Have you noticed the increasing number of "National Days" in the collective diary? Generally they're about raising awareness and some of them are hard to knock, for example July is Sickle Cell Awareness Month and also includes Awareness Days for both Hepatitis and Disability.That said, the fact that I've been spectacularly unaware of any of these days casts doubt on their effectiveness, and I was particularly sorry that I missed International Kissing Day. So there I was, on balance, ready to dismiss the whole concept until I stumbled across National Feel Good Day on 19th July and felt like I'd found my people - as a psychotherapist I'm in the business of helping people feel good and now I have a Day!
The aim is apparently to get us in the UK to pay family, friends and random strangers compliments, in order to generate positive feelings about ourselves and others. OK; so not the most in-depth exploration of personal well being possible, but hey, compliments are good for mental health and I'm all for increasing connection between people. But then, I found out that the Day is sponsored by the Transform Cosmetic Surgery group, and that's when my feelings changed.
Transform commissioned "research" that showed being complimented about our looks improves our mood - apparently "getting a cheeky wolf whistle from passers-by gave a sixth of all adults a bounce in their steps". (The other 83% presumably being too busy emailing the everyday sexism project.) For all that they report their research findings in a jokey, up beat kind of way, what they are essentially saying is, "if you want others to show their appreciation for you, then cut your body up until it resembles something more acceptable".
The link between appearance and acceptability was illustrated beautifully this week by the re-aired 1998 interview with Dustin Hoffman in which he talked about his role as a woman in Tootsie. Dustin looked in the mirror after being transformed and realised that whilst he could pass for a woman, he was not an attractive woman. In that moment he got it; he knew, as many women do, that to be less than conventionally attractive in your appearance renders you invisible to a large proportion of people. As he said,
"I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn't fulfil physically the demands that we're brought up to think women have to have in order to ask them out."
Hoffman understood because he experienced what it is like to be in that position, which the vast majority of men never will. But actually, the really sad thing is that it's not just men who value appearance over substance. As I write this Leah Totton is basking in the limelight of having won The Apprentice. Am I the only person who finds it uncomfortable that a clearly intelligent young woman, straight out of medical school, chooses to use that training and brain power to make money injecting poisons and fillers into other women's faces? Am I touched by her concern that said women are entitled to have their cosmetic treatments delivered by a trained medical professional? No. Not really.
But you know, my occupation of the moral high ground is not assured. The Channel Four programme First Dates has had me vicariously living the experience of trying to impress a total stranger whilst sussing out if you can bear them, from behind a cushion. I suspect I'm not alone in this, but as a result, I have been brought face to face with my own superficiality. Hank, who featured in the programme on 11th July seemed an interesting prospect until he stood up and revealed he was just 4'11''. Now, as a tall woman, who was fully grown by age 12 and spent a lot of years waiting for her peers to catch up, short men have always been a complete turn off for me, and so Hank provided my own Dustin Hoffman moment. How many men have I disregarded as people, let alone potential partners, because of their height? It's uncomfortable realising that for all your deep held beliefs about body image and the powerful role it plays in self esteem, that you carry the same assumptions and prejudices as those you berate.
Shame is an uncomfortable feeling and in considering how I could be so hypocritical I realised that it comes from my own insecurities. My reaction is based in my teenage discomfort in being the tall girl who stood out. Which suggests that appreciation of others starts with a good long look at how accepting we are of ourselves. If I was as reconciled my with own physicality to the extent that I thought I was, would I be better able to approach everyone, including Hank, with openness and anticipation rather than with judgement?
The idea that acceptance of self is at the heart of acceptance of others, raises interesting questions about Dr Totton's Barbie doll hair and strangely rigid face. Don't you think?