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Yes, you think. Great. But is it possible?
I promise it is. If I made it down this road, you can too. The hard part, as always, is getting over our hang-ups. You have to turn your self-loathing into self-loving, and you have to stop the lifelong habit of denying your intrinsic beauty. So many women suffer from "looking-glass shame," which is what the English novelist Virginia Woolf called the malady of self-loathing that breaks all our hearts. Some person or event in our childhood marked us as plain, ugly, or fat, and now we have a hard time seeing our real reflection. Instead, we look at the faces and bodies in magazines and use their impossible, airbrushed comeliness to feel even worse about our own.
Women have always tried either to flee from the looking glass or to fool it. Archaeologists in Asia Minor have found the burial sites of women filled with elaborate cosmetic enhancements. It seems that the ancients too, from Egypt's first female pharaoh Hatshepsut to Helen of Troy, felt compelled to conceal their true images, camouflaging themselves even into the next world, comfortable neither here nor in the Hereafter with who they really were.
I don't want to carry that burden one step farther. I'm tired of spending so much energy fighting myself and avoiding mirrors. Aren't you?
Starting today, if you can't be with the body you love, be willing to love the body you're with. Declare a détente with your imperfections and lay down the brutal artillery of self-abuse ;the potions, prayers, and punitive diets that bludgeon our souls. The cosmetic artifice and extreme, customized correction. I'm not suggesting that there isn't a place for hair color, makeup, and cosmetic nipping and tucking on your way to authenticity if it's going to help awaken you to your inner beauty. But I assure you that nothing will help you get over looking-glass shame if the transformation doesn't begin from within.
So let's start there.
If we are good to our bodies and spirits, our Authentic Self not only will be closer to the surface, she'll be more fun to dress. Being good to my own body always has been a tough one for me, as it is for many women. One way to nurture yourself is to take care of it. But when self-care becomes a chore, we give it up almost as soon as we start a new eating plan or exercise program.
Make a collage of the physical activities that make you feel joyous. When our bodies move and blood pumps in and out of our hearts, our physical and spiritual selves are happy to be alive. They rejoice. So even if you are adamantly opposed to the very notion of exercise, like I was, let's try to think of some way to trick your body into creative movement for a half-hour a few times a week.
Perhaps you enjoy playing doubles tennis with your friends? Gardening? Walking in the beautiful park down the street? Pushing your baby on the swing (a real biceps and triceps workout)? Making love? If you have a hard time thinking of more than one or two physical pleasures that delight you, think back to your childhood. I loved to ride horses when I was a child, and only rediscovered the passion when my daughter started taking riding lessons a few years ago. If there's an activity you used to love but gave up at some point, perhaps you should give it another try. The rewards are worth it.
Now that we've addressed the body and the spirit, it's time to think about what we want to wear. When you're in a department store, surrounded by a dizzying array of outfits of every color, cut, and make, how do you know which outfit expresses your authentic style? How do we know which one will be the most flattering? One thing we do know: It rarely looks as good on us as it does on the mannequin, an essential truth that can send even the strongest woman reeling.
A good place to start looking for authentic fashion clues is to pull out your photo albums and find the pictures that reveal what you believe is the essential you. You'll recognize her authentic gleam by a twinkle in the eye, a buoyant smile, the confident angle of the girl's chin. Is she sassy? That's the one. Look for photographs from when you were a child, a teen, and an adult. Make copies of them and paste them into a collage. What were you wearing? What does that indicate about who you were at the time? What were you doing? A friend's favorite picture of herself shows her just after she decided to undertake a project that had previously frightened her. After having announced that momentous and exhilarating decision at a dinner party, she looked up to find someone taking her picture. The photograph now hangs on her refrigerator so she can see her powerful, beautiful Authentic Self staring back at her.
Does this sound familiar? Don't you long to revel in your own sense of majesty and importance? Don't you hunger to rekindle that deeply felt desire for stopping traffic? Why shouldn't you reclaim it?
Before your next shopping trip, this is what I want you to do. Remember the glimmer in your six- or seven- or eighteen-year-old eye, and make a collage of the type of outfits you'd love to wear if you were sure that all you'd hear would be fabulous compliments about how great you look. You're after something different, offbeat, or dramatic. After you've completed this collage, prop the book up so that you can become familiar with this showstopping woman. Now head to a thrift or vintage clothing shop and pick out one piece of clothing or an accessory that captures this secret you. For example, I adore vintage hats, especially veiled ones, and I've collected quite a few. But I had to spend some time wearing them around the house before I could feel comfortable enough to display my splendor to the world. Even then I did it in baby steps, wearing a hat out to lunch with a good friend, or when traveling among strangers. As the writer Patricia Hampl admits, "Maybe being oneself is always an acquired taste."
Another exercise that can be very revealing is to make a collage of colors that make you smile. This is a quick collage, but very useful in rediscovering your authentic style. Cut out splashes of color from magazines, or use wallpaper samples, or try to replicate your favorite hue with colored pencils or crayons. Often the colors that please you look wonderful on you even if your color chart says they shouldn't! Colors you feel passionate about somehow manage to echo your smile. Don't shy away from bright colors because you've always thought they were too much, or too attention-grabbing. If those are the colors you love, then your Authentic Self is just as bright and fabulous as they are. It took me years to realize that gold was a color I should wear. I had ignored the fact that every time I put it on, I shined.
There are some simple questions to help you identify the external aspects of style that capture your authentic spirit. Are you wildly theatrical, or softly romantic? What patterns do you like? What textures? What fabrics? Do you have a favorite store or designer? Do you like outrageous jewelry, or small, delicate pieces? Do you enter a room quietly, but long to make a big entrance?
Okay, we're through with the warm-up collages ;now you can pull out all the stops and have some fun. Create an envelope and start a collage celebrating your authentic style. Flip through catalogs and magazines and photo albums. Dress your Authentic Self in the colors and textures and style she craves. Maybe she looks sleek and elegant in black, or wildly festive in a South American print. Pick out her shoes, her jewelry, her purse. I had a fabulous time making my authentic style collage, and in the process I discovered my penchant for the glamorous clothing from the twenties, thirties, and forties. Nothing gives me as much pleasure as putting together an entire outfit ;complete with hat, gloves, shoes, purse ;and now I mix vintage accessories with contemporary pieces. It's become my signature style.
Now that we've created expressions of our Authentic Selves, I'm afraid it's time to get practical. We need to talk about balance, and the realities of your life, and how they will affect your authentic style. Because if you've found that your clothing of choice is sequined evening gowns and Manolo Blahnik shoes and you're a working mother of two young children, you're going to have to learn to compromise. Just a little bit. I had to compromise too. The fringe on my favorite black flapper-style dress just seems to get in the way when I'm at home writing and isn't appropriate garb for business meetings.
The essence of discovering your authentic style, which is the external, visual expression of your Authentic Self, is finding the point of balance between how you want to look and how you do look. You have to create harmony between the reality of your daily round and your visions of grandeur. If you love the details of fashion and grooming, you are betraying your Authentic Self by running around in dirty sweatpants, no matter how little time you have in the morning. On the other hand, it is not a betrayal if you find putting on makeup boring and can't bring yourself to do it, no matter how much you admire it on others.
Ultimately, your new ideal may be your "best viable" look. For example, I have a friend who looks great with her hair cut in an intricate layered look, but it took too much attention to style it each morning. Now she has a one-length, easy-to-manage style that looks almost as good. Even better, she manages to do that one well every day, whereas the other one was hit or miss on the days she didn't have time to devote to it.
Final collage: a realistic depiction of your authentic style. Start slowly, gathering images that project your Authentic Self at every point during the day. What you wear when you play with the kids. When you're at the office. When you're taking a walk. When you're having dinner out at a nice restaurant. When you're dancing. Even when you're sleeping. I think you'll find making this collage incredibly freeing. Within the limits of your real daily life, you are showing how fabulous you are. At every turn, in every moment. You'll see that your style is a portrait of your Authentic Self. You are truth, inside and out.
"Truth is the vital breath of Beauty," the writer Grace Aguilar wrote in 1850, "Beauty is the outward form of Truth."
© 1999 by Sarah Ban Breathnach"