When I reflect on my youth, I recognize that I experienced many forms of self-destruction that I wasn’t fully aware of at the time. Patterns of deprivation, binging, bulimia, anorexia, over-exercising and even self-mutilation were formed during my teenage years, consuming much of my behavior and mandating many of my actions. Flashes of a mid-drift clad Britney Spears seduced me, patronizing perfection and obstructing my perception of reality; the attention I received for the cleavage I bared fueled me, engraining within me the idea that my value was contingent on the size of my chest; the desperation to seem attractive and desirable at the cost of our own health and happiness infiltrated the mindset of me and many of my peers, resulting in obsession over appearance. Over a decade later, I find myself living in a culture that has exacerbated this formidable epidemic.
When I was in grad school, I focused much of my studies on adolescent development, yearning to understand the complexities of the teenage psyche and how young people come to form their identity. I conducted a small group interview consisting of five adolescent girls for one of my final papers. Each of the participants revealed that she was a victim of self-destruction, and articulated that this had been evoked by the relentless quest to attain a “perfect” image. All five young women reported that they had excessively dieted and exercised, three of the five had undergone plastic surgery, three of the five had experienced anorexia, two of the five had battled binging and self-mutilation and one of the five struggled with bulimia. This revelation broke my heart; through talking with them I realized that critical conversations regarding the adversity and pressures they were confronting were lacking in their lives.
As many of us may remember, during adolescence, individuals become egocentric, viewing the world from a single perspective. They experience, what researcher David Elkind coined the “imaginary audience” – the belief that others are always watching them. So while many of us may not have the patience to indulge teenagers in their own drama, it’s a very real experience for them. And it can significantly impact their self-esteem. I’ve read research articles that have indicated that for female adolescents, self-esteem consistently correlates with the way one views herself through physical appearance. And it doesn’t help that sociocultural pressures on adolescent girls enforce a thin ideal body image and perpetuate the importance of appearance in terms of one’s identity and success as a female… How can one thrive when facing this predicament?
This was my experience and it confused the hell out of me because, while I was influenced by the mixed messaging, prescribed gender roles and unrealistic portrayal of idealized and sexualized images, I also didn’t really buy into it and felt unsettled while forming my identity. I felt myself being pulled in two different directions – wanting to be received and needing to live up to the “perfect” image, while also intrinsically knowing how ridiculous the entire construct was. But I didn’t have the skills or the understanding of how to confront the dichotomy I was facing - I was fueled by achieving an unrealistic standard of beauty while also feeling completely disconnected from who I was; I wanted to be perceived as ideal and yet I was deeply insecure; I wanted to be viewed as a sexualized icon and yet I was closed off to all experiences sexual. The paradox was overwhelming for my adolescent brain – with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (as is the case for all teenagers) I was more impulsive in my actions and less grounded in my confidence.
Fast forward to my late twenties, only now am I learning what it means to be in my fullest expression, to be confident in myself and to honor the body that I have in this moment. The self-destructing patterns continued throughout my young adulthood, and they still have a tendency to show up – although faint, when thoughts of trying to achieve an illusory ideal become present, I have to catch myself in the self-destructive actions that immediately want to ensue.
Constant awareness of my thoughts and behaviors has been my saving grace; being mindful of my language and my internal dialogue has shifted the way that I relate to myself and others; letting go of the bullshit belief that I am supposed to fit into some box has freed me from the cage I once called home; asking for and being willing to receive support from loved ones in moments when I have fallen has helped me rise strong; and having conversations about the things that nobody wants to talk about is causing the rippling and granting others permission to inquire within and make a change.
I am now, at twenty-nine years old, navigating what it means to be a woman who is secure in her own skin; a woman who honors both her bright light and the depths of her darkness; a woman who doesn’t abide by society’s standards of beauty; a woman who is a contradiction in her softness, strength, sweetness, power, femininity, wildness, rawness and sensuality; a woman who is fucking vulnerable in her self-expression, knowing that self-love is cultivated when she is in full acceptance of all aspects that make her who she is; a woman who isn’t afraid to ask for help and receive the love that wants to find her; a woman who no longer feels the need to hide from, dim because of, compare to, and compete with other women; a woman who acknowledges the challenges that are still present as she discovers how to fully celebrate herself and own what is.
It’s a journey, a process, that I am still learning how to traverse – but I am committed to it and I refuse to allow others’ judgments, projections, limiting beliefs, desire to shame, and enforced ideals limit me. It’s time that we all take a stand, support each other and the younger generations as they discover who they are, and own what is so that we can feel our way through the muck and come out on the other side stronger and more beautiful than ever before.
Photo Credit: Laurent Levy Photography
Jessica has a B.Sc. in Applied Psychology from New York University, M.Ed., in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard, and a M.A., (in progress) in Spiritual Psychology from University of Santa Monica. Jessica is also a columnist at Elephant Journal and has been featured with Huffington Post.