Image is everything–or is it?

You guys may or may not have seen this TED talk by Victoria’s Secret model Cameron Russell. I though it was worth sharing today, on this day in which we celebrate all things Romantic because Valentine’s Day is all about the image, isn’t it?


For me, the part that had the most impact here was the conversation she had with the beautiful woman in the elevator–who on being complimented, immediately began detailing her flaws.

I can tell you most women I know do not know how to handle a compliment, and that many of us automatically take refuge in a deprecatory stance if we are presented with one. That’s a whole other topic of conversation for another day. What impressed me about this story was that even the most beautiful of people can only see their own flaws–they come with their own set of insecurities. It doesn’t matter that to us that Facebook friend seems like the most successful author/actress/mother/CEO or whatever. To her, she is conscious of her too-wide nose or the fact that her son is struggling in school or that try as she might, there is no way she is going to fit into that size 2 dress by her class reunion. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never worn a size two unless it was part of a double digit size number–the fact that *she* can’t fit into the size two anymore means she’s fat, ugly, old, and worthless.

The take home message for me from this TED Talk is that everyone is insecure. No one every reaches a point where they sigh with relief and say, “That’s it. I’m perfect and I’m safe now. I have not only achieved everything I desire, but no one can take it away from me, either.”

This message can be especially hard to assimilate when the very industry that Cameron Russell works in spends a lot of time telling us if we just adopt certain images, we will be perfect. We will achieve our life goals and dreams. From about two days after New Year’s until today, the television stations have been blanketing us with advertising to this effect: to make us feel bad about ourselves and to ensure that retail therapy is the way we try to make ourselves feel better. Alone? Man, how depressing! Don’t be sad, though–join the millions who have found true love on Match Up in Harmony Little Fishes dot com! Ladies, if you don’t get a diamond *something* from that high end jewelery store that is so exclusive there is one in every shopping mall, then my dears, he doesn’t really love you.

Don’t get me wrong. I love getting dressed up for a special night out. I enjoy getting flowers (though I have to put them somewhere where the cats won’t eat them). I will never turn down fine chocolate. I like being acknowledged on Valentine’s Day. But it’s what happens every day that’s more important to me. It’s like the difference between someone saying “I love you” one day a year and someone showing me that I’m loved every single day.

I recently had a conversation with some readers/fellow authors and we talked about the ‘money shot’ of romance stories–the Grand Declaration. I seldom have my characters declare their undying love for each other. Most of my characters have been burned before. Anyone can say the words: living them is another matter. Apparently some readers feel cheated because of this lack of declaration. Well, I get that. It’s part of the formula. It’s the payoff for the reader–to know that the two characters survived the tumultuous situation I threw them in and came out on the other end bonded to each other. But if it doesn’t fit the characters, I’m not going to make them say it. I’d rather spend half the story showing how the two lovers changed for the better and for each other than to slap an “I love you” like a Band-Aid on their trials and ‘make it all better.’ Sometimes to me, the declaration is nothing more than a diamond commercial. A flashy statement meant to do all the work for you.

I’m currently reading a book called Big Butts, Fat Thighs, And Other Secrets to Success: Empowering Women to be Real in Business and in Life by Laura Black. I admit, I wasn’t all that impressed at first. It seemed to me to be a case of someone advising women to bond with other women in positions of power by confessing your personal weakness for Twinkies. It felt contradictory to what I feel is a big problem for me–like the woman in the elevator, I am always the first to belittle myself or make light of a compliment. I’m already the woman who bonds easily with others over my weaknesses–give me five minutes and I will roll over and show you my soft underbelly. It is my first reaction in most situations–to appear as non-threatening as possible. How can that possibly be a business tactic? Who could possibly respect a tubby little spaniel rolled over on her back, furiously wagging her  nubbin of a tail in hopes that no one bites her?

I think the real answer lies in the fact that every person has his or her ‘big butt’. Something about themselves that they are unhappy about, uncomfortable with, that they use as an excuse to hold themselves back. Some of the most talented writers I know will never get published because they lack the self-belief to send a story in for submission. Or because they hold to the idea that only a traditional publishing company can convey the title of ‘real writer’ on them. I have six or seven titles to my name, and yet I don’t consider myself a ‘real’ writer in the sense of someone who is burning up the ranks on Amazon. Another writer, a best seller on Amazon, considers himself a failure because no one is beating down his door begging for the movie rights to his novels–and so on.

The only one holding you back is you. If you get nothing else out of this post, remember that. My first major story, Unspeakable Words, was sent in to Dreamspinner on a whim. Never in a million years did I think they’d accept it–I’d heard all the rumors of rejection notices and so forth. Not only did Dreamspinner accept the story, but it went on to remain on their best seller list for over a month. Why haven’t I written the intended sequels? Because I let one lukewarm review shut me down. It didn’t matter that fans were emailing me telling me how much they loved the story and asking me when the sequel would be out. I let that one lukewarm review send me ducking for cover and the sequel is languishing on the hard drive. The characters deserve better than that. The readers deserve better than that. And one day, I do plan to write the sequels, I swear.

I just finished watching a hilarious video on about why Romantic Comedies are Secretly Bad for You. I think they made some really good points. Love–true sustainable love–is hard work. Meeting someone and falling in love–that’s the easy part. Funny that we as romance writers focus on the origins and leave out the hard part–the day to day making it work with conflicting schedules and exes and keeping things fresh and interesting when you know someone a little too well.

What Rom Coms can’t show us is the deep satisfaction that comes from sleeping beside someone you know that well, the way your body conforms to theirs, the way breathing slows and becomes one. The way you know their idiosyncrasies and the fact that they amuse instead of irritate you. Yeah, Rom Coms are diamond commercials too.

Well, keep your diamonds. Keep your Facebook success. Keep your supermodel looks, and your night being wined and dined out on the town. Give me your silly texts, the curled next to one another to watch the favorite television show, the full body hug that makes something deep inside you sigh and say, “I’m home” every single time.

Valentine’s Day is just a single day. Love is all year long.

8 thoughts on “Image is everything–or is it?

  1. While I found Cameron Russell’s talk really eye-opening I actually wanted to comment on your last paragraph – that full body hug that lets you know you are home is the most important part of my life – thanks for reminding me of that when I was having a “fat” day 🙂


    • Lisa: part of what made me write this post was the concern I have over a convention appearance in May–and the knowledge that I’m 20 pounds heavier than I used to be, and I would like to look my best at this convention. The more I worry about ‘looking my best’ however, the more it detracts from the real reason I’m going to the convention: to host a panel on fanfic and a workshop on writing. No one’s going to remember what I look like or care, for that matter, when it comes to my writing. What they will remember is whether I delivered on the workshop and whether I was entertaining in the panel.

      I think it’s sad sometimes that we rank appearance so highly that we forget the real value of the more important things. I’m glad that you got something out of my ramblings tonight. That in turn helps me when I’m having a ‘fat’ day too. 🙂

  2. I loved Russell’s bit at the beginning when she changed her look completely, and then later when she compared the professional photos of her with her family pictures, because it really struck home for me that everyone is normal. We are just so bought into the whole beauty industry it’s almost impossible to imagine that, at least for me.

    Like you, my stories generally don’t have the “money shot” by traditional standards, and I think part of the issue with some criticisms of my works has been the lack of that. I’m trying to find a compromise but I can’t just have my characters spout three pages of “I love youuuuuuuu” because it feels false to me. Actions DO speak louder than words, and and I’d rather show that action. Maybe we’re just forging a new path in our genre; in any case, I’m okay with my image being “off the beaten track.” At least I try to be. 😛
    Cooper West recently posted..Something to live forMy Profile

    • Like you, I was struck by the differences in the professional shots vs the family ones. Yes, she is a jaw-droppingly beautiful woman–but what we see in the professional photos is not the real person. It also helps me understand a bit more why most celebrities ‘dress down’ when not out in an official capacity as part of their jobs. It must be a relief to be in their own skin, and it is probably a thin shield in the hopes they won’t be recognized either.

      I hear you on the declarations of undying love. I struggle with this one because most of my characters are damaged in some way, and trust is an issue with them. You can tell me I’m beautiful, talented, or smart–but after a lifetime of hearing the opposite, I immediately distrust the statements, if not the person making them. My reaction is sadly one of, “what do *you* want?”

      Granted, we’re in the business of writing romances. And maybe the reason the declaration is so important to so many readers, the reason they feel cheated if they don’t get it, is because they aren’t hearing it enough in their own lives. But like you, I’d rather see the action than hear a glib phrase that anyone can say. My mother believes I should give the BF an ultimatum: marry me or it’s over.

      There are so many things wrong with this statement. One: I don’t give ultimatums in that context. There are times when you need to give them–if someone is in physical danger, or if you are in an abusive situation. But the ‘marry me or else’ stance can only end in heartbreak.

      Two: I don’t necessarily want or need to be married. It’s a piece of paper as far as I’m concerned. Yes, I can see the legal advantages in certain situations, but I can also see the disadvantages too. Does this mean I don’t ever want to marry? Not necessarily–my stance on that has changed over the years. 🙂 But I don’t *need* to be married.

      Three: Why on earth would I walk away from the best thing that’s ever happened to me? The one relationship I can count on? The man bought a cover for my air conditioner, for pity’s sake. To prevent a draft in my freezing cold crackerbox of a house. He tells me to take his gas points if he can’t use them before the end of the month. He sees that I tweet about something upsetting and texts me to make sure I’m okay. I don’t need words, or paper, or rings.

      And that’s something of the kind of love I try to show in my stories. So, I’m walking that less traveled path with you. 😉
      Sarah Madison recently posted..Image is everything–or is it?My Profile

  3. A very interesting post.

    I am one of those women who is big EVERYWHERE! I have been since puberty. Prior to that I was as skinny as a rake, a gymnast & swimmer. As soon as puberty hit no matter what diet or nutrition programme I followed my body turned into a large bonny one just like my mother, grandmother and great grandmother. My looks… well I am not exactly the best looking woman in the street.

    I hate dressing up in a frock but I don’t mind a little war-paint to improve my looks just a little but what does give me confidence and make me feel good is lingerie. Lace, satin, silk, assortments of pretty colours and sizes. Ok so no one else can see them but they make me feel like I am walking tall.

    Throughout my life I have always felt self-conscious and sometimes don’t know how to handle a compliment. But I haven’t let that hold me back. I have a family who loves me a great husband and some great friends. To me, it’s the personality, the person inside the box that is important not the wrapping paper.

    • I hate dressing up in a frock but I don’t mind a little war-paint to improve my looks just a little but what does give me confidence and make me feel good is lingerie. Lace, satin, silk, assortments of pretty colours and sizes. Ok so no one else can see them but they make me feel like I am walking tall.

      What I love about this statement is that it really points out the difference between trying to live up to a false ideal (fashion model glamor) and making the most of your assets. What’s important here is not that you look like everyone else–not only is it impossible, but how boring would it be if we all looked like Barbie? I do believe in doing the things that make you feel confident however, like you said, ‘walking tall.’

      That’s what I’ve always loved about the International Walk Like Beckett Day. Note, it is not *look like Beckett*. It’s about doing whatever it takes to make you walk tall, to enter a room with the confidence of a Kate Beckett or a Teyla Emmagan or a Brenda Leigh Johnson.

      I love my female role models. Not because I want to look like them (though I would LOVE Kate Beckett’s wardrobe!) but because when I picture how they would react in a certain situation, I’m a little stronger, a little smarter, a little tougher. I’m a better me. And being the best ‘me’ you can be is what it’s all about.

      You are so fortunate that you were well-grounded in a loving family with strong ideals–or else a strong sense of self. It’s why you have a great husband and great friends–you deserve them. 🙂
      Sarah Madison recently posted..Image is everything–or is it?My Profile

    • You know, I sometimes think the world would be better off without mirrors. I certainly do not think of myself as the frumpy old woman I see when I look in the mirror–it’s always a distinct shock!

      You know the old rule that you can date someone half your age plus seven years? I think that’s because that’s how old we think we are. Without the evidence of the mirror, we’d walk with a greater degree of confidence, I’m sure.

      I also suspect that my problem stems in part from a background of being told how homely I was my entire life. How I would need to work doubly hard to make friends because of this ‘handicap’. Compared to a ‘mud fence’. Overhearing a neighbor tell a relative that while I was no beauty, I ‘grew on her after a while.’ (What was I. mold??)

      Add to that the fact that I’m been a late bloomer in everything I’ve ever done and that I am very conscious of how much of my life was wasted because I allowed certain insecurities to hold me back, I am struggling with certain aspects of aging. The grey hair, the spreading middle, the wrinkles, and the growing list of things I can no longer do easily.

      My mother once took me aside and told me that I probably didn’t realize how much I’d ‘let myself go’ because I worked with animals. It occurred to me then probably one of the reasons I chose a career with animals is that they *don’t* give a rat’s ass how you look. 🙂

      This same woman recently told me that she couldn’t understand why I never dated anyone seriously or got married–I was the prettiest of all her children. My jaw hit the floor like one of those cartoon rabbits. After a lifetime of hearing how ugly and inadequate I was, this too-little too-late compliment was like a Band-Aid on a torn artery.

      So while I know that your approach to your appearance is probably by far the healthier one, I still struggle with the concept of appearance being tied into self-worth. 😉
      Sarah Madison recently posted..Image is everything–or is it?My Profile

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