Last spring I began interviewing women over 50, 60, 70, and 80 for an online video series about the importance of staying visible as we age. It was the most challenging project I had ever done. For one thing, becoming visible myself in the era of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube took an act of faith. "Looks" shaming and instant judgement have sunk many a social media endeavor.
A good number of the women I interviewed were well-known and very successful in their respective fields. Before each interview I spent at least a half hour in front of the mirror tweaking my makeup, hair and clothing. All these things carry a boatload of "hot buttons" for many women. But, as I make a living writing about fashion, the stakes were doubled. My other prep work was easy because I have a lot of fundamental curiosity about people and am sincerely interested in how they have ended up where they are. And, just about everybody in the public eye, so I learned, loves to tell their story.
Regardless of how prepared I was, how calm I appeared, and how kind my guests were, I sweated through -- literally -- every sweater, dress and silk blouse I wore for the interviews. (I made my cleaners very happy that month.)
I also discovered that every woman I spoke with, when letting her guard down even a little, was as insecure about how they looked and how they would be perceived as I was. Fragility was the norm. It was surprising in that it was something that flies in the face of the strength we summon when it's required. We women have raised children to adulthood, sometimes on our own. We have pushed through barriers to stand on assembly lines and boardrooms. We have risked our livelihoods to call out men for overt or subtle sexist acts. But simply showing up, on a screen, to faceless thousands of other women can shake us to our core.
I've been thinking a lot about why this is and what we can do about it. On one hand, how we look and what people think about how we look shouldn't matter. Most people are more concerned with the impression they are making on you than the one you are making on them. On the other hand, since first impressions are formed within seven seconds of an introduction, we so care about how we look if we want that impression to be a good one. But there has to be some balance. And there has to be courage to just be.
I think the balance comes when we find compassion and love for ourselves. But we can take learn something from those people who have a lot of self-confidence. I know that when I meet someone who is grounded in themselves and who "owns" their body and face, regardless of age, I feel comfortable around them. And I feel comfortable about being myself around them.
But facing the faceless camera ... that's another story. The reality is that, with the exception of the genetically gifted, most of us are pretty ordinary in the looks department. And still, many of the most popular video "stars" are ordinary people who are just supremely natural in their ordinariness on camera. That's why the blogosphere loves them. They're real. We can relate to them. So, maybe it's time to just love ourselves, as we are, in all our ordinary glory. Who knows? Maybe you will become the next viral sensation.