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Reflections on the Culture of Appearance

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I love writing, but I feel like my writing has taken a nosedive lately. Creating time in my busy schedule for a craft I love has seemed virtually impossible in the past couple of weeks. So when Christina Katz announced her 21-day writing challenge, I decided I owed it to myself and my craft to hone my writing skills. Plus, being in the challenge would force me to do it.

So here I am on day four of the challenge, just getting around to doing the day one exercise. Ah, well... best-laid plans and all of that.

Still, her choice of writing prompt for day one resonates with my soul. It's a passage from Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club:

My daughter is getting married a second time. So she asked me to go to her beauty parlor, her famous Mr. Rory. I know her meaning. She is ashamed of my looks. What will her husband's parents and his important lawyer friends think of this backward old Chinese woman?

So I sit in Mr. Rory's chair. He pumps me up and down until I am the right height. Then my daughter criticizes me as if I were not there. "See how it's flat on one side," she accuses my head. "She needs a cut and a perm. And this purple tint in her hair, she's been doing it at home. She's never had anything professionally done."

And that is the heart of the matter for many of us, isn't it? We are ashamed of our spouses, our parents, ourselves. We live in a culture where we are never good enough, never perfect. And so we strive, we pay lots and lots of money to people who we think will help us achieve perfection. But we'll never get there. So we console ourselves with food, with drink, with plastic surgery. And at the end of the day we're still unhappy, still dissatisfied. Because we cannot change other people to be what or who we want them to be. And maybe, just maybe, we're afraid that we can't change ourselves either.

She is looking at Mr. Rory in the mirror. He is looking at me in the mirror. I have seen this professional look before. Americans don't really look at one another when talking. They talk to their reflections. They look at others or themselves only when they think nobody is watching. So they never see how they really look. They see themselves smiling without their mouths open, or turned to the side where they cannot see their faults.

And that fear keeps us from looking in the mirror. What if the things we criticize about other people are really there, part of us, staring us in the face and criticizing us right back? What if we've become what we most dislike about other people? What if we always were?

I smile. I use my American face. That's the face Americans think is Chinese, the one they cannot understand. But inside I am becoming ashamed. I am ashamed she is ashamed. Because she is my daughter and I am proud of her, and I am her mother but she is not proud of me.

Mr. Rory pats my hair more. He looks at me. He looks at my daughter. Then he says something to my daughter that really displeases her: "It's uncanny how much you two look alike!"

I smile, this time with my Chinese face. But my daughter's eyes and her smile become very narrow, the way a cat pulls itself small just before it bites.

I was talking to a friend this morning. She's been working on being less negative toward herself, particularly concerning her weight and appearance. I asked her about how negative she was towards other people. She reflected that as she has been "kinder" to herself, she's become more negative toward her husband. She'd simply transmuted that negativity. It was still there -- it was just directed outward instead of inward. So I told her about Teresa Aubele's book, Train Your Brain to Get Happy, where they found that your brain didn't know the difference between inward- and outward-directed negativity. Am I suggesting she go back to beating herself up? Of course not. But I did suggest that she start to watch all negative thoughts and behaviors, not just the self-directed ones. Because, as it turns out, the outwardly directed negative statements are just as harmful as the inwardly directed ones. To your brain, negativity is negativity.

So if you can't criticize yourself and you can't criticize others, what are you supposed to do? Get serious about being positive -- not just about yourself, but about others. That's right. Stop criticizing yourself every time you step on the scale (preferably just throw the scale away). Stop criticizing other people, too. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if your hair wasn't perfect or if your spouse forgot to throw out the garbage. Focus on being happy. And you will be. Pretty soon you'll notice that not only are you not criticizing yourself, but you've stopped criticizing others, too. And you're happy, really and truly happy. Now isn't that worth getting over your negativity?

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