I was a junior in high school when acclaimed writer and feminist activist Gloria Steinem helped found Ms. Magazine. Coming of age at a time when women and men were encouraged to question authoritative messages about gender roles and rights profoundly influenced me. So imagine my excitement a few weeks ago when I attended the 20th Annual Renfrew Center Foundation Conference, "Honoring the Past, Embracing the Future," with Gloria Steinem featured as the keynote presenter.
There we were, 700 eager psychotherapists and nutritionists, who work daily on the front lines helping people struggling with eating disorders. Gloria inspired us all, as she explored feminism among contemporary women and offered new ways of understanding the current climate in which women continue to struggle for equality. "If we are going to change the ethic where size 0 is an admirable norm, then we need to stand up and break the silence," she guided. "It continues to be the simple acts of speaking out about our truths and challenging the myths" that exposes the cultural lies that harm us, she said.
There was something in the simplicity of her message that I found empowering. In my own life, healing and growth has flourished when I've been safe to share my "truth" and expose the shame and embarrassment from my experiences. Safety always came from the same conditions -- an absence of judgment
"If we don't take risks, we don't make progress," commented one of the conference attendees. She went on to share that her "most major risk is body acceptance." That line caught my ear, because I know that it's only when we do accept our real bodies -- the ones with curves and creases, blemishes and imperfections -- that we grow in self-esteem and confidence. What are we actually risking if we accept our bodies? Are we risking living with more reasonable standards, ones that are achievable and sustainable? Are we risking learning to value what we have and minimize focusing on what we don't have? Are we risking having brighter moods that empower us rather than attitudes that diminish us?
I asked Steinem to comment on this remark about body acceptance, and I think her response was spot on: "If you accept your body, you then have to admit that you can't fix it. We have 'Ms. Fix-It' complexes. When you admit that you can't fix it, you are admitting you can't control it ... then you have to learn how to live with it."
So we've got to ask -- what's so hard about learning to live with our imperfect selves? When we are bombarded at every turn with messages encouraging us to feel inadequate, we absorb it and are at risk for turning our bodies into civil war zones. In her brilliant understanding of the way patriarchal power gets used to dominate and control, Gloria Steinem reminded us that there is likely to be a backlash when women achieve power: "A way to stop that power is for the patriarchy to accuse: 'It's your fault and your body's fault.' If you can't achieve body invasion, then you try, desperately, to control every other form of it -- which is eating."
We are sold the message that we'll feel better when we fix our defects and improve ourselves. The advertisers hook us into believing their lies, and we suffer under their selfish influence.
"Perfect is boring," said the tireless pioneer for women's empowerment. "I'm talking major league boring. There is no perfect. If you look at a beautiful flower, it's irregular, not perfect." Feminism has always taught me to value the strengths that are mine. It's encouraged me to recognize my femaleness as qualities worthy of celebrating rather than abandoning in exchange for actions and appearances more reflective of males. As a psychotherapist, it is only when I rejected male notions of distance and aloofness and replaced them with values of connection, active expressions of compassion, and resistance to shaming that I grew into my strength and competency.
While I agree with Steinem that "it continues to be the simple acts of speaking out about our truths that help to challenge the myths," I've learned that it matters who you speak your truth to. Not everyone is capable of listening or being open-minded. Many hold rigid notions of right and wrong and condemn those who differ with stances of righteousness. These are the folks from whom we need to keep our distance. I've learned that it's a waste of my energy to appeal to those who are closed-minded and think they know what's best for all.
Seek out others who are capable of being open-minded, for that's where we can find personal safety and nourishment for our soul. Dare to be heard and seen, dare to expand your sense of courage, and perhaps most challenging of all, dare to accept your body and yourself.
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