Friday, June 10, 2011

Who Says?--Examining Why "Just Loving Ourselves" Feels So Hard

I am not a big pop radio listener. In fact, most of the time my radio is either playing NPR (have I mentioned before that I'm kind of a geek?), or my iTunes playlist. So, I tend to be pretty clueless about current popular music. But it's summertime. That means I'm at the pool quite a bit, so I'm stuck with whatever music choices the pool staff makes. And since the pool staff tends to be high school and college folks, the pool speakers tend to play a lot of pop radio. That's how I came to hear the song "Who Says." The lyrics caught my attention--they seemed to convey so much of what I want my clients to be able to say to themselves:

"You've got every right
To a beautiful life.
Come on!

Who says?
Who says you're not perfect?
Who says you're not worth it?
Who says you're the only one that's hurting?
Trust me,
That's the price of beauty.
Who says you're not pretty?
Who says you're not beautiful?
Who says?

Who says you're not star potential?
Who says you're not presidential?
Who says you can't be in movies?
Listen to me, listen to me.
Who says you don't past the test?
Who says you can't be the best?
Who said?
Who said?
Would you tell me who said that?
Who said?"

These lyrics felt right on point for me. It's so important to question the limiting, self-critical beliefs that we hold. Asking "who said" and challenging the validity of negative, hurtful messages is an important skill for building and maintaining our self-esteem. As I heard the song over and over, I could feel a blog post beginning--one that questions and challenges what we do when the answer to, "Who says?" is, "Me." I wanted to explore the voice inside of us that tears down our value, our talent, our unique contributions. That was the original direction for this post.

But then I went to do a lyric search. When I performed the lyric search, I found out that the song is sung by Selena Gomez.  For those of you who don't know Selena Gomez, she is a Disney star, in the same vein as Miley Cyrus. She stars in a Disney series and has a complementary music career.

And that's where things got complicated for me.   Because the song lyrics do a lovely job of challenging the (sometimes crippling) self-doubt that many of us face.  The music video even follows through with that message, as Selena sheds the "fancy" trappings at the beginning of the video to emerge in a casual "make-up free" finale.

So why does this feel complicated?  The words are powerful.  The images back up the words.  But this song and this video are only part of the Selena Gomez package.  The character that she plays in her series is vapid, appearance-obsessed, and often pretty selfish.  Her brother is the one who cares about learning and provides the moral voice in the show.  This is pretty standard Disney fare.  And it is all part of a powerful marketing machine that tells girls from a young age that their appearance (and their consumption of the Disney brand) is what will make them happy.  For a great analysis of the impact of Disney's marketing on girls and young women, check out Peggy Orenstein's powerful book "Cinderella Ate My Daughter."  But this isn't a post about Disney, or a post about parenting.  (If you want some good resources, check out: Peggy Orenstein's blog, Pigtail Pals, or Shaping Youth--to name a few.)

This is a post about the constant barrage of mixed messages that we receive from childhood on about how we are supposed to relate to ourselves.  Here's this song with self-loving lyrics, and a video that seems to celebrate accepting yourself as you are instead of putting on a facade.  But that song & video are performed by an actress who is one of the faces of a company that has historically done a pretty crummy job of truly celebrating and honoring female characters.  Which message is real?  Are we perfect or do we need all the right products?  And why should those of us who are old enough to be out of Disney's target demographic care if the messages are mixed?

Here's why.  As I have gone through the process of researching and writing this post, I have felt a range of emotions.  When I heard the song, I was initially excited about the positive message.  When I realized that it was part of the Disney machine, I was disappointed.  I almost scrubbed the whole post.  Then I challenged myself to watch the video, to make an informed decision.    And what I realized was that my experiences with this post were a microcosm of what we all face when we try to engage with ourselves in a loving way.

We are constantly coping with mixed messages.  We're told that "we're perfect."  We're told that "maybe she's born with it--maybe it's Maybelline"--or that we're not perfect unless we have the products that make us look perfect.  We're told that our voices are powerful.  We're told that we shouldn't speak up if it makes others uncomfortable.

As psychologists, we regularly expect ourselves--and our clients--to work towards self-acceptance or self-compassion.  If we have that expectation, but we don't acknowledge the culture of mixed messages that we live in, we're asking a nearly impossible feat.

It is common for clients to express frustration that it is so hard for them to engage in compassionate ways with themselves.   What I have seen is that most of my clients are pretty surprised when I point out the mixed messages they are surrounded by, and gently ask if they might be influenced by those mixed messages.  This is an instance where it is important for us to place ourselves, and our clients, in the context of our culture.  We're bombarded with these paradoxical messages.  You're perfect--or you will be if you buy this.  It simply makes sense that we would internalize that struggle. 

The experience of creating this post was a powerful reminder for me.  Yes, it is incredibly important to nurture and develop our skills of self-love and self-compassion.  Yes, we can care for ourselves no matter how others have treated us.  Yes, we do deserve love in the face of our shortcomings and failures.  All of these things are true.  But all of us are exposed to these truths in a culture that affirms with one sentence and diminishes with the next.  We are inundated with a culture that believes in undermining self-compassion to motivate you to purchase a "fix."

It is unfair and unrealistic to advocate self-compassion without acknowledging that we're surrounded by contradicting messages.  Sometimes, as in the case of Selena Gomez and "Who Says," those contradicting messages are wrapped up in one package.  No wonder so many of us feel confounded by the idea of "just love yourself."

So, for just one moment, I hope that you can pause.  Acknowledge that you're bombarded by mixed messages.  Give yourself permission to get a bit confused by those mixed messages.  And then offer yourself a moment of compassion, of recognition that you are perfect, beautiful, and worth it--right now, without changing or buying a thing.

What do you think?