‘What on earth are you wearing today?!’ I froze by the door of the classroom I just entered, attempting to make myself smaller and less in the spotlight as I was running late for my Russian literature class. For an eighth grader growing up in Ukraine I was tall and too curvy for a twelve year old, as puberty graced me much earlier than my female counterparts.
The teacher stared at me, anger rising in her eyes. She continued to scold me; but not only for being late but also for my looks, clothing, figure and my general lack of know-how.
At the end of what seemed to be infinity, I sat down in the back of the class feeling ugly, small and ashamed.
Growing up as a female in Ukraine was a struggle, as treatment of women where I came from ranged from mild verbal abuse to sexual harassment on public transit. It is an accepted cultural norm that women are inferior to men, a sub-par class of citizens existing for child bearing and house cleaning. Women are categorized as either beautiful or ugly and these labels are perpetually enforced.
In the public arena that included school and extracurriculars, I grew up being told to ‘always be a good girl’, ‘don’t speak out too much’, ‘don’t cause any trouble’, ‘behave like a lady’, ‘don’t swear’, ‘be polite’. Being bombarded with both messages of beauty and messages of worth left me confused and feeling that I could never meet the ‘expectations’ set out for me, the proper ‘norms’ of female looks and behavior.
But as it turns out Ukraine is not the only country where these notions are imparted to young girls and women.
When I moved to the States I realized many women here were raised with similar messages. Messages – that while not always explicitly or consciously – conveyed a sense of disempowerment, of weakness, or frailty. Parents, teachers and other adults would tell little girls how to behave themselves, often using humiliation and shaming to have them ‘learn their lesson’. While these messages are often conveyed to women in their earlier childhoods, the conflicting standards of beauty affect women of all ages.
Many women who come into my studio have similar stories to tell. Some left abusive marriages where they were told for twenty years that they were less than good enough, or not worthy of love. Some of my clients, had mothers who were practicing the toughest version of tough love and criticizing their every move. Some simply did not fit the media’s ideal of a perfect woman, being too tall, too thin, too heavy, too masculine, too feminine, you name it. Some were always insecure or ashamed about some aspect of their bodies- whether it was the extra pounds, the way their eyebrows arch or the thinness of their hair. I do not always get to hear the innermost stories of my clients. Sometimes the women who seemed to carry the most pain would simply tell me: ‘I look terrible in pictures’.
The truth is all of us have things we dislike about ourselves. But at the end of the day, what all of us really want is to be truly seen for who we are. To be valued, to be appreciated, to be considered. To be loved.
Regardless of our shape and size, regardless of what mass media thinks we ought to look like, regardless of the disempowering messages we received growing up – you are beautiful. All women have beauty that deserves to be shared and celebrated.
The reality is that it can be hard to counteract years of criticisms on your own. This is where having a circle of entrusted, honest, valued friends and family members can help shape a new reality.
I would love to be another woman in your life to remind you that you are beautiful, you are worth it, you are good enough. I am here to continue to tell women, myself included, that we all have the power within us to provide ourselves the comfort, love, care and appreciation we so desperately desire. I am here to honor women’s uniqueness and individuality, providing a safe space for laughter and/or tears, for building confidence, and most importantly – for healing.