#SWAAYthenarrative

Stop Commenting On Women's Appearance

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A few weeks ago, while I was boarding a plane, one of the male flight attendants was checking me in. He looked at my passport, looked back up at me, and said "I like your hair better blonde. You should dye it back." My jaw dropped. What gives him the right—the entitlement—to comment on the way I look⁠, let alone tell me which way he prefers I look? I am not there for his consumption!

This experience really got me thinking... Where does any human get off on giving another human being their opinion on how they physically look, how they act, or even what they are eating?

It reminded me of a comment that my first boyfriend made to me about the hair on my arms. What he thought was an innocent and frivolous observation spiralled into a major insecurity of mine for the next 15 years of my life. Before that comment, I never even noticed the blonde hair on my arms. If anything I even thought it was pretty. But one simple sentence made me want to Nair, shave, trim, or cover up my poor arms for years.

Everyone Has Insecurities

After sharing my airport experience on social media, I had a girlfriend who suffers from autoimmune-derived dark undereye circle and acne tell me:

...When I go makeup free during a breakout, complete strangers will come up to me with unsolicited advice on products and diet. They'll either bluntly dive right into it, or make small talk on the skytrain and then sneak it into the conversation. It's insane.

Obviously, if I'm leaving my house with no makeup and acne, I'm brave enough to face the world knowing that's what everyone might be looking at⁠—but when strangers make comments, it feels like everyone is judging my physical appearance and that they don't care about what's inside or how I might feel sad or insecure about it. They are completely insensitive...

We all have an insecurity, or many insecurities, but the most distressing part about those insecurities, is that they almost always stem from a comment that someone made to us at some point in our lives. I think we all (myself included) need to put extra effort into being more kind and complimentary to one another, even to strangers. We need to teach our children to do the same, and to help them understand that whatever they say to another person may change the way that that they see themselves for the rest of their lives.


A woman in a hijab looking in a small mirror. Photo by Rendiansyah Nugroho on


We are all human. We have all probably been that person to say something hurtful before, so let's just forgive ourselves and move forward in remembering one of the most valuable proverbs of them all...

If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.

Unrealistic Modern Beauty Standards

When I see a photo of myself, my beauty is blurred by society's unrealistic expectations.

As a woman facing things like social media, photoshop, and facetune, there is an incredingly demanding paradigm of physical "perfection" that we are expected to meet. This is combined with an additional expectation that it all must appear effortlessness. We are expected to be popular and sociable but also (as women) meek and submissive. We are expected to be sexy but not "slutty." Our bodies should be toned but not muscular, because that's too masculine. Where do the contradictory demands end?



I do love the way that I look. But even then the first instinct when I see a photo of myself is to whiten my eyes, blur out the bags under my skin, hide any wrinkle or age spot, and, essentially, erase any sign of the life and joy I have experienced that is written on my face. I think I might need to shrink my nose (just a smidge). Is it normal to have a shadow between my nose and my cheek? Are my eyebrows too light? Why are we expected to have the skin of a baby, impossibly tiny noses, and hopelessly plump lips?

What Ever Happened To Inner Beauty?

Let's try a compliment swap challenge, where we replace our appearance-focused praise with character-related praise. Instead of commenting on a person's outfit or makeup, we can appreciate other's acts of bravery or kindness. We should enlighten ourselves in acknowledging how often we unconsciously reinforce the notion that a woman's (or any person's) worth is nothing more than the sum of their outward image.

What happened to the realness of the women like Frida Kahlo, Josephine Baker, and Yoko Ono, whose beauty is so true and raw that it takes my breath away. Frida had a unibrow and hair on her upper lip. Her nose was pronounced, striking. Her body was perfectly imperfect; she had uneven legs from both polio and surgery after an accident. But it was not in spite of these "flaws," that she was so beautiful. It was because of them. Her beauty is so deep that seeing a photo of her sends shivers down my spine. I want to be as real and raw and beautiful as all of these women. They are beautiful for what they have accomplished, contributed to, and stood for. They are beautiful for their truth.

That is the ultimate beauty.

This article was originally published February 10, 2020.

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Health

Self-defense From A Former Woman International Protection Agent

What would you do if you felt physically or emotionally threatened in some way? Do you trust your ability to escape a dangerous situation without harm? Would you remain calm and grounded, responding if needed in an appropriate way, or do you fear you'd panic — making a frightening situation worse?

The ability to respond to danger and protect yourself both physically and mentally from violence and fear is a valuable life skill. Especially in these times of uncertainty, protest, and unrest, simply knowing you have the tools to respond in the case of a physical or mental assault can bring peace of mind and boost your self-confidence — even if you never have to use them.

Especially in these times of uncertainty, protest, and unrest, simply knowing you have the tools to respond in the case of a physical or mental assault can bring peace of mind and boost your self-confidence — even if you never have to use them.

As a former US Secret Service agent and international protection professional, I co-led a team protecting top Colombian officials including the president at a time when Colombia was nicknamed "the kidnap capital of the world." Its government was in the throes of a bloody war with guerilla and terrorist groups. Three Americans had just been kidnapped and the State Department had issued an alarming Level 3 (Orange) Travel Advisory. I have worked undercover, had a bounty placed on my head, and kept a watchful eye on drugged-up thugs on the streets of countries such as Haiti, Peru, and Colombia. High-profile individuals I've protected include members of the Versace family, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the grandchildren of President George H. W. Bush. I talk about all this in my memoir The Protector: A Woman's Journey From the Secret Service to Guarding VIPs and Working in Some of the World's Most Dangerous Places.

It wasn't often that I needed to use the self-protection skills I'd been trained in — although when I did have to, I was beyond grateful I learned and practiced them, tirelessly. But as one of the tiny minority of women in this male-dominated field, I am thankful for the sense of peace and empowerment that simply having these skills, and the ability to stay calm amid danger, gave me. My personal motto is, "prepare for the worst, hope for the best."

Doing so requires not just physical toughness but also mental toughness, a skill I now help people build in my second career as a psychologist. Although in an ideal world, nobody would ever find themselves facing threat or danger, here are the basic steps I recommend you take in order to protect yourself physically and mentally in uncertain, frightening times and for all times:

Learn your surroundings to notice when something is out of place (e.g. it's 90 degrees outside and there is somebody walking around your neighborhood in a long winter coat). Make "surroundings checks" a habit, almost like a game, taking mental note of anything unusual that has changed. This will help prevent you from being caught off guard.

"Prepare for the worst, hope for the best."

Learn five self-defense moves. You do not need to have a black belt in martial arts to effectively protect yourself and boost your self-confidence. Take a weekend self-defense class and learn just five techniques. Then, practice them until they are natural and are part of your muscle memory. There are many excellent techniques to choose from, including knife and/or gun takeaways, getting yourself out of a choke hold, and breaking someone's nose with a palm strike.

Choose the lens through which you look at things. When you notice you are starting to panic or become scared, focus on acting, not thinking. For example, shift from "Oh my gosh, I don't know what to do…" and freezing in the process, to telling yourself, calmly, "I am going to get myself out of this situation, NOW!" and acting. Always tell yourself you can do something — it could be a matter of life or death.

Focus on your physical fitness. This is the key to both mental and physical health, and for mental and physical preparedness in any situation. When you are strong and fit, physically, you are more self-confident and likely to respond with clarity and, if needed, strength and speed.

You do not need to have a black belt in martial arts to effectively protect yourself and boost your self-confidence.

Find your voice. Voice is a stun technique that can buy you 2 to 4 seconds that you need to either run or disorient your attacker. If someone is making you uncomfortable — for example, by walking close behind you on the street for quite a while — turn around, put your hand up, signaling, "stop", and scream, "stop!" Then, run. Oddly, people are embarrassed to do this. Don't be! It will stun your attacker and buy you valuable time.

Meditate. Meditation is proven to reduce stress, decrease fear and anxiety, boost positive mood, and promote emotional health and self-esteem. Do it! It will serve you well in any stressful situation.