Women and the Internet: How We’ve Learned to Hate Ourselves

It surely is a different world than it used to be. Back in the 70s and 80s, when I was growing up, we wanted to be Daisy Duke from the Dukes of Hazzard, any of Charlie’s Angels, or stylish Stephanie Powers on Hart to Hart. These women were smart and talented (each in their own way), wholesome, gorgeous, glamorous, and presented the ideal of what we wanted to grow up to be. I didn’t know (or care) that the hair and makeup folks on the set had to work their magic before the camera started to roll. I thought those ladies WOKE UP like that! Plastic surgery for them? No way. Permanent “shocked” facial expressions, pillow face, or complete appearance overhauls weren’t on the horizon yet.

My how things have changed. Now girls and young women see thinspo, thigh gaps, and online bullying about everything imaginable. Size six supermodels are considered plus size. Clothing retailers further the disparity by refusing to make XL or XXL clothes (Abercrombie & Fitch) so they can attract only the cool kids. All of these messages confuse us about what we are “supposed to” be like. Trying to figure out who to please (and the answer of “ourselves” gets lost in all those mixed messages) is tough to sort out.

Social media and all of its pitfalls, cringeworthy moments, and unrealistic glimpses into “real life” make the landscape impossible to navigate. The only way to fully remove yourself from the constant reminders of how NOT perfect you are is to put down the phone, close the laptop, turn off the tv, and completely unplug. That’s it my friends. Those are your only options. Otherwise you better have a self-esteem meter at full tilt and a healthy understanding of what is truth vs. what is staged.

The reality is sad really. You can pay someone to stage your house before you sell it (i.e. presenting fake real life to potential buyers) or hire a photographer to capture your family’s oh-so-awesome cutesy poses and adorable matching outfits (and they can Photoshop too!). But it’s not real and it’s not life. It’s pretend. It’s everything we hate about ourselves, hidden expertly away so no one but us knows about it.

The good news is there are movements popping up that fight this new normal. Real Simple magazine started an Instagram account called @WomenIRL (Women In Real Life) that encourages followers to post the real deal of their lives: the toddler meltdowns, the oops moments, the ugliness (and hilariousness) that is truth of real life. Some of them elicit an actual laugh out loud and are mighty refreshing. That people from all walks of life are willing to give us a peek into their messiness and their unglamorous selves means that there is hope!

Dove soap has developed the The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty aimed at revealing the possibilities of loving yourself as you are and being strong enough to ignore the mixed social media messages. In 2013 they launched Dove Real Beauty Sketches where a woman sits behind a curtain and describes their facial features to an FBI sketch artist. Each woman is paired with second person who they spend a little time getting to know. That second person then describes the woman to the same sketch artist and both pictures are hung side by side for the original subject to compare. The reactions are emotional and eye- opening when the women see the difference between their self-assessment and someone else’s.

All of this begs the question: just who exactly are we trying to impress? My Facebook friends are more interested in the funny stuff going on in my life than in a well-crafted public persona. My close friends already know that I’m not perfect (by any stretch!) and would laugh hysterically if I tried to pretend otherwise. The pro-perfection social media universe we live in shows us that fake perfection (think Kardashian) and endless supplies of money are the only way to achieve personal happiness, but there’s a huge problem with that: most of us don’t have enormous bank accounts at our fingertips and the ability or skill to design a pretend existence that will surely get us rave reviews from the anonymous masses. But the power of platforms like Instagram (your fans are called “followers” for Pete’s sake!) and the need for adoration, no matter how hollow, keeps the trend going.

Time will tell if it’s actually possible to change perceptions and opinions. Remember, the Rubenesque period was a very long time ago and it’s taken many iterations of “beauty” to get where we are now. Trends evolve with the generations and we must do our best to change this destructive period we’re in. We know it’s possible — we’ve seen it happen (rat tails anyone?). But, we’re living in an impersonal world (how many times have you texted instead of called just because?) that appeals to our secret desire for invisibility. The only troll we knew about twenty years ago was the one from the Billy Goats Gruff story. Now, they’re everywhere and almost impossible to avoid if you spend any time at all reading the comment sections of any website.

Change has to appeal to enough people who put their ideals into action to make a difference. There are enough people out there starting to talk and we need to add to their voices. Nothing good can come from this environment continuing on its same course.

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