Unrealistic Ideals of Gender and Youth: What Can Be Done?

At her 90th birthday party, my stepmother's mom said to the crowd...

"Oh, to be 80 again..."

Yes, you read that correctly. "Oh, to be 80 again!" Notice that she didn't say 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, or 70. She said 80! Why is that significant? Because it is so profound. You see, my 90-year-old step-grandmother wished she had appreciated being 80 a bit more -- because she found a big difference between 80 and 90.

What? Appreciate being 80?! Unheard of in this culture, right? In a world where people are constantly chasing youth and beauty, it's a rare occurrence when someone says that you should appreciate being 80.

Plastic surgeries, weight loss tricks, diet pills, make-up, gym memberships -- all of these are attempts to live up to society's subjective expectations of youth and beauty. Why have we become a culture like this? Why do we worship models, celebrities and young people? Why is Miley Cyrus so famous and why does she get so much attention when she wears crazy outfits to host the VMA awards show? What ever happened to the days when humans actually turned to the older, wiser people in their families and communities for advice and wisdom?

Well, I'm not sure how it happened, but it happened. We are all programmed by messages from society that in order to be acceptable, we have to be beautiful, skinny and young. But how many of us actually meet that gender ideal? Not many.

As a gender communication professor, I have been teaching about the messages the media gives us about how we "should be" for many years. These messages can definitely have a negative impact on people's self-esteem, especially females'.

What you may or may not know, however, is that standards of beauty are not only culturally bound, but they also change over time. There was a time when the ideal woman was overweight and had very white skin, because that meant she was rich enough to eat and didn't have to work out in the field (hence, the non-tanned skin).

While we can't change the images in the media, there are some things we can do to help ourselves and our children have better self-esteem:

1. Teach your children, grandchildren and any other child you know that REAL beauty comes from within.

I know it sounds like a cliché, but it's true! As for myself, I have met gorgeous men only to find out later that they are real jerks -- and then I didn't find them attractive anymore. And the reverse has happened, too. Men I have not initially found attractive became more attractive to me because I loved their personality. All the old sayings like "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" are so true! So teach the children around you to ignore the pressure to live up to society's standard of beauty. Instead, spend time nurturing their self-esteem so they love themselves regardless of what they look like.

2. Stop comparing yourself to other people.

It's difficult not to compare! Models, celebrities, and all-around beautiful people dominate the media. But don't look at those people -- they are the minority. If you must compare yourself to other people, go to an amusement park or baseball game in the summer and look around. Most people do NOT look like movies stars and models! So if that's the norm, why do you still compare yourself to all the so-called "beautiful" people in the world! Stop comparing, and start appreciating yourself the way you are. Most of what you look like cannot be changed! You can't grow (or shrink), change the color of your skin, how far apart your eyes are, the type of hair you have, or your bone structure. So accept yourself the way you are!

3. Share information that promotes acceptance and appreciation.

Here's some good news! According to the modeling agency Talent Management, we are entering a "Curvy Girl Revolution." They say that "plus size models" are in more demand than ever before! Isn't that great? So whenever you read information like that or see videos encouraging women to love themselves, share it with the world. Put it out there on social media - let it be known that we should all love ourselves the way we are!

4. Re-define your labels.

I think the term "plus size" is unfortunate. Most modeling agencies consider it to be size 8-10 and above. And I'm pretty sure the average American woman is a size 12 or 14. So I guess most people in the world are "plus size!" Although it's great that we're slowly getting away from the anorexic-looking models, we still need to re-define "normal" in the media by projecting images of health, and curves. But even if the media is slow to change, that doesn't mean you can't change your own labels!

5. Appreciate older people - and growing old yourself.

One of my favorite quotes is: "Don't ever regret growing older ... it's a privilege denied to many." How true that is! While so many people in the world are chasing beauty and youth, there are many others who are having their lives cut way too short. And it's usually in those people that they finally realize what REALLY matters: love, people, and our health. Age really does bring wisdom through experience (or at least it should!). And having some wrinkles and sags on your body doesn't take away from your inner beauty. So appreciate the process of getting older. It's certainly better than the alternative!

I wish I had a magic wand and could just say "poof" and have everyone love themselves. But obviously, I don't. All I can really do is encourage you all to stop being so hard on yourself. Love yourself! We are all beautiful in our own way. You just have to believe it!