The worst thing about makeover shows is that they focus so heavily on our innate fears about what other people think about us. The people on the shows are sometimes truly helped but at what cost? Losing their individuality? How much does it matter what the general public thinks about an individual? Sadly, it does matter, one might argue it matters greatly for the individual’s survival. Even if someone exists on the fringe and becomes successful for being a sort of antihero, feeding off the negativity of some and the praise of others, that praise keeps them afloat. However praise is earned it is necessary. There are those who remove themselves entirely from society and live “off the grid” subsisting solely in nature. This might be the only answer to the pressure of social norms the rest of us face, and not a thing possible or desirable for the great majority of us.
Raising children in this society parents are faced with the challenge of teaching their children to learn how to manage the delicate balance of individual expression with social acceptance. We have to teach our children how to create the kind of world they want to live in which does require challenging and changing social norms. However, it is not so easy changing things. My father used to tell me that if one wants to effect change, one must do it from the inside out rather than from the outside in. His mission was to change the way people viewed him and other black people by empowering disadvantaged youth of color through increasing their educational opportunities. He wanted the world to see that anyone could achieve with the right set of circumstances. He himself was something of an anomaly having suffered through a terrible childhood, yet he took the example set by his mother who died when he was very young and used it as his reason to achieve in life. Not everyone is able to push themselves in such a way. As an adult I can see the wisdom in his words and how they guided the way he lived his life. In the same way my father wanted to effect change from the inside out, focusing on working with children and educators, I find myself wanting to do the same.
Another lesson both my parents taught me is that it isn’t about the cards you are dealt but how you play the game. Like my father, my mother is a shining example of this, as someone who pushed herself forward to achieve despite personal hurdles, someone who has given me every reason to believe that it doesn’t matter what cards you are dealt, what matters is what you do with them. I have watched her teach this lesson over and over as her work has been with people struggling with addictions, mental and physical illnesses, disabilities and disadvantaged youth. She also worked with the criminal element of society and the same lessons apply. In her own way she is also changing the system from the inside out as my father did, showing the world that a woman can work successfully as a psychologist in various fields while at the same time raising a daughter and climbing mountains both literally and metaphorically. I myself am now climbing my own mountains, as I fight to change the stigma associated with mental illness in our society. I realize this is a thing one can only do when one has a foot in both worlds. You have to be able to get yourself heard by those in positions of power. Not everyone can do this. For those who are so profoundly affected by their mental illness, or who are for various reasons unable to speak for themselves about their mental illness, I feel a great sense of duty to speak out about mine in the hopes that someone powerful enough to change things will hear my soul’s cry.
Raising awareness about the struggles of managing mental illness in this society is a passion of mine since I was diagnosed with bipolar I with psychotic features. Before this diagnosis, before my bipolar had worsened to the degree where I found myself hospitalized, I lived with a sense of ignorance in a way. I was unaware of how difficult life really is for people battling mental illness. It’s not just the illness that profoundly affects one’s life but the social stigma that goes along with it. It’s a double whammy so to speak. I have written before about how so many of us are afraid to speak out about the struggles we face because of social pressure. This is a very real and legitimate concern because since I have “come out of the closet” so to speak about my illness, I have faced judgment from people who don’t understand and actually lost friendships. The process has been worth it though, because the friends who are still standing by my side are my true friends and I have no doubts that they love me. I’ve also had people reach out to me and tell me that their lives have been changed for the better by my activism and that is worth a thousand rejections from the ignorant masses.
Another factor when considering effecting change is that it be real and lasting. I often wonder when watching these makeover shows how many of the people go back to their lives and resume their old fashion habits. There is a new show on Netflix called “100% Hotter” and the makeovers are designed to bring people who make extreme fashion choices closer to the norm. I was watching it and one of the people getting “makeunders” received a haircut and color that I couldn’t imagine her maintaining after leaving the show without paying an arm and a leg. It seems cruel to create an ideal that is impossible for the person to achieve on their own without the assistance of the show. Likewise another girl’s makeup was done by an expert with expert techniques and expensive makeup that she likely would not be able to recreate or afford on her own.
Similar to the trouble with creating real and lasting change for someone on a superficial level, it is even more difficult to create that level of change on a deep and meaningful level. Change requires effort. You have to try. You have to move long stuck ideas from the back of your mind to make room for new ones. In my case, when I got sick I realized I had friends who could not accept me with an illness. It was a sobering and painful realization to experience. They could not make room in their lives for someone with bipolar even though that person was one of their closest friends. They had beliefs about people “like me” that they were either unable or unwilling to let go of. The difficulty is how to move those kind of people forward mentally. For me, it is less about them and more about empowering other people like me and educating those people who are willing to grow and change and accept new ideas that may challenge social norms. Once enough people who are able to embrace change do so and break down the old stigmas and barriers, creating a new social norm, the people who were so stuck will have no choice but to change or face being the social outcasts they once hated. Until then I will keep fighting the good fight. I will keep working to change one mind at a time and make the world over until it is a better place to be.