A central message behind much of the content at YouBeauty.com is that being beautiful is about being yourself—cultivating your authentic sense of self and learning about all the different ways to accentuate your best qualities.
Part of the reason I joined YouBeauty.com as its Relationship Expert is that this is a decidedly different message than most of what is out there in the popular media. We are inundated (buried!) with messages about what’s wrong with us and how to look and be as perfect as possible.
Airbrushed models represent physical impossibilities; yet, from the time we’re very young, we’re fed a steady diet of beautiful images and told we should aspire to these standards.
It is now well known that exposure to these beauty standards can increase risk for eating disorders among women. As the father of a young daughter, I’m naturally concerned about these problems, and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how to protect her from this revolting process.
As I reflected on the nature of the problem, I wondered if the same thing happens in our relationships. Almost every issue of every magazine intended for women—from Seventeen to Cosmopolitan— has a feature story on “love at first sight,” or “finding your soulmate,” or “how to have perfect sex.” These stories suggest that love at first sight, soulmates and perfect sex are real and attainable.
The movie genre of romantic comedies is hardly any better. These films often portray love as something that happens magically and simply “works out” without any serious effort.
To be fair, box-office hits are not won by showing a couple arguing about who’ll empty the dishwasher next. Nevertheless, we live in a Romantic Comedy Culture, and, in my opinion, the way the media portrays relationships can be quite bad for our mental health.
What evidence do I have to support this perspective? In 2007, psychologist Bjarne Holmes published a very interesting study on this topic. Holmes examined the degree to which people liked TV programs, movies, and magazines that are relationship oriented (see the list; remember study was published in 2007, which means some of the shows might seem dated by now). He found that the degree to which people loved these romantic shows was highly associated with degree to which they also believed in “predestined soul mates” and that “mind reading is expected in relationships.”
So what? First, remember correlation is not causation. But, if these results are causal, it’s possible than bingeing on idealized relationship media leads people to look for something in relationships that doesn’t really exist in reality. Holmes cited other research showing that “soulmate thinking” can have negative consequences for relationship functioning.
In short, if we become convinced that relationships should be easy, problem free and promote a continual state of nirvana, then we are wildly misunderstanding everyday demands of being in a successful relationship. Consequently, we’ll feel frustrated and disappointed more often than not.
What’s the best way to interrupt this dynamic? A good way to answer this question is with another question: How do we remind ourselves that very few people can look like the cover models featured in Cosmo and Men’s Health? I think many women say something like, “That looks great, BUT the average dress size is 12-14 and very few people look like her.”
In other words, to protect against the self-image punishment offered by the fashion industry, we remind ourselves about the true nature of reality.
What’s the true nature of reality about our relationships? Even if you believe in a soulmate, relationships take work. It’s impossible for your partner to read your mind, and each person must express his/her wants and needs openly and uncritically for a relationship to work. Making sex work also is hard—couples need to talk about their desires and be prepared to face sensitive, possibly uncomfortable sexual issues.
Ask many long-term married couple the secret to a successful relationship and they will say
“hard work.” As much as our Romantic Comedy Culture would have us believe otherwise, relationships do not succeed by magic. We must cultivate our relationships and nurture with all our might.
I’d be interested to hear your take on this topic, and how you nurture your relationships. In fact, I am interested in hearing your take on ANY relationship topic. I’d like to try a Q&A column for next month. In order to do the answer part, I need the questions! Click here to post your queries on the Love and Relationships YouTalk board.
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