Emotional Health

Accepting Imperfection by Embracing Flaws

My grandmother, who came to the United States as a young teenager, spoke fluent English, but she sometimes uttered malapropisms—she would get a word or phrase slightly wrong. She once referred to something as “the flaw in the ointment,” substituting flaw  for “fly,” getting the meaning essentially correct but not saying the phrase right. Her family loved this about her, and she accepted their gentle teasing gracefully, knowing it was offered with love and amusement.

Flaws are inimical to perfection, of course, and yet when you love someone, it is not in spite of their flaws. You accept and even cherish your loved one’s less perfect features, even though you have trouble extending that same attitude to yourself.

Research has shown that showing vulnerability can make us more likeable to others, in fact. In her book, Daring Greatly, psychologist Brene Brown writes, “We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people but we’re afraid to let them see it in us.”

Though I am named after her, I am not prone to verbal gaffes like my grandmother.  I am physically clumsy instead and have mostly accepted it, out of necessity. I cannot afford to be mortified every time I fall or spill something, so I have learned to laugh instead. It is a way of diminishing embarrassment, but also, as Brown says, displays of vulnerability can have a positive side.

The “pratfall” effect doesn’t always work, especially if people don’t like you or respect you to begin with, but it often does increase acceptance from others. We don’t want others to be perfect, especially when we are so aware of our own flaws. When we show our vulnerability, others often find it alluring. In a set of studies calling this “the beautiful mess effect,”  German researchers found that when we think of our own flaws, we have many concrete examples that come to mind. In a way, it is not unlike the metaphor of the jury who knows about all your past mistakes. But the vulnerabilities of others are more abstract. We only have access to the information they show or reveal, which helps us judge them more positively.

Magnifying flaws and ignoring assets is a common feature when you don’t love yourself. And yet flaws make us human, and others want to be around people who make them feel comfortable, not superior. Many cultures embrace the imperfection of humans and warn of the hubris of aiming to have none, for only a god can be flawless.

In reference to this, Japanese philosophy extolls the idea of “wabi-sabi,” or the act of embracing the flawed or the imperfect.   In art, imperfections are often purposefully included, and when mending broken pottery, the cracks are highlighted, not hidden.

Women often torture themselves by comparing themselves to “flawless” beauties—who are more flawless than ever in the age of digital enhancement. When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Perhaps you look at the overall view first, but too many of us immediately zero in on our imperfections. You are literally looking for the fly in the ointment.

It’s all too easy to see flaws, even ones that aren’t there. If you are self-critical, you are likely to pick out and concentrate on what’s wrong. Many women feel their bodies especially are unacceptable, and they usually have a list of features they particularly dislike.

A TV ad that aired about 20 years ago made fun of this. I can’t remember the product being sold, but the ad was unforgettable. It presented a series of average looking men saying things like, “I just have to accept the fact that I have my mother’s thighs,” and “Green is a terrible color for my sallow skin.” The effect was tragi-comic, as it was instantly recognizable that these are things women say all the time, but men almost never do.

Are women more vain than men? Certainly they are often more openly concerned with their appearance and this is culturally approved and endorsed. Men themselves feel free to criticize women’s looks even if they may not be in a position to judge. I remember exiting the movie “Working Girl,” overhearing an overweight and slovenly man say he liked the movie but thought the star, Melanie Griffith was “too fat.”

The London based therapist, Susie Orbach, who treated Princess Diana for anorexia, launched a new awareness in the 1978 with her book, “Fat is a Feminist Issue. The “body positive” movement, which aims to help people be more accepting of themselves, has developed in recent years and shows some signs of momentum.  It was created as a response to the widespread “fat-shaming” that is both ubiquitous and widely accepted.

How can older women who have been enduring this for their whole lives, fight this culture? It can be argued that the Baby Boom generation has endured the worst of it, from Twiggy to Christie Brinkley (who is now 65). We have lived through the explosion of the diet industry, as the first diet foods (“Tab”, the first low calorie Coke product, was introduced in the 1960s) and organizations, like Weight Watchers took off. It is probably no coincidence that this expansion paralleled the women’s movement.

As many as 91% of women dislike their bodies and have tried dieting to achieve a more ideal body shape, though only 5% of women have the type of bodies presented as positive in the media.

We are stuck with years of “brainwashing” that have left their mark, and more women are seeking cosmetic procedures and surgeries of all kinds. Media exposure has led to more of us being insecure about body parts (such as genital labia) that were previously so private that comparison to an “ideal” was not possible. A New York plastic surgeon told me that the mother of a 15-year-old girl wanted him to help make her daughter’s genital area—which was perfectly normal—more “attractive.”

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