I have a few Facebook friends who are really into fitness, specifically, into running. They often share results of their most recent runs and/or competitions, they post pictures of themselves at the start of runs, or crossing the finish line, or at a point where they have reached a personal milestone. I say, good for them! I used to be a runner many (many!) years ago, I know what kind of effort and dedication it takes to stay on task and persevere. They deserve every accolade they get.
A few of them also love to put up motivational posts with slogans such as “Instead of giving myself reasons why I can’t, I give myself reasons why I can” and “You will never know your limits unless you push yourself towards them” and “If it doesn’t challenge you, then it doesn’t change you.” Wonderful messages, great motivations. But invariably, these words are accompanied by photographs of incredibly sculpted bodies, gorgeous bodies, bodies that no doubt took a lot of time and effort to build. Abs that have not an ounce of flab, flat stomachs (so many flat stomachs!), rounded buttocks -rarely faces, just bodies and text. Beautiful works of art to be admired, and, apparently, emulated.
But they will never be my body. No matter how hard I work, no matter the effort I take in diet, exercise and mental discipline will I ever come close to having a body like what I am being motivated towards. Even if I were to be at the epitome of what I could be, I will not even come close to these ideals. I am too short and built too wide, with a truncated body, bowed legs, thick ankles and virtually no neck. Which isn’t to say that I shouldn’t strive to be healthy, to be as fit as I can be, to be the best that is possible for me. But even at my fittest, I will never, ever be more than average. And I wish this was something that is okay to acknowledge.
But that’s not the point! I’m told. Perhaps not, but that’s the not-so-subtle message, otherwise, why would I not see more pictures of fit people who look more like me? I totally understand why the ideal is prevalent, but when I am bombarded by it, when that unobtainable ideal is virtually all I ever see, I am discouraged, not motivated. I want the freedom to be average, for in the looks department, average is the best I will ever be. And that’s being generous. And honest.
A video clip made the rounds on social media, of Dustin Hoffman getting choked up as he talks about realizing, during filming of the movie “Tootsie”, that he had discounted so many women because they were not beautiful enough to warrant notice. This realization came after he saw pictures of himself as a woman, transformed by a team of professional makeup artists, costumers and hair stylists. (For those who don’t know, in the 1982 comedy “Tootsie”, an out of work actor masquerades as a woman in order to get roles in the soap opera industry.) He looked at those first stills, and asked that they make him more beautiful; he was told, “sorry, that’s the best we can do.” It hit him, then, how many woman have to struggle with not being able to meet the expectations of beauty; when their best will never be more than simply average. Welcome to our world, Mr. Hoffman, so nice you could stop by, if even for a short visit.
It’s pretty devastating to live with the knowledge that you will constantly be overlooked, or discounted, or simply not exist because you are, at your best, merely average. For those of us where “average” is even, perhaps, a stretch, we have to build a deep reservoir of self-worth, an unassailable knowledge that we have as much to offer as those above that Mendoza line of beauty, and work against resentment.
But just as it’s easy to get demoralized by being constantly told to reach for the sublime (which you cannot attain), and that it’s possible to achieve that perfection if you believe hard enough (it’s not) or you work hard enough (it’s not), and to have images of those who have (or at least those who can be photoshopped to appear they have) touted at every turn, it’s also pretty easy to realize that these messages are not self truths. It’s not that those of us below-average gals (and guys) are not beautiful enough. It’s that the measurement of what is beautiful and attainable is wrong.
It can’t be helped that physical perfection (hence, marketable beauty) can be so blithely assumed by so many; we all are drawn to perfection, to absolute beauty. But when we as a society started to believe that being the epitome of beautiful is not only desirable, but attainable and then necessary that we started to truly devalue ourselves. It is only when we change our definition of beauty, and our expectation that beauty be limited to a very narrow interpretation, that life ceases to be a competition and instead becomes an affirmation.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a much simpler time (not better, but simpler), when I didn’t have the constant bombardment of “473 Ways to Look Pretty!”, “New Ways to Sculpt a Hot Body Fast!”, “Slim and Sexy: Moves that Get You Toned, Trimmed and Totally Hot Fast” (actual recent cover headlines, from Seventeen, Women’s Health and Fitness magazines; “hot” = health and fitness!). I got occasional reinforcement of my beauty from my parents, but even more importantly, I never got chastisement for not being beautiful (therefore, the assumption was that I was). If there were suggestions on improvement, it was because I was unhappy with myself, not because I did not meet some societal ideal. No, I didn’t fit in with all the jocks and cheerleaders at school, but I did fit in with the jocks and the cheerleaders who were in the art club, or were in band, or went to my church, because the beauty I had was revealed in those places. It was all good.
So I’ve gone through life believing in myself, and knowing that yes, I am beautiful, even if I am just average in the looks department. I embrace that. Not mediocre – average. Being average is not a horrible thing to admit to being, because I am the best damned average I can be. And there are some things I do excel in, there are things that I do beautifully, that give me a sense of self-value, even if they aren’t readily apparent when you pass me in the street, or sit next to me on the bus, or stand in line behind me at Target. Get to know me, and you’ll see where my beauty lies -and it’s a mighty tenacious beauty, to boot.
Recently, one of my favorite little graphic arts shops, Yellow Button Studio, released a print with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I love that. I love how beautiful the print is, and how wonderful the sentiment is. For me, there is no better motivation than the simple admonishment to “Do your best.” That really says it all. There is no value judgment in that simple phrase; Claudia Schiffer’s best is just as good as my best.
Yes, it hurts to be discounted (or even ridiculed) in public, or at times when my well being is at stake based on this high ideal (such as in a job interview), but still and all, if I am putting out my very best, then good things will happen, I know this. What does come – friends, jobs, opportunities, surprises – will be genuine, based on who I am, and those are the best kind to have. Those are the beautiful things in my life.
So for those who discount me, as Dustin Hoffman no doubt would have, just because I barely make the mark of “average”, I’m so sorry you’ve missed out on getting to know me. And I’ll do my best to not resent those motivational renderings with the abs that have not an ounce of flab, flat stomachs (so many flat stomachs!), and rounded buttocks, because if they motivate one of my friends to be the best they can be, then more power to them! Ultimately, it’s up to me to do what I can, with what I have, where I am – even if that means embracing being average. Because I am average, and I am beautiful, and I am striving, always, to be the best I can be.