The Practice of Creativity

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Ever since I started as a monthly columnist for The Chapel Hill News I have found myself paying more attention to tidbits of news in ways that I didn’t before. Weeks ago, I randomly came across several news stories about actress Pamela Anderson turning 45. I’m turning 45 this year, so I was curious about her insights on aging. As you’ll see below, I was quite surprised by what she said and her statements led me to ruminate about issues of beauty and self-esteem. Everyone has something to teach us!

Me, you and Pamela Anderson

By Michele Tracy Berger

I had forgotten about television star Pamela Anderson until she recently showed up in the news, last month, talking about turning 45.

Pamela Anderson is the actress who appeared in Playboy and “Baywatch.” She held a special place in 1990s popular culture, simultaneously serving as a great American “sex symbol” and as a contemporary joke about the excesses of cosmetic surgery and the stereotypical Hollywood blonde. The media fascination with Anderson subtly reminded other women of an unobtainable standard of beauty.

Pamela Anderson Arriving At A Beauty Show In NYC

In an interview Anderson admitted: “I don’t know if I ever really felt beautiful. I always feel like I don’t – I don’t, really.”

This comment made me pause and reconsider my assumptions about her life. I am actually saddened by Anderson’s confession. It is another reminder that judging ourselves against Hollywood’s standards of beauty is a losing and self-defeating battle.

As a women’s studies professor, I have see how today’s media’s messages about beauty affect young women’s self-esteem.

One of the classes I teach is “Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies,” usually enrolling 300 women and men. One of the two most powerful sections that carries big “aha” moments, for students, are the weeks on “women’s bodies and the beauty industry” and “body image” (the other is the section on gender and violence).

I teach a variety of materials to explore the research, theory and everyday realities of “beauty politics.” We read from the classic bestseller “The Beauty Myth,” by Naomi Wolf, on how the diet and cosmetic industries help to heighten women’s insecurities and dislike of their bodies and how unrealistic demands about beauty can act as a type of social control.

We read Jessica Weiner’s memoir, “A Very Hungry Girl,” about her experience “hungering” to be someone else (slim and beautiful) – so much so, she found herself with an eating disorder at the age of 12. We discuss how Western notions of beauty feed into the pressure some Asian and Asian American women feel to have “double eyelid” surgery, to change the shape of their eyes, and the lucrative global industry of skin-lightening products.

Starting young

Students are genuinely shocked when they read excerpts from the 2007 Report by the American Psychological Association’s Taskforce on “The Sexualization of Girls.” The report found that girls as young as 7 are exposed to advertising (toys, music, magazines and televisions) that encourages them to be “hot” or “sexy.”

We also read supermodel and writer Veronica Webb’s essay, “How does a Supermodel do Feminism?” that argues models are neither victims of the fashion industry nor all powerful entrepreneurs, thus adding complexity to understanding fashion industry. By analyzing the ongoing controversy of whether or not Beyoncé lightens her skin to how Christina Hendricks, Ashley Judd and Courtney Love respond to being deemed overweight by the press to the way in which actresses over 40 are constantly photoshopped to look younger (and slimmer), we examine how celebrities navigate the ongoing pressures of beauty politics.

In both the lecture and sections (taught by the teaching assistants), we make space for personal accounts to emerge: the student who reveals her mother’s obsession with dieting and its impact on both their lives, the lesbian student who is searching to find a self-defined standard of beauty, male students who disclose having sisters or girlfriends with an eating disorder.

When I compare my experiences in making sense of beauty norms as a teenager during the ’80s, I know they are not all that different to what my students face now. I still remember weighing 98 lbs, in high school, and thinking I was fat (!) and that I was too curvy. Brooke Shields and Christine Brinkley were the dominant icons of beauty during my youth. I still remember the feeling of elation when I saw Whitney Houston on the cover of Seventeen – their first black model.

We discuss the success of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, the visibility of plus-size models, the diversity of CoverGirl ads that include Ellen DeGeneres and Queen Latifa. Students discover that hard-fought changes in media representations of women have often been due to activism by second-wave and third-wave feminists. By the end of the section students are better able to see that they have a stake in coming up with their own definition of beauty, becoming media literate, and an educated consumer and that an obsession with dominant beauty norms is not a natural condition.

Pamela Anderson says she’s getting more comfortable with liking her body and her own way of being glamorous. I’m glad that getting older has given her a new perspective. But, that’s not nearly enough for the rest of us.

A society that can breed feelings of antipathy toward the physical body, for half the population, is one that is in need of change. We need inspired actresses and actors and other creative folk in Hollywood to continue pushing back on unobtainable standards of beauty. We also need consistent consumer pressure. But, that is all outer-directed work; we also need to undertake inner-directed work. We need to learn to love ourselves in spite of those images. And, that takes individual and collective practice.

Column reprinted with permission. Originally published on May 11:

Photo: FameFlynet



I’m thrilled to officially announce that I’ve been signed as one of the new monthly ‘My View’ columnists for The Chapel Hill News. My debut column appeared last month. This month I decided to talk about a topic I’m passionate about–creativity and the myths that surround it.

My View

Yes, you are creative

I’ve observed five types of responses to a question I frequently ask, “Do you think of yourself as creative?”

1) No, I’m not creative. (often emphasized emphatically)

2) I used to be creative, a long time ago, before… (insert a reason – current job, children, volunteer position, age, etc.)

3) Someone else in my family is “the creative one.” (insert mother, father, or sibling)

4) Yes, but (insert self-limiting example – I’m not a professional artist, but I take pictures. It’s nothing really.)

5) Yes. (rare)

Most folks who answer 1-4 often have a desire to be more creative. They’ve heard that creative individuals experience the benefits of greater self-expression, possess better problem-solving skills toward complex and open-ended challenges, and vibrant mental health, but are unsure where or how to get started.

I understand. Talk of creativity is everywhere and it is a bit overwhelming. Creativity is the millennial buzzword and big business! Every industry is trying to figure out how to get their employees to “be more creative.”

Most misunderstood

Creativity, however, is still one of the most misunderstood human traits. Why? Because we’ve absorbed a lot of myths about what “being creative” means and the way creativity functions in our lives. I’ve learned this, over the past 15 years, as a professor and creativity coach working with all types of people – professional artists who’ve had success in one medium – like sculpture, for example, who want to try their hand at painting but don’t know where to begin; writers who hate the marketplace so much that every time they meet an editor they are unintentionally obnoxious; town managers who need to find innovative ways to motivate staff to serve the often cranky and impatient public; and also students who by the time they get to college have trouble seeing themselves as creative beings.

When it comes to assessing our capacity for creativity we can make two mistakes, one is how we define creativity and the other is making comparisons to others.

When someone believes that they don’t have a single creative impulse in their body, I’ll ask, have you ever played with your kids, planned a successful dinner party, told a great joke, or taken a risk? How about created a recipe from scratch, moved furniture around, planted a garden, or helped a co-worker with a problem?

The scowl is replaced by a quizzical look and tentative nodding. But, I’m not out of the woods yet, because they might with a very righteous, “gotcha” look declare, “Those things don’t count – that’s not really being creative!” The scowl and skeptical face returns. At this point, I happily trot out my working definition of creativity.

Creativity is both product (what you make) and process (how you go about making a life).

Most people view creativity as only a product (e. g. a painting, a published book, an invention) and if they aren’t producing a thing, they don’t feel like they’re creative. They tend to ignore the intangible characteristics of creativity that include the decisions that you make, the joy, ease and everyday problem solving that you bring to life, and the enhanced capacity for learning. Elizabeth Gilbert’s successful memoir, “Eat Pray Love” is an excellent example of cultivating creativity as a life process built on self-discovery, pleasure and resilience. While we may not all get to visit Italy, India and Indonesia (nor write about it), Gilbert’s journey offers us a sensory rich roadmap about how to approach change when bad things happen.

The second reason why more people don’t see themselves as creative is because they compare themselves solely to super luminaries – the rarified world of professional artists, scientists and inventors. We have a tendency to view the scale of our creative efforts as inconsequential. Neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen (author of “The Creating Brain”) says we take for granted daily examples of our “ordinary creativity” including the generation of spontaneous, yet ordered language. Our inherent creativity helps us to advise a friend, join two unrelated ideas, conjure up the perfect gift for grandma and find new routes home from work.

How would you answer the question I’ve posed to so many others? If you want some new ways to stimulate your creativity try the following:

• Notice what inspires you. For the next month, actively notice what you’re inspired by and allow that to lead to a new relationship with the creative process. If you’ve forgotten what ignites your creativity: Keep finishing the questions: What inspires me? Where are some new places that I can look for inspiration? Treat the inspiration to create as a great mystery.

• Find Your Ten Minutes in Alpha: Our brains invite new insights when we slip into a quieter and relaxed state of mind. This brainwave state is known as alpha. Getting relaxed is different for everyone. Twenty minutes in the garden may produce lovely results for someone. Another person might relax by creating a collage or planning a dinner party. If taking a long bath helps to really relax you, then by all means make sure you do it!

Identify what gets you into a receptive “aha” state and commit to doing it for at least 10 minutes a day. Yes, you can create 10 minutes in your schedule. Regard those precious minutes as the down payment for a long and rich creative life.

Michele Tracy Berger is a professor, creativity coach and writer. Readers may contact her at

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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