Lena Dunham was on the cover of Vogue recently, and there was a lot of talk about it on the internet because the images are, predictably, altered in Photoshop. This is nothing new for Vogue or any other fashion magazine, but there are a lot of people who feel strongly about retouching photos of Lena Dunham, because she has pretty emphatically sought to represent “real” women in her show Girls, in particular by displaying her own unaltered naked body quite frequently.
I’ll let others cover the core issues. They’ve already done it better than I probably would. What I do want to talk about is the idea of trying to control things that make us uncomfortable. Let’s use Lena in Vogue Magazine as an example. Her body does not match some of the criteria put forth in popular culture that I’ll call The Beauty Story. As a matter of fact, American culture has collectively created not just The Beauty Story, but another important story about The Beauty Story which goes like this: “There is only one Beauty Story.” I know, it’s not a great story, but there it is.
Sadly, for the most part, we all live as though both of those stories are True. The editors of Vogue Magazine most certainly believe those stories are True, so they edited Lena Dunham’s face and body to make it match up with their True Beauty Story better.
This example involves a controversial, public issue, but we humans do this sort of thing in small ways all the time: we have a story in our minds about how something “ought” to be that we adopted from our culture or our parents or even our own self-protective minds. When it comes up, we try to control the circumstances so they better conform to our story.
The problems come when we leave these stories unexamined.
That’s when we find ourselves reacting to our lives in ways that may not line up with what’s really important to us.
Back to The Beauty Story example. If you’re alive in 2014, The Beauty Story and the One True Beauty Story are familiar. Even if you’ve done some work trying to scrub it from your consciousness, it’s pretty likely that you know what it is and you know, perhaps intimately, how you do and do not fit into it.
The important questions are: have you ever taken a moment to review these stories for yourself? Do you actually agree with them? If the answer is no, you don’t agree, does your behavior line up with that? Maybe you have done all this work, but do you still find yourself spending time doing things that line up The Beauty Story or other stories you don’t agree with? Well, if so, you’re not alone. Most of us — myself definitely included — do exactly that.
Don’t believe me? Let me make this personal. Much to my embarrassment, here are some examples of things that I do to control my own body even though I don’t agree with The Beauty Story.
- I sometimes pick clothing styles, colors, or cuts that are less comfortable but that I think will make me seem more in line with The Beauty Story.
- I attempt to cover or obscure fat and cellulite on my body, because The Beauty Story says body fat is unattractive.
- I wear makeup, because The Beauty Story says skin is flawless.
- I sometimes crop or angle pictures of myself so that I look more in line with The Beauty Story.
Yuck. I hate admitting these things, but my hope and goal in sharing them is to show a common example where we humans act in opposition to our own true selves when we’re not paying enough attention.
Oh, hey! Attention.
I’m really into attention. We may not have control over our culture’s conception of beauty or where our own bodies fall in comparison to it, but we do have control over our attention and our actions. We can learn what our stories are, and learn how to act with intention and purpose in light of, or even in spite of, those stories. It’s a neat trick, but it takes practice.
Keep an eye on this space for more about how to use awareness to focus your life on what’s most important to you.