I was shocked last week to see the internet erupt in criticism over Madonna’s Grammy appearance. The hullabaloo wasn’t about the words she spoke, her dress, or the fact she introduced the first transwoman to win a Grammy award.
No, it was about her literal appearance. Her face.
The internet was ablaze with outrage that the pop icon appeared to have had plastic surgery. I know I probably shouldn’t have been surprised; people love to criticize others, especially strong women who take up space and don’t fear the opinions of others. Yet, the controversy got me riled up.
The fact of the matter is that women cannot win. And far too often the people attacking, berating, judging, criticizing and attempting to undermine us are other women. And basically, I’m tired of it.
I was 33-years old the first time someone commented on my aging face. This trusted friend looked away from me while saying “Eww. I can’t look at you in the direct sunlight…I can see every line on your face.” That same person also took to asking me why I looked like I was scowling all the time…a not-so-subtle dig about the lines on my forehead.
I was deeply hurt. I was a new mother and already struggling with hating my body and what it had become. I constantly compared myself to friends whose bodies seemed to magically morph back to their pre-baby size and shape effortlessly while I worked to lose weight that refused to budge while caring for a new baby who refused to sleep. And now, I felt not only fat but old and completely unattractive.
The more I hated my own appearance, the more I found myself being critical of others, not so much for their appearances but rather for the choices they made related to their appearances. I often found myself wondering “who does she think she is” and secretly envying the flat abdomens of the moms who had tummy-tucks and breast lifts after birthing and nursing babies all while speculating with friends over who has had what “work” done.
I unwittingly bought into the unspoken but well-worn idea that women are supposed to look thin, young, beautiful, and well-appointed and that it must be by their own hand with no help. And when you can’t do that any longer, you’re to fade silently into your role of invisible matron.
I constantly compared myself and my choices to others until I just couldn’t stand it anymore. As my self-worth bottomed out, I figured out the only solution was to learn to love myself. And the more I learned to love myself, the less I judged others and their choices.
I like to think I’ve grown a lot in the past few decades and can now be a cheerleader for and defender of all women and the personal choices they make about their bodies. Part of getting here was recognizing the conditioning that fed into my own self-judgment and self-hate and shaped the way I thought about other women. Whether it comes from our own mothers or from society at-large, women and girls are conditioned to view other women and girls with a critical eye. It may start with comparing and contrasting the clothes they wear to our own, and before you know it, every aspect of a woman’s appearance is held up against our own internal standard for what is right or acceptable and that almost always stems from our own perception of where we fall short, where we fear falling short, but largely from where a male-oriented, Eurocentric perception of beauty tells us we fall short.
Now, when I think about the words my friend said to me about the lines on my face, I realize it all came from their own fear of aging. It was never about me. And when my mom told me she was worried about the 15 pounds I gained in college? Also, not about me.
So, when I saw the internet explode with outrage over a woman’s appearance it stirred up something inside of me.
I was shocked at the reaction folks had to Madonna. This is a woman who created a career on her own terms. Pushing boundaries is what she does, so why one earth would anyone be surprised or upset that she had plastic surgery? And at the same time, I realized I shouldn’t be shocked. This is a perfect example of the conditioning that says “women of a certain age” are to fade seamlessly into the background and know their place. We’re meant to “age gracefully” which basically means to let the wrinkles come, allow our hair to go grey, to become for all intents and purposes sexless, null beings who sit placidly tending to our knitting and offer sage advice only when asked.
Of course, there are plenty of opinions about women who choose to focus their resources (time, energy, money) on something other than coloring their hair or other anti-aging processes.
No matter what we do, women can’t win. And far too often it’s other women casting stones. But why? And how do we change this toxic dynamic?
I believe my experience taught me that when we are holding another woman under our critical gaze, we’re not having to confront our thoughts and feelings about ourselves. Often, by examining the areas of another woman’s life or appearance that we’re judging, we can get to the heart of the matter. And, when we dig into that kind of deep introspection, we will come to one of two realizations. Either we will learn that what we’re fixated on is a part of our own being that we have trouble loving or we fear that the choices another woman makes about her own body or lifestyle undermine our own choices.
When thousands of people erupt in anger over the idea that a 64-year old woman is taking control of her appearance and not “embracing her age” in a way they find appropriate, I simply hear fear. I hear the fear of a woman who isn’t quietly fading into the background. I hear fear of a woman causing others to call their decisions into question. And more than anything I hear a fear of our own aging and mortality.
The only way I know to counter any of those fears is self-love.
Women need to learn to love themselves so much that their love spills over into the world. Learning to love yourself is a process that doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not a linear process or one you ever really finish. But, a good place to start is imagining yourself as a little girl. Would you tell your tiny self she has fat thighs? Or that the lines on her face make her ugly and unworthy of love? Of course not!
When you learn to love yourself, you value your own choices and are unaffected by the choices other women make about their bodies or lives. If makeup isn’t your jam, that’s fantastic. Embrace it. You don’t need to tear down a woman whose second home is at Sephora to do that. Want to color your hair? I fully support you! I also support all the fabulous silver-haired goddesses who want to focus their time and resources on other areas of life.