Can a feminist run a cosmetic surgery center?
Transcript of a speech, given by our CEO Liz Janowski, for International Women’s Day, March 7, 2018
I am calling my presentation today, “Can a feminist run a cosmetic surgery center?”, and we will get to that question, but what I am really talking about today, is my own story about taking ownership of my life.
For the last six years, I have been running a cosmetic surgery center helmed by my husband, Sonata Aesthetics, which has been a vehicle for my infinitely talented husband to share his skills with huge amounts of people. During these six years, I’ve also had two babies. And I’ve changed.
I’ve been blessed. The universe has given me opportunities, friends, and profound blessings. More than any of that, the universe has afforded me space to think and to grow. And in that space, I’ve had the chance to turn over and over again, in my mind and my heart, why we what we do at Sonata. And why I do what I do as a leader in that field.
At first, our business gave me the chance to explore a concept that I hold near to my heart and that is that loving kindness begets more loving kindness. What I mean by this is that “you get what you give”. I believe this in my own life, and I wanted this to be our guiding principle at Soanta. I asked my staff, my husband, and my self the question: what if what we gave was love and kindness, in every interaction, and all day, every day? It took some time, some training, some thinking, and some inspiration, but we started to use this mantra of love and kindness as our strategy. And you know what, it works. The more we made generosity our default, the more successful we became. The more we chose love in response to a challenging situation, the brighter we shone. And we did it, we created a space where people felt met, heard, accepted, and comfortable – and are able to serve thousands of people a year. It requires a constant focus on goodness, a constant reminder to choose love, but we work through these things together, and for the most part, we are living my dream.
As years passed, and I meditated more and more on what loving kindness actually looks like, I began to wrestle with questions about if, even with our best intentions, were we manipulating people’s insecurities? When you come to us because you don’t like some aspect of your appearance, are we empowering you by helping you, or are we preying on a weakness that you see in yourself?
I had years of anecdotal evidence that our work — giving you the tools to take charge of your appearance — was empowering. But more than that, I had my own experience, and what it felt like for me to have some control over my appearance. I know what it feels like to have my outsides match how I feel on the inside, and it feels good. I feel like I don’t have to worry about my appearance and agonize over what I see as flaws. I can correct them, usually very easily, and move on to agonizing over other things.
I began to see that as I stepped up and in to my role as a leader, I wanted my appearance to match how I saw myself. And I saw that I could do that. I could see myself in the mirror, and I could be more or less at peace with the woman looking back at me.
And I saw this in our clients. Not every one, every day, but I saw this positive transformation in enough people, that I started to believe that, yes, a feminist can run a cosmetic surgery center?
Let me explain what I mean by that.
For me, being a feminist means taking total ownership of your life.
It means claiming your voice, speaking your truth, and stepping in to your power — whatever that means to you. I like to call this claiming your sovereignty – or stepping up on to your divine throne. It means to me that you are both infinitely capable, and, as Uncle Ben told Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. Becoming the sovereign of your own life, stepping up as the Queen of your soul, is thorny and heavy process. It means taking full responsibility for all your wins and all your losses. It means using the tools you have available to heal your own wounds, and using the resources around you to be more than you ever thought you could be.
Where this intersects with what we do at Sonata, our medical spa, has to do with the reclaiming of your body. We all have deep, long-standing beliefs about our bodies and our faces. Our bodies are a map of our lived experiences and we have all told ourselves a lifetime of stories about our appearance. They might be good stories – like I have great, strong legs that let me run marathons, or they might be toxic and painful stories, like I am ugly, fat or weak. Every woman I know has a story of shame and of not being good enough associated with some part of her body. I do too.
In the spiritual traditions I have studied, mostly Buddhism and Hinduism, I was taught that things of this world are transient, and it shouldn’t matter what we look like — true inner peace was to completely disregard the body. You needed to meditate the body away. Rise up and transcend. And so I worked really hard on that. I wanted to feel less anxious and more at peace. And so I mediated, I went to retreats, and ever so briefly, now and then, I did feel peace.
But, in rising up out of my body and into the divine, I forgot one really important thing. I have a body. A woman’s body. And it has a lot to teach me, and a lot to share. And whether or not I liked it, I live in this body everyday. I see myself in mirrors and I experience life through this particular flesh and bones. I am my body and my body is me. For most of my life, my body was just that thing that carried my head around and that thing that was too fat or too thin or too small or just too damn imperfect.
I think maybe we have all had or maybe are having that experience of profound hate or resentment or disconnect from our bodies. And I am not even talking about having persistent health issues that can derail our connection to our body. I am just talking about plain old, ingrained body shame that so many of us women live in every day.
In my business, I saw how we could help people tackle these dark issues; how we could help you take control of something many of us see as out of our control – our appearance. Yes, we can help you claim your face and your body. We can help you look and feel the way you want to look and feel.
And, I think that how we look is in a sort of infinite feedback loop with how we feel about ourselves. How we feel and how we look are connected – whether we like it or not. I think we have all had the experience of sort of faking it til you make it — dressing up to make ourselves feel better, and if you are like me, it works. I can pull myself out of a downward spiral by taking some time to address the outer me.
I think we’ve also all had the experience of reinforcing sadness and depression by dressing our worst and giving ourselves that feedback — that we feel bad and we look bad.
What I am suggesting isn’t just about superficiality — looking your best, claiming and owning your body, is all a part of your own journey to Embodied Sovereignty. Embodied Sovereignty is taking charge of your life – and taking charge of your body. It is stepping up to your Queen-dom, and understanding that your body and your relationship to your body is a part of that process.
I am going to share a small part of my own story here. I had a very fraught relationship with my body. I have always been a bright, driven person — and my body was literally, as I said earlier, just the thing that carried my head around. If I did consider my body, it was as a scientist might — I analyzed it. I compared it to models in magazines – and declared in unworthy. I wanted to be tall and tan and blonde, and instead, I was small and red-haired and pale.
When I met men, I looked at my body as a tool to get them to love me, and shoved it in to uncomfortable bras or heels to get their attention. If my body was sick or anxious, that just seemed like an annoyance. When I felt off, I tried to medicate that away with anti-depressants or sleeping pills. I didn’t see my body as a tool or a helper — simply a transport mechanism, and a bother.
The very first time I saw my body as something amazing or capable was when I was pregnant for the second time. Being as stuck in my stories as I can be, it took until my second pregnancy to see my body as amazingly capable of producing a freaking human being. It meant a lot that my second child was a perfectly beautiful daughter, my Dahlia Rose, — and I started to really consider how much differently I wanted her to feel about herself and her body. For goodness sake, I want her to grow up loving, accepting and being in touch with every inch of herself — from her big brown eyes to her vagina. She really became my motivation for all of this. I see her, laying in a grassy field, rolling around, enjoying the breeze and the sun, and just being in her body — and I want that to never, ever end for her. I want her to forever feel good in her body – and know how to make her body feel good. I want her to have all her feelings and to be comfortable with them — and to not medicate or stuff her feelings away – even the really hard ones. I want her to be proud of her body – and to see it as an ally and a tool.
She really is my teacher, and I want to meet her as an equal – and so I am learning how to harness my body as my greatest ally. I like to say I am giving my body a seat at my decision making table.
This means listening to my body as a source of information and a source of inspiration. This means pausing when my heart is racing to ask myself if my body has something to say about a situation. It means breathing in to my fear, letting it roll through me, and knowing it will pass. It also means following my bliss. What makes my body feel good. What lets me open up to the messages my body has for me?
As women, we can learn so much from our bodies.
We are the god damn creatrixes of the universe. We make people. We are the source of life. We are connected to the great Mother Earth. Our bodies cycle with the moon — and as Carl Sagan says, We are made of stardust. We have more nerve endings than men, about 8000 more, and we are capable of feeling more than men.
And that is a gift. Feeling is a gift. And yet I hear women every day apologize for being “so emotional”, when that feeling and emotion is your direct connection to the divine, to the universe, to nature and to God.
And so I challenged myself to feel. To be in my body. And to practice something that I am calling “radical self-care”. Radical self-care is asking your body what it needs, and listening to what it has to say, even if you don’t like the answer.
This sitting with yourself is the beginning of radical self-care. It starts with spending a few minutes everyday checking in with your body. Instead of stuffing your feelings or being so consumed in bus-y-ness, it is just taking a moment to check in. I meditate every morning, and have been trained in all sort of meditation traditions that were about creating an empty space in your mind. And you know what, that didn’t work for me, because, at least for me, I love being a woman and I want to feel all that I have to feel– from dark to light — so I meditate with music on, I chant, I look at beautiful things on my altar, and I talk to myself. I call in goodness and light and ask myself – how are you doing today, Liz?
A next step in radical self-care is finding out what your body likes.
Do you know what your body likes to feel? Do you know how your skin feels in certain fabrics? Do you know what smells you like to smell? Do you know what foods taste good on your tongue? Do you know what music your body likes to move to?
For me an essential part of this learning process has been dance. Once I started dancing, everything just start falling out of me. I let my body make decisions for the first time ever about clothes and music and smells and food — and wow, it was like the best friend I never had. My body helped me see who I could be, what I could do, and it was so much more than I ever thought possible. It was my body, for example, who told me I should get up and speak about my story — even though doing this right now is terrifying. My body told me that some of the friends I had were just plain wrong for me — that when I hung out with them, I felt bad and anxious, and I needed to move on.
And my body told me that I was feeling a huge disconnect from my husband. We had lost our mojo in the process of building a business and raising two toddlers. He wasn’t doing it for me – and I wasn’t doing it for him. I wanted to sleep 100 times more than I wanted to touch him, and vice versa. And while that might be totally normal, that felt completely and totally tragic to me.
You see, I have a very long-standing story about myself that no one can love me 100%. People can love things about me, but no one wants all of Liz in her total messy, graceful, big, colorful, spiritual loudness. And the gulf between my husband and I was validating that story. The distance between us was growing larger, and I was filling it with stories that I wasn’t good enough. I was filling the black space with tragic re-tellings of my same old “Liz-is-too-much” story. Each time I told myself one of these stories, the space between us got bigger and thornier.
It wasn’t all one-sided. My sweet husband was listening and hearing me and letting me create a story about how we just weren’t right for each other. He has his own stories, which are his to share, and they were playing off my stories. Until I was sleeping on the floor in my closet, and crying myself to sleep.
But, thank God, I had already started to invite my body to the table before I went too far in to my cave of darkness. She told me to keep dancing. To keep listening to music. She told me to buy a laptop and to write. She told me to pause when I am walking across a parking lot and the sun hits me just write. She told me to breath. She told me to make some new friends. She told me to take long baths. And she told me to take my own damn advice.
She told me to look in the mirror and find something I loved and to speak it outloud. I love your breasts. I love your strong legs. Instead of focusing on stretchmarks or scars.
She told me to treat myself like the Queen I wanted to be. To tell myself I loved myself and that I was loveable. I started to think about how infinitely easy it was for me to shower my children with love and affection — how easy it is to stroke their hair and whisper loving words to them — and how I never, ever have done that for myself.
And so, I did that. This isn’t to say I am some kind of Pollyanna. I know it’s hard. I know we all have years and years and maybe ancestrally inherited millenia of hating and distrusting ourselves. I know we’ve all been taught and socialized that playing it small is how you make friends.
I was at a party several months ago where as an ice breaker, women drew cards and one of the questions was name something you are good at, and of the dozen or so women in the room, every one passed on that question. And damn, that made me so sad. I was so excited to tell the room about how I am a good dancer — but instead, I realized – oh right, we are supposed to bond by talking about what we are not good at. Why ladies? That is so dang sad.
I want to encourage each of you to do the very opposite of that. I want to encoruage you to do the brag. The brag is a concept I am borrowing from Mama Gena – and amazing speaker out of New York. She encourages us to do the brag … to share something you are good at. And to say it just like that “I brag that I am overcoming one of my own huge fears right now – and sharing my story with you.”
Bragging is the very first step in turning your life and those stories you tell yourself from tragic to traumagic.
Yes, you heard me right, and thank you to my friend Cheryl Berault for sharing the term “traumagic” with me. This is the idea of taking those stories we all tell ourselves about our history — maybe those 10 tales we tell a new friend when we want to get close to them — and instead of focusing on the tragic outcomes that reinforce a tale we tell ourselves – we focus instead on the magic — that little or big golden nugget that came out of this life event.
Here is my own example of traumagic, and it is a bit of a juicy one, so hold on. I told you that I have a very long-standing story that I cannot be fully loved. That no one can meet me in the heart-open, spiritual, love space that I want to be in – and that I will be forever just a little bit lonely and a little bit let down. This story started in my early childhood – but it got reinforced when I was 17 years old and I lost my virginity. I had been dating a boy who I was madly in love with. He was my soul mate, and we were so deeply connected. And we would spend hours gazing in to each other’s eyes, and kissing, and touching one another. We’d listen to music and laugh and be tender with one another.
We were high school sweethearts, and we went to the same college. And on the eve of my 18th birthday, I wanted to finally have real grown up sex with him. I worked all summer and saved up to get us a hotel room in the mountains, and had this beautiful vision of our first time together. He was also a virgin.
But instead of this romantic, loving experience I was dreaming of, and for reasons I can’t quite recall now, we ended up losing our virginity in my dorm room, in the afternoon, while I had a fever and the flu, and it was awful and sad and painful. And while he and I were together for many years after this, I took this story to heart — that I was just too much. That he couldn’t be in this special, sacred, honoring space with me – and I couldn’t have the connection I so desperately wanted.
And this story weighed me down, and other hard and sad things that happened to me got added to my heavy backpack of stories about me being too much or unloveable or not good enough. And I was carrying this backpack all the time. It affected every relationship I had – from my marriage to my friendships. And I found ways to reinforce my own story about not being good enough — and add more weight to my backpack. More tragic, less magic. Maybe you have your own tragic and heavy backpack too? — I suspect you do?
Well, I had the opportunity to see this old boyfriend last summer. And I decided to just ask him, what in the heck happened there? And what he told me changed my whole perspective, and my whole story, with just a few words. He told me that he had been afraid, afraid of letting me down. He thought I was so special and so amazing and just felt he couldn’t live up to what I wanted. And so he dropped the ball. He knew what he was doing in that dorm room that day, and he was so sorry, and had been sorry all these years. And that it had absolutely nothing to do with me. Nothing. I was good enough and deserving enough – and he had been sorry about it all these years.
It was like a fireworks went off in my head. Wait, I was good enough? I deserved to have that beautiful, loving connection I wanted then and now.
It might not sound like a big deal to you, but this really subtle perspective shift changed a whole script I’d been carefully writing for years about being too much or not good enough. In fact, when this old flame saw me, he had tears in his eyes and told me he couldn’t believe I had been carrying this wound for 20 years.
I mean, I had not only been carrying it – I had been pouring salt in to it — using every new experience to reinforce the same damn story.
What I needed was the perspective shift that happened that afternoon in a cafe in Boulder. I needed to take that story of loss and turn it from tragic to traumagic. I needed to tell myself this new story — that I was incredible and amazing and loving and loved. That I got to be with a boy who deeply loved me, and wished as much as I had, that we had handled things a little differently. That I was never diminished in his eyes. That the magic was my huge heart, my questioning mind, and the way I want things to be so special for people. The magic was me, just as I was, and just as I am today.
And so these are my closing thoughts, I encourage you, I invite you, and I cajole you to reclaim your body.
Make peace with it. What you don’t like, change. What you can love, love. Look at yourself in the mirror, and talk to yourself like you would talk to a daughter. Shower yourself with praise. Ask your body what she likes to wear, to listen to, to smell. Ask her how she feels – and then listen to the anxiety or fear or anger – and let those feelings inform your choices.
And then, claim your stories. Think about all those ways you tell yourself a story about not being good enough – and think about how you could flip that script.
Think about how you could be your own angel’s advocate. Yes, you heard me, your angel’s advocate. We’ve all heard about the devil’s advocate. Well, what if just as frequently as you check in with the devil’s advocate, you consulted your angel’s advocate. What if you listed all the reasons something could work out even better than planned? All the reasons why you might get that job? Or meet that great man? Or find your purpose and passion in life? What might that change in perspective do for you? How could you dance with your fear instead of letting it dominate you?
And how might being your own best angel advocate help you reclaim your face, your body, and your world? It is time for you to step in to what the universe wants from you — to be the sovereign of your own life – and to share your unique light with the world.
I’ll just be over here cheering you on!