherspoon or Salma Hayek or one of those gorgeous Russian models, only a very small slice would be mistaken for Mrs. Elephant Man. Most of us are in the great big relatively attractive middle.
I coped with high school much as Maria did, by praying for invisibility. This worked pretty well until my drama teacher, apparently in the grip of a fever, cast me as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. I was ecstatic—and horrified. How could someone who looked like me play a romantic lead, in front of God and everybody? As opening night drew near, I decompensated into a quivering mass of panicked plasma.
But all's well that ends well, and my ordeal ended very well, with a Valium prescription and a life-changing observation. Once sufficiently stoned, I stumbled onto a mystical perspective from which it seemed obvious that I didn't have to be beautiful to play Kate; I had only to believe that Kate was. When I let myself dissolve into the character, I felt her confidence—and, astonishingly, the audience seemed willing to play along. The effect lasted even after I ran out of Valium, and has allowed me to function almost normally in many subsequent situations.
If you're struggling with appearance issues, think of someone whose beauty you admire (my puffy, black-eyed client Maria chose Celine Dion). For five minutes, be this person. If you really get into the role, you'll find that people begin to respond to you differently. This can create a sort of enchantment—the original meaning of the word glamour, by the way—no matter what the enchantress actually looks like.
The longing to be beautiful is fundamentally a longing to be free from shame. If you can't do this by getting a makeover, contradicting your inner critic, creating a more logical worldview, or acting "as if...," you might as well attack shame directly. How? Open up. Find someone you trust, and start talking about your appearance, about how it makes you feel, no-holds-barred. This isn't an opportunity to fish for insincere compliments but simply to let another into your real experience.
When I ask Maria to do this, she reveals amazing courage. Even after her makeover, remembering and describing her life in her former skin makes her literally shake with shame, with the accumulated loneliness of 10,000 humiliations. As she talks, a sort of miracle happens—not to her but to me. Maria's appearance fades in importance until I forget to judge it. I no longer experience her as merely a physical form but as a loving, sentient being who has suffered deeply.
If this conversation had taken place before Maria's nose job, the same thing would have happened—I've experienced it with countless clients and friends. I've seen proof positive: Openness won't make you pretty, but it will make you beautiful. Everyone wants freedom from shame, and if you dare to tell your heart's story, you'll become a source of that freedom. That sort of loveliness really does outshine the divine proportion, overpower social norms, outlast a youthful complexion. This is not another shallow fib but one of the deepest truths of human experience.
Since it's my job to be inappropriately honest, I ask Maria to look me straight in the eyes, and then I tell her what I see: all kinds of beauty, of which her new physical look is the very least important. She seems desperate to drop her gaze, to keep shame's dictates by avoiding seeing herself being seen. But with effort, Maria keeps looking at me looking at her, and something changes. Her horrible self-concept begins to break down. The ugliness in the mind of the beheld can't help yielding to the beauty in the eye of the beholder. Be your most open self, then gaze deeply and honestly into the eyes of anyone who really sees you, and the same alchemical magic will begin to happen.
As you consider these instructions, from ridiculous makeover strategies to sublime truthfulness, you'll begin to see everything and everyone very differently. You may develop your own list of the world's 50 most beautiful: famous folks like Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu; relative unknowns like your best friend or your grandma; and last but not least, yourself. Take whatever action makes you happy about your appearance, but know that being unapologetically yourself will make you more attractive no matter what. You'll get everything you once thought good looks could buy: acceptance, intimacy, connection, confidence, joy. Trust me, it will be beautiful.
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