Last year 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 at nearly 70 and 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.
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 most women. But, as I make a living writing about fashion, the stakes were doubled. 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 almost 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 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. We have persevered through weight gain and loss, life-threatening illness, and economic uncertainty. 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, right? Most people are more concerned with the impression they are making than the one you are making on them. On the other hand, since first impressions count – they are formed within milliseconds, as the research demonstrates – 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 from knowing who we are, dressing to show up as the best version of ourselves, and then finding compassion and love for ourselves. But we can take a lesson from those people who have a lot of self-confidence. I know that when I meet someone who is grounded 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 as for 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 yet, many of the most popular social media “stars” are ordinary people who are just supremely natural in their ordinariness on camera. That’s why we love them. That’s why the blogosphere loves them. They’re real. We can relate to them. They make us feel like we can sit down and have a cup of coffee with them and they’ll be our new bestie.
With that in mind, maybe it’s time to just love ourselves, as we are, in all our ordinary glory. Who knows? That very ordinary, that very genuine self (the one we have been convinced by fashion magazines and media that we need to burnish or embellish) may be exactly what the world, and the world of social media, needs more than ever.