Identity


One of the many things I learned from working with junior high students, is that the biggest question we all have in 7th and 8th grade is “do people like me?” Before then, I always just assumed that in 7th grade, I was the only one who desperately wanted to be liked and accepted. My time with students helped me see that insecurity in one’s early teen years is a universal experience. But–through working with parents, volunteers, and other adults–I also realized that for many of us, our desire for people’s acceptance doesn’t leave once we move past early adolescence.

Mine certainly didn’t.  At times, it only got stronger.

It was kind of my uninvited companion, until in my twenties when I began to realize that my solution to being accepted–people pleasing–was leaving me exhausted. I had had a lot of unhealthy friendships, and at one point, I was able to look back and trace a whole string of them that were more about me giving, than give and take.

So, I started to pull back from some of those friendships that were still in my life, while realizing that it wasn’t those friends that were the problem. I was. I had played an active role in giving and not expecting anything in return. I had valued those friendships more than I valued myself or being healthy.  I had been living as if I needed to earn people’s acceptance or friendship–expecting them to reject me otherwise.

I was using people pleasing as a shield, keeping people from really knowing who I am, in case they would decide they didn’t like me.  

Not only that, but I was using it as a shield from truly knowing myself. I was allowing everything outside of myself–my friendships, people in my life, my job–to define who I was, instead of embracing who I am on the inside. So much of my people pleasing was about protecting myself, yet I was beginning to realize it was actually doing the opposite.

What did I do? I started counseling. I started working to change the ways I related to people and I started learning to put up healthy boundaries. Things began to get better, and I began building healthier friendships. But, like building up the walls of a faulty structure, I was still caving on the inside.

Honestly, I am still caving on the inside. But, over the past year of being out of work, I think I am beginning to realize why: I need to change the question that has kept me company since I was twelve years old. I need to stop asking “do people like me?” and instead ask myself “do I like me?” Not, “what do I need to change to like myself?” But rather, “can I accept and embrace myself, flaws and all?” God loves me, brokenness and all–can I live in light of that truth?

Can You?

 

This week we have talked a lot about success–about our answers to questions people have about our futures (“what are you doing after college?” etc.), and then about the pressure we sometimes feel to become the mythical perfect woman.

And as I have been thinking about all of this, I began to wonder if we as women sometimes feel the need, not necessarily to “have it all,” but even to just strive to succeed in one or a few areas, because deep down, we believe we aren’t enough. 

One of my guilty pleasures this past year, has been Pinterest. I really love baking and cooking, so it is a great place to “see” recipes already made. I love pinning baked goods with the thought that on a rainy day, I will make them. The other thing about Pinterest is that all the pretty things we love about life–fun kitchens, beautifully decorated rooms, already coordinated outfits, quotes that “say it all,” etc.–are all grouped into one place! It’s so fun!

But then, this past week, I came across an article entitled “How Pinterest is Killing Feminism”. Perhaps a little exaggerated, and I am not deleting my beautiful pin boards anytime soon, but the article did reveal some scary pinning habits of women that speak to the pressure we feel to reach some version of “perfection.”

For example, if you use Pinterest, have you ever searched for women?

A couple of months ago, when starting Redefining Female, I did. What you’ll find among a few inspirational and funny quotes, is a lot of photo’s of women with either incredibly sculpted bodies or emaciated, sickly thin bodies. Scroll down some and you will begin to  see a few better, more realistic images–but not many.

The article pointed out that “Pinterest…blurs the lines between unhealthy diet obsessions and health tips.” Among dinner recipes for families, are pins for fad diets and weight-loss smoothies.  Among pictures of fashion, are photoshopped images of sickly thin women, pinned to encourage weight loss.

But what the person writing the article doesn’t realize, is that this isn’t a Pinterest issue (after all, we women are the ones doing the pinning!); rather Pinterest is revealing an issue in our hearts as women.  Though perhaps it is not as much as an “issue,” as it is a question.

As women, our brains have been flooded all of our lives with images of the “perfect women,” or ways to try to become her.  At the same time, many of us seem to feel a sense of inadequacy from a young age that we tend to try to fill either by controlling our weight/looks, entering into dating relationships, or by being incredible overachievers. The question our hearts is trying to answer is:

Am I enough?

Another variation of this question may be: Am I lovable? 

Some us, have tried to become “enough” by going to some scary extremes.  Others of us, have just teetered on the edge of unhealthy. Either way, this question has taken up residence in our hearts, sneaking up on us when we least expect it or spurring us on when we think we have found the answer.

So how do we answer this question, once and for all? How do we get to the point of embracing who we are?

This is where I think we need to start:

We need to stop looking at/pinning things that make us feel less than enough.

We need to stop looking to others to answer the question for us.

We need to start seeking to really know ourselves, so that we can answer this question on our own.

Yet, none of these things, I believe, we can do without seeking the One who created us. I don’t believe we can truly know ourselves without seeking God;  only He can tell us that we are enough, in a way our hearts will believe it.

Just last week, one of my former students tweeted:

“I wish everyone would stop asking me what I am doing after graduation!”

I felt, almost tangibly, her frustration. Then I remembered that in life, even after we decide what we are doing after high school, the questions about our future keep coming:

What are you going to do after you graduate college?

Where are you going to work?

Are you dating anyone?

When are you guys going to get married?

When are you guys going to have kids?

Often these questions come from well meaning, caring people in our lives who are just interested in our future.  But what they often don’t realize is the amount of panic they induce, when we don’t have an answer.  

“Great Aunt Bee” may be just trying to show some interest in our lives, but what we hear is “Why haven’t you picked a college?” or “Why haven’t you gotten a job yet?”

And as we are trying to come up with a good-sounding, “I am not wasting my life away” answer, all we keep thinking is “as if we aren’t already asking ourselves these very questions, each and every waking moment!”

Recently, I have found myself in such situations.  After resigning a job I had for over seven years, and being out of work for over nine months now, my “favorite” question that I get asked by friends and family is:

“Sooo, what are you doing these days?”

To which I have to respond with the brilliant, accomplished sounding answer of:

“I am writing a blog.  Oh, and learning how to bake bread.”

I don’t have a better answer than that. Yet what I am realizing, by lacking an impressive answer, is how much we tie our worth and sense of success, to our answers for these questions. There is the impression that if we don’t have great sounding answers like:

“I started this job where I make double the money I did before.”

or “I am getting a lot of scholarship offers, so I am waiting to choose where I go to college.”

or “I just started dating this guy; he is a Pediatric Surgeon, who saves babies.”

Then somehow we are failing. Yet none of the answers to these questions tell others if we are kind, if we are hard workers, if we are good people, and if we are more than just what one finds on our resume or Facebook profile. None of our answers to these loaded questions are supposed to define us, but for some reason, we believe that they do.

Also, I am learning that by believing I need to have a perfect sounding answer, I am trying to rush through the process of finding the right answer. During the past nine months, there are things I have begun to understand about myself and my past that I wouldn’t have learned had I rushed into a new job. And, the things I was looking for in a job then, aren’t necessarily the things I am looking for now.

Finally, I am finding that the people who truly know and love me, are going to hang in here with me, even if my answers to their questions aren’t fancy or inspiring.

What loaded questions are you avoiding?

“…I can say that I think it is important to pray naked in front of a full-length mirror sometimes, especially when you are full of loathing for your body. Maybe you think you are too heavy. Maybe you have never liked the way your hipbones stick out. Do your breasts sag? Are you too hairy? It is always something. Then again, maybe you have been sick, or gone through surgery that has changed the way you look. You have gotten glimpses of your body as you have bathed or changed clothes, but so far maintaining your equilibrium has depended on staying covered up as much as you can…This can only go on so long…”

-Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p.37-38

This past Monday, on her new talk show, Katie Couric talked openly about her struggle with Bulimia that lasted through college and into her twenties. Because Katie has always seemed so put together, Fox News asks is this the “Most Surprising Celeb Confession?”  They say that they “didn’t see it coming.”

Yet many of us women know better.

Whether “put together” in the eyes of others, or a little rough around the edges, very few of us have made it to where we are today, without at least some insecurities about our physical form.  We have body issues that often come back to haunt us in different seasons of our lives.  Many of us have at least approached experiencing what Barbara Brown Taylor describes as a “loathing for your body.”

Blame it on the media, an ignorant comment a kid made in Jr. High, or on our tendency to compare ourselves with the women around us–whatever propelled us, each of us has traveled down the path of body discontentment.  And many of us have gone as far as hurting ourselves physically or emotionally.

All of this, I believe, breaks the heart of God.

In Genesis 1:27-31, we find that God created us in His image, and saw that He created us good.

In Psalm 139, God revealed to David, that He created our “innermost being” and that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

And in I Corinthians 6:19, we are that our bodies are meant to be temples.

But often, it feels as if the world we grew up in as women, is screaming otherwise.

So Barbara Brown Taylor invites us to pray.

But not just anywhere or any how. She encourages us to pray in front of the mirror, naked. Now, I will admit, I haven’t done it (I am all for baby steps).  But I do believe that she has a point–our struggles with our bodies “can only go on for so long.”

We can only believe the lies that tell us we are not pretty enough, thin enough, curvy enough, tall enough or short enough, for so long.  

And so we need to pray. We need to look in the mirror and pray.

Because of past weight struggles and believing I was ugly for all of my adolescence, I admit I haven’t been able to do the naked part yet.  But lately, after I am done getting ready for the day, I have made myself look in the mirror a little bit longer.  And as I look, I am beginning to ask:

“Ok God, what do you see?”

The answer, I am sensing, is far better than I think.

“Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.”

-Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p.38

 

I didn’t have any confidence in my beauty when I was young. I felt like a character actress, and I still do.

–Meryl Streep, age 63

 

“My appearance has changed a lot over the years, but it has far more to do with how I feel about being a woman. I`ve never thought of myself as vain. When I was at Cambridge, I shaved my head and wore baggy clothes. It was partly to do with the feminism of that time: militant and grungy. That`s all changed now, though I don`t think it is liberating to get your tits out. I don`t hold with that. But I am much more comfortable with being a woman now than I was in my twenties.” 

–Emma Thompson, age 53

 

“Now all of a sudden I’m so less interested in pretending to be a lot of other people, and much more interested in being me.” 

–Jamie Lee Curtis, age 53

 

 

 “There were times when I hated my nose. But you grow up and you start to recognize that maybe it wasn`t a bad thing that you weren`t born Barbie.”

–Anjelica Huston, age 61

 

Why does it seem to be the common experience of women to spend most of our lives feeling ashamed of our body or looks?  Why do so many of us silently struggle with our size, nose, or smile? Why do we feel somehow that we will never measure up?–That we will never fit the definition of beauty?

Sure, we could go on for hours and days talking about the media’s part, the cultural messages we are sent, and the billions of photoshopped images of women that are in our faces every day.

Yes, all of these things have played a pretty big part.

But why have we believed them? Why are these women in their fifties and sixties saying they are just beginning to accept themselves? And rarely do I hear women in their twenties and thirties being able to say the same?

What is the switch that needs to be turned on inside of us as women, that will enable us to fully accept ourselves, imperfections and all?

I don’t want to wait until I am fifty, forty-five, or even a few years from now when I am thirty-five; I don’t want to wait any longer to begin embracing the body, personality, and heart that God has given me.

And, wherever you are on this journey, I don’t want you to have to wait either.

What step can we take today, to begin to embrace ourselves a little bit more?

There are times in life, when as women, we need the words of those who are further along in their journey. We need our moms, grandmothers, mentors, or co-workers who we can share our lives with, to tell us what our hearts are longing to hear. Things like “it will pass,” or “it will get easier,” or even honestly “it never gets easier, but you can do this.”

Sometimes, we don’t just need their words. Sometimes we need the look that comes over their faces as they have taken time out of their day to listen to our story–the look that says “I too, went through that.”

In my life, I have been blessed by such conversations. I have been blessed by women who have taken the time to be present to hear and encourage my story. But I have also had times in my life where I needed the words of women I don’t even know.

Today, I want to share and celebrate women who have spoken into my life, without even being present.  I want to tell you about three books in which three different women tackle important aspects of living our lives as females in this world.

The first book I want to share is Stronger than you think: Becoming Whole Without having to be perfect, by Kim Gaines Eckert.  I read this in a time when my life looked nothing like I wanted it to, and I felt completely broken.  In this book, Eckert talks about our desire as women for wholeness, and all the things that we go to, to fill us, and yet end up leaving us feeling more empty (relationships, body image, career, etc.).  If you are in a place where you are feeling like you can’t keep up, where all your striving is leaving you feeling lonely and desolate–this is a great book that will bring you hope.

With the second book, I have to tell you that I committed the “cardinal sin” of booking reading; I judged this book by its cover the first time I saw it.  The woman on the cover is cutely dressed and looks like she is dancing in the snow.  I quickly put it back on the shelf and labeled it as “fluff reading.” But Longing For More: A Woman’s Path to Transformation in Christ by Ruth Haley Barton, is anything but.  I don’t remember what caused me to pick it up again, but I am so glad I did. Never have I read a more comprehensive book on living life as a strong, becoming-whole woman. Her words call us to be brave women who confidently become who we are created to be–not alone, all in context of our relationship with God and in our friendships.  In addition to chapters on calling and career, she has powerful chapters on marriage and sexuality. I was single when I read this book, and every chapter was life-giving and transforming.

Finally, this last book, I have just finished.  I have a history of struggling with fully using my voice–especially in contexts where I need to speak up for myself–which is a struggle that I know many women have.  Terry Tempest Williams tackles this in her new book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. The fifty-four variations are short vignettes that tell her own story about trying to find her voice both as a writer and as a woman. She begins the book by sharing the story of her mother’s death.  Her mother died of cancer, and before she died, she told Williams “I want you to have my journals.”  A few days after her mother passed, Williams went to read them, only to find they were all blank. Throughout the book, she is trying to figure out if her mother was trying to say that she didn’t have a voice or was she saying something even more powerful by never filling them?  It is an inspiring read that will stir you to use your voice a little more each day.

What are the books that have inspired or encouraged you as a woman?

This past spring, my parents finally did it: they asked me to clean out the boxes I had left at home that were full of the stuff of my childhood–more accurately, of my years in High School.  So, when I was home, I sat cross-legged on my parent’s living room floor and sorted through embarrassing photo’s, passed-between-class notes, 9th grade art projects, and mementos that fall under the category “why did I keep this?!”

As I sorted, one thing continually struck me:

My whole life as a High School student had been about success.

All four years, I strived academically, working myself into ninth place in my graduating class. When I applied for college, I had to attach four pages to answer the question “what extracurricular activities were you involved in?”  I knew by freshman year that I was never going to fit in the “popular” crowd, so I settled for being the most liked: my senior class superlative? “Best Personality/Most Friendly.”

Yea, I was that girl.

I was a goodie-goodie, overachiever, and sorting through my high school “time-capsule,” made me feel a little sick.  Why? Because all of that striving had made me successful by the world standards, yet I wasn’t taught how to be successful at becoming and accepting myself. It set me up to enter college, trying to become the “perfect picture of a successful woman,” by fulfilling other’s expectations for me.

My ideas of what “success” meant, shifted and changed through college and then into my first two jobs. But my tendencies to push, to fulfill other people’s expectations, to strive–were all still very present. I was good at people pleasing and yet it left me very empty, and I found myself in a very broken place around the time I turned twenty-five.  Thankfully, however, I was blessed with some very cool mentors, and one of them said some profound words. He said:

“Melissa, whenever someone tries to become more than who they are meant to be, they always become less.”

If we were to name things in our culture that we treat as “gods” (think small carved statues), success would be right up there with apple products and caffeine. We are raised to value and work hard for success; however the true definition of success for a woman is very difficult to interpret.

Historically we have been the Keepers of the Home, and Mothers of Future Generations. More recently, however, our roles have become muddled.  The media gives us constant, contradicting personalities to aspire to–as if it is possible to cook like Giada, decorate like Martha, mother like Michelle Duggar, run your own mega corporation like Oprah, and yet be a supportive and strong wife like First Lady Michelle Obama.

Where does the pressure to be all of these things at once, come from?

(“whenever someone tries to become more…they become less…”)

All of my striving actually made me feel less and less like the person I wanted to be, and more broken.  Through the help of friends, mentors, and some counseling, I started on a journey that I am still on, to figure out how to be me–nothing more, nothing less.

If we are going to Redefine Female, we need to redefine success, and its new definition will need to make room for the truth that being “a success”  will look different for each of us.

All of the women we aspire to are usually really amazing at one thing, and good at a few others. Who we are meant to be is something special, so why do we feel the need try to be a bunch of people rolled into one?

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

Anna Quindlen, Author

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