McGill-a-Grams: Speaking Up for Yourself (and Your Kids)


How bad do you have to let advertising make you feel?

By Shannon McGill

Shannon McGill wants to know why you let other people tell you to feel bad about yourself. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Shannon McGill wants to know why you let other people tell you to feel bad about yourself. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

I have something to say to you.

I’m not trying to offend you, but I’m pretty sure your drive for self-improvement is driven by mass marketing.

Yup. It’s true. I know you think you’re smart, and I know you believe you’re a critical thinker, but it hasn’t prevented the scourge of advertising from infiltrating your confidence, making you feel like there’s something deficient about your appearance; your personality; your life.

Many of your problems are illusions created by industry. Your personal contentment is bad for business, man.

Once you learn to be comfortable in your present reality, you stop chasing down the cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, diet soft drinks, and automobiles that you think are going to get you where you want to be.

The corporations that surround you don’t want you to feel settled. That’s how they lose money.

Let me illustrate this for you on a personal scale.

The other day I was feeling pretty good. My hair was cooperating, my jeans weren’t pinching; the money I had in the bank seemed adequate to meet my needs. All was right with the world, as far as I was concerned.

So what do you think I did? I went right to my local Bed, Bath, and Beyond to entertain myself with some unnecessary shopping.

As I walked the aisles of that heaving behemoth of trivialities, I was able to laugh off my passing desires for (and anxieties regarding) an electronic lotion-warmer (Is my lotion warm enough?), hair be-dazzler (Do I wear enough rhinestones in my hair?), and a silver brocade four-piece martini set (Are my martinis opulent enough?).

But only up to a point.

Your personal contentment is bad for business.

Once I got to the self-care/pharmacy section, I found myself riddled with self-doubt; confronted with a host of horrifying problems that I’d never even known I had.

Cream for stretch marks! Serum for sagging under-eye skin! A toner to improve your wrinkly neck! Some kind of drinkable berry potion to reduce bloating! A dye to cover grey hairs that’s better than all the other dyes that cover grey hairs! Skin-tone evener-outer! A drying paste for pimples! A lotion for aging hands!

Aging hands!?

It is devastating when you’ve never before considered the rapidly degenerating appearance of your hands, or that others might be judging you by the relative age of your hands, or that it might be that your hands have been telegraphing your age all along.

“Should I have been doing something about my old-ass hands all this time!?”

My mind was reeling. Suddenly I was overcome by the desire to throw all my money at anyone who would help me be stretch-mark and eye-bag free, non-bloated, with black hair, and beautiful, young, child-like hands. I was staring at my hands then, as if they were traitors, seeing them with critical eyes.

Catching my reflection in one of the silver end caps of the aisle, I frowned at myself. Obviously my whole appearance was a complete disaster—and by extension, my entire life.

I can hear what you’re saying. And maybe you’re right. Maybe I am more given to episodes of intense self-criticism, being a woman of a certain age and everything, but I think we have all experienced this feeling, with varying degrees of severity, at some point or another.

Once I got to the pharmacy section, I found myself confronted with horrifying problems that I’d never even known I’d had.

You might be waiting to watch a video on YouTube and you’re forced to sit through a beautifully produced ad for a new, more powerful, safer, better-designed SUV. You think to yourself, “How old is my car now? Maybe it’s time to upgrade.”

You might be watching television, and you see a commercial for a new medication—“With one pill a day you can increase your sex-drive, thicken your eyelashes, curb your appetite, get a better night’s sleep,” etc. It will cause you to turn the microscope on yourself.

“Do I need that? Is there something wrong with me?”

Advertising makes all of our insecurities into pathologies, and we jump up and run out, with a fistful of money, in pursuit of a cure.

God help you if you’re sitting in the waiting room of your doctor’s office reading a beauty magazine. By the time you leave you’ll have a bunch of holes in your life; a bunch of diagnoses and deficiencies that only products and prescriptions can fill.

Wasn’t it interesting, in the days after Robin Williams’ suicide, how so many people were coming out of the woodwork saying the same thing?

“This is me. This is what I am dealing with. I have mental illness too.” Such an astounding number of people had a personal experience with mental illness that it made me wonder.

Maybe what we think of as mental illness is just mental normal.

Maybe, because of the constant messages we get from everywhere about how we aren’t good enough, happy enough, beautiful enough, young enough; maybe we’re all suffering, and the culture in which we live won’t allow us to express our pain for fear of seeming weak.

Many of us are so concerned with putting on a good show for others that the chasm between our outward selves and our inner turmoil grows and grows, exacerbating our feelings of shame, isolation, and despair.

Now look, I’m not saying that real problems don’t exist or that your personal quest for enlightenment isn’t valid, but I want you to honestly examine your current concerns right now.

What are you trying to change about yourself or your life and is it really necessary?

Could it be that your life, as it is, is perfectly fine? Could it be that you have every right to be happy, fulfilled—maybe even ecstatic—right now, just as you are, without making even the slightest change?

I would argue that, yes, you do. Whether or not the countless messages (billboards, print ads, radio ads, television commercials, music videos, sides of buses, free pens, beer cozies, shampoo bottles, magazine covers, etc.) have convinced you that you are too fat, too skinny, diseased, useless, flabby, smelly, too hairy, not hairy enough, too old, too young, or whatever it is—maybe they’re wrong.

Maybe you’re none of that, or maybe you’re all of that. But maybe you’re still okay right now in this moment, and maybe you deserve to give yourself the freedom to just feel—for once—like you don’t need to change anything at all.

Maybe what we think of as mental illness is mental normal.

The choice to be content is a revolutionary act, my friends. It gives you the wherewithal to resist mindless consumerism, to channel your money and efforts into things that really matter and are world-changing instead of just slimming and trimming.

Being content in yourself, in who you are this very minute, allows you to not be seduced as readily by the media, by corporations, politicians and the like. When you are able to stand in your space and say, “This is me; I like the way I am,” the power of your actions increases one-hundred fold.

You’re no longer an easy mark. You become an agent; a mover; a shaker; a true force of nature.

Accept yourself with all your perceived flaws.

Accept your place, wherever you are.

Convert your shame to wanton pride and watch in amazement as everything falls into place.

Raise your hand

"School Friends" by Flickr user woodleywonderworks.

“School Friends” by Flickr user woodleywonderworks.

Dear Shannon, 

If you discovered an incredible podcast that did a perfect job of summarizing your beliefs for education reform, and you sincerely wanted to share it with all the educators in your child(ren’s) lives (all the way up to the principal level) how would you do it without being a thorn in their sides? 

Reticent Reformer, Collingswood


Dear Reticent Reformer,

A thorn in whose side? Whose? A thorn in the side of the people who are educating your children? Why? For sharing provocative or progressive ideas about education?


Any educator who gets their side pinched by a parent offering a resource that might improve the instruction her child receives needs to get out of the teaching game.

I worked in education a long time—13 years. I was in and out of a lot of classrooms and watched a lot of teachers do their jobs. Over the course of the school year, one of two dynamics typically would develop in a classroom:

a) the instructional staff would work with parents, honor their suggestions, and graciously accept their feedback, or

b) the instructional staff would perceive parents as the opposition, setting up an “us versus them” mentality.

The “us versus them” feeling was so widespread. I have seen many an educator pompously deride the input of parents, considering him or herself to be the utmost professional and above reproach.

This is the unspoken tension between teachers and parents, and it isn’t imaginary. This is the lopsided environment from whence your anxiety springs. You have been made to feel that you need to get out of the way and let teachers do their jobs.

No way, man; no way.

Get in there and say what you have to say 100% of the time. You have a right to promote your own ideas about the best way teachers can reach your kids. Even if you’re wrong, you should do it. They can always just ignore you.

See, here’s the thing: if you’re not involved enough as a parent, some teachers will snipe about you behind your back. If you’re too involved, they’ll just do a different kind of sniping. Everybody’s got something to say, you know, no matter what, so you might as well push your agenda.

Fact is, though, teachers deal with some pretty loony parents who want all kinds of bizarre things, so you suggesting that they listen to a podcast that’s actually really enriching and fascinating is not going to be a big deal.

Teachers are professionals, it’s true, but that does not mean that your point of view isn’t valid or worthwhile, and it doesn’t mean that they don’t have room for improvement in what they do. Also, if we’re talking about good, conscientious teachers (hopefully we are), then they’re going to WANT advice from parents, and they’ll WANT to perpetually be educating themselves and staying at the top of their games.

If you tell a teacher like that about this podcast, she’ll probably send you home a cool sheet of stickers or a new pencil that smells like bubble gum or something.

So here’s what you should do. Put the link to this podcast (very entertaining and compelling, by the way) into an e-mail, and send it to your child’s classroom teacher and CC: the principal.

The body of the e-mail should probably not read: “HEY YOU IDIOTS. YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG. DIG THIS, DUMMIES.” Anything other than that will probably be well-received, and if not, it’s their problem, not yours.

Good job, man.

Great job taking an interest in something other than football and sitcoms.

Great job listening to something thoughtful and challenging and wanting to share it with a person who is in a position to put the theory into practice. There ought to be more people like you in this world. Your kids are lucky and so are their teachers.

Need some help? Send your imponderable quandaries to


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