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Exactly As I Am: Celebrated Women Share Candid Advice with Today's Girls on What It Takes to Believe in Yourselfby Shaun Robinson
Entertainment reporter and author Shaun Robinson has spoken candidly both on camera and behind the scenes with countless celebrities. Consequently, she has received hundreds of emails and letters from girls across the country asking how they can be more like their favorite stars. But the truth is, these actors, singers, athletes, and media and political figures are remarkably similar to teenage girls in essential ways: They all still struggle with issues of self-esteem and body image and doubt, and they all, at some point, have compared themselves with their peers and felt they came up short. In Exactly As I Am, Robinson shares both the honest comments she’s heard from young women and the heartfelt and encouraging advice she’s been in the rare position to glean from today’s most notable women. The result is a book that will inspire girls to find their inner strength, grow confident, and believe in themselves.
Actress Eva Mendes talks about how she persevered in the face of rejection: “Surrounding myself with people who love and support me has been my key to success.” Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Alicia Keys suggests that the answer to a healthy self-image lies in new definitions: “We need more variety in how we depict beauty and define intelligence–there’s so much more than what is often featured.” Kelly Clarkson turns the tables on so-called imperfection: “The flaws and vulnerability are what make people attractive.” And Vanessa Williams suggests a way out of the trap of taking things personally: “Next time someone rolls their eyes at you or says an unkind word about you, think about what they could be insecure about.”
Through this rich tapestry of voices, women of all ages, races, ethnicities, and backgrounds explore how to stay grounded and develop positive self-esteem, something Robinson calls “your ticket to freedom and making your dreams come true.” They also discuss the importance of mentors and friends, being able to laugh at oneself, and giving back to others. The collected wisdom of shared experiences in Exactly As I Am is designed to give every girl and woman the opportunity to dream big, stay strong, and remain true to herself.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt
You Are Who You Are
beauty and self-acceptance
It is hard to let your personality flourish when you are pointlessly paralyzed by insecurities about your physique. Both boys and girls can be horribly cruel and childishly thoughtless. Character and personality are much more important and ultimately win out. For time passes and youthful beauty with it.—Helen Mirren
These were the words I kept hearing over and over again as I spoke with teenage girls across the country. What did they love about themselves? What would they change? What image were they trying to live up to? Whether they lived on the East Coast or the West, in the Midwest or the South, their voices seemed to speak in unison: “I want to be pretty. I want to be skinny. I want perfection like I see on TV and in the magazines.” These girls created a beautiful rainbow of skin tones, hair textures, and figures, from curvaceous to boyish. They were tall like basketball players, small like gymnasts, and in between like the girl next door. I found them all uniquely beautiful, but they all admitted to feeling pressure to somehow look better than they did. And it was also clear that their idea of beauty was all about being pretty and thin and perfect. What an impossible standard to live up to!
Though I could fill an entire book with stories and quotes from girls who desperately wished they looked different, here are just a few of the things they told me:
You can never be skinny enough. It makes you feel like you’re never perfect because you never reach your destination.
I don’t have enough time to tell you all the things I would change about my body. I feel I should work out more and get fit. I’m nineteen, so I’m not so young anymore.—Tara, nineteen
My friends who are light-skinned always get more attention than I do because my skin is very dark and I don’t have straight hair. It makes me feel like I’m not worth as much as they are.
I asked my mom for a new pair of jeans for my birthday, but I want her to get them a size twenty-five because I’m going on this new diet I read about.—Sophia, seventeen
Super-skinny is in vogue. Girls get that from the media and celebrities. I would do just about anything to be just as skinny.
Boys really like long hair, and I want to get extensions because my hair is so short. My mom told me I have to wait, but some of my friends got extensions in middle school.—Marisa, fifteen
This pressure to be and feel beautiful is not new. I am sure all of you reading now have experienced it—that sense of looking in the mirror and wishing you looked different, a bit better, thinner, more beautiful…something closer to perfect. But what does perfect really mean, anyway? We are all vulnerable to the images of beauty all around us. These images are ubiquitous and send the unfortunate message that in order to be considered acceptable, we have to look a certain way—almost always some other way than we actually do.
Stars in Our Eyes
Most of the girls I talked to were crystal clear on the role celebrities play in reinforcing these ideals and the so-called myth of perfection. As seventeen-year-old Carrie from New York told me, “I think there are a lot of girls who want to mimic the image of celebrities. They want to change themselves—they don’t want to be their own person.”
All around us we see celebrities with perfect hair, gleaming teeth, blemish-free, radiant skin, and of course, that perfect body. I think most people agree that it’s fun to look at the beautiful photos of stars in magazines, on television, and on the Internet. But there’s something wrong when we get down on ourselves for not being like those pictures. As a media insider, I can tell you that a lot of time and expert hands often go into creating those images! Yes, these women are all beautiful in their own right exactly as they are, but what you see beaming from your television screen or magazine covers are carefully arranged images that most of these women will readily admit are something of a fantasy.
Believe me, no one knows the power and influence of the media more than I do, having spent much of my career working in front of the camera and being on television. I’ve also been face-to-face with the so-called “most beautiful people in the world”—the ones who are often held up as the standard of beauty. You see them grace the red carpet at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and the Grammys. How spectacular they look! And when you find yourself standing next to Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Beyoncé, or Jennifer Lopez, it can be quite intimidating.
But since it’s my job to interview these stars on the red carpet, I, too, am in the spotlight all of the time, and I, too, feel the pressure to look my best. Thankfully, I also have had the benefit of working with some of the greatest makeup artists, hairstylists, and wardrobe consultants in Hollywood. When I get out of the makeup chair and put on an expensive designer gown to host the official Academy Awards pre-show, do I feel beautiful and confident? Of course. But what many viewers don’t know is that it takes a loooong time to get ready for events like that!
It’s hard to feel good about yourself when the image you see doesn’t quite live up to the standards that we set for ourselves. Of course, some of the girls I spoke with were able to feel good about the way they looked despite the pressure to be pretty and thin and perfect, like the celebrities. Karen, a fifteen-year-old from Atlanta, said, “I like everything about me—my eyes, my hair, my skin. There’s nothing I would change. This is how God made me, and I appreciate it.”
But you can probably relate to many of the girls I talked to who admitted feeling inadequate about the way they look, tying a lot of the reason to the images of celebrities that surround them. As Katie, a fourteen-year-old girl from New York, said, “I feel like the media is controlling people’s lives. Some girls look up to their favorite actress or singer who is really skinny, and they strive to be really skinny just like their idol.” Sarah, a particularly eloquent fifteen-year-old from Los Angeles, hit the nail right on the head when she said, “Many girls can’t even tell that the faces on magazine covers are retouched. They think that’s how the model or actress actually looks. It makes you question yourself.”
Behind the Glamour
So here’s the real question: Does measuring up to the perceived ideal of beauty—that is, actually being pretty and thin (or even just appearing to be so)—make all those amazing and glamorous women feel better about themselves than the rest of us do? Are they happier, more secure in themselves? This is one of the things I set out to learn in interviewing the dozens of celebrities in this book. I wanted to know how and what they really think and feel, because more than anything, I believe that young women need to know and understand that these images of perfection they see are of real people, with many of the same doubts, insecurities, and questions they have.
Of course, the responses were as varied as the women themselves, but what was most fascinating to learn was that nearly all of the women struggled—either earlier in their lives or currently—with accepting themselves exactly as they are. So many of them felt ugly, embarrassed, inadequate, or awkward—not unlike regular girls today. Yes, we all have similarities when it comes to feeling like we oftentimes don’t measure up!
Here is some of what they shared.
Lisa Rinna on Looking Different
Actor, dancer, singer, entrepreneur, and mother Lisa Rinna is so glamorous when you see her on the red carpet. But she can still remember the pain of being called ugly—all because she looked different from the rest of her peers.
“I know exactly what it feels like to have people dislike you and make fun of you because of the way you look. I was very dark-skinned as a child and very skinny. I was darker than the fair-haired, fair-skinned children in Medford, Oregon, in 1970. I didn’t look like anyone, and I wore really short Izod dresses and I was endlessly teased, called Black Cow. It was traumatic. Before, when we lived in Newport Beach, California, I had never thought twice about how I looked. Until age seven, I felt accepted and loved for who I was and how I looked.”
Janet Jackson on Looking in the Mirror
It’s hard to believe that the indomitable Janet Jackson, whose physique is legendary, at one time felt desperately unhappy about how she looked. She shared with me this story:
“I had a very difficult time looking at myself in the mirror.” So often I would cry because I didn’t find myself talented or attractive at all. I didn’t have Naomi Campbell’s legs. I didn’t think I was pretty. I didn’t like my body. My level of confidence was very low. I struggled for years—I mean years!”
Janet, like so many of the girls and women I spoke with, had a keen sense of where this self-doubt began.
“I think society plays a major part. The women we see in videos and all the stars in the magazines and models on the catwalk are portrayed as flawless. And if you don’t look like that, it could make anyone feel less than.”
Iman on Feeling Inadequate
Iman is among the most glamorous models in the world. At almost five feet nine, with spectacular bone structure and grace, she’s simply stunning. Yet she, too, was painfully affected by the idea of “measuring up” as a young woman.
“I struggled with self-esteem. It was quite difficult as I became a teenager, not realizing that these feelings are a rite of passage. I was extremely tall for my age and extremely skinny. My neck was extraordinarily long, and I hated looking so different from everyone else. I used to wear collared shirts turned up to hide my neck!”
Sharon Stone on Self-doubt
The charismatic Sharon Stone just oozes confidence when you see her on the red carpet, but she didn’t always feel so self-assured. Now she has a message for young women who are in their prime. Like so many girls, it took her a long time to see the beauty in herself.
“I didn’t think I was pretty until I was thirty-three years old.” Think of all the time I wasted!”
As you can see, many of these fabulous ladies questioned their self-image just as you and I have. Even though they are now famous, they, too, felt less than perfect.
Boobs, Curves, and Wanting to Look
Like Someone Else
Like the celebrities quoted here, many of the girls I spoke with just wanted to look different. Not different as in exotic, but different from themselves, more like someone else. I remember vividly feeling this way when I was younger. For me, it was about my hair. I was really obsessed with having long hair. When I was really little, I used to attach scarves to my braids and move my head from side to side, swinging my long “hair.” My mother even gave me one of her old synthetic ponytails to play with, and I was in heaven! Swing, swing, swing! But one day my mom actually cut her own shoulder-length, relaxed hair and started wearing it in an Afro to teach me a lesson. As she says now, “My friends thought I was nuts, but I wanted Shaun to know there was more than one way to be beautiful.” Even when I was older, I was still obsessed with my hair—Should I relax it, let it go natural? By the time I was a teenager, and like so many African American girls who wanted straight, long hair, I always made sure I went to a beauty salon every six or eight weeks to get that relaxer. Despite Mom’s lesson, I still thought the prettiest girls had long, straight hair.
Many girls spoke to me about how they felt pressure to not only be pretty and thin but also sexy and curvy—talk about trying to be everything! As seventeen-year-old Bree from Los Angeles told me, “Everyone has the desire to be thin, but you still need the big butt, and the big boobs.”
Seventeen-year-old Michelle from New York told me that “most girls wish they had bigger butts, bigger chests, different face structure, and better clothing.” Sound familiar? How can you expect yourself to be both curvy and bony? Impossible!
Another disheartening thing I heard from the African American girls I talked to was that skin color—light versus dark—was still as significant an issue today as it was when I was growing up. As eighteen-year-old Paula shared, “I’ve learned [to be] comfortable with myself. I’ve accepted that I am a different black girl, and that’s fine. But it’s hard when you live in a society where they don’t promote your beauty. I see magazines, but I don’t see dark-skinned African Americans.”
And fourteen-year-old Katie pointed out with the clear vision of a much older girl, “You would never see a music video with the main girl in the video who the guy is trying to pursue having dark skin with locks. They’re always some skinny, light-skinned, straight-haired girl. They are basically sending the message that these are the kinds of girls that are pretty and if you don’t look like them, then you are not as beautiful.”
And eighteen-year-old Zoe pretty much summed it up: “Society makes it as if light-skinned girls are in, and [not] us dark-skinned girls. It really does hurt a lot to feel that you’re ugly.”
Again, these girls are feeling badly about themselves because they do not measure up to some myth of perfection. As Zoe told me, girls hear that inner voice saying, “God, I wish I was light-skinned, I wish I had a fat butt, I wish my body wasn’t so small, I wish my hair wasn’t this short, I wish…It is just so much I wish, I wish, I wish.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Emmy Award—winning journalist Shaun Robinson is the weekend co-host of Access Hollywood. She has covered the red carpet for the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Emmys, and Grammys. Her live coverage of “A Grand Night in Harlem” for the Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame garnered her an Emmy Award. She has been a guest co-host on The View and has contributed reports to MSNBC, CNN, and Today. Robinson’s many television and film credits include Bruce Almighty, America’s Sweethearts, and Everybody Hates Chris. Robinson is on the national board of directors for Girls Inc. She also devotes her time to the Los Angeles County “Share Your Heart, Share Your Home” program, which helps find permanent homes for minority children waiting for adoption. A native of Detroit, Michigan, and a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, Shaun Robinson lives in Los Angeles.
From the Hardcover edition.
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